The Altered Scrolls, Part 18: A Time to Kill

By Rutskarn Posted Saturday Feb 6, 2016

Filed under: Elder Scrolls 62 comments

I’ve talked about how Skyrim‘s context is frequently inappropriate or poorly constructed, but it must be said that much of the gameplay was built not to rely on it. One of Skyrim‘s most marketed features during previews and early coverage was its “radiant quests,” alternatives to necessarily finite handmade quests.

The idea was that in addition to questlines with unique storylines, voice acting, items, and triggers–quests that required direct and deliberate placement by a developer–it’d be nice to have some NPCs and factions that could generate new ones forever. Obviously these “new” quests follow specific formulae–go somewhere and kill bandits, steal something and bring it back, punch somebody until he surrenders–but the player would never end up exactly repeating themselves, always killing a different bandit in a different fort or punching a different townsperson for a different duration. It was a pretty appealing idea–and the marketing materials knew it. Radiant quests were featured in dozens of early previews as the next grand experiment, the newest and boldest innovation of the franchise.

If you’ve been reading this series, you might recognize radiant quests as “every quest in Daggerfall.”

There’s no meaningful difference between the new “radiant” (?) stuff and the old procedurally generated Daggerfall errands except that Skyrim‘s quests are more fun to play. Having randomly created tasks fill out the game isn’t a next-gen innovation made possible by technology and a limitless budget, it’s a well-explored paradigm that was neglected for two whole releases in a five-game series. It’s not forging a new frontier, it’s a trip back to your old college town.

The question is: did the development team know that? How you answer is how you see modern Bethesda.

By far the more positive assumption is that they did know. They felt the need to provide more new content in Skyrim and weren’t afraid to draw on past experiments to make it happen. They knew this wasn’t something brand new and crazy–it as tested and it worked– but they also knew that not even journalists would know that and that they might as well market it as a total upset. This Bethesda is a shrewd company that knows innovation depends on the data and experiences of the past, and that the age of an idea should not preclude its revival.

Or they didn’t know. The fresh crop of developers who hadn’t played Daggerfall or hadn’t thought about it lately had to re-invent something they were doing twenty years ago and marketed it, sincerely, as a fresh triumph. This thought is a little depressing; this is a company that’s only aware of what it’s most recently done and what it’s currently doing, a company that’s likely to make mistakes and get trapped in poisonous loops.

It’s impossible to say which, if either, is the real Bethesda. For the record I’d say Skyrim feels more like the former Bethesda and Fallout 4 more like the latter–but I’m not about to get into that right now.

Having said all that, Skyrim‘s procedurally generated content surpasses Daggerfall‘s, and that’s not just a factor of budget and engine. It is a bit, but only indirectly. The key feature damning Daggerfall is its scope: its procedurally generated dungeons are patently unreal, poorly laid out, endless, and unamusing to delve. Its towns and NPCs are wholly lifeless–absolutely interchangeable to the point where a modern Bethesda wouldn’t dignify them with proper names–as pregnant with motivating and intriguing context as a blast of static. Skyrim‘s dungeons might not be genius and its NPCs may or may engage the player–or might engage in the worst way possible–but they provide appropriate grounds for killing, stealing, and object retrieval. As fun and uncomplicated diversions, they’re exactly what they’re supposed to be.

And that really is what Skyrim is supposed to be.

Remember this screenshot of me killing bandits? Here’s the same screenshot. Because I’m still killing bandits.
Remember this screenshot of me killing bandits? Here’s the same screenshot. Because I’m still killing bandits.

Skyrim embraces the idea that however many quest they can write, however much context they generate, the experience of playing an Elder Scrolls game–and the player’s memory of that experience–comes down not to the game’s text but its silences. I love Morrowind for its story and culture more than anything else, but when I think back on it I don’t remember conversations with Vivec or time spent reading Almsivi propaganda–I remember my footsteps on a dirt road, cliff racers circling over a mud flat, torches flickering around the corner of a smuggler’s grotto. More than even those, I remember the sound of a weapon swinging and the bizarre crunch made by a hit. And the combat is Morrowind‘s weakest feature; it was just also, unavoidably (without completely sundering the genre), the medium through which you experienced most of its world.

