Seven years. Has it really been that long? It doesn’t really seem that long ago when Bethesda released Skyrim on this same day in 2011, in all of its buggy glory. In spite of its faults, Skyrim still overwhelmed players and even managed to break into the mainstream, what with more people recognizing gaming as a legitimate hobby around the same time. For some, Skyrim was their first foray into the world of The Elder Scrolls, and said newcomers were enchanted with how the lore wonderfully combines familiar fantasy tropes while also subverting them. Within a year or two, demands were heard for a Skyrim II, even though that’s not how Bethesda Studios really rolls: A direct sequel released every two-three years would only take away what made the Elder Scrolls series special to begin with and diminish its value.
An Elder Scrolls game is like an event – A once-in-a-generation game that shows how far technology has advanced and how the new title is capable of new things that the previous game wasn’t. Sure, the same basic formula is still there: But there’s enough significant changes in the software that you’re not going to play the exact same game as last time. You’re guaranteed that something will be different.
To be fair though, this is perhaps the longest anyone has had to wait for the next entry in the main series: The longest waiting gap before was between Daggerfall and Morrowind, and that was merely six years: With Elder Scrolls VI being officially announced just this year, I predict we will not see it on the shelves until the early 2020s. I personally take this as a good sign, however, as it means Bethesda still take the Elder Scrolls seriously and want to treat it with the respect it deserves. I’ve seen too many of my favorite series watered down and become Just-Another-Franchise: Focused on making as much money as possible and losing sight of what made it a success in the first place (which, ironically, leads to the eventual loss of sales as people look to elsewhere to reignite that spark; that source of passion and inspiration which builds communities).
Even without the Elder Scrolls VI, next year is still going to be an important year for the series: It won’t just be the 5th anniversary of the Elder Scrolls Online (of which I’m almost sure ZeniMax are going to do something special), but also the 25th anniversary of the first game, Arena, and by extension, the Elder Scrolls series as a whole. With that in mind, I thought now was a good a time as any to look back on not just Skyrim, but also its predecessors and how it’s managed to become my favorite RPG series of all time.
The Elder Scrolls III – Morrowind
I admit it; I’ve never played Arena or Daggerfall. Both games were originally made in the mid-90s and at that time I was just a little scamp playing Sonic the Hedgehog on the MegaDrive (another topic for another time), so obviously true old-school RPG’s would’ve just gone over my head. Gamers older than me might say I have no excuse now, but I still haven’t found the time to play them. Perhaps one day. That’s why I’m skipping straight into Morrowind, the first Elder Scrolls game of the 21st century, and would define the rest of series going forward.
Morrowind was something of a soft-reboot for the franchise: Daggerfall was followed by two spin-offs, Battlespire and Redguard, neither of which (apparently) did very well either critically or commercially. After a few years, it probably seemed like the Elder Scrolls was destined to fade into obscurity. Morrowind changed all of that. While leaving in the free-form experience that has been a key staple for the Elder Scrolls since its inception, Morrowind placed a greater emphasis on quality over quantity: The game world may have been much smaller, but every piece of the environment was hand-crafted and felt unique, as opposed to being randomly-generated. This helped Tamriel feel more real, as no two landscapes are exactly the same in real life.
I have another admission: While Morrowind was the first Elder Scrolls game I played, I was a young teenager at the time of its release: I didn’t understand what to do. I got bored, confused, impatient and I quickly gave up on it. It would be a whole ten years before I gave it another chance, after exhausting everything out of Skyrim. Only than did I truly appreciate the beauty of Morrowind.
Morrowind, to me, still feels like the quintessential RPG. After a sufficient amount of time is put into the game, the more you’ll find it has to offer: The Main Quest, in particular, offers unique rewards that significantly increase your stats, transforming you from a regular joe into a hero and then into a champion. It works as parts of the Main Quest are gated off until reach certain levels, encouraging you to see more of what the game has to offer (Faction quests, for instance). Even then, the hurdles you had to overcome, the lengths you had to go to were considerable. The pay-offs were well worth the effort and it is a shame that subsequent Elder Scrolls games have not managed to replicate just how intricately Morrowind’s Main Quest was tied into its gameplay.
But that does not mean I think there is no value to be found in Oblivion and Skyrim.
The Elder Scrolls IV – Oblivion
Hitting stores in 2006, following the launch of a new (at the time) console generation, Oblivion dazzled and wondered players with its beautiful graphics that still hold up pretty well to this date. Continuing the trend of cutting out what might’ve been deemed as “excessive,” Bethesda focused on streamlining the RPG experience even more: Enemies were now “battle-leveled,” so the player did not encounter any challenge out of their league, and were free to pursue (almost) any quest in any order. This gave players more freedom to do whatever they wished, but it also came to the detriment of questlines that were done more for their own sake, rather than having incentive to finish them.
