Tobold's Blog
Monday, November 21, 2011
Skyrim - Technical Aspects

My readers persuaded me that I absolutely had to play Skyrim, and the good news is that I didn't regret buying the game. Skyrim is quite a good game, and I can play it without puking. Bethesda improved the 3rd-person view from previous Elder Scroll games to a point where it is actually usable. I can play Skyrim for about 1 hour before having to take a break, and managed over the weekend to get up to level 7 with nothing more than a minor headache.

The bad news is that Skyrim is not as flawless as the extremely high review scores would suggest. Maybe it is inevitable that somebody analyzing and reviewing games sees these flaws more than somebody consciously or unconsciously overlooking the flaws to just play and have fun. But my fun with Skyrim was marred with several immersion-breaking technical and game design flaws. As this is a rather large subject, I decided to split it up and talk about the technical aspects in this post, keeping the game design aspects for another post.

It all started at the beginning. I install and launch the game, and find my character sitting in a cart. The NPC in front of me is visibly talking to me, but I can't hear a thing. Listening closely I can confirm that he *does* talk, but the volume is so low as to be nearly inaudible. Now the technical fiddling begins. I look up the problem in Google, and follow the advice to set my sound to 44100 Hz quality. I put the in-game, Windows, and hardware volume controls to absolute maximum. And hurrah! I get the speech up to a volume where I can actually understand it. Only that every time I stop playing I need to think of turning the volume down, otherwise the next game I start blasts my ears off. And it turns out that once Skyrim is started, all Windows volume controls don't work any more. You can't Alt-Tab out of Skyrim, and the volume control knob on my keyboard is apparently disabled while Skyrim is running. So every time I launch the game and notice I forgot to turn the volume up, I need to quit the game, turn the volume up, and relaunch the game. Annoying!

So now I'm back in the game, listening to the NPCs through the starting sequence, and come to the point where I am supposed to actually move and do stuff. Only the keyboard controls aren't working. It turns out that Skyrim detects that I have an XBox controller plugged into my computer and assumes that if I have a gamepad, I certainly want to use it. And curiously keyboard controls are completely disabled when a gamepad is plugged in. I can't even find an option to switch to keyboard/mouse controls in the menu. In the end the solution is to unplug the gamepad, at which point Skyrim grudgingly accepts me wanting to play with a keyboard and mouse.

As others have mentioned, graphics are a mixed bad. The scenery is great, sometimes even stunning. The textures could be better. And the animations are second-rate at best. That turns out to be especially problematic when playing in 3rd-person view: Whether the game believes that I hit the enemy with my sword, and whether the animations show that I hit him, are two very separate and not closely related things.

Controls take getting used to, but aren't quite as bad as some commenters here said. I did play console games in the past, and thus understood where the controls were coming from and how they work. Actually the most annoying control for me is that getting out of a menu is the TAB key, and not the ESC key. ESC opens the save screen, and then you need to hit ESC again to close it, and hit TAB to get one step back in the menu. What is sorely missing is a screen which shows your character, his equipment, and status, like buffs and debuffs. As far as I can tell there is a body slot, a helmet slot, a hand slot, and a foot slot. But I can't be sure whether my character is running around without pants because there is no legs slot, or whether the NPCs are snickering behind my back because I haven't found any pants yet. I've seen rings and necklaces, but none with stats yet, and am not sure whether they would be wearable or not. And at one point I contracted a disease, and couldn't find the debuff anywhere. It turns out that buffs and debuffs are well hidden in the Magic menu, in the active effects subcategory at the bottom (you need to scroll down to actually see that one).

The main disadvantage of 3rd person view is that aiming is a lot harder. As 1st person view in Skryim makes me nauseous, I decided to solve that problem by concentrating on melee skills, with only a little bit of archery thrown in. For magic I only do restoration (healing), which doesn't require targeting an enemy. I tried changing the FOV value, but a wider field of view results in the lines on the edges of my view being curved, with only increases nausea instead of reducing it. I'll stick to 3rd person view.

So overall I did manage to find a modus vivendi which allowed me to play Skryim. But I guess the Metacritic review scores apply mainly to the console version. People who buy Skyrim on the PC need to be aware that this is a console port, and not the best one. It sure is adequate and playable, but don't expect technical excellency!

I'm pretty sure you should be able to alt-tab out of it. (Or maybe Windows-D (go to desktop)). If not windowed mode/borderless should be an option, especially if you use dual screens.
Yes the UI is dismal and if it's an example of a good console UI then I reckon I will continue to stear clear of consoles.