Every game acknowledged the primacy of dungeon crawling and exploration and every game did its best to make it rewarding. Morrowind did so by putting good and often unique treasure into its dungeons, the bribery route. Oblivion mixed up its dungeon types and added unique features to each, such as special kinds of treasure, locks, and traps found only in certain tilesets–the exploration route. Both good ideas; both insufficient. At the end of the day Morrowind‘s dungeons were septic ennui labyrinths roamed by tedious combats and Oblivion‘s dungeons were insulting yarn-and-lockpick warehouses staffed by tedious combats.

Found another one!
Found another one!

Skyrim was a first. It did something they hadn’t ever done right and had actually messed up pretty badly for the past three games: it made combat feel good.

Daggerfall took Arena‘s functional-but-unimpressive fighting and made it inexplicably cumbersome. Morrowind asked players to hit targets successfully so they could discover if they hit a target successfully and did so years after that made sense. Oblivion had a lot of really great ideas and techniques and ruined them by handing everyone boffers.

Skyrim is just right. Fighting sounds good, looks good, and plays well. A double-handed axe kills a bandit in a chop to the head or two, not–as it felt in Oblivion–seventeen thousand enchanted precision hammerblows. A sneak attack is more likely to end a fight than start one. Part of this feeling diminishes as the game goes on, and I wouldn’t say any of the combat was too easy, but the key is that I always felt like I was powerful–and that was a new feeling when it really shouldn’t have been.

This might be a different dungeon and a different bandit. There’s really no way to know for sure.
This might be a different dungeon and a different bandit. There’s really no way to know for sure.

But I might have felt differently if I’d played a mage. Combat spells in Skyrim are weak, but at least they look and sound good. I was always disappointed by Oblivion‘s fuzzy blobby portrayal of everything except lightning–spells in this game, on the other hand, really look like the element they’re trying to evoke, making you feel more like you’re a sorcerer and less like you’re learning to use Corel Photo/Paint in 2005. And there’s even a few new utility spells–a welcome addition, considering the trend thus far had been to cull as many interesting options as possible. If the next game released and fire spells were replaced with three new non-combat spell types, I’d call that a win.



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62 thoughts on “The Altered Scrolls, Part 18: A Time to Kill

  1. Joey245 says:

    I think this is a big part of the reason why people stuck around with Skyrim as long as they did; 90% of the game is killing bandits and draugr, sure, but killing stuff in this game just feels so right.

    Especially when fighting with a sword-and-shield type build. For some reason, blocking in this game just really feels good. The way the shield buckles a little when you get hit, the sound it makes, the shield bash…it all felt great.

    And even though I’ve probably seen it a thousand times, I still let out a gutteral “Hell yeah!” whenever the killcam plays and my character leaps up onto the dragon and delivers the killing blow. So awesome.

    I just hope they make magic worthwhile again in TES6.

  2. Darren says:

    I really like your comparison to Fallout 4. Skyrim’s radiant quests are just right; they aren’t too numerous, they aren’t forced upon you, and the guild-related quests are nice as a matter of principle. Fallout 4’s radiant quests make up a much larger percentage of the game’s content, and they’re often foisted off on you if you so much as deign to look at certain NPCs (*cough*Preston*cough*). And in a bizarre twist, they’re much worse about sending you to the same location multiple times in a row to do the same thing.

    I believe I’ve asked this before, but where does Fallout fit into the Elder Scrolls’ history? Bethesda didn’t create the franchise and the games were originally very different from the Elder Scrolls, but with FO3 and now FO4 (New Vegas is definitely an Obsidian product, and I personally think that Bethesda didn’t pay much attention to it and quite possibly doesn’t like it) it seems that they slot neatly into the timeline. FO3 introduced an Elder Scrolls-esque focus on exploration, but the randomized events, more developed follower system, and, broadly, the Perk system all wound up in Skyrim. FO4 then lifted the conversation and radiant systems from Skyrim and sported a new leveling system that was very similar to what Skyrim had, while the more developed companions seemed like the logical next step for NPCs (especially when you look at Skyrim’s advances on that front from the base game to Dawnguard) and the settlement system seemed like a progression from Hearthfire. And, if I were a betting man, I’d say that the Elder Scrolls VI will feature legendary enemies and weapons and possibly an improved settlement system. It seems like this relationship would be worth discussing at some point.

