It turns out there's more to Skyrim: Special Edition than just prettier graphics and some performance improvements. There's a bundle of minor, undocumented changes between the two versions that are fascinating in their fussiness: they seem to be inspired by developers knowing they can't do anything drastic to their game, but still can't stop themselves from tinkering away. I've played a lot of Skyrim since 2011, so I've been scrutinizing the Special Edition for minute differences. Here are a handful of things that have clearly been bothering someone at Bethesda for the last five years.
You can loot the torturer's hood
I have a serious case of what they call “alt-itis”, a debilitating condition that means when I play roleplaying games I keep making alternate characters instead of knuckling down and hitting max level with the one I've already got. Before discovering the Alternate Start – Live Another Life mod I replayed the introduction of Skyrim repeatedly because I'd decided I needed to start over and this time be a lizardman who was also a wizardman, so I'm pretty familiar with it. While making your escape in that introduction you fight a torturer wearing a sweet hood in Helgen's prison, but I could never steal it off his corpse. I'd have to wait till the Thieves Guild or Dark Brotherhood to get one of my own. Well, now anyone can loot that hood and wear it with pride.
Save files are separate
The other problem with alt-itis is that it makes the number of save files you have proliferate like cockroaches, but even ordinary players can find themselves with a list of Skyrim saves longer than a Staff of the Familiar. You wind up keeping old saves so that you can return to Sovngarde or the Soul Cairn or replay that one mission where you convince the god of madness to end his vacation. Managing all those saves is easier now: save files are separated by character name and all your saves for that Argonian named Lizard Wizard and the Nord called Axebeard Beardaxe are distinct. Also, “quicksave” is right there on the menu now if you forget that the shortcut for it is F5.
Vampires aren't as deadly
If you had the Dawnguard expansion installed in vanilla Skyrim it would trigger vampire attacks on settlements, pushing you to become a vampire hunter when you were about level nine. Those attacks could potentially kill several characters you might like, especially the merchants who hang around in the streets of Whiterun. In Special Edition, that hasn't happened to me. At least when it comes to vampires, townsfolk are as likely to shake off their attacks as Lydia is to somehow survive walking into yet another trap. Once I stumbled out of a tavern to find the remains of dead vampires and their thralls spread across the street where they'd been taken out by locals before I even noticed them.
Sprinting is a toggle
Having separate save files for each character is something Bethesda also did with Fallout 4, and another change that comes to Skyrim: Special Edition via that game is toggled sprinting. Once upon a time you'd have to hold down the Alt button until your stamina bar was empty if you wanted to sprint. Now it's one tap to sprint and another to stop. It's another very small change, but it may take me another 100 hours to get used to it and stop myself trying to sprint the old way.
Some alchemy ingredients are easier to find
If the alchemy ingredients you need are flowers, then you're in luck. Now that Skyrim can handle extra foliage being on screen without dropping the framerate, certain plants have proliferated. Flowers are the most noticeable of them. Have a look around Whiterun, for example, and the harvestable white flowers of Tundra Cotton show up all over the place. Both the arms and armor store Warmaiden's and the purchaseable house Breezehome have Tundra Cotton growing right out front in case you need to stock up for your Potions of Fortify Barter.
Water makes more sense
Water looks better than it used to thanks to Skyrim: Special Edition, but in addition to looking better it also behaves more logically. It used to be that waves would move uninterrupted through objects, as could be seen clearly around the hull of the Wreck of the Pride of Tel Vos in Winterhold. Sometimes it even flowed upriver. Now, water flows around objects in a sensible way on its path from the mountains out to the Sea of Ghosts. Rain and snow are also sensitive to obstacles and will no longer fall on your fashionable hood even when you're standing under an overhang. Thanks, occlusion!
The civil war is more impressive
Skyrim wasn't really made for large-scale battles, as you'll have noticed if you ever tried any of the mods that worked them in. The new edition makes things run more smoothly, which is of particular note in the civil war storyline. During the quests that involve pitched battles you charge into, fighting over cities like Whiterun, more of the combatants will take part in the actual combat rather than hanging back to let you do all the work (and also to sneakily preserve your framerate). And they say war never changes.