Let me say again, to be clear: I don't like console games, and Skyrim is a console game. I don't like a lot about Skyrim, and most of my gripes have to do with it being a console game (although a few big ones don't), so a lot of this post will be me complaining about console ports.
By the way, it's not like Skyrim is awful. I don't hate everything about it (obviously, any game that shares lore with Morrowind already gets points from the start, as does any RPG with lots of skills that are improved by using them). But there really isn't anything non-trivial so far that I really like, so I'll defer on talking about the things I like until I'm done with the game (I'm not sure yet if I'll have the willpower and/or time to even finish the main quest). So, this post will mostly be me complaining.
Console vs. PC
As I said, I don't like console games. It's not a very fundamental dislike. If you think about it, what is the basic difference between a PC and console? You could get from the former to the latter in two steps: First, make the hardware monolithic, non-customizable, proprietary, and so on (incidentally, this essentially produces a Mac). Then, gut the OS to make it capable of only playing games. You have pretty much made a console, except because we started with a PC, it's still displaying things on a monitor and you still use a keyboard and mouse for input.
That's not a big deal, because input/output method is independent from the platform: You could hook up a mouse and keyboard to a console, and you could use a TV and gamepad (with no mouse or keybaord) to -albeit clumsily- control your garden variety Windows PC. Of course, in practice nobody seems to do these things, and this is the crux of my issue with console games, but before I get to that: There is nothing really wrong so far. If anything, monolithic hardware and a minimal OS dedicated to games are good, because they make coding games easier, although there's the issues of compatibility... But none of this really influences game design. And it's obvious that console games are different than PC games in certain key ways.
That difference in game design stems from the difference in traditional input/output setups. As I said, PCs, or rather PC users, tend to use monitors and keyboards while console users go with gamepads and TVs. It doesn't have to be this way, as far as I know it's not terribly difficult to use a keyboard with a console and vice versa. However, for some reason, nobody does.
With the PC, of course, it's stupid to use a gamepad instead of a keyboard unless you are playing a game, and even then, it makes sense only for some games. Some people already do use their TV as a monitor (I have) and a lot simply don't have a TV and use their monitor to watch TV stuff.
With consoles, there really is no reason to not use a monitor and keyboard/mouse. There is no reason for this not to be standard- except most console games are made for playing with a gamepad, but that's really only because it's the standard. I guess historically, consoles came about because back in the day, you couldn't expect people to buy computers for playing games on them. Now, the price difference is no longer there.
Note that for the most part, a console's I/O scheme is a subset of a PC's. If you try, you *could* devise a hypothetical game which uses the buttons and analog sticks of a gamepad in such a way that you simply can't play it with a keyboard and mouse- but such games are almost non-existent. For instance, console game like to assign movement to the stick, and you can control walk/run speed with how much you push it, but in most games you never want to and almost never need to run at anything but the maximum speed. It's not that you can't make a game where sometimes you want to walk slowly- it's just that seemingly nobody does. The one exception is detailed flight and racing sims: things like fine steering adjustments often do matter, and they are impossible on a keyboard and clumsy with a mouse while an analog stick does work quite well, except people who play those seems to get specialized controllers anyway, even on consoles.
Notably, you just can't make an FPS game on a console- anything that involves pointing at things on the screen a lot is torture without a mouse. Yes, people try anyway, and I think the attempts suck and will be doomed to suck until the console market gets used to the idea of using mice and keyboards. Yes, you "could" make a PC-style shooter on a console, meant to be played with a mouse, but it won't sell well because most console users won't want to buy or use a mouse just for your game.
Notice that it's harder to make a console RTS: Not only do you need to convince users to buy and use a mouse, but you also need them to sit close enough to the TV to see the small units and interface elements. The mouse, by the way, isn't just for selecting units- any game with many complicated menus will be difficult to handle without a mouse and keyboard.
