My least favorite thing about Skyrim (opens in new tab) has not been fixed in the new Special Edition. I still have to kill dozens and dozens of wolves.
When the game first came out five years ago, I loved losing myself in the political intrigues and illicit shenanigans of Skyrim. I was enthralled. But as I played, I kept experiencing the same frustrating situation. I’d be tromping through a field or up a mountain path, minding my own Dovahkiin business, when out of nowhere, some wolf would appear and take a bite out of my side. It seemed to happen on every trip, whether I stuck to the path or not. I hated becoming a harbinger of death to all things lupine, and it really started to bother me.
At first, I thought this was just a case of me being a Dog Person. I love canines of all shapes and sizes, the fluffier the better. Being forced to slaughter exceedingly fluffy wolves in droves is really not my first choice of a way to grind up my skills in Skyrim. But I’m also generally a fan of people, yet I have no qualms about stealth archer-ing my way through Forsaken dungeons or torching entire bandit camps with destruction spells. What gives? Why do the wolves bother me when other enemies don’t?
I’ve been asking myself that as I play through the Special Edition, and I think I have the answer. Wolves are a lazy design choice.
Some of Bethesda’s critics point to inconsistencies with world accuracy as breaks in the immersion. They call out the dead bodies lying around the Commonwealth in Fallout 4, saying there’s no way the skeletons would still be there so long after the actual bombs fell. Or they get frustrated at the less-than photorealistic character faces or the technical glitches that are so common in this type of open-world game. Those are fair points, but none of them bother me. In fact, I feel like those so-called flaws are part of the studio’s reaching to present not a scientific truth, but an artistic one. I have no problem treating them as part of the Bethesda game experience in exchange for the agency and freedom to make my own story.
But for me, the sheer volume of wolves popping up in every corner of the world trying to rip out my jugular vein is what breaks the flow. It doesn’t make any sense. What with the fangs and claws, I get why wolves seem like a reasonable choice as a stock enemy. There’s just the tiny little fact that wolves are more likely to be afraid of a human. Or, I presume, of a dark elf or khajiit.
Like any smart predator, if a wolf gets provoked, the wolf’s gonna fight back. But if you’re just strolling around outdoors, the odds of a wolf approaching you at all are very, very low. For instance, in 2011, Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife said that there have been no cases of wolves killing humans in the Rocky Mountain states (and PolitiFact backed it up). Anecdotal evidence supports the low wolf attack rates too. “In my 16 years of studying wolves in Yellowstone National Park, I have never been approached by a wolf or wolf pack,” Utah State University wild-life ecology professor Daniel MacNulty told National Geographic (opens in new tab). “On the contrary, when I’ve inadvertently bumped into wolves they turn and run away.” Wolf attacks are so rare, they’ve even received The Onion treatment. That’s pretty damn rare.
Sure, Tamriel is a fictional place. Maybe it has a very large and very hostile wolf population and that’s totally canon in that universe. But for a game that does lore with such painstaking thoroughness, Skyrim has not convinced me that’s the case.
When it makes sense within the game world, it doesn’t bother me as much. Take a series like Far Cry or Tomb Raider. There’s a purpose to the different animals you need to kill, because each gives you a different resource for upgrading your gear. The exact specifics there may not be real-world accurate, but it’s logical enough in the game world and as a game mechanic. So it doesn’t break my immersion and I will do what’s needed to survive.
In cases like Skyrim, using wild animals as enemies feels like a crutch. It’s a game designer assuming that the player needs to be regularly killing something, and wolves seem like an appropriately scary choice. But when so many of Skyrim’s other baddies are so unique, and attack at more reasonable rates, the wolf behavior stands out.
Skyrim using cute wolves might have been how I noticed this problem, but it certainly isn’t the only offender. If there’s an RPG that involves any time spent in the great outdoors, it probably involves killing a staggering number of animals. And any enemy that I see too much of – whether it’s a lion, a tiger, a bear, or a nine-headed hydra – will suck the fun and adventure out of a game. I like feeling powerful. I like mastering a combat system. But I also like to have a real motivation for my actions, and “just because” isn’t good enough.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still going to rack up an embarrassing number of hours in Skyrim Special Edition. But every time I see that snarling wolf face, I’ll still feel sad and disappointed about stabbing it.