I particularly dislike the way it's necessary to swap spells/weapons into the two mouse buttons; after playing for several days I still end up either weaponless or with the skill on the wrong button. Simple weapon set swapping would be so much easier.

The other main area of annoyance, for me, is the inventory/equipment screens. These are really cumbersome to operate, buy/sell etc and the problems were solved in other games like 30 years ago... with equipment dummies etc.

Underneath all that though it's an amazing game in many respects and Bethesda is doing stuff in the areas of AI and variability that I wouldn't have previously thought to be achievable in a practical sense.

Probably would have been better to wait for six months until the mod community have a chance to do their stuff.
It is a console port of a game that actgually requires a PC to control - a terrible combination.

I didn't have any problems with sound - my speakers are still at 48kHz default.
I can Alt-Tab without problems, but eventually this causes graphics error and I need to restart. The fastest way to do this is '^/~' for console and then typing 'qqq'-enter.

Since I have the game on my SSD, I don't have much of a problem doing this but the technical problems are annoying.

I find 3rd-person view to be impossible to play as a mage, by the way.
I am impressed by your dedication. Game induced motion sickness is no joke.

Anyway apart from technical and game-play aspects one area you might have a view on is Skyrim's humongous financial success. This is not a casual game. It is not by any means a flawless game and yet it has sold millions of copies and everyone in the blogsphere (except me :( yet ) is playing it.

Is this hype? Is this reputation? Is this an unfulfilled demand for more complex games? Does this have anything to say about the future of gaming?
@mdp - Despite the awful PC UI it's easily the most convincing virtual world implemented in a game to date and very immersive. In fact it makes one wonder whether one really needs the kind of real people you often meet in MMOs...

It would be no bad thing if it does turn out to be the future of gaming - provided that doesn't include a pre ark user interface.
I have to say, I am understanding what you mean now. I really enjoy skyrim, but I am getting pretty sick playing it. I can play for maybe 2 hours tops before the headache and queasyness mean I have to quit for at least an hour or so.
I'm honestly not sure how people get gaming sickness from it. Seems no different than any other first person game I've played... and slower than the FPS games that top the market.

Otherwise, about technical fiddling, I don't know if it's fair to knock a PC game for that kind of thing. With about a million computer configurations can games really be expected to handle every single machine? With a console, and maybe even Mac, there's an expectation that the game will 'just work', but with PC it's almost like using Linux as an OS. You gotta put a bit of effort into it.

Unless you wanna play Bejeweled :) I'm sure that can boot up on most computers without too many problems.

Even your favorite (I'd assume) MMO, World of Tanks, has a forum filled with what looks to be 30 threads just from the past week about problems and glitches.
I agree on the mentioned "con's". Also, artificial intelligence is sometimes very dumb and sometimes immersion-breaker (pathfinding needs a patch too).

There ARE con's, totally. But overall this is one of the most addicting and "immersive" single-player games I've ever played in my entire gaming life (I'm 36 years old and counting...).

I started with a big red label like "I don't like graphics, menus and npc's animations". Because yes, other titles are better in some aspects.

But... the Skyrim's world is living, breathing, "real". Very often I stumble upon random situations such as people fighting, a hunter hunting deers, a wolf chasing a prey, soldiers escorting someone and watching me bad, intimating "don't come closer, this is none of your business"... There are tons of random situations like these. Just wait to kill your first dragon. Cool, epic, addicting.

This is not a MMO but I'll be honest: it will be hard to play a MMO now, because Skyrim looks like you ARE playing with other people. And the good thing is... you will never meet griefers and immature gamers.

I also suggest you to install a mod for mining nodes. Right now thy're hard to spot. The mod makes them much more visible, I love it. It's called "Glowing Ore Veins 300 v1.1). A must have.
Although UI is quite bad, I have got used to it after playing 60 hours last week. One thing however that is really annoying in consol ports (noticed same thing in Deus Ex: Human Revolution) is that there is no key memory in the game. For example if you are crouching and aiming with your bow keeping left mouse button pressed and you press CTRL to get out of crouch, nothing happens. Even after you shoot nothing happens. This basically means that you have to wait whatever action/animation you are currently doing to end before you can activate something else.