To solidify the point, observe that in terms of design, it's trivial to port a console game: You do have to deal with different APIs and such under the hood, but you have to change almost nothing about how the game is played- just remap the controls to a keyboard and bind the camera to the mouse. Whereas porting a PC game to the console, especially a "real" PC game which heavily uses the mouse and keyboard to their full potential, would be a ridiculously difficult task. Moreover, there is no genre of console games which does not exist on the PC- some, like platformers, aren't as numerous, but you certainly can't say no notable PC platformer exists in the same way that you can say no notable console strategy game exists.
Hopefully, I've made clear the following: There are kinds of games which can realistically (as in, more than 3 people will actually buy and play them) be made on a PC, and kinds of games which can realistically be made on a console. Practically all of the former can be ported to the PC, although not all developers choose to do so, while there is a distinct class of PC games that cannot be ported to consoles. Note that I'm saying kind- most console action RPGs aren't ported, for instance, that doesn't mean they can't be, as those few that are ported clearly demonstrate.
As I said earlier, I don't like console games. That's not because they're bad games- sure, many suck, just as many PC games suck. It just so happens that even "good" console games are so rarely interesting to me. Now, not every game I like tends to be complex, but most are. And complex games, along with FPSs, are just those kinds which go into the "wouldn't work on a console" category.
Furthermore, with an RPG like a TES game, there's really two aspects of appeal: The lore and the complicated complicated mechanics. And when you have the added constraint of making a game that would work on consoles, too, inevitably some things go. You just can't have a million attributes- it would generate a large amount of data. Displaying copious information is something a PC setup can deal with, but with a console you need the text to be large and legible from a distance, so there is a very finite amount of text, and therefore information, you can display. The same goes for things like interface icons and elements in general- they must be large and visually distinct to avoid confusion.
Or rather, now that I think of it, I don't see why you can't have lots of small text in console games. I've never found it particularly impractical to view lots of text/symbols on a TV, from a distance. But it seems that developers at least believe that console game interfaces should be as simple as possible.
The second factor comes in when you consider that a game which has a large amount of information to display needs to provide effective ways to navigate and manipulate that information. Again, a gamepad is not very well suited to this task, and keyboards and mice have, for decades, proven to be ideally suited to it.
To illustrate, I'd like to contrast the interfaces of Morrowind and Skyrim. Morrowind, of course, had a single "status" screen which showed the inventory, map, stats and spells, these have been split up into four items you get when you press Tab in Skyrim. For my purposes, I'll focus on Skyrim's inventory screen.
|Morrowind status screen.|
There's really a lot I like about Morrowind's UI, such as being able to move around the parts and what not. But the crucial part is this: It's just far more efficient. First, this whole thing pops up with one keystroke. Suppose you need to answer a basic question, such as "do I have a pickaxe?". One key, done. Maybe click and drag the scrollbar or click an inventory filter if you have a lot of stuff on you. In Skyrim, you need to press Tab, lose half a second to the cute fading animations, press up to select inventory, another animation, press left to get to the leftmost column, then press up or down a few times to select weapons, and then keep pressing up or down until you get to "P":
Now I realize this seems silly, but those few milliseconds of animation, and those few extra keystrokes really do matter: This is something you do thousands of times over the course of the game. It just cannot be tedious.
What's worse is, when the interface is annoying to use, as a player you try to avoid using it as much as possible. That means having only one weapon and/or spell, and switching as little as possible- so the least frustrating way to play the game also happens to be the most boringly simple cookie-cutter way, which I find tragic in a game which is noteworthy due to the potential it has for complexity. If I wanted to play a game where all I did was swing an axe at enemies from start to finish, I wouldn't play a TES game- I'd play hack and slash action RPG.
Ideally, for instance, I would play a versatile magic-using character. Whenever I am attacked, I would cast an armor buff, the appropriate elemental resistance buff for the enemy. Then I would soften up the enemy with an appropriate damage spell (fire for ice wraiths etc), maybe conjure a suitable creature, then cast an attack buff and finish the enemy with my weapon. Maybe I'd even cast a bound weapon spell! Then, if I run out of health, I would heal myself, or if it looks like I'm overwhelmed I'd cast invisibility or something similar and escape.
