Contributor’s Note: this article is regarding the PS3 release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and its load time foibles. I have seen what the PC edition of Skryim can do when running from a solid state drive with 5 mods applied and I was mighty impressed. I dare say playing the game would even be worthwhile then…
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim arrived in 2011 to rave reviews and massive commercial success. They were calling it the ‘Game of the Year.” Deep, open-world gameplay and expansive vistas to lose yourself in. Hundreds of characters and quests. Dragons! Yes, actual flying dragons, not just glorified tumbling lizards (I’m looking at you, King Dodongo). Bethesda even granted us the ability to use a weapon IN EITHER HAND. No less than a miracle to be sure.
But there is an inherent aspect of the game that slowly poisons. Poisons like a poison soaked dagger in a beggar’s back. I’m talking about “the pause.”
The pause occurs anytime your character is not interacting with the game world. This includes: loading, saving, entering/exiting a building, accessing the select or start menus, reading books/notes, and talking to NPC’s. Reading and conversing aren’t going to be focused on here, largely because reading can be avoided (and should be) and so can the majority of NPC conversations. The others are harder to escape, like the improper use of a semi-colon in an amateur opinion piece.
Many games require you to pause in order to progress. Be this to access a map, swap a current item, play a minigame etc. Many games also require this less than 900 times per Earth minute.
Before I go on, I want to state that I’m not coming at this from a ‘loading times break the experience’ sort of angle. This may be true, anything that interferes with the flow of the game as you play is an illusion-breaking occurrence. But the same can be said for frame-rate drops, pop-in, bad animations, bugs, invisible walls, and unfair mechanics, to name but few (that occur in Skyrim…). Yes, there are a hundred reasons why a game’s limitations can break the reality. But these are, oftentimes, fair.
Truthfully, we cannot expect zero load times in a game. Computer processing power is not yet at a point where it can handle an expansive world without them (indeed sometimes they struggle with an expansive Excel spreadsheet). To make a game as vast as Skyrim they are obviously quite necessary.
But for me this means the game is fundamentally broken.
The majority of Skryim‘s load times are more than ten seconds long. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s crushing given how frequently they occur. It may take 30 seconds to enter and exit a house, and I may spend less than a minute in there. Heaven forbid I accidently enter a building. Half a minute to correct my mistake! I’m walking through a wooden entrance, not reversing a wheelchair through a revolving door!
To make things worse, the game must be loaded so frequently because it’s very easy to become overwhelmed by a giant beast somewhere and have to walk at snail’s pace back to said point (this was particularly annoying at the ’7,000 steps’ part). Here’s a slice of typical Skyrim action.
Save game. Walk for 2 minutes. Save game. Walk for 2 minutes. Save game. Walk for 4 minutes, forget to save game, get spotted in deep foliage from 3 miles away by blind deaf ninja assassin, die. Load. Wait thirty seconds. Walk for 4 minutes back to ninja assassin’s last known address with a shield equipped.
It’s not just delays caused by loading or saving a game either, the item management mechanics are almost equally lengthy.
To use a potion:
- Open the menu.
- Open the item submenu.
- Open the potion submenu.
- Scroll through scores of mostly unnecessary potions to find desired concoction.
- Use potion.
The various situations encountered require tireless swapping between swords, bows, armor, potions, spells, and shouts. The half second delay caused by switching through menus and then time taken to find a specific items is soul destroying (ironic, then, that I spent more time in item menus than actually destroying souls!). Bethesda has had a stab (excuse the pun) at reducing the annoyance of item swapping with the inclusion of a ‘quick’ menu, where a list of ‘favorited’ items can be brought up. Unfortunately, by the time I’d added a few of the more used items, it was already quite a large list and no longer a quick menu. It was a slow menu. It wouldn’t be so bad weren’t I so utterly dependent on it to have any kind of interesting game experience, not one spent using only an iron dagger for the entire game.
Then there’s the combat. Finding myself struggling against an axe wielding ogre with my sword and shield equipped, I encounter a five step process to cast a healing spell and re-equip my shield. I may have to do it multiple times in the same battle. Why not use a club to finish him off? Because it’s too painful.
There’s a brief pause in between almost every action in the game. Potentially fun aspects like casting a spell to increase my lockpicking ability and breaking into someone’s house, or taking a swig of cyrodilic brandy to get a quick stamina boost become more hassle than they’re worth. I collected an array of potions for every situation throughout my travels but after I while sold everything except health buffs purely to avoid the temptation of using them!
And don’t get me started on the map screen. Always two menus to open. It neither scrolls fast enough nor zooms close enough. Pathetic.
Skyrim has been rendered virtually unplayable, or only for the extremely patient, and I’m left with what I believe is only part of a game. We’re shown glimpses of all there is to be enjoyed, but the pauses between the actual playing are just far too regular. It highlights how effective a PC can be. I’ve no doubt using a QWERTY keyboard with hotkeys mapped and an lightning fast processor will completely change the experience. But this is besides the point. Bethesda is not billing the console version as a lesser model and most critics have failed to fully address the compromises that have been made.
It really is a shame. Few games offer an adventure as grand as those found in the Elder Scrolls series. And despite labored combat mechanics and natural ‘bugginess’ of the game in general, Skyrim would be fantastically playable. Shaping my own character and playing the game exactly how I want to in a hugely detailed and organic world is extremely entertaining.
But it’s crippled.
Next generation consoles are just around the corner, and with them, next generation games. While a pause free experience may still be a long way away, I hope the next entry in the Elder Scrolls series can try to reduce this irksome issue, even at the cost of scale and scope.
P.S. I was reading a 500 page novel as I played Skyrim, peeking at it during the load times. I was in danger of finishing the book before I completed the main quests…