Why I Love: Lockpicking in Fallout and Elder Scrolls

Yep, I’m one of those people still playing lots of Fallout 4. As I was exploring the last remaining corners of the Commonwealth, I was reminded of how great the game’s lockpicking system is. And, looking back, the new Fallout’s just the latest in a long lineage of great lockpicking.

Loads of games, even ones where hacking is a key dynamic, don’t have lockpicking that’s as fun as the version you’ll play in the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. Many try to get too granular, forcing you to adjust each individual tumbler. Others go for speed, with a more active-time event approach where you need to mash the right button at the right time to open a door.

I’m not an expert in real-life lockpicking, but it seems like for a game setting, you want some balance between accuracy and challenge. Really busting open a lock does indeed require precision setting each pin, but that also takes time. Recreating that action too closely would break the immersion that Bethesda so masterfully puts its players in. After all, developing the skill is just a brief detour of fiddling with bobby pins before you continue decimating deathclaws, or a chance to grab a couple of extra potions and brooms from a chest in a dwemer dungeon.

Even though lockpicking is a minor diversion, it stands out within the pantheon of Bethesda side activities because of how tactile it is. We talk regularly in reviews about the “feel” of a game, and that’s a nebulous concept considering the player doesn’t actually touch more than a controller. But skilled game-makers can create an impressive amount of physical sensation across the gulf between couch and TV. Usually that happens by setting a mood with art and music. Bethesda excels in those areas, but with its lockpicking, the team’s use of controller shake delivers a real physical sensation that makes the skill so unique.

There’s the light buzz as you test the placement of your pick or pin. And if you’ve got it wrong, you feel just the briefest second of heavier vibration as the tool hovers on the brink of breaking. If you can react fast enough, you’ll get another go with the same pick; but keep spinning and it’ll snap with a satisfying crack. Couple that physical sensation with the sound of the pins tumbling into place as you move the picks and you’ve got a sensory masterpiece. The feel of it is one of the most satisfying parts to any Fallout or Elder Scrolls game.

"I'll steal all your stuff and leave you with an arrow in the knee!"

"I'll steal all your stuff and leave you with an arrow in the knee!"

The other main reason lockpicking makes me happy because it so clearly delights the Bethesda team. It’s no coincidence that “stealth archer” is de rigeur for the Elder Scrolls community. Each of their games shows some degree of favoritism toward the illicit activities. Maxing out the stealth, pickpocketing, and lockpicking skills are probably the most sure-fire way to become over-powered in one of their RPGs. Seriously, you can get so good at pick-pocketing that you take an enemy’s weapon and armor away from them and they just run away. Or there’s the Skeleton Key, a Daedric artifact and unbreakable lockpick in the Elder Scrolls universe that makes any closed door or chest a non-issue. I think that’s why the mechanic is always executed so well, because the game’s creators clearly have fun finessing the systems.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Bethesda fangirl. I could ramble on and on about all the things I value about that team. But the most relevant thing here is how, in playing their games, you can tell just how much they care about what they do. That joy is infectious. What’s not to love about that?

Why I Love encapsulates all the little details of gaming life that sometimes get ignored. It arrives every Friday at 0900 PST / 1700 GMT. Follow @gamesradar on Twitter for updates. 

Anna Washenko
Freelance Writer

Anna is a freelance writer who has written for the likes of GamesRadar, Ars Technica, Blizzard Watch, and Mashable. She's also created games as part of various game jams. Anna likes games about solving puzzles and/or shooting things. She wishes she could trade zingers with GLaDOS and have beers with Garrus Vakarian in real life.