Is Skyrim’s User Interface Really So Bad?

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Bethesda Softworks

For better or worse, Skyrim’s intrepid radial hub and text-heavy menus were designed with gamepads in mind. That’s just the way it is. Blame…I don’t know, probably the world, for buying over 100 million Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s. It’s why I wouldn’t dream of playing the PC version of Skyrim with a keyboard-mouse. Not that I’ve tried, but word on the street is, attempting to navigate Skyrim’s menus with a mouse-wheel isn’t pretty.

Is that a shortcoming? It sure sounds like one, reading the reactions on boards from ticked off PC players. But you’ll have to take that up with the industry in general, which these days seems to view the PC as a dinosaur onto whose back console-angled games can be forklifted unceremoniously.

That said, I prefer the minimalist vantage of a gamepad for this sort of game (that, and the eye-smacking resplendence of a 32-inch screen), so the idea of using a keyboard-mouse in Skyrim feels as alien to me as not playing it with a keyboard-mouse might to those who view marrying a gamepad to a laptop or desktop as sacrilegious.

But some critiques of Skyrim’s radical shift from panel overlays to columns of text go much further, taking umbrage with the very notion of what Bethesda’s wrought, console or otherwise.

For the record, I like Skyrim’s user interface, perhaps even admire it. I never had to think about it while playing, which is probably the highest compliment I can pay out. Is it efficient? Most of the time. All of the time? Probably not, but what is? Efficiency’s not the be-all, end-all metric in interface design. An interface’s aesthetic, and how that relates to the rest of the game, can be just as important. Balancing function and form is how you build a great interface.

Most roleplaying games prior to Skyrim, whether PC or console, employ a panel-style interface, where characters, skills and items you’re carrying occupy unique pages that take up most or all of the screen. In BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, for instance, you have discrete pages devoted to different character or informational attributes. There’s a page for fiddling with your skills or leveling up, another for managing your inventory and equipping items, another for viewing the area map and so forth. That’s been the case for all of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games until Skyrim. Even Fallout 3, with its visually clever if tedious monochrome PIP-Boy interface—you wore a futuristic watch that contained character, inventory and world details, and which zoomed to fill the screen when you tapped a button—was still basically a hub with categories (and within those, sub-categories) you had to tab between.

In Skyrim, the main interface overlay’s triggered by tapping a button on your gamepad, which conjures a star-shaped menu that offers four simple categories: “Magic,” “Skills,” “Items,” and “Map.” Items and Magic bring up identical left- or right-hand columns, each containing text categories that lead, tree-style, to more specific selections, e.g. inventory items or spells. Roughly one-third of the screen ends up devoted to selecting something, while the remaining two-thirds displays information about the selected item and a detailed 3D render of it.

Some have said the two-thirds devoted to the items’s description and 3D render is a waste of space, and that the text menus—especially the second column, which can contain dozens of items—are unwieldy. I say they’re wrong. I say Bethesda’s thought this through very carefully. Consider the Items view, which brings up 10 basic categories (one of which lets you view everything uncategorized). If I want to see or change my arsenal, I click down to Weapons, then nudge the joystick right to get an alphabetical list. I can “Equip,” “Drop,” or “Favorite” the weapon (the “Favorite” option adds it to a menu shortcut). That’s three quick, easy moves from the game to whatever I’m after: button-tap, “Items” select, “Weapons” select and I’m there. Tap-slide-slide. Nothing could be simpler.

(MORE: 10 Ways to Make Skyrim a Cooler Place to Hang Out)

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