    1. Incunabulum says:

      Fallout *doesn’t* fall anywhere in TES history. Completely seperate universes.

      The only way it could work is if TES is one of those ‘so far in the future its an alternate past’ type stories.

      There is, however, a tiny reference to TES in FO4 – on the Pridwin, in with the plants in the planters, there’s a Nirnroot.

      1. Michael says:

        Darren’s talking about their contribution to the development of Bethesda’s design ethos, not the idea that they’re literally part of the same setting… I think.

        1. Benjamin Hilton says:

          Yeah that’s what I got out of it too.

        2. newdarkcloud says:

          I agree with you. And I think that Fallout does have an impact on how Skyrim was developed. And, in turn, Skyrim had a significant impact on Fallout 4. I wrote a little thing on it.

          I touched on it a bit when I wrote about Bethesda’s evolving leveling systems:

      2. Mike S. says:

        Though re the comic: while there are actual dragons in the Jhereg series (and Dragaerans with a house named for them who have a connection to the actual giant lizards), the Dragaerans themselves are elves.

        (There are a few points here and there that establish it as “really far in our future on another world. But for practical purposes it’s a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world operating with the high-powered magic of a D&D campaign, with things like teleportation and raising the dead more or less routinely available.)

        It’s a great series, give or take a misstep in the third book that the author mostly recovers from going forward. Anyone who likes caper protagonists who narrate in First Person Smartass should give it a try.

      3. Radkatsu says:

        I actually watched a video on Youtube that posited this idea (tongue in cheek and not being overly serious, we know they’re not the same world). Good watch :)

    2. Raygereio says:

      I personally think that Bethesda SNIP quite possibly doesn't like (New Vegas)

      I really wish that we as a people could come together, do something constructive and finally stomp this silly rumor into the ground.
      And the “Bethesda intentionally sabotaged New Vegas” one at the same time while we’re at it.

      Has Bethesda the company, or any Bethesda employee given you any indication that they actually dislike New Vegas?
      Sure, they haven’t acknowledged its existence in FO4. But one game takes places on the east coast of the Fallout setting, the other on the west coast. It’s far more likely that’s a “this is your side of the playground, this is ours”-type thing.

      1. Gilfareth says:

        It would help if Bethesda themselves would hold onto a single grain of what Obsidian changed (and, for the most part, improved) on their Fallout design with New Vegas instead of jettisoning every addition and replacing them with what we have now in 4.

        1. Raygereio says:

          Bethesda not having the same design philosophy/principles as Obsidian and/or not having implemented those features that you personally liked (I agree on the improved bit, but that is a subjective thing) from New Vegas in FO4, is also not an indication that Bethesda disliked New Vegas.

          1. MadHiro says:

            You don’t think that it’s at least some indication that they don’t like New Vegas (there are important differences between ‘disliking’ and ‘not liking’; I dislike getting punched in the face, I do not like conversations about reality television shows)? When we like things, particularly creative things, we tend to incorporate them or the things we learned from them into things we make ourselves, e.g. when a band talks about ‘influences’ on their style, they are often listing other bands that they like. That Bethesda ingested seemingly none of the new ideas put forth in New Vegas seems like a reasonable guess from those ideas failure to show up in Fallout 4.

            1. LadyTL says:

              I think it is less that they dislike New Vegas and more they don’t care what anyone else did with Fallout before they did at least from they way they are pretending Jet was around before the war.

              1. MadHiro says:

                Again: “Disliking New Vegas” and “Not Liking New Vegas” are distinct concepts.

            2. Raygereio says:

              You don't think that it's at least some indication that they don't like New Vegas

              No, it doesn’t indicate any emotion Bethesda might have towards New Vegas. All that means is that when developing their games, the Bethesda devs do their own thing, which is working out just fine for them.