Another thing that is annoying is that game does not recognize more than two same time key presses and these only when related to movement or at least it feels that to me. When running (pressing w) I can either spring (press SHIFT) or I can jump (press Spacebar) but I can't do both at the same time. Also using shouts during combat means that I have to stop and not do anything else to guarantee that game notices my key press.

Although it is said that we males can't walk and chew gum at the same time, so this game then simulates reality quite well... :)
The game alt tabs perfectly on my PC. I know as I have to alt tab out of the game to change my volume...

I decided to play it with my XBox controller as not being able to remap my keys to numpad feels terrible. It's OK but I wish I could use my mouse to help with aiming arrows or magic, I have trouble aiming with the controller. Yet, when you plugin your controller you simply can't use the keyboard.

The funniest bug was something I saw yesterday. A butterfly was flying into my horse. Result? My horse got pushed away a few meters. Physics engine, got to love it.

Despite all the technical issues it's still an amazing game though. Definitely one of the best games of the year. If only they put in more effort to polish the PC version.
The console UI for Skyrim is fairly exasperating, though one can get used to it. One shouldn't need to, though. Looking forward to the modders reworking it, given enough time. They did a nice job some time back with Oblivion with longer inventory lists, colored map and all.

For reference, I think 'F' is the default key to switch between 1st person and 3rd person view.

If you're in 3rd person view and hold Tab and move your mouse, the camera should loosen enough for you to look back at your character and see if he or she is wearing any pants...

Shift+Tab should bring up the Steam Overlay, and from there, Alt-Tabbing out should be possible. That's a lot of "shoulds," yes.

Personally I have no issues Alt-Tabbing out, but going back involves a long scary pause where my graphics card decides if it feels like rendering Skyrim again.

I'd kill for hotkeyed weapon sets. The default hotkey settings put all onehanded melee weapons into the right hand (what if I want to roleplay a left handed character?) and all spells into the left hand first. A second press of the hotkey puts the spell into the other hand as well.

Yet bound sword doesn't replace a normal sword, and turns up in the spell hand first. After it is cast, then it acts like a sword.

This has led to significant confusion and not a few deaths while I attempt to juggle back and forth between one handed/two handed healing, one handed/two handed firebolt, bound sword, conjure fire atronach, a normal sword and a bow.

Oh, and don't get me started on selecting the weapon in your Favorites list with a left-click, that marks it with a "R" icon to put it in your RIGHT hand to be swung with a left-click.

And right-click to mark another weapon with a "L" icon to put it in your LEFT hand to be swung with a left-click.

I normally don't confuse left and right, but in the heat of panic stricken battle while getting frost breathed by a dragon or Fus Ro Dah'ed by Draugr Scourges and Death Overlords, this UI sure does not help in that regard!

The beauty of Skyrim is more in the world, the music and the behind-the-scenes AI controlling the NPCs, quests, etc. for maximum all-about-YOU immersion and epic feel.
A few errata corrections:

My mistake, holding Tab and scrolling was a Morrowind thing, not Skyrim. Just standing still and moving the camera in third-person should do.

"put it in your LEFT hand to be swung with a left-click"

That should be RIGHT-click.

See how confused I get with the UI, sheesh.
I can ALT-TAB, but when trying to return the game freezes with a black screen. Clicking CTRL-ALT-DELETE then selecting Start Task Manager unfreezes the game.
You do know that a manual was included with the game and the controls were at least partially explained there.

It amazes me that people pick something up (game, car, tv, lawnmower) and expect to know how to operate it without reading a single word in the manual and then complain that they don't understand it.

I have way more admiration for reviews where the reviewer did their due diligence and cite the real issues and not issues based on their inability to L2P the game.

The UI needs improvement and a mod is on the way. But hot-keying things lets me easily have a 2H, 1H+shield, 1H and spell or two different spells. All of these are equipped with a single number button press.

BTW in the system options you can turn off the gamepad. this was mentioned in the manual and is pretty easy to see under the option tab.
The UI of Elder Scrolls games have been universally bad. Oblivion was a brilliant game yet the UI was the worst aspect.

It's almost as though it's not an Elder Scrolls game without it. That said, I am thankful I have the PC version, as modded will most likely release UI overhauls to make everything more usable reasonably soon.
@Paul: Motion sickness from gaming affects different people in different ways. For example, to this day I still cannot play Duke Nukem 3D (yes, the old one) for more than 10 minutes before I feel physically sick, yet there is no other FPS game from the same time period tha affected me.

