So what’s the big difference between Skyrim and Oblivion? What draws the line of burning gasoline between what the series used to be and what it’s probably going to be forever?
Simply, they simplified. They made the game more straightforward and turned everything upside-down in the process.
Processes of simplification have occurred before in this franchise, but never quite under these circumstances. The first big features cull took place between Daggerfall and Morrowind when the latter title dropped half the former’s skills and subsystems, but this was a move born from the strictest pragmatism; most of the stuff dropped just plain didn’t work. Morrowind‘s developers were soberly aware of what they could actually make interesting and worthwhile and while they clearly wanted to preserve the same basic feeling Daggerfall contained, and wanted as much complexity in the game as possible, they were no longer willing to just throw something in there just for the hell of it, just in case somebody liked it. Which had been the prevailing design philosophy since the original epic of feature creep that spawned the series, but never mind. It was time to exercise discipline and restraint.
Oblivion was a step beyond that, but only one step. Morrowind had axed broken stuff, stuff that should be trimmed. Oblivion was happy to axe things that merely could be trimmed. If Long Blade and Short Blade could be combined into Blade, if Axes and Blunt Weapons could be merged, if a couple of the less-popular factions could be quietly discontinued, then perfect; the result would be leaner and let the developers focus on the core elements. There were new features as well, but for the most part, everything was based around improving mechanics that had been allowed to stick around.
Skyrim was far more extreme than either title. It was no longer about fussily paring down the same system; it was about questioning why those systems had to exist in the first place. One could pretty well predict the shrinking of the game’s cruft from Morrowind onward, but nobody could predict just how drastically things dropped off with game V.
Character creation no longer consists of choosing a name, race, class or set of class skills, and birthsign relative to starting stats. It consists of choosing a name and race, because none of the rest of that stuff–class, class skills, birthsigns, stats–really exists. All of it was unceremoniously jettisoned. In a very real sense, character creation became avatar creation. It wasn’t about creating a fictional set of capabilities, but rather, customizing the visual and thematic presence of the player within the world.
Stats, you see, weren’t important anymore.
Stats have a complicated role in any given RPG, but they serve two basic functions, prescriptive and managerial. The latter function is the technical one: you have stats to provide a common base for how well you perform certain kinds of related tasks. In games like the Elder Scrolls titles wherein each task is a separate skill that improves with practice, this has a pretty limited and abstract effect. Most wouldn’t even notice it if it stopped working overnight.
The first role is more important to most games; having stats tells the player succinctly what they can and cannot do. Stats provide a broad and usually semipermanent sense of a character’s strengths and weaknesses; in most titles the strengths grow stronger and the weaknesses remain in limbo, neither aggravating nor lessening. A high-level barbarian is no smarter than a novice one and a wizard grandmaster would be as unlikely to arm-wrestle a biker as his apprentice. Stats, bad ones especially, give a player an idea of which kinds of actions shouldn’t be attempted at all.
Elder Scrolls games have never exactly wanted to deliver that kind of hard no. A few contrasting guild faction-lines aside, that’s never been the kind of experience it’s set out to deliver: it’s not interested in who your character is so much as what your character does, and it’s always been more eager to frame that as a function of player choice than character ethos. Rarely in the series has your character been able to express a perspective to a nonplayer character; dialogue is constrained instead to “I will do this” or “I will not do this,” and the choice is framed bloodlessly and generally as possible. Even the richest and deepest of the titles act as fictional worlds to explore, not inhabit. So why keep stats around if they’re not going to help that ideal?
It’s easy to say, daring to put into principle. Skyrim was not playing it safe by getting rid of the stat system. Why was it so important that the risk of alienating the playerbase as deemed worthwhile? And why is it this approach is the one that’s probably going to steer the franchise until judgment day?
Because it’s a shrewd commitment to principles. Skyrim is what you get when you realize the trappings of traditional RPG character design and creation are secondary to the purpose of open-world gamers. Skyrim is what you get when you question whether you’re an RPG at all.
Next week: Probably nothing, because Holidays. Have a good one!
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