              Also I do think that Bethesda did pick up a thing or two from Obsidian. For example looking at the modding community for features people might like, or the increased focus on shooter gameplay.

              1. Loonyyy says:

                I think you’re stretching.

                Whatever those at Bethesda who played New Vegas thought of it, what matters is that New Vegas was incredibly successful, and enjoyed by a large, a massive number of players, largely because of some of the changes Obsidian made. And some people feel that Bethesda didn’t use those ideas, they didn’t really do much with Obsidian’s ideas.

                It’s not that some anthropomorphisation of Bethesda dislikes the game. It’s not about an emotion. It’s about whether Bethesda didn’t like New Vegas’ new concepts enough to implement much of them into Fallout 4. Considering a) how popular New Vegas was and how well recieved a lot of it was (Short the bugs, oh god the bugs), you’d almost expect them to do it. But then again, they did include some things, quite a few really. I think some of it really comes down to lore stuff etc, because gameplay wise they’ve included quite a bit. People nitpick the way Bethesda interprets the lore, story stuff etc.

                So for whatever reason, Bethesda decided not to take inspiration from NV, and instead follow their own vision for the sequel, as far as these folk are concerned. Sounds an awful lot like they liked their ideas more than Obsidian’s.

                Of course, your mileage may vary on the question of “Did they not take inspiration from New Vegas?”.

                1. Raygereio says:

                  I think you’re talking about something related, but still different.
                  I’m being completely and utterly dismissive of the notion that Bethesda (the company or individual employees) have at any point in time expressed a negative opinion about New Vegas.

                  Sounds an awful lot like they liked their ideas more than Obsidian's.

                  Like I said: Bethesda does their own thing. But choosing your own ideas over someone else’s, does not in and of itself indicate how you feel about that someone’s ideas.

        2. Gethsemani says:

          Do you mean to say that Bethesda ditched the aiming system from New Vegas? The weapon mods? The deeper and more characterized companions with personal side quests and perks? The overall plot structure of meeting several different factions early in the game and choosing which to side with in the late game?

          To me it is quite obvious that Bethesda took a good look at New Vegas and then incorporated the ideas that they liked into Fallout 4. Whatever they choose to go with the “right” ideas is up for discussion, but even a quick comparison between Fallout 3, New Vegas and Fallout 4 shows that Fallout 4 has design decisions taken from both its’ 3D predecessors.

          1. Theo says:

            Indeed. I feel like Bethesda’s been aping New Vegas ever since they stuck the civil war in Skyrim. That game could’ve benefited from taking even more pages from the Fallout book, but I suspect they’ve got a document somewhere listing the things they’re willing to “pollute” the Elder Scrolls with from Fallout and “minimally interesting companions” isn’t on it.

            They clearly want the Elder Scrolls and Fallout to feel like distinct series, which isn’t a bad goal, but I think they’re still clinging to some of the uglier parts of the Scrolls in the name of that.

            Also, as far as them trying to disown New Vegas, there’s at least one major character from the NCR in Fallout 4, and a reference specifically to Vegas in a note in Diamond City.

  3. Benjamin Hilton says:

    What I hope for most in the next game is the combination of the context of Oblivion, and the fights of Skyrim.

    I haven’t touched oblivion in half a decade, and yet I still remember moments of context:

    I’m standing on a farm with a pair of brothers helping them defend their land from goblins. It’s a dark day. Rain is sheeting down, and I’m wondering if their father, the man who hired me, would regret that decision if one of his children doesn’t survive the next few minutes….

    I’m in a small house, naked, being charged by a group of women who have been seducing and robbing men of the town. I’ve knowingly sprung this trap, which now doesn’t seem like such a great idea…

    I’m slowly pacing through a dank cave trying to rescue townsfolk before they are sacrificed by their erstwhile neighbors to appease some Great Old One. As I lead the trembling figures out, I swipe an ancient tome off an alter, hoping that this may hinder the cult’s plans in the future…

    In Skyrim…..well there was that one really cool time I used my swords like scissors and cut that guy’s head off…..