The only other game to have done it was Half Life 2, but ONLY when I had to drive the buggy. That thing had my head hurting and my stomach churning within 10 minutes. Almost as soon as I got out and resumed playing on foot, I'd be fine.
As for motion sickness the bigger the screen the more impact it has on you. While it might take away from the game, playing on a 16 or 19 inch monitor will greatly reduce the motion sickness that you experience.

IMAX is a perfect example of this. People experience motion sickness when at IMAX but watching the same scenes on a 32" monitor had no effect on the majority of viewers in a number of studies.

So maybe switching to a smaller monitor can help you out.
Thanks for all the comments. I think I will old off buying this until a few mods are out, mostly for inventory management. If one thing would make me stop playing an otherwise great and enjoyable game, it would be a frustrating inventory system.
For me, motion sickness tends to only arise in first person view, since jitters translate directly into movement of the landscape. So switching to third person fixed that.

@goodmondo: I expect that most people commenting here were able to read the manual, probably the Wiki too. Noone is arguing that it isn't possible to switch configurations - just that doing so is unecessarily cumbersome.
@Roq, how is it an issue when it is a one button press? Most of those having problems don't seem to understand that you can favorite an item and then hot key it.

As mentioned I press #1 and I equip my 2H sword. I press #2 and switch to my 1H sword and a shield. #3 is hotkeyed to my shield and I can press #4 and change it to my favorite destruction spell. Numbers 5 to 8 I hotkey other spells and this allows me to use a shield/spell, dual spell combination.

At most it takes me two number key presses to get exactly what I want.

Granted this was done for my warrior type and I haven't tried a thief or mage type yet. But I don't see an issue unless I need more than 8 things to be brought up in either hand.
@goodmundo - Yes, without the ability to assign hotkeys at all I don't think the game would be very playable. But it's a very cumbersome and restricted way to do it, if you look at modern MMO interfaces, for instance; and it's not that easy to get some combinations to work - such as heal and shield block.

In your scenario, it seems a bit odd to be to be developing both 2 handed weapons as well as 1 handed weapons - that doesn't seem very optimal. With one handed only you can go for damage with dual wielding and defence with sword and board. So why Split your perks and levelling over both 1H and 2H?
Well i'm freaking glad you finally bought it anyways! As you should defintely not miss out on this years most epic experience. I've personally gotten really used to use WASD for the UI and i find it slick and neat to guide through. But has you said in the end what is really really missing and wanted is a character screen to watch what armor you're having on, what you're missing and all that comes really natural an a RPG.

Eventually mods will hopefully fix it, especially as i still find alot of space on far right side of my 23" screen.
@Roq,you're making the cardinal mistake of trying to compare solo UI's to MMO's. I've been playing solo RPG games going all the way back to the orginal Wizardry in 1982. Yes that long ago.

To answer your question about 1H and 2H I put my damage perks into 2H. But the block section has perks that apply to 2H and shield. I also took the elemental shield perk. This gives me great defense against fire, forst, and shock attack.

So I hot keyed my 2H and 1H setup and can swittch very quickly to go from defense (shield) to offensive attacks with the 2H.
@goodmondo: I enjoyed the wiz games too (so that dates both of us:)); would probably even replay them, except that they're hard to run on modern PCs and I'm no longer patient enough to draw out the maps on graph paper. Those early games were where a lot of the conventions and UI innovations came from and in that light, surely you would at least agree that Skyrim's inventory system is pretty shocking, even when comparing it to 20 year old games such as "Eye Of The Beholder" published around 1990 or "Ultima Underworld"; (the latter is not that dissimilar to Skyrim in that it was a single character RPG).
Just wanted to share my experience with Alt-Tab, maybe it'll help.

Alt-Tab out works fine for me. Getting back into the game a bit trickier, here's what works for me:
mouse click on Skyrim in taskbar --> everything kind of freezes --> hit alt-tab again --> mouse click on Skyrim in taskbar again --> back in game immediately.
[Everyone is playing Skyrim.] "Is this hype? Is this reputation?"

More reputation than hype, I think.

Elder Scrolls fans were going to buy it anyway, but Bethesda surely picked up a lot more fans with Fallout 3.

By the way, is it possible to make a pretty female character? I got it yesterday, and while my wood elf is sexy in a kind of brutish way, I would like a better-looking one. I may try a Redguard since apparently skills don't depend so much on race in this game anyway.
"By the way, is it possible to make a pretty female character." Answering my own question, I think Nords and Redguards offer the best options...
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