Journey Into ‘Skyrim’ With the Game’s Art Director and Lead Designer Matt Carofano

Nearly five years after our last trip to the Elder Scrolls land of Tamriel and space-time getting ripped a new one into the depths of Oblivion, Bethesda is back to show us another corner of their dark fantasy world with Skyrim. And Skyrim, the Maryland-based developer decided to crank things up a bit: a larger world, more interactive NPCs, locations, and objects, an expanded voice cast, and most importantly, of course: dragons. So just how did Bethesda choose some of the latest additions to Elder Scrolls and what are their thoughts on the evolution of the franchise? To find out, MTV Geek spoke to Bethesda Art Director and Lead Designer Matt Carofano who discussed some of the big ideas behind Skyrim and how Fallout 3 reshaped how Bethesda thought about making their RPGs.

MTV Geek: To begin, with, the new game is huge. What were some of your team’s thoughts behind increasing the size and the scope of an Elder Scrolls game?

Matt Carafano: Yeah, when we started Skyrim, we wanted to make sure it was this huge game. We wanted to come off of Oblivion and reinvent what an Elder Scrolls game is. And there are a lot of difficulties with that. We know we need lots of content because we don’t know where the player is going to go—they can go in any direction at any time—so we have to reward them if they explore, basically in every direction.

Some of the difficulties we had were in building this world and making it hand-crafted, because every part of it is hand-built, making sure that it had the quality of level design and artistic for every different area of the game, depending on where you went.

Geek: You described the game as “hand-crafted”—

Carofano: Yeah, we have a set of art pieces that we reuse, but every piece is hand-placed. So every tree, every rock, every plant, every dungeon is hand-touched, laid out, and carefully placed. It’s not procedurally-generated or anything like that. We did a little bit of that with Oblivion and found that we could make a better, more interesting, and believable world if we did it all by hand.

The ’Skyrim’ team hoped to avoid cut and paste world design

Geek: Likewise, one of the other big updates was combat, specifically dual-wielding. What was the intent behind this change and what kind of impact did you feel this would have on the game?

Carofano: It allows you a lot more strategy. There’s more things you can do now. It also makes things easier to play. We found early on that if you just associated either the triggers on the controller or the mouse buttons to each hand, it felt very intuitive. So you knew if I’m using the left trigger, I’m using the left hand, and if I’m using the right trigger, I’m using the right hand. And so we opened that up to more and more things and eventually it became dual-wielding.

So basically, you can equip anything you want, and play how you want, and the game just lets you do it. So now you can combine magic and weapons a lot more easily, or you can dual-wield spells, or you can dual-wield weapons. There are just a lot more combinations and it’s easier to do.

Geek: Having played for a few hours, I’m starting to really warm up to the change, but I’m not deep enough into the character progression to see how it’ll impact how I choose my abilities. I guess, I’m wondering how you guys were thinking about how players will decide to upgrade their characters’ skill trees now that they’re free to juggle what kind of combat they can engage in on the fly.

Carofano: We went into this game knowing that we were going to allow all of those skills to help level you up. So you’re not as focused as you necessarily were on previous games, so it lets you play under your own control more. You can do more of whatever you want. So you can try out a skill—say, it’s One-Handed, and you want to try out combat for a while—and then you can also switch over to Magic, or do Alchemy, or any of the other crafting skills if you want. We balanced the whole game knowing you could do a mix of these things or you could specialize in something that’s more combat-based like Destruction Magic or One-Handed weapons.

Geek: How about the conversation system—were there any sweeping changes that you guys were looking to make there as well?

Carofano: Yeah, cosmetically the game isn’t as zoomed in and fixed-camera anymore. We tried to make it feel more natural where you can just go up to a person and start talking to them, and they will continue to animate. The world no longer pauses, so things are still happening while you’re in dialog, and we streamlined the interface of conversations a little bit. The main things are that the world no longer pauses and it’s a sleeker presentation—you don’t feel as taken out of the world as you did in Oblivion.

Geek: Could you tell us a little bit about the Radiant Story System?

Carofano: Yeah, so the Radiant Story System basically governs the whole game and what you’re going to do in the game. And it’s a tool for the designers to craft the game in ways they want or add random elements to it so they can track how you’ve been playing and decide if they should push you in a direction of something you haven’t done or have the gamer react to certain things so we can fill in different variables—you know, people, locations, items—based on how you’ve been playing.

So it’s basically a tool for the designers to tell stories. And they can be very specific with it or allow the game to add a little bit of randomness to it.

Geek: Were there any particular challenges in implementing or tracking it? Or was it all purely as asset for the designers?

