This sort of lunacy will be a familiar tale for anyone who horse-rustled in Oblivion. But in other ways, the crime system is more advanced: each city is its own faction, so crimes in one don't get you in trouble in the next. And if you can kill everyone who saw you commit a crime, you'll get a notification that there are no surviving witnesses, and your bounty has been cleared.
Right now, though, this is bad. I gallop on to Riften inside of a minute, but arrive with arrows whizzing past my head and sticking in my horse. Two guards at the gates charge at me on sight. I try dismounting and putting my weapon away, the way you usually surrender to the guards in Skyrim, but they don't relent. As much to escape their blades as any actual desire to be here, I burst through the city gates.
It gets rough. Guards are streaming in from every side street as I barge through the busy market in the centre of town, jump over fences and weave between bystanders. This is not how I wanted to see the city. I leg it through a gate in the walls.
Outside, something bizarre is happening. The Imperial Guardsmen chasing me for the first time I stole the horse have run into the Rift Guards furious with me for the second time, and they're both much more furious with each other. A small war breaks out in front of the city walls, and for once I'm not under immediate attack. When there's only one guard left among the bloodied corpses, I walk straight up to him, weapon sheathed: please, please arrest me. He arrests me.
In Oblivion, a few of your skills would atrophy as you rotted in your cell. In Skyrim, this doesn't happen, but your progress towards your next point in a few skills will be reset. It's a much milder penalty – I don't even notice which skills I've lost progress in.
Finally exploring Riften without being stabbed, I find a remarkable city. A river runs through it, and in places the cobbled streets give way to sharp drops to the water below, wooden walkways running along the houses at street level. Below that, a network of piers connects the doors of grubbylooking subterranean dwellings, their doors almost at water level. From the chatter around town, I hear there's a network down there called the ratways, where the Thieves Guild hide out. Rift Guards with ominous helmets that conceal their faces growl as I pass. In all kinds of ways, it reminds me of Vivec, Morrowind's intimidating capital.
When I ask art director Matt Carafano about the other cities, he says they're all unique. “We worked really hard to make those feel distinct. So Riften is a rundown lake town, but it's set in the beautiful fall forest area. Whereas Markarth is built in an ancient dwarven ruin in cliff sides, so it's very different. Solitude is more like a castle city, kinda influenced by an imperial style. Windhelm is an ancient Nordic fortress, so it's full of really old Nordic architecture. And you have the city of Whiterun in the centre, which is a more classic Viking – almost mountain-style – city in the tundra.”
Back in the market, a shifty-looking man runs up to me. He's impressed that I saw through the corrupt guard at the north gate, but he thinks killing him was a little harsh. I... what?
I deduce he's a thief with some kind of scam going with a guard. That guard must have been killed in the fracas I caused at the city gates, and he's assuming I rumbled his scheme and did it intentionally. That's wildly untrue, but he's so impressed with my instincts that I decide to accept the credit. He's offering me work: he wants a vendor in town brought down, so he needs me to pickpocket a valuable ring, then place it in the vendor's private chest. He'll create a distraction while I work.
My new friend shouts to all the shoppers and vendors to gather round, and they do. My mark sits on a crate in front of some barrels, and as the thief rambles about a dragon elixir he's discovered, I sneak up behind the vendor and rifle through his pockets. The moment I take the ring, he screams “Thief!” and the guards flood in. I am new at this.
I didn't know it at the time, but in Skyrim, your chance of successfully pickpocketing something depends partly on its value. Rifling through someone's inventory is no longer a crime – at least, not a detectable one. But when you take something, the chance you'll get away with it depends on your pickpocketing skill, the weight of the item, and how much it's worth. People pay more attention to their valuables, this rule implies.
I don't resist arrest, but I'm not willing to serve time for this. As in Oblivion, you wake up in jail with a single lockpick, somehow secreted about your person. Unlike Oblivion, it was actually enough. Before long, I'm out – no skill-progress reset. Man, I should be in the Thieves Guild.
I decide to find the Thieves Guild. Not losing my skill progress pays off: soon I level up, and finally decide to rest. This is where Skyrim goes from exciting to a thing we need a new superlative for – not the resting, but the levelling up. Your skills improve as you use them, and improving enough skills increases your character level. That lets you choose a perk: a tweak to one of your skills that makes it more effective. So you have an element of choice, but you can't pick a high-level perk for a skill you haven't practised much: they have requirements.