That would actually be fun! I would have a wide variety of choices (spells, potions and weapons) at my disposal, each suited to different tasks, and I would have to decide on the fly which ones are applicable to that situation. It would be a game that actually gives me something to think about. It was what Morrowind did, and that is why Morrowind was fun. Skyrim, annoyingly, gets the hard part right: It supplies you with the options (unlike many other RPGs which have tons of spells, weapons and what not, most of which are utterly useless). It supplies you with the variety of problems that have different solutions (even though most are ultimately "kill the enemies", the enemies must be killed in very different ways, which is again something most games like this forget about).
The problem is, actually doing the above in Skyrim is torture. Just the amount of time you would waste watching the animations would easily waste a minute per encounter, not to mention breaking the flow. The amount of scrolling through menus would be obscene. It's just not something you can really do- and on either point, I know, because I tried it! A few times, just for the heck of it, I did try to do the many spells approach. The interface aside, it was very enjoyable, and very effective. Unfortunately, it was just such a hassle that I can not do it on a regular basis, once every few minutes, in a game that is dozens of hours long. In the end, I just use the same fire spell on everyone unless I absolutely can't win without using other spells too, and even then there's the temptation of simply turning god mode on briefly just to avoid having to deal with the obnoxious interface to implement a tactic I know will work.
And yes, I know there is an inventory/magic key in Skyrim. I am already using it. Guess what, you still have to watch the animation! It's still not instantaneous like Morrowind's was! And, no, the favorites menu doesn't work either: First off, it shows a ridiculously small number of items, and you still have to scroll.
Now, just to convince you that this is a systemic issue, and not just the Skyrim devs being incompetent: Let's consider why the Morrowind interface is better. First off, it can display more spells, because they are in a smaller font. Scrolling is easier because you have a scroll bar. You can have several screens at once, because when navigating you don't have to go from "select weapon mode" to "select screen mode" and then select the spell screen, and then select the spell. You just click your mouse on whichever element of whichever screen you want. There is a reason why the mouse became so popular, guys.
By the way, I just wanted to mention the stats. Note look at how Morrowind displays them: The window is actually quite small (when I play Morrowind I usually close the useless map and make the other ones larger, not to mention that Morrowind supports resolutions higher than the 1024x768 pictured, with the same font and icon size). But anyway, you can still see all of the attributes, all three status bars with numbers (when drinking potions in Skyrim, you are told how many points it will heal, and are shown the appropriate status bar, but you don't see what the exact numbers of it are), all major and minor skills, and even some other skills. You can't see all skills, because Morrowind had a fuckload of skills, but this UI still shows you much more information than Skyrim's UI, and in a quarter of the screen space.
What's more, look at the inventories: One thing Morrowind can afford to do is show cryptic icons for everything which don't necessarily display all the information about the item. This works, because you can mouse over the icon to see what it means. If it's a common icon, over time you effortlessly come to memorize the meaning, and don't need to do that. Note another thing about Morrowind's UI that you cannot see: You could assign any items or spells you want to your number keys, which really helped things- you didn't even have to go into this screen. The combination of the mouse and no constraint on font or icon size is what makes the interface so much more useful- which is exactly what consoles cannot have, so long as the current prevalent idea about interfaces of console games persists.
The Skyrim interface, if you took out the stupid things like fade-ins, probably is as efficient as you can get, when you are constrained with a gamepad. That said, with a mouse and keyboard, as well as a close-by monitor, you can do a much, much better job. The interface isn't my only problem with Skyrim, as I said, but if the PC port's interface was designed specifically for the PC (what you can't see in the screenshots is the embarrassingly buggy mouse support, by the way), I would have probably loved this game despite the other shortcomings.
That's not to say Skyrim's interface design does not reveal some stupendously bad decisions: I won't list all of them, but most obviously, why is the favorites menu only in a tiny corner of the screen? Bringing it up pauses the game, you usually have much more things favorited than the 3 or 4 items it can display at a time, and laying things out in a 2D table would make navigtating much easier, even with a gamepad.