Venture into the plains outside Whiterun or Solitude, and you’re likely to encounter one of the Elder Scrolls series’ most memorable NPCs. Any time after 10pm, the ghostly Skyrim headless horseman will come trotting by, blazing a trail of intrigue and eeriness as he leads you towards Hamvir’s Rest. It’s a wonderful homage to the tropes of fantasy and RPG games, skillfully woven into Skyrim by Fallout and Starfield creator Bethesda. But the headless horseman is hiding a horrifying secret – his programming and scripting mean he’s doomed to suffer, again and again, every time he spawns into your Skyrim save.
Emerging from the same game-dev secrets archive as the GTA 5 flying camera truck, to make the Skyrim headless horseman work, it turns out Bethesda had to get pretty creative, and subject the poor NPC to a gruesome death, over and over again.
Steve Lee, a level designer who has worked on Dishonored 2 and BioShock Infinite, recently interviewed three fellow level designers behind the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series. Justin Schram and Joel Burgess, who collaborated on both Fallout 4 and Skyrim, reveal the grim technical tricks needed to make the headless horseman… well, headless.
“Joel had just figured out how you could make a character headless,” Schram begins. “I forgot how you figured this out.”
“Well,” Burgess explains, “you would call a script command at a certain point in their spawn. You had to do it at the right moment. And you could dismember body parts by script, and it didn’t actually kill them. If you were there at the time, you would see their heads explode, so we had to spawn them around corners and stuff.”
“So I spawned this horseman,” Schram continues, “and I gave him this little back story and a place in the world to go. We put a ghost shader on him. His head explodes in the background. And then he travels to this one point, his grave in the world. It’s this simple, little dumb thing but I’m so proud of it.”
Essentially, the Skyrim headless horseman is just a regular NPC, complete with a head. But when he spawns in, somewhere off-screen, there’s a little command that makes his head explode – but he isn’t scripted to die. And hey presto. Instant headless horseman.
It’s one of those intricate, game development workarounds that players would never notice, but actually make a bizarre kind of sense. If you have a system for blowing up heads, why bother making a whole-new headless character model? Just discretely pop the head off an existing one.
Nate Purkeypile, a world artist on Fallout and Skyrim, also outlines a famously troubling Bethesda bug, involving characters who the games had marked as ‘essential’ to the main story, and therefore had to remain alive.
“There was a bug we would get occasionally where a character would get marked as ‘essential’ later on,’” Purkeypile explains, “but that means you could have a character that died and you could have shot their head off. But then they’d become ‘essential’ which means they need to be alive, so you would get this guy coming up to you with just their exploded head chunks like ‘hi, how’s it going?’”
You might not find headless horsemen with exploding heads, but check out the other best games like Skyrim. Alternatively, the latest and greatest Skyrim mods will help keep the RPG feeling fresh, even a decade since its original launch.