Behind the glory of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim's Radiant Story
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was arguably the best video game of 2011, with numerous award nominations and wins, and mentions in year-end roundups. It’s also a commercial juggernaut. Released on November 11, Skyrim sold 3.5 million copies in its first two days. A month later, publisher Bethesda Softworks announced that 10 million copies of the fantasy role-playing game had been shipped. Skyrim also became the fastest-selling title on the Steam distribution platform for PCs.
“We’re over the moon,” Bruce Nesmith, lead designer on the game developed by Maryland-based Bethesda Game Studios, told the Georgia Straight. “The fan response, the critical response has far exceeded what we had thought it would be.”
Speaking by phone from his home, Nesmith said that Skyrim benefited from lessons learned during the creation of the studios’ two previous games, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3.
But one technological advancement unique to Skyrim makes the game effectively endless. Radiant Story is a new mechanic that enables Skyrim to create quests that are specific to the particular context of a player’s game. So while there may be an ending of sorts when gamers complete the main story, the game will continue generating adventures as long as players spend time in the world. Radiant Story was a way, Nesmith explained, of dramatically expanding the amount of content in the game.
“That’s the more ordinary thing it does,” he said.
Radiant Story’s more extraordinary feature is it allows characters in the world to react dynamically to what players do. “In a big, open-world game like this, to have the world react at this level is pretty new and fresh,” Nesmith said. If a player drops a sword on the ground, for example, a computer-controlled character might approach them with the blade, saying “Hey, you dropped this.” Radiant Story, Nesmith said, recognizes that the player dropped something, identifies a nearby character, and instructs that character to react in a particular way.
Nesmith, who heads the design department at Bethesda Game Studios, also worked on Skyrim’s systems design. “I did just about all the spells by myself,” he explained. He spent time working with magic items, weapons, and armour, and had a hand in the perk tree, which governs how players can improve the skills of their character. All managers at Bethesda, Nesmith said, like to get their hands on the game. “If you don’t work on the title, if you’re not familiar with how to use the tool, it’s difficult to manage others in using it.”
He added, “I’d have missed not being able to do something.”
Nesmith will be talking about Skyrim and Radiant Story when he gives the keynote presentation at the sixth annual Game Design Expo on Saturday (January 21). The industry-speaker day of the event, put on by the Vancouver Film School, is sold-out, but the free open house on Sunday (January 22) gives the public an opportunity to see the game-design program’s new campus in Chinatown.
The question most often asked of those in the game industry, Nesmith said, is how to break in. “Nothing says you can do the job like doing the job,” he said. “If you want to make art, make art. You want to program? Program. You want to design? Design.…That’s the best way to prove you can do it.”