Nearly five years after our last trip to the Elder Scrolls land of Tamriel and space-time getting ripped a new one into the depths of Oblivion, Bethesda is back to show us another corner of their dark fantasy world with Skyrim. And Skyrim, the Maryland-based developer decided to crank things up a bit: a larger world, more interactive NPCs, locations, and objects, an expanded voice cast, and most importantly, of course: dragons. So just how did Bethesda choose some of the latest additions to Elder Scrolls and what are their thoughts on the evolution of the franchise? To find out, MTV Geek spoke to Bethesda Art Director and Lead Designer Matt Carofano who discussed some of the big ideas behind Skyrim and how Fallout 3 reshaped how Bethesda thought about making their RPGs.
MTV Geek: To begin, with, the new game is huge. What were some of your team’s thoughts behind increasing the size and the scope of an Elder Scrolls game?
Matt Carafano: Yeah, when we started Skyrim, we wanted to make sure it was this huge game. We wanted to come off of Oblivion and reinvent what an Elder Scrolls game is. And there are a lot of difficulties with that. We know we need lots of content because we don’t know where the player is going to go—they can go in any direction at any time—so we have to reward them if they explore, basically in every direction.
Some of the difficulties we had were in building this world and making it hand-crafted, because every part of it is hand-built, making sure that it had the quality of level design and artistic for every different area of the game, depending on where you went.
Geek: You described the game as “hand-crafted”—
Carofano: Yeah, we have a set of art pieces that we reuse, but every piece is hand-placed. So every tree, every rock, every plant, every dungeon is hand-touched, laid out, and carefully placed. It’s not procedurally-generated or anything like that. We did a little bit of that with Oblivion and found that we could make a better, more interesting, and believable world if we did it all by hand.
Geek: Likewise, one of the other big updates was combat, specifically dual-wielding. What was the intent behind this change and what kind of impact did you feel this would have on the game?
Carofano: It allows you a lot more strategy. There’s more things you can do now. It also makes things easier to play. We found early on that if you just associated either the triggers on the controller or the mouse buttons to each hand, it felt very intuitive. So you knew if I’m using the left trigger, I’m using the left hand, and if I’m using the right trigger, I’m using the right hand. And so we opened that up to more and more things and eventually it became dual-wielding.
So basically, you can equip anything you want, and play how you want, and the game just lets you do it. So now you can combine magic and weapons a lot more easily, or you can dual-wield spells, or you can dual-wield weapons. There are just a lot more combinations and it’s easier to do.
Geek: Having played for a few hours, I’m starting to really warm up to the change, but I’m not deep enough into the character progression to see how it’ll impact how I choose my abilities. I guess, I’m wondering how you guys were thinking about how players will decide to upgrade their characters’ skill trees now that they’re free to juggle what kind of combat they can engage in on the fly.
Carofano: We went into this game knowing that we were going to allow all of those skills to help level you up. So you’re not as focused as you necessarily were on previous games, so it lets you play under your own control more. You can do more of whatever you want. So you can try out a skill—say, it’s One-Handed, and you want to try out combat for a while—and then you can also switch over to Magic, or do Alchemy, or any of the other crafting skills if you want. We balanced the whole game knowing you could do a mix of these things or you could specialize in something that’s more combat-based like Destruction Magic or One-Handed weapons.
Geek: How about the conversation system—were there any sweeping changes that you guys were looking to make there as well?
Carofano: Yeah, cosmetically the game isn’t as zoomed in and fixed-camera anymore. We tried to make it feel more natural where you can just go up to a person and start talking to them, and they will continue to animate. The world no longer pauses, so things are still happening while you’re in dialog, and we streamlined the interface of conversations a little bit. The main things are that the world no longer pauses and it’s a sleeker presentation—you don’t feel as taken out of the world as you did in Oblivion.
Geek: Could you tell us a little bit about the Radiant Story System?
Carofano: Yeah, so the Radiant Story System basically governs the whole game and what you’re going to do in the game. And it’s a tool for the designers to craft the game in ways they want or add random elements to it so they can track how you’ve been playing and decide if they should push you in a direction of something you haven’t done or have the gamer react to certain things so we can fill in different variables—you know, people, locations, items—based on how you’ve been playing.
So it’s basically a tool for the designers to tell stories. And they can be very specific with it or allow the game to add a little bit of randomness to it.
Geek: Were there any particular challenges in implementing or tracking it? Or was it all purely as asset for the designers?
Carofano: We looked at what we did in the new Fallout [where] we had this huge script to manage, all these little world interactions you found, whether it was like a guy fighting off some monsters in the Wasteland, and we realized that this is a very good system. Let’s get it more integrated into the game. So that’s where it got its start. And that helps fills out all these events that you can find in the world, and we found early on that we used it a bit too much, and you could notice that it was just filling in the blanks of these random events that might happen, so we sort of backed off on that. And it let the designers have a lot more control and tell stories how they were used to telling stories, and then use it here and there when they need to.
But it’s basically integrated into the entire game and all of the storytelling elements of it.
Geek: So it sounds like this was a way of trying to find some balance for randomness and a strict narrative path for the player.
Carofano: It’s more like we want the world to be real, and full of events, and these things strewn about the world help make that happen. And some of it is very much up to our control—hey, do we want this location to have this event, or do we want it to have a chance of it happening here? So, we sort of tailored it to how you’ve been playing and what we want to put into the game.
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