What is a game? A miserable little pile of systems. It's a dumb thing to say, certainly, but when you can truly forget this is when games are at their best.
Immersion is a strange, fickle beast. The more immersed you are in a world, the more likely you are to spend hours upon hours inside it. The more hours you spend inside it, the more likely you are to lose that immersion entirely.
Have you ever played a game so much that you know its animations, its mechanics, its systems inside and out? It's kind of like being Neo inside the Matrix, the code laid bare in front of you. But instead of being a god, able to bend it all to your will, you are just a casual observer. The code is laying on the floor, naked and bare, but it is also static, unchangeable.
Just like that, the immersion snaps. It's one of the major reasons that Skyrim will never be a great game to me. Its attention to detail, its world-building, its sense of scale are all second to none when it comes to immersion, but it wears its systems on its sleeve, showing me that it really isn't anything but 1's and 0's. Static, unchangeable 1's and 0's.
Game design comes in loops. Whether it's the combat loop, the dialogue loop, the obligatory lockpicking loop, it doesn't really matter. When you start to decompose the content in even one of these loops, things start to become a problem. As soon as you figure out how something "works," the disassembling begins. With Skyrim, this started almost immediately for me as soon as I saw that all objects are there just to be opened. Chests, barrels, crates, corpses, it doesn't matter. They all "open" the same way. They remain static in the world and a menu pops up. Immersive.
The major question is: How can a game like Skyrim, whose major focus is seemingly immersion in an epic fantasy world fail so badly at it?
Games like Red Dead Redemption seem to understand that goal far better than any Bethesda-made RPG out there. The key to immersion isn't dense environments, highly populated towns, and lengthy, detailed dialogue trees. In fact, it's quite the opposite.
Red Dead Redemption's sparse Western landscape is the major reason it's so successful in creating immersion. John Marston can ride anywhere he wants to, go in any building he wants to, and explore anywhere that is physically possible. That's the key to immersion. Limiting the player in plausible ways, but never limiting the player in arbitrary ways.
In RDR, when I run up against a mountain that's too steep to climb, my horse starts to fall down it. In Skyrim, I hit an invisible wall while my animation continues and I just have to sidle and jump around a few times to get past it.
It wouldn't be that big of an issue in Skyrim, either, if its navigation system wasn't so abhorrent. It's easier to fidget your way up the mountain than it is to actually find a good path. The compass also brings up far out of sight areas for you to explore, which your character had no reason to even know are there. Mix this with the fact that you always want to seek them out so that you can fast-travel to them just to skip the walking in the first place and it's a sign of a major problem.
I guess this is where I mention that I never used the fast-travel system in RDR. Not once. The exploration and traveling was so well done that I always wanted to see the sights and random occurrences that would happen along the way.
It doesn't help Skyrim's case that the player character is so utterly devoid of personality. It doesn't matter if there are three hundred thousand townsfolk in the game if I can't do anything interesting with them. Sure, I can stop and ask them if they need any questing done, but that's about it. I can ask them questions, pick their pockets, or kill them, but none of those things actually amount to an interesting interaction. If I talk to them, a menu opens up with a few mostly uninteresting dialogue choices. If I pickpocket them, a menu opens up as if they were a chest. If I kill them, nothing of worth happens and I get to open them like a chest. Maybe a guard comes and I have to answer some choices on another menu. Riveting stuff.
In RDR, there are few NPC's compared to Skyrim and most of them have even fewer interactions. This is far preferable, though, because none of the interactions feel intrusive. None of them open menus. Maybe I kill the woman in the street. At least when I loot her, I'll actually bend over and search her pockets. There's less reason to do so, maybe, but at least it isn't relegated down to a menu. Maybe I'll just walk by. Chances are they'll have something to say and Marston will say something back. At least it's a two-sided conversation this way. At least it's not a menu.
It's also important to give the player the right tools for the job. It's up to the designer to give the player tools that they can use to their full potential. The player should never feel like they can't do something they want to do with the tools they've been given. Maybe they don't have the right tool for what they want to do. That's fine. But when a tool they have is not programmed to do something it should be able to do, that's where the problems come in.
If I wasn't able to use that lasso in RDR to hogtie my enemies or lead cattle on the farm, I would be disappointed and taken out of the experience. But I can. The lasso really feels and behaves like a lasso; the guns feel like guns. That's all the tools that Marston needs and they work like expected. That goes a long way.
In Skyrim, the player is given the biggest tool of them all: magic. That should be awesome, right? It's too bad you can't do a lot of what you want with it. You can't use your magic to help you get through that mountain. You can't use it to make your enemies do what you want. The combat magic works just as intended, but the other schools have major problems. Everything you can do with them has far too much transparency. When you unlock a door with magic, you don't feel like it wiggled the latch, you feel like it changed the 1 that meant locked to a 0 that meant unlocked. When you become invisible, you don't feel invisible, you feel like the enemies saw you, but was told not to activate their combat systems. It's a weird thing to bring attention to, but it's worthwhile.
It's a shame, too. The world and the craft is all there to make Skyrim the most immersive game imaginable, but it gets bogged down in its own systems. The systems it has are too transparent, but the systems it lacks are more-so. If immersion was truly the intent of Bethesda, they need to learn that immersion is every bit as hinged on gameplay as it is in the world itself. Every step I take towards actually playing Skyrim as a game takes me one step farther away from appreciating it as a living, breathing world. A living, breathing world they created, but ultimately destroy with their gameplay.
Every time I play Skyrim, I can see the code. I see what's happening behind the scenes, what's triggering the circumstances. It's static. It's unchangeable. It's a damned shame.