UI Analysis: The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim

Posted November 28, 2011


After a long hiatus I’m back to cover another game. This time it’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I played on the PC version both with and without a controller. If you haven’t read the previous article on Final Fantasy XIII, let me explain what I do here.

Most reviews, game coverage, or development articles focus on graphics, story, or AI. My aim is to go through each area of a games user interface and explore it’s positive and negative aspects. It’s sort of a UI review, but hopefully developers can learn from it, and players understand why some decisions may have been made. Lets get started.

The Journal

The save system has been improved to track the last three auto saves, but saves are tricky to get right and manual saving could use improvement. Listed saves are not tied to the current character, making it possible to overwrite a second character if not careful.

The default option when saving is to create a new save. This makes the user flip through the list to find their last manual save, or clutter their system with mountains of save files. There should be a quicksave/quickload ability for the last manual save, simplifying the process. I believe this exists on the PC, but the commands aren’t shown to the player. This will turn out to be a common theme.

Quest Screen Streamlined Quest UI

Quests are more manageable and easier to manipulate in Skyrim. Separating the list of quest names from their descriptions, means more visible quests at once. Small incidental quests are now tracked and grouped together. This is info the user would have to remember before. All solid improvements, and good examples of keeping data organized In a quick to navigate way.

The only complaint I have is that managing the visibility of miscellaneous quests is a bit fiddly. The stats screen is loaded with interesting stuff, nothing particular here with usability. Overall the journal is quite effective.

The Map

Skyrim Map Behold my many map markers!

I recall emphasis being placed by developers on the 3D map, and with good reason. Normally I’m opposed to 3D in UI’s; normally it sucks. That’s not the case in Skyrim’s map. The 3d here is snappy and responsive, with 2d overlays to show locations. Discovered locations are easy to distinguish from undiscovered, and marking areas as cleared helps to not retread empty ruins. The map avoids feeling cluttered due to the easy to use quest management.

The symbology used however is very unclear, with no legend that I could find. I didn’t realize at first that Markarth is just a city, and not some demon spewing entrance to Oblivion. You gradually come to recognize the symbols, but one could argue that as a benefit. The user is exploring the unknown, which is likely why a legend isn’t provided.


For as much as I love the map, I dislike the leveling UI. Upon leveling you choose a stat to increase (health, magic, or stamina) in a simple popup. Great. Then you cycle through a large carosel of skills, which unlike the map is a bit choppy. Having these as a grid instead would be faster to select from on all platforms, and give a better overall view of growth.

Skyrim Leveling You can tell how I play my character.

Once you select a skill to improve, you navigate a tree of perks related to that skill. The visualization of these trees is nice to look at and gives a good sense of progression, but navigating these nodes is difficult at times. Showing the perk names as a list next to the constellation, and highlighting the nodes as you navigate the list would make things easier.

It looks like they were either limited in implementation or they chose style over usability. The motion to move into a constellation and progress through is the same as entering the menu. That may have been the reasoning, but it falls short for me in many ways.

Inventory Management

Inventory Management The secret to grinding your smithing skill.

Most of the interactions in Skyrim are done through this style of menu. It’s very obviously a console centric design, and is in fact the main reason I use a gamepad on PC. Even with that switch though the menu can be hard to navigate at first.

Context is hard to discern when first using the menu. The assumption is that when I’m trading with someone, the action button will sell, give or take an item from them. The action should be limited by context, instead of tying to specific buttons. I’m giving Lydia a potion not trying to drink it.

The menus also automatically switch to the next category when empty. I’ve wound up selling something important, or storing something I wanted on me because I’m trying to get rid of all of my books or food. Auto switching to the next category was a mistake here. A button to sell all in a category may help, but may lead users to accidentally wiping a bunch of very important stuff.

Every storage medium should be categorized, period. It sucks to scroll through for a specific type of thing. The default sorting is also lacking. With large lists of spells, gear, or possible items to craft it becomes tedious to scroll. Placing creatable or equipped items at the top of the list would benefit users on both platforms. It’s nice to know what can be made, but lowering the amount of menu time is a good thing.

Finally two minor gripes. Selecting menu items with the mouse can cause you to back out of menus accidentally. Also putting illnesses and buffs under the spell menu, while convenient, is hard to find at first. This isn’t explained to the user, in fact most things aren’t in these menus, until the user stumbles upon it.

In Game & HUD

Favorites Menu Candlelight, hardcore combat magic.

Nowhere is the lack of explanation more apparent than in the favorites menu, with no indication of how it works until you favorite your first thing. Also many people I’ve talked to and even some reviewers were unaware that you can assign abilities to hot keys. This isn’t even explained when you do it, it’s just there.

If you’re curious you go to an item in the favorites menu and press the number key you want to assign it to, or hold left or right on a controller’s d-pad. Other than that the favorite menu is quite brilliant. I’ve heard complaints that it should have more organization, as in categories, but at some point you might as well use the normal menus. I don’t see it as an issue.

The rest of the in game experience is absolute genius and the kind of minimalistic ideal that all games should hope to achieve. There are only three bars, a navigation display, and an area for text to scroll. All but the navigation fades away when full, allowing for a full appreciation of the visuals. Any text is bold, easy to see, and consistently placed. I can’t say enough good things about the HUD.

Skyrim HUD I started a fight with a guard for this shot.

Conclusion / Takeaways

Overall, Skyrim’s UI is amazing in some areas, and just functional in others. There aren’t any unusable areas, but there are many that could have been improved. I have a feeling that the mod scene will eventually make up for the weakness’ on PC.

Here are the main points to be learned from Skyrim:

  • Trying to satisfy controller, and mouse/keyboard input can easily degrade the experience for both.
  • Explain features that make the experience easier to use, or people likely won’t find them.
  • Keep your HUD and systems minimal. If a user doesn’t need to see something, don’t show it.
  • Alternative navigation can improve usability, but don’t forget what works.
  • Make it easy for the user to get to what they need quickly

Skyrim is an amazing game that everyone should play. I’m more of a Fallout guy though so I can’t wait to see what that’s like after this amazing masterpiece.