    The context of oblivion led me to stop in at the Brother’s farm whenever I was in the area. Even though they had no new dialogue I would still sit down and eat a meal with them as old friends. In Skyrim I can just never bring myself to care about anybody. There was more characterization of random people you could do one small quest for in Oblivion than there was in most of the NPC’s that can actually travel with you in Skyrim.

    If Bethesda could manage to give that sort of context with the superior fighting mechanics they would create a game that would be Legend.

    EDIT: Also they should take a page from the Dragon’s Dogma boss fight system.

    1. Decus says:

      I don’t think they have the chops to Dragon’s Dogma–that’s an action game. At most they could make a witcher 2 or 3, which is action-veneer, but a full action game requires a bit more tested experience to be good. It would also cost them way more to make–they’d need new staff, a new engine–and sell to less people. Dragon’s Dogma is cool, but its target audience is way, way smaller than a Bethesda game just by virtue of being an action game.

      At most they’ll add more awesome buttons to what they already have, similar to FO4 adding crits-on-demand and skyrim’s pool of canned kill animations. Sometimes your awesome button will lead to canned animations of you climbing on stuff and killing it or perfect blocking or cutting off body parts or armor! Awesome!

      1. Anthony says:

        I hated the canned kill animations. Completely and totally breaks immersion.

    2. swenson says:

      Sorry, I just have to complain about something that’s been bugging me since Oblivion…

      Why couldn’t I join the female robbers??? I was playing as an amoral female thief, we should’ve been best buddies!

      1. Ilseroth says:

        Simply? Bethesda games rarely cater to genuinely evil characters. Even guilds that focus on primarily immoral activities tend to couch them in justification. If you are assassinating someone they generally act incredibly stupid, unlikable or evil themselves prior to you doing it, stealing something is generally from someone corrupt and rich, and manipulating people who are in power through nefarious means.

        While I recognize this allows their content to be approached even by someone who doesn’t want to roleplay an evil fellow, it does mean that if you do you kind of are left stilted.

        There are exceptions of course, one in particular that comes to mind is the first quest in the thieves guild wherein you collect protection money. These people don’t really have much to begin with (otherwise they would move out of that shitty rickety town) and I am going to go around taking and breaking to make them pay up? Granted my primary issue is that my character would just pickpocket it, or sneak in and take it as opposed to up front shows of force, but it still acts as evidence to them understanding how to make a more villainous story, it’s just kinda dumb brute evil, not malevolent mastermind.

    3. Cinebeast says:

      Sure, but everyone should take a page from Dragon’s Dogma.

      1. Christopher says:

        I think this is true. Take any upcoming release about which you feel uncertain, and imagine the bulletpoint “X is going to have a Dragon’s Dogma-style grab/climb button”.

        Hey guys, Mass Effect Andromeda is going to have a Dragon’s Dogma-style grab/climb button.

        1. Shoeboxjeddy says:

          If Andromeda were to copy features, my hope would be to copy from the current series of Tomb Raider. Naturalistic running and climbing and auto, rather than sticky, cover would be AWESOME for Mass Effect.

    4. TMC_Sherpa says:

      THANK YOU! I feel like the main quest get all the attention while everything else gets ignored. I just finished up a game and wanted to see how long the bulk of the main quest took to play. I’d been messing around for a while so was 35ish level and had explored most of the map so the combats were easy and I could fast travel to most of the locations. From Diplomatic Immunity to Dragonslayer, plus the entire civil war plot (It’s easier on my brain than figuring out that dang ceasefire) took under five hours. If I stopped playing before I did it? I wouldn’t have felt bad. Skyrim will turn five this year and there are plenty of things I’ve never seen or done. I help the Blades find their temple and then never go back (You want me to kill Paarthurnax? Bye!). I’ve never been the head of the Companions (You want me to become a werewolf? Bye!).

      If you think a particular questline sucks, ignore it. There is plenty else to do.

      PS This doesn’t mean I’m giving Bethesda free reign to make bad quests. I would be much happier if I liked them all but one mans tea is another mans poison right?

  4. Kerethos says:

    I have to agree with you here Rutskarn.

