Like most Earthlings, I’ve been playing a LOT of Skyrim lately. I hated Oblivion and Morrowind, but this particular role-playing dragon murder simulator has really gotten under my skin, thanks in part to how immersive it is. It’s not uncommon for me to hunch in front of my keyboard for hours, forgetting time and space while I ford fjords and cram my inventory full of Falmer ears (I might NEED them!). I wrote a while back about immersion in video games and Skyrim seems like a textbook case of jamming on all the right buttons:
- A cognitively demanding environment –you’re constantly scanning for threats, items, and pathways
- Multiple, coordinated sources of sensory information –sight and sound work really well together here
- Extensive interactivity –you can pick up, mess with, or kill a heck of a lot of stuff
One thing that Skyrim really goes all in on, though, is limiting the incongruous elements on your screen. The idea here is that presenting players with things that remind them that they’re playing a video game undermines a sense of spatial presence and immersion. Skyrim conspicuously omits or minimizes things like damage indicators, cooldown timers on abilities, level indicators on enemies, icons indicating effects, and HUD elements to activate powers or items. It’s super minimalistic and a far cry from something like World of Warcraft where you’ve got numbers bubbling off enemies like fireworks and half your screen is taken up with icons, minimaps, and hotkeys. The result is that it’s easier to lose yourself in the world, as many of us are finding out.
That said, I wonder if Bethesda’s pursuit of immersion has actually gone too far. Skyrim’s anemic UI actually often fails to give you information that you really need and want. Say you’ve just gotten a new Fear spell that affects creatures up to level 10. Soooo… What level is that wolf? Or that bandit? No way to know, really. And how much longer until my protection from frost potion wears off? Is my weapon still poisoned? And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve blithely trooped around the landscape while diseased or cursed because I failed to dive into a UI two levels deep to find out. And don’t get me started on favorites and hotkeys.
One universal complaint of the game seems to be that the UI is awful, and I have to wonder how much of that was exacerbated by an iron clad design goal to shove everything possible off the main screen in order to increase immersion. Despite how much I’m enjoying it, it kind of strikes me as an example of swinging too far to the other extreme.