This interview originally appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 232. Alongside our Skyrim preview .
Playing Skyrim made me realise just how huge, fresh and exciting it really is. I asked game director Todd Howard how far it's come from Oblivion, and what some of his favourite discoveries have been.
PC Gamer: Is Skyrim as big a leap forward for the series as Oblivion was?
Todd Howard: Hard to say... I have a hard time looking at it that way. I think it's close. I don't know that I would say it's as large a leap, just because the technology gap between Morrowind and Oblivion was greater.
PC Gamer: But do you feel on the mechanics side it's changed more?
Todd Howard: I'd say about the same. The number of gameplay changes and things like that are probably on the same level.
PC Gamer: We've heard about the Radiant Story system ensuring a kidnap victim is someone you've already met. Can you give any other examples of stuff you've seen it do, maybe stuff that surprised you?
Todd Howard: Let's see... something that was good lately – but this was a bug – lately we realised that chickens were reporting crimes. I found that very funny. That was just last week: “Why are we getting caught?” “Oh, the chickens are reporting the crimes!”
PC Gamer: [Laughs] In terms of intentional Radiant Story stuff, though...
Todd Howard: Intentional things that are interesting... You can get married in the game, and I had decided to marry this one woman who was my friend. And I forgot that I had done this Radiant quest for this other guy, who it turns out had liked her.
When you get married, you can decide where you live. If you own a house, your spouse can move in with you, or you can move in with them. I had owned a house in the city of Whiterun, so I told her “OK we should live there.” I went there, and she hadn't arrived yet, so I decided to wait. I slept.
And then she showed up. I turned around and as she was standing there, I saw another door open to another bedroom and the other guy walked out!
I had to call over the designer and say: “This guy! I forgot I did that thing!” and he said “Oh yeah, he's going to visit her every day.”
If you make him like her, he then visits her every day, and doesn't care if she's married.
PC Gamer: There's no concept of fidelity.
Todd Howard: It's my wedding night, guy walks out of the bedroom!
I'm trying to think on my feet right now because these are just things from last week. If you ask me next week, I'm sure there'll be something new. The marriage one is not a bug, it's a thing – the chicken one is unintentional, a bug.
PC Gamer: When I played, I found a pair of gloves that gave me +15 damage to unarmed attacks, and it totally changed the way I played. Do you have any favourite items like that?
Todd Howard: One of my favourites is a shout that turns things to ice. On the surface, you shout and the wind turns the guy to ice, and what's neat here is it acts as a paralysation for a period of time. So it visually looks neat because he falls over encased in ice. And during the time that he's in the ice, he's taking a little bit of cold damage – not enough to kill him.
When the ice is done, it kind of shatters and that hurts him a lot. So you can use the shout and incapacitate people, and then move on and hope that when it shatters, it kills them. If you hit the ice then it will shatter and hurt them a lot.
So even amongst this basic shout, there's some gameplay: “OK, I've incapacitated these enemies, do I want to shatter the ice? Will that kill them? Or they're tough enough, I'd rather just leave them encased in the ice for as long as possible and deal with something else or move on.”
PC Gamer: That's cool – Paralyse was always my favourite thing in Oblivion.
Todd Howard: Yeah, we still have that as well.
PC Gamer: When you're not doing the main quest, how common is it for you to run into a dragon?
Todd Howard: You have to do a little bit of the main quest – just the initial stuff – for the dragons to really start appearing, because it sits in with the story. After that point, the more of the main quest you do, the more dragons you'll run into. But it's hard to quantify it. They appear every once in a while. Not at a rate that is annoying... it still feels special. It's hard to know how people will play the game and it's a little bit random.
PC Gamer: I was wondering if the people who tend to avoid the main quest would eventually get tired of dragons killing them all the time.
Todd Howard: Yeah, that was one of the reasons why we did it that way: so if they don't want to proceed in the main quest, they're not going to get spammed with dragons. Because when one of them arrives, it changes whatever you're doing at the time. You could be on a different quest, going to a town, and a dragon shows up, so you're going to have to find a way to kill the thing or work with the townspeople or run away. So we spent a lot of time on that, and I think that the balance on that is pretty good right now.
PC Gamer: In Fallout 3 it felt like there was a lot more focus on putting unique content into just the wilderness, like every building you found...
Todd Howard: We did that a ton in this, yup – and to a massive level. Literally hundreds of dungeons... we realised in Fallout 3 that that kind of environmental storytelling, where you come upon a little scene, is really good. So we've tried to do it a lot more.
PC Gamer: Does every dungeon have something unique in it?
Todd Howard: Just about, yeah.
PC Gamer: Do you have any kind of guidelines for how to write a good quest?
We do, and it's hard – they're lengthy. In general what we try to do is give the player a lot of avenues to succeed, and as much as possible have activity during the quest, so it's not just “Hey, go do this.”
Now we don't do that all the time, but as much as we can make the quest kind of tell a story while you're in it. That's a better quest. Even if it's “Go to this dungeon and get this thing.” OK, well what happens in the dungeon? We try to make it more than just setup – “This why I want you to do this” – and then you go and do it, and come back.
There are still things like that, because we have a lot of quests, and a lot of random quests. The Radiant Quests are simpler, they're more: “Go do this, get this, come back.”
PC Gamer: So those are the ones where you script very little and let Radiant Story feed in the rest?
Todd Howard: Right, but there's also the more story-based ones and faction-based ones where it's all hand-done.
PC Gamer: Do you want the player to know when they're doing one of those more generated quests?
Todd Howard: They can tell – they're separated in the interface as just little objectives. They feel appropriate for what it is.
You go to a tavern keeper and you say, “Hey, do you have any work?” and he says “Oh the yarl” – he's like the king – “the yarl's asked for a bounty on this bandit leader's head.” And he hands you the bounty letter. Then that generates 'it's this guy and this dungeon', and you go and kill him. So that feels appropriate for what it is.
PC Gamer: You'll be releasing mod tools – will they let us do all the things we can do with Oblivion's mod tools?
Todd Howard: Yes, and more. It's the editor that we use, the Creation Kit for Skyrim.
PC Gamer: So we can mess around with Radiant Story and things like that?
Todd Howard: Absolutely, and that's one of the things where we changed it a bunch during development, and so the amount of time that we have had to make content on the final version... I think the users are going to do a lot of really cool stuff with it that we didn't even think about.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is due out November 11. We are quite excited.