Carofano: We looked at what we did in the new Fallout [where] we had this huge script to manage, all these little world interactions you found, whether it was like a guy fighting off some monsters in the Wasteland, and we realized that this is a very good system. Let’s get it more integrated into the game. So that’s where it got its start. And that helps fills out all these events that you can find in the world, and we found early on that we used it a bit too much, and you could notice that it was just filling in the blanks of these random events that might happen, so we sort of backed off on that. And it let the designers have a lot more control and tell stories how they were used to telling stories, and then use it here and there when they need to.

But it’s basically integrated into the entire game and all of the storytelling elements of it.

Geek: So it sounds like this was a way of trying to find some balance for randomness and a strict narrative path for the player.

Carofano: It’s more like we want the world to be real, and full of events, and these things strewn about the world help make that happen. And some of it is very much up to our control—hey, do we want this location to have this event, or do we want it to have a chance of it happening here? So, we sort of tailored it to how you’ve been playing and what we want to put into the game.

Geek: Now, you mentioned Fallout 3 before—what were some of the takeaways that you guys got from working on that before jumping into Skyrim?

Carofano: Yeah, I mean there’s actually quite a bit. Pretty much the entire team that worked on Fallout 3 worked on Skyrim as well—they stayed on to work on Skyrim—and we learned a lot from making Fallout.

One of the things was Fallout was completely hand-built: the landscapes and all the dungeons. And how we tell stories in the world, and the pacing of fighting, rewards for exploring—we learned a lot from that game that then carried over into Skyrim.

And obviously, the Perk system and leveling up in Fallout was very rewarding, and so we wanted to change the way Skyrim’s leveling worked so it could be a little bit more like Fallout. Because we always had Perks in the Elder Scrolls games, but they just sort of happened automatically when you reached a certain skill level. But now it’s more of an active choice, so when you level up, you can pick your own Perk, which gives you a new ability. And that’s more rewarding to the player, and we added way more than we used to have. So there’s a lot more strategy in how you’re going to level up and what decisions you’re going to make that are going to change your character.

Geek: What is the level cap in Skyrim?

Carofano: We’re not entirely sure. It’s basically once all of your skills have maxed out to 100. It’s somewhere around level 80, I think. But it’s going to take quite a bit of gameplay to get that high.

Dig the revamped menu system for skills

Geek: I’m really digging the constellation-style menu system for the abilities. Where did that come from?

Carofano: When we designed—actually, the entire interface, there were a lot of things we wanted to change with it: we wanted it to be exciting and interesting to look at, but also needed to provide a huge amount of information in a very easy way. So you’ll see all of this information and get to it quickly. We tried to combine a bunch of different elements, so if you look at the system in the heavens that shows all of your skills, what level they are, and all of the Perks.

It’s a ton of information, but we did it in an interesting way, so it’s kind of fun to play through a menu. But we tried to do that in the [menu] interface as well so you can examine every item you pick up—you know, really look at it and inspect it—but you also have all the stats on it that you need.

Geek: What were some other big things that you wanted to get into the game that might not have made their way in?

Carofano: We pretty much tried to jam everything we could into this game. We rewrote the entire engine—both the graphics engine and the gameplay engine—so every aspect of this game is new. And you know, there’s some features that we put in and then decided, “Hey, maybe that isn’t polished enough, let’s not keep that in the game.” But I think we got more than we expected in the game.

The dragons are actually a good example of that. We knew that they were going into the game, but as we kept developing them, we added more and more features to them, so they became something much bigger than we initially intended. At first, we planned on them flying around, and attacking, and landing for a short period of time. Then later, we implemented them crawling around on the ground, eating people, and throwing them into the air. All that stuff developed as we kind of played the game and decided to add more to it.

Geek: Sorry to keep dragging it back to Fallout, but was there ever any discussion of bringing in some other systems from that game—like V.A.T.S., maybe—into Skyrim that for whatever reason didn’t make their way in?

Carofano: V.A.T.S.? We didn’t want to do that because it felt like it was such a different game. But we did implement a “kill camera” system which is sort of a variation on that, so when you finish an opponent, you get this nice kind of cinematic ending that’s very dramatic. But in terms of tactics and slowing down the game, we kept it more in the players’ control and not in a slowed-down system.

Geek: And what kind of conversations have you guys been having about DLC at this point? Or is it still too early to talk about it?

Carofano: It’s still early, and the only thing I can tell you is that we’re absolutely going to be doing DLC and we’re starting to work on some ideas now in terms of what we’re going to do. We’re very excited about creating more content for this game and also releasing the Creation Kit, which is our editor for Skyrim to all of the fans so that they can make their own mods and tell their own stories.

When we make DLC, we actually like to take a step back from the game and see what’s been missing, or something that we can improve in the game. And those most often kind of become our hit list of ideas in terms of what we can do for DLC.

We also like to let the game be out there for a while and get some reaction from the fans and see what they’re looking for as well. And a lot of those go into the decisions behind what’s going to be the DLC.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is available now for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Video Review

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