Breaking In: Why The Elder Scrolls Online Has The Best Lock Picking System of Any RPG

I do not condone you breaking into your local GameStop with any of the information in this article... but what is the best lock picking mini-game?

While no video game has a truly realistic lock picking mini-game, some put more time into staying true to the craft than others. Simultaneously, realism must be balanced against entertainment, and before you know it, the list of games with decent lock picking mechanics begins to dwindle. Surprisingly enough, after going through a pile of great RPGs with lock picking mini-games, I've settled on an MMORPG as my pick for best lock picking mini game in the genre.

To kick this off, let's go through the basics of breaking in. While I'm not anywhere near an expert, there's a pretty decent chance I could get through the deadbolts on your house in under 30 seconds. This is simply because the majority of locks are very similar and not terribly secure. Their guts consist of a cylinder lined with tumblers. The tumblers are actually two tiny pins that rest together, and when the correct key is inserted, the break between the pins is situated along the edge of the cylinder (the shear line), allowing it to turn.

The goal in lock picking is to artificially stick the top pin by applying measured and consistent pressure with a wrench to the cylinder while you pick. Eventually all top pins are caught above the shear line, the bottom pins fall back into place, and the cylinder turns freely. While some locks have blocks and more complicated pin design, the majority of locks' difference in quality is how sensitive the pins are. It takes a very light touch, good tools and concentration to stick higher quality locks. 

Still with me? Clearly video game lock picking is represented quite a bit differently. There are only a few games that depict tumblers, and many of these are pretty far off from how it actually works. Again, I understand the need for creative license to address entertainment value and pace. I thought Dust: An Elysian Tail's lock picking mechanic was perfectly suited for that game, even though it had nothing to do with real lock picking. 

The Elder Scrolls Online gets the combination of fun and realism right. Of course, they should, they've had plenty of opportunities to tweak their mini-game. The method in ESO is a good combination of the complexity of Oblivion and the satisfaction of Skyrim

I'm not entirely sure what the nice folks of Tamriel have been making picks out of, but they are terribly fragile. That's OK though, because whether they meant to or not, this (combined with the time limit) is a good simulation of what happens when the lock picker jams one of the pins. The lock must be reset and attempted again, and sometimes you can break the lock completely. Running out of lock picks in ESO comes with a similar feeling.

The pins rest at different levels and touch is important. While this isn't identical to how the padlock on your gym locker works, it's pretty good for a simulation. The only thing missing from ESO's lock picking mini game is the order in which you pick the pins. For more sensitive locks in the real world, learning the pin order is important to decrease jamming.

My runner up for best lock picking in an RPG takes pin order very seriously. The Risen series is a great example of a creative lock picking mini-game that acceptably veers away from realism in favor of entertainment. The games use a pin order puzzle mechanic, and even the most difficult locks could be opened by a brand new player. What a great way to suck you right into stealing all the loots. I really like that the animations are incredibly realistic, even if the picking is not.

What game do you enjoy picking a lock in the most? Do you prefer a timed mini game or more relaxed? Let us know in the comment section below.

Published Jan. 12th 2017

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