Fifteen minutes of play time with the fifth Elder Scrolls game isn't enough. Skyrim is massive. A quarter of an hour in it illuminates the game's world about as well as stepping just outside of an airport terminal explains a new city.
But, if you've got the man who oversaw construction of the whole megalopolis sitting next to you, you can adopt the open-world, do-anything spirit of Skyrim and ask anything you can think of about the game. You can find stuff out. This is what I did at the Bethesda booth at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, with Skyrim creative director Todd Howard at my side.
What did I hit upon? My notes include words like "difficulty", "encumbrance", and "DLC".
We began covering this stuff while I was playing. I asked Howard questions, but I simultaneously was testing the ability of my random Skyrim lead character to run down a hill, swim a river, club people in a mine, command a deer to fight by my side, and eventually, to fulfill a man's request for lumber by firing an arrow into his chest.
Who You Can Kill and Who You Can't – We may not kill everyone in the massive world of Skyrim, Howard told me, though obviously some have tried such slaughters in previous games made or overseen by his studio. "Central" characters in Skyrim will not die. If defeated in combat, these people will drop to their knees. Rare "Protected" characters can be killed by you, but not by non-player characters who do have the ability to murder their fellow Skyrim dwellers during the kind of unplanned, dynamic chaos Bethesda players enjoy igniting. Those Skyrimians who are neither Central nor Protected may die by your or others' hands—to be clear, those "others' hands" are computer-controlled, as this is as single-player a game as it gets.
The man to whom I aggressively delivered a few arrows, I'm sad to report, had friends who proved to me that my character was neither Central nor Protected. Hey, but at least I'm the hero. I can respawn.
Animal Control – I've played too little of prior Elder Scrolls games to have the opportunity to control animals, but the save point from where I started at PAX put me in the boots of a man who has the power to do such a thing. I learned the limit of this ability, which is not unlike the ability of owning a cat. With great anticipation I used my power on some sort of deer or elk (same family?) only to watch it flee from the bandits I soon harassed. Some animals just might shrink from or stink at combat, Howard pointed out. My real cat isn't much of a fighter either, even against the spiders she significantly outweighs.
Later in the game, I was chased by two wolves. I commanded one to follow me. He turned on his fellow wolf and snapped his jaws. Success. You can command an animal once a day in this game, if you have the power. Magic spells, on the other hand (that's sort of a pun), can be used as long as you've got magic to burn.
Encumberance – Todd Howard knows that encumbrance can be annoying, but he must not believe that being laden with so much discovered gear that you can move only slower than a snail is so annoying that it should be stricken from the Bethesda role-playing-game list of commandments. Thou Shalt Be Encumbered in Skyrim, just not as easily as you would have been in previous Elder Scrollses. Maybe we the players shouldn't pick up so much stuff in the game, not between visits to homes and other places where loot may be stored? Maybe Bethesda shouldn't put so many appealing sets of armor, weaponry and kitchenware in their RPGs.
Howard laughed when I reminded him that players could be encumbered in the previous Elder Scrolls, Oblivion, before they even left the game's introductory area. This new game won't be nearly such a strict caution against covetousness. Howard said that the encumbrance limits have been raised relative to that last game (the statistic I was able to quote is that you can carry "a lot more.") Players who manage upgrades in their stamina will find their ability to carry more and heavier items pleasantly bolstered. This is a game that lets you kill dragons, though, and Howard warned me that dragon bones are heavy.
Difficulty Levels We Won't Hate – Even the biggest proponents of Oblivion sometimes speak unkind things about that game's scaling difficulty, which made enemies in any of its regions tougher as the player became more powerful, sort of the way math tests became harder every time you advanced a year in grade school. The new game, as has been reported before, doesn't work like that. It works like Fallout 3, Howard told me. I, not being the sort who can see under the hood of a game's difficulty engine while driving the action, requested clarification. Each area of Skyrim has its own level of difficulty, which the game might raise or lower a tad depending on how powerful the player's character is, populating the zone with tougher or easier enemies,. These areas will maintain their characteristic level of challenge, but will basically offer a relatively wimpy a player a figurative cheek at which to aim a first punch—and will slug the more powerful player first.
There is much more loot to get in this game, Howard told me, and the brave player who ventures into areas too hard for him or her to have sensibly entered, will at least be rewarded with rare and special loot. If they survive their dangerous excursion, of course. "If you're in over your head, we want to reward you for that," Howard said.
DLC – Yeah, there will be DLC for Skyrim, just as there have been bushels of it for all of the recent grand Bethesda RPGs. It's even coming to the Xbox 360 first. But what will it be? Howard said he honestly doesn't know. It's not been nailed down yet, though he promised it will be big. We played comparison. So, not the size of that Alaska DLC for Fallout 3? Nope. More like that Point Lookout one that was a whole extra island? Yup.