The biggest criticism towards Oblivion, I’ve noticed (both then and today) are its NPCs. Yes, I do agree there were definitely problems: They can be portrayed as hilariously stupid (anyone who’s spent any length of time on YouTube watching “Oblivion NPCs” will know what I’m talking about). The potato faces leave something to be desired, and yes, the limited amount of actors can no doubt be immersion-breaking for some. But on that part, I think it’s worth defending.
I think “immersion” is something people get a little too hung-up on. Immersion is important, but to what extent? Remember, at the end of the day, you are playing just a video game, and no video game can imitate real life perfectly. Any game that tries may succeed initially, but the more people play, the more the cracks will begin to show. While developers should obviously not settle for mediocrity, the “perfection” that some gamers seem to be clamouring for is also unattainable.
I’m personally fine with Oblvion’s limited voice actors: I think it actually adds a certain charm to the game, like listening to a good audio book with only one or two narrators. It gives the NPCs a sense of familiarity, like running into an old friend. In this way, I’d argue Oblivion has aged like a fine wine: The voice acting is part of the game’s sound, blending perfectly together with the serene background music. It is like a classic storybook; one that you can craft at your own fingertips. In that regard, Oblivion is simply magical.
The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim
Finally, we come to the main headline of this retrospective.
Compared to previous entries, Skyrim’s not even a decade old. But its impact on gaming can still be felt and it remains a game that just refuses to die (what with the modding community keeping the game going).
When Skyrim was first released in 2011, I honestly thought it was too soon. The game was not only notoriously buggy (featuring at least nine patches over the span of roughly one year), but the then current-generation of consoles could barely support it (you could practically hear the 360 overworking itself to play it). It could’ve benefited if Bethesda delayed the game by at least one more year and released it as a launch title for the new-gen consoles. I even stated wishing for such a thing, as my game was continually interrupted by crashes and restarts, whether I had been playing for hours or even just minutes.
Five years later, and it seems Bethesda may have been on a similar wavelength as I was – Skyrim was re-released on Xbox One and PS4 under the Special Edition subtitle. While the added graphical effects were nice (though gimmicky), the real attractive feature was ability to play with player-made mods: For the first time, console gamers could now get a taste of the many perks of PC gaming. While there were limits (achievements were disabled (which is a bummer) and you could only install mods that were content-approved by Bethesda (which is fair enough)), it was still a huge step in bridging communities together.
A step backward, however would be the Creation Club, added almost a year later. No matter how Bethesda try to spin it, it is essentially, “paid mods.” Which goes against the very spirit of mods; of artistic expression amongst fans and is a cheap attempt to monetize a fanbase. Perhaps it would be acceptable if the Creation Club featured content that was on the same level as official DLC… But so far, nothing on the online store is worth paying for
But I digress: Just what is it that made Skyrim so good to begin with?
For starters, the same basic Elder Scrolls formula was left intact: Total freedom. Even more “excessive content” was cut out (to the grumbling of some long-time fans), giving way to even greater player convenience: Players were no longer restricted by class, and could craft their character any way like during gameplay (even if they poured twenty-something hours into a campaign – They could easily change their warrior into a mage/thief on the fly).
But this level of freedom was also a bit of a two-edged sword: Players could easily achieve the maximum levels on all skills with a single character and essentially become a demi-god with no real shortcomings, removing some challenge out of the game. Not only that, but the player will often get railroaded into certain quests… and end up becoming the guild master of all major factions and champion of all Daedric Lords, through no real effort aside from completion of said quests. It takes the “role-play” out of “role-playing,” when your character can be good at everything.
Even so, is too much freedom really a bad thing? Skyrim is still magnificent; a rugged, Scandinavian landscape of beauty and danger, that allows players to engage with it any way they want to: That is the prime appeal of Skyrim and its predecessors. Not its quests, characters or items. Those are ancillary. It is simply exploring its world is what makes it so engaging, rewarding you with discovery. Sometimes you clear a cave of bandits or monsters. Sometimes you save people from the clutches of death. Sometimes you arrive far, far too late to have saved anyone. And sometimes, you’ve discovered a place of wonder… or of horror… that no-one else has.
For the Elder Scrolls, it is not the end destination, but the journey, that matters. And Skyrim has done this better than any of its competitors.