Skyrim is my third foray into the open worlds borne by Bethesda – including 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas, which was developed by Obsidian Entertainment. Skyrim, like Fallout 3 and New Vegas before it, delivers an enormous world and fiction for its player to explore. But, there are fundamental differences from one game to the next, specifically in the manner which the player is guided, and in this regard, Skyrim is no different.
Not long after the release of New Vegas, in the fall of 2010, I took a closer look at the way Obsidian directed its players versus Fallout 3 in A Tale of Two Wastelands. Fallout 3 was my first taste of Bethesda’s style of game and although I enjoyed the zany misadventures of the Mojave, I found New Vegas’ world and quest design at odds with what I personally loved about Fallout 3; and even after 120 hours spent in Tamriel’s northernmost province, I still lust for the brand of exploration I’ve only found in the Capital Wasteland.
Given the topography of Skyrim, it’d be nearly impossible for it to replicate the line-of-sight navigation that Fallout 3 enjoyed – you could argue large parts of Skyrim are wasteland-like, but it is not a ‘wasteland’ in the Fallout sense of the word. Skyrim is a vast domain, separated by mountains, forests and other large obstructions. By this token, it’s the rare moment when you’ve happened upon a location that gives you a free range of vision in all directions – something that nearly every location in Fallout 3 provided, save for the DC ruins. And even if you do find a lookout, or you’re situated in the center of one of Skyrim’s planar regions, many of the locales fail to stand out quite like they do in Fallout 3.
“Many of the locales fail to stand out quite like they do in Fallout 3”Other than major cities and huge ruins, the vast majority of locations are either caves or forts. Each tends to be well-hidden though, caves are buried deep within the sides of mountains and many of the forts are tucked away within the numerous wooded areas. In Fallout 3 the world’s undulations were measured, and there was no growth to mask the landscape whatsoever. Settlements may have been overshadowed by crumpling bits of old freeway, but the point is there was always some sort of breadcrumb that tantalized you to wander in each direction. Where does this road lead me? Who’s shacked up in that bombed out suburban neighborhood? What’s the story with this old factory? These are the questions the Capital Wasteland was constantly stringing you along with; Skyrim continues to ask these questions, it just poses them very differently.
Unlike the Fallout titles, Skyrim’s compass is always alive with directions. Beyond the quest markers and custom points you could set during the post-apocalypse, every single discoverable location within your immediate vicinity is fed to the compass. Locations you’ve never seen are represented as black silhouettes of the location type, while those you’ve found show up in white. Having this constant influx of information streamed to the screen is likely the most disappointing aspect of Skyrim to me as a player, and it largely feels like a copout on the part of Bethesda.
“It’s impossible to retain your focus in Skyrim”As an adventurer and a completionist, I want to see every corner of Skyrim. To this end, having the locations teased on my compass makes it all the more likely that I will, but it’s no longer on my own terms; I may not have seen everything there was to see in Fallout 3, but I had a certain comfort in the perceived thoroughness of my wandering. It’s impossible to retain your focus in Skyrim because there are so many places to see and nearly every one of them is soured to varying degrees because you never feel like the discovery is your own. I saw a location marker; I walked toward it; I found it. There’s no reward for filling in your map, neither tangible or not; it was served to you on a platter. Every single place you’ve been to or seen you know your friends have likely found as well. In Fallout 3 you owned each and every one of your discoveries.
What’s most frustrating is that Skyrim is a living, breathing world. Bethesda has populated the province with thousands of NPCs to create the illusion of a working eco-system. This means that every location which is in use, and nearly all of them are by various adventurers, rogues and factions, should have a decipherable path to stumble upon, leading to the mouth of a cave or the archway of a fort; and actually, they do, but it never matters. Bethesda has gone to the trouble to flesh out Skyrim with the breadcrumbs necessary to lead players to their unknown destinations. Flags denote paths and entrances, grand staircases are carved into the feet of mountains and cobblestone roads lead to old farms and mills, but it’s all unnecessary. The only time you’ll peel your eyes away from the compass and navigate by sight is when you need to find the one predetermined path up the side of a mountain.
Skyrim is a huge, often breathtaking world that lets you wander in any direction you choose, but playing it often amounts to tunnel vision, a never ending chase toward the next blacked-out locale. Since there is always a destination on your compass you’re never content with what you’ve just found. On the one hand this design means there is always a new goal, but it also means there’s never a finish line. In Skyrim I never find myself taking a moment to enjoy the end of one journey before beginning the next. Hell, I don’t even bother to go into most of the locations anymore, the map isn’t going to populate itself.