With disc trays around the world spinning Bethesda’s newest masterpiece, gamers are spending countless and unfathomable hours exploring the vast and amazing world that is Skyrim. But despite all its merits, there are some shortfalls right at the heart of the game that I think need to be considered. And while it’s too late to do anything about it now, perhaps if we observe what steps need to be taken to bring the next outing fully into the next generation, Bethesda, or somebody else, will listen. Perhaps with a little reprioritizing we will see something truly immersive.
There is no denying that Skyrim is a technical marvel, and certainly it exists leagues above its predecessors. This game does what no other can in terms of sheer scope and detail, simultaneously presenting us with a vast, staggeringly huge world and a living, breathing level of detail that nearly blows the mind. But all the lore and detail, all the quests and options, all the fantasy and all the fluff cannot mask a problem that lies at the game’s core.
Skyrim handles like crap.
Now, to reiterate: technical marvel. What is happening here is astounding. I am not saying Bethesda is full of irresponsible, lazy coders and animators, and I am not saying that they did not do the best job anybody could do with the engine they had to work with, and considering all they had to incorporate. But, despite the great leaps that were made, the combat and even the movement is still a stiff, clunky mess.
Mostly gone but not entirely forgotten are the days of the wooden animations found in Oblivion or even Fallout. NPC’s go about tasks while you talk to them, and simple 3rd person walking animations look much smoother, much more fluid. But although the combat and world-interaction are better than they ever have been, thanks to amazing detail and new, realistic animations, what has happened here is more like putting a bandage on a bleeding infection: the symptom has been treated but not the source.
The next entry in this series is going to require a major overhaul to remain viable. Indeed, games in general are going to need to step up their game to compete, because these old engines are not aging well. All the immersive features in the world are well and good, but when your core fundamentals are flawed, they can do nothing to hide the videogame beneath. And that is what immersion is; making you forget you are playing a game.
This is a form of the Uncanny Valley which games occupy. They may look convincingly real, but when we experience them, when we watch things move around in them, the effect is totally lost. I predicted then what I am experiencing now: Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption would ruin every game I played after it that did not utilize Euphoria.
Euphoria is an engine developed by NaturalMotion to better and more fluidly describe in-game physics by assigning realistic values to objects, then letting physics, instead of canned animations, do the work. By removing scripts that determine how a character interacts with the world and instead calculating his each interaction on the fly, that character suddenly becomes a part of the world, instead of a separate entity. If every footstep is determined by the exact and unique variables of the moment, like in reality, then nothing is ever exactly the same, and all of a sudden even the most basic actions – walking, running, jumping, falling – feel infinitely more real.
Any game experience is generally defined by a few main factors. Two things we spend more time doing in a given game, indeed the very axes upon which most gameworlds function, are navigating it and killing the things that populate it. An engine like Euphoria redefines how even these basic factors are experienced, which in turn brings the immersion of a game to a whole, new level.
I am not saying the next Elder Scrolls game needs to be a RAGE-based Euphoria vehicle, and neither am I saying that being such a game means flawless handling (Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption both still felt very clunky and wooden, even if they didn’t look it). However, allow me to present an example from Skyrim itself to explain what I am thinking.
You crest the top of a hill. A wolf the next hill over spots you and rushes in for an attack. As it descends the slope, you notice that its running animation remains consistent, no matter how steep the grade. It is not running down that hill, you see. Rather, it exists independent of the gameworld. It lives in a bubble, and it runs on a flat, horizontal plane. Its legs do not propel it; the plane simply floats over the ground at a constant speed.
The same problem persists when you try to scale Skyrim’s many steep cliffs, and in fact learning what you can walk freely on and what will send you sliding oddly down means the difference between getting around and being stuck. Because, and this is especially apparent in third person, you are not really there. Your avatar appears to run and move at the same pace on flat, even ground as he does on a seventy-degree slope. And more than just the same pace, he navigates this slope in exactly the same way as he does a perfectly paved path.