Is Skyrim’s User Interface Really So Bad?

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Bethesda Softworks

The same applies to every other category, from “Apparel” and “Potions” to “Ingredients” and “Misc.” This approach also applies to the “Magic” main category, which itself divides into 10 categories, including one devoted to “Active Effects” (that is, effects that impact your skills positively or negatively). The only time any of this can be a trifle confusing is if (a) you spend most of your time in the “All” view, shunning subcategories, or (b) you never clean your character up by selling (or dropping) unnecessary or no longer relevant items. The latter’s roleplaying 101, by the way—weight limits are imposed to force player choices about what to tote along and what to store, sell or discard. In any event, it takes mere seconds to find items or spells you haven’t already added to your Favorites view. Players complaining it can take up to 10 (seconds) are either spending too much time in the “All” view or exaggerating.

As for suggestions that Bethesda should have added a third subdivisional column, I can’t say they’re wrongheaded—it might be nice to view potions by “health” or “stamina” or whatever—but I likewise can’t say it would’ve made the interface any more usable for me. The only time I’ve had trouble finding something quickly was because it had an odd name, e.g. “Weak Stamina Poison” instead of “Stamina Poison,” so that it appears under “W” instead of “S.” You might argue Bethesda could’ve made things easier to find by sticking to a more alphabetically consistent naming scheme, e.g. “Stamina Poison [weak],” but I can already hear the counterargument, favoring sorting by potion strength and not name, which begs the question: Should Bethesda have included “sort by” buttons? Perhaps, but again, judging from my own experience, quibbling about that’s making a mountain out of what amounts to a molehill in practice.

What about all the space to the right or left in these menus, where whatever you’ve highlighted is displayed with attribute info in a sort of “3D vanity mode”? That’s on purpose, so you can probe or admire whatever you’re “holding” up close, which even at high-def resolutions is necessary to appreciate the finer details. It makes objects in the world seem nuanced and physically present instead of the tiny icons snapped to grids in what passes for most roleplaying inventory systems still today. And in some instances, your appreciation’s not optional—several quests require you view items in your inventory up close to locate physical clues necessary to solve certain puzzles. It’s hardly a “waste of space,” then.

Before I wrap up, a word about the Skills view, which replaces the old D&D-style sheet of abilities with mathematically abstruse numerics. In Skyrim, the interface appears with an upward flourish, as if your character were lifting his or her head skyward, each skill backgrounded by colorful skill-specific constellations. You start at screen center, letting you observe what’s to either side as you scroll left or right, then forward and backward. Arguments that the default view ought to be at far left or right so your eyes would only have to move in one direction confuse economy with functionality: With any circular sequence, i.e. one that loops back around, you need to be able to see both left and right to know where you are (that, and the sense of “framing”—knowing what area you’re in based on the skills you’re between—is improved). All that, to say nothing of how lovely the Skills view looks.

Gaming with consoles and gamepads involves compromises. Designers have, literally, a handful of buttons to work with. They also have to assume some gamers may elect to play a game like this on a standard-definition TV. I won’t defend the decision to carry any of that over to the keyboard-mouse school of thought, which sounds like a terrible idea, but with a gamepad on a high-definition TV, I find Skyrim’s interface simple, elegant, fast, out-of-the-way and, in terms of that last point, far preferable to somethings shackled by stodgy panels crammed with grids and icons and D&D number-littered dossiers, all masquerading as “design conventions.”

MORE: 8 Things I Learned After 25 Hours in Skyrim

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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