Why would I write a series about how the Elder Scrolls games change drastically with each iteration, then doubt it will happen again?
Why would I quote Todd Howard, god-daddy and showrunner of the franchise, as saying that each game is a total reinvention–and then guess that it would soon be otherwise?
Why do I think Bethesda’s open-world model is beginning to settle?
It all comes back to one consideration I hadn’t even reckoned on bringing up when I began this series. It’s an inaccurate buzzword trio coined in spite that accidentally almost came true seven years later, and discussing it is going to mean identifying what the underlying spirit–if any–of these games really is.
“Oblivion With Guns.”
I’ll summarize what will for most readers be a tiresomely familiar history: between Oblivion and Skyrim, Bethesda creates a successor to a very old in-depth roleplaying game and adapts what used to be top-down, 2D, character-is-the-size-of-a-penny, very numbers-focused and slow-paced gameplay into a fast-paced first-person game rendered in full 3D. Even this change was enough to frustrate many fans of the originals, and long before anything concrete was known about the game’s writing or tone people were claiming the upcoming Fallout 3 was going to be “Oblivion with Guns.”
They were mistaken.
Whatever Fallout 3 is or is not, it bears only very superficial resemblance to Oblivion. Fallout 3 has a variety of dialogue options to suit diverse and specific characterizations. Oblivion has only enough dialogue options to cover functions of exposition and choosing roughly branching paths (“I am going to not accept your quest” or “I am going to accept your quest”). Fallout 3‘s combat is decidedly quick and brutal as compared to Oblivion‘s slow-paced tediously-managed slog. Fallout 3 has a story that starts and finishes (or at least, it was initially supposed to) whereas Oblivion is not constrained to its main narrative, but expanded to a full exploration of all its locations and interests. Small considerations of stats have a drastic effect on how your character in Oblivion moves and interacts with the world and don’t affect Fallout 3‘s motion at all. Fallout 3 is constructed primarily around seamlessly exploring environments laden with visual storytelling while Oblivion condenses all of its points of interests in a narrow range of locations broken up by nothing much. However one feels about Bethesda‘s approach, there’s not much comparison between Fallout 3 and any given TES game.
Then Skyrim came out. It was a smash-hit megasuccess. A few years later, they released Fallout 4.
Fallout 4 is Skyrim with guns.
|In this screenshot, I am murdering a bandit. This represents an even 15% of the Skyrim experience. This is not a complaint.|
That’s a broad statement and not totally fair, but one I’ll stand by. There’s much more design DNA shared between those two titles than almost any other two Bethesda games; the experience of inhabiting either game is strikingly similar. Jumping, sprinting, decisive combat, choices doing more to directly tailor experiences than characterize a player character–the way the world is built around a few factions each vague enough in practice to be generally sympathetic, the way a few heavy and broad aesthetic philosophies are stretched across the entire gameworld, the crafting systems, the perk trees–there are certainly innovations and even differences in philosophy, but it’s far easier to see the connective tissue between these titles than Oblivion and Skyrim. The greatest changes between any given pair of TES games since Daggerfall have been subtractions, removing systems rather than adding them; Fallout 4 is largely a reduction of Fallout 3 but an addition to Skyrim, suggesting that rather than seek their customary reinvention of the core mechanics they’re settling for creating new ones. Why should this be?
A better question, and one it’s about time I got around to, is this: why do these games keep changing around in the first place?
The easiest answer is the one that feels best: the games keep changing because, in the manner of craftsmen everywhere, Bethesda feels like they’re not getting something quite right. Every time they have a finished product there’s some technological innovation, logical next step, or grand opportunity they can pursue next time. If the games keep making money, why not chase the dream? Why not give in to an urge towards constant improvement?
|Here we see a stone hallway and approximately 75% of the colors present in this videogame.|
But the thing about this drive is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s responsive to how the games are played and how they’re received, and now more than ever, Bethesda is drowning in feedback and almost all of it has been positive. Skyrim‘s reception was a foghorn blast of reverence and joy that carried on for years after release; arguably the only reason you don’t still see dozens of Skyrim posts every time you visit a gaming forum or subreddit is that Fallout 4 is out now. It’s only natural that the drive to improve concern features that weren’t massively popular, and features that are not massively and visibly popular are becoming decreasingly common. Therefore, the tendency is not to remove what’s been part of a smash-hit phenomenon but add more points of interest to it.
What’s more, as the games are growing more popular, the scope and resources required to make them increases commensurately. Sweeping changes to gameplay, tone, and tone are obviously more difficult to coordinate between hundreds of employees than between tens; one change in approach must be communicated to and satisfactorily adapted across the entire team and must lose nothing for the transition. It would be much easier for a company like this to get good at one specific set of objectives than reorient every employee every time.
I say all of this now, and accept the burden of defending it later, because I sincerely believe that an in-depth analysis of Skyrim‘s ethos will reveal much about the franchise’s future. For better or for worse, I think they’re onto something semi-permanent. I don’t know if it’s the kind of game they’d been meaning to make all along, but I know it’s the kind of game they could keep making for a long, long time.
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