How Skyrim's Difficulty Works, And Why That First Giant Killed You Outside Whiterun

All games are difficult. (Well, almost all games.) One of the most important aspects of difficulty is punishment — if a player fails in a game, the game must let them know it somehow. Bad player! No bonus XP for you! Do it five more times!

In Mario, if you die, you restart a level. In Dark Souls if you die, you start a level and lose your experience. In Rock Band if you fail, you get booed offstage. In Dead Space if you fail, you have to watch your protagonist get ripped to shreds before starting back at a checkpoint.

But what about big, nonlinear games like Skyrim? How, exactly, are those games difficult?

USC Ph.D. student Clifford Galiher has tackled this idea in this dense but accessible paper republished at USC's Mediascape blog. In it, he breaks down how the game's difficulty works — it's not about lost progress as much as it's about lost time.

Thus, the player is essentially evaluating temporal investments: Will this strategy cause me to lose and replay the entire fight? Did a plot decision I made hours ago lead to an unfavorable outcome? The size of a penalty can be measured as the product of likelihood of success multiplied by the amount of time involved in replaying. Even this latter variable can be minimized by the player's ability to save at virtually any point in the game, even in the midst of combat. The act of gameplay, then, can be reduced to risk assessment, a player's appraisal of the likely outcome of a plot decision or combat tactic. The reward is more efficient playthrough, while failure means redundancy (as well as an accumulating sense of ineptitude). The trial-and-error process, as Juul suggests, allows the player to develop a nuanced understanding of the game. In the case of Skyrim, while most challenges are attuned to the main character's current level, a great many others are not, and the player must adjust his or her behaviour accordingly.

Galiher then breaks down why he believes the designers at Bethesda placed that giant camp right next to Whiterun, the game's first major city. It wasn't just because giants are cool, it was because the game needed to impart a message: Death can lurk anywhere, but at the same time, you can always get around it.

One example of a non-calibrated challenge that appears early in the game has been immortalised by Ozrek's oft-repeated comment: "Everyone's first mistake in Skyrim / ‘I wonder if I can kill that giant…'"3 The placement of an extremely difficult challenge early in the game-namely the two powerful giants just to the west of Whiterun, the first major stopping point in the game-essentially demonstrates the basic level of strategy inherent to playing a nonlinear game. The foreknowledge of risk alters the player's approach, introducing an element of strategy that can in itself be a reward for the player: the circumvention of failure as enjoyment.

Also, at least before Bethesda patched the amazing bug that let a Giant's very first attack send you careening into the stratosphere, the game was giving players the foreknowledge that it was often hilarious.

The Topography of Risk: Time and Punishment in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim [USC Mediascape via Kill Screen]

(Top image by Malicidus | /Flickr)


    "All games are difficult. (Well, almost all games.)"

    I totally talk about Juul's understanding of failure and add the idea of lost time via repetition in my thesis. I HAVE PICTURES IN MINE!

    "I'm a fricken astronaut!" Francis

    I avoided the giants, I knew when I was at a low level I couldn't take them on but Ice Trolls... man that first one on the way to the Throat of the World was a mighty challenge.

      I struggled with that part, so badly that I didn’t even want to take on the ice dragon. When it appeared I just ran, straight past the ice troll and then the dragon and troll duked it out while I made it to the temple.

    That 'patched' bug is still there actually. Playing on PC, latest patch version and no mods other than the official high res texture pack.

    I didn't actually stumble across a giant camp near Whiterun, though I did run into what I assume was a scripted event where some other travellers were fighting one then yelled at me for not helping (even though I totally did).

    Though I did run across those two giants between Whiterun and The Throat of the World. Is that what he meant?

    I spent about an hour trying to get those two giants, using everything I had at my disposal (which wasn't much). I managed to work out a trick where I could put arrows into them while keeping them repeatedly circling back and forth around a rock and they couldn't get to me. Unfortunately with there being two of them, having so much health, and me being level 4 or something, it only took one mistake for them to wipe me out. Which they did every time.

    When I was a few levels higher I went back and humiliated them. :P

    The first giant outside Whiterun didn't kill me silly!

    Skyrim was interesting in terms of difficulty. I soaked up the game world for some 250 hours. Magical stuff. But even at level 30 I felt like a boss and by level 50 I walked into the final fight and polished the old fella off in practically 3 swings. Hell, at level 30 I could take down an elder dragon in a few swings.

    My mistake was more "I wonder if I can talk to that giant?". It didn't take me long to realise he wasn't interested in talking. :P

      They let their club do the talking, Strange. That damn big club.

    The first giant I killed, his wooly mammoth fried finished me off.

    I got a bow and arrow and used magic to kite the crap out of them. I killed my first giant at level 3. On the hardest difficulty. Then I killed a bandit leader by running around in circles while my mana regenerated, then using ranged magic.

    Then I realised that I wouldn't be able to resist being cheap in a game that is so easily exploited, and I went back to playing Monster Hunter Portable 3rd.

    I fought the giant and lost.
    When i first saw him I thought it was just an ugly guy and I wanted to try my bow and arrow out. Then the closer he got the more I thought I may have made a mistake. When he finally got up to me and I pulled out my sword only to find myself flying through the air, I kind of decided not to shoot my arrows at ugly people anymore.

    I like this kind of gameplay. My most quoted example of this is probably Baldur's Gate 1. While not entirely non-linear, it definitely leaves you a lot of freedom, and options to fail. The one that I always quote is, I believe, one that many people have made: Venturing north along the road too early. Because when venturing north towards Baldur's Gate, you come across a small group of farms. Before getting far into the screen, a farmer approaches you, warning you that it's Ankheg mating season or something, and there's quite a lot around. And indeed, there are. Ankheg being monstrous Scarab beetles that tunnel under the earth, and have a habit of suddenly coming out of the ground and attacking you. And at a low level, they are pretty much a death sentence for you, and your entire party. But I loved that fact. I loved that you weren't held by your hand and only lead through scaled encounters. Sure, you got a warning. But after that it was up to you whether or not you would risk it, or not.

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