    The radiant quests are the plain old “got to X and pick up or kill Y”-type of quests, they’re nothing to write home about and nothing we haven’t seen before.

    But the core gameplay loop of Skyrim just feels good. It’s satisfying to bumble about killing stuff – and that’s most of what you’re doing. Since this now a satisfying loop you can pretty much keep playing for as long as it feels enjoyable.

    Which is probably why some people have played for hundreds of hours without completing any or just a few of the big quest chains. Even if the game is full of nonsensical stuff and the magic system is rubbish compared to weapons (without modding).

  5. Deda says:

    I’m a bit perplexed now, Skyrim is the only game in this series that I’ve tried and the one thing I remember about it is that it had one of the worst combats I’ve ever seen in a videogame, all you do is stand in front of the enemies awkwardly exchanging blows with them until someone falls down. And now you’re telling me that that was the GOOD one?

    1. Supah Ewok says:

      It’s got kinesthetic appeal to it, compared to other Elder Scrolls games. Otherwise it’s the same kind of boffing over the head as the rest. Most obvious with high HP enemies like dragons.

    2. Michael says:

      Yeah, pretty much.

    3. Ilseroth says:

      Quick break down: Skyrim actually has play and counterplay. Blocking is active, all weapons have power attacks and skills you can use actively and enemies health bars are pretty reasonable.

      Oblivion had most of these but you couldn’t dual wield weapons and more important, the enemies levelled with you in a way that by the end of the game many enemies became extremely bloated with health. Certain enemies could take literally minutes to chop through.

      Morrowind had no power attacks and blocking was based on a dice roll. You hold a direction and you hold the attack button (or tap it) based on the direction, and weapon type, you would potentially attack for your damage range, but it was a roll which could miss, which was strongly influenced by your stamina (which was usually low because you were running everywhere since there was no fast travel). This meant you were highly likely to end up (especially in the early game) sitting in front of an enemy swinging wildly and missing most of your hits.

      Daggerfall was roughly the same as morrowind except you don’t chose a direction to attack with, so pretty much just walk up to an enemy and swing wildly.

      Arena was pretty similar to daggerfall, but as Ruts says, it somehow just feels a little better despite it being older, but it was still a very basic combat system.

      The series has never really been about satisfying combat, which is sort of ironic considering it is your primary means of interaction but there really aren’t many competitiors for first person, open world. exploration based RPGs… mostly due to the fact that their scope is ridiculous and practically impossible

      1. Nimas says:

        See you say that, but all I remember of Morrowind’s combat was a sort of hit and run affair where I’d run in, hit a few times on the back, then run away when they turned.

        Admittedly I *always* got the Boots of Blinding Speed, and could never bring myself to take them off, even when not having Glass boots really hurt my armour rating. I could never get used to normal speed after those boots.

      2. Nidokoenig says:

        Morrowind had sweeping, stabbing and standing attacks based on how you were moving, unless you used the Always Use Best Attack option. It’s not the best system in the world, but it was interesting enough and made you more mobile.

      3. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

        Daggerfall did allow you to choose your direction but it was cumbersome as it required you to swipe each and every way with the mouse to attack. Also Morrowind did have power-attacks, which is why you could hold the left button down, it does more damage (if you hit).

  6. Miguk says:

    I’m just surprised it took so long for “radiant” quests to come back. After Darklands and Daggerfall came out I had assumed that’s what the future would be like, only with much more sophisticated generation of the quests so that they wouldn’t get tiresome so quickly.

    1. Michael says:

      I suspect MMOs were the ones that really wore people out on those.

  7. Kelhim says:

    From what I know, Skyrim is a very combat-centric game, so it is crucial to offer players the most satisfying combat mechanics possible.

    Admittedly, combat in Morrowind takes getting used to, at least at the early stages when your character could not successfully hit a sleeping brontosaurus if it lay right in front of them. But in Morrowind’s defense, depending on which character class you choose, combat only gets relevant after hours of gameplay.

    Right now, I am playing Morrowind as a mixture of agent (class), thief (faction) and mage (mostly alteration spells), and it took me hours until I actually picked up a fight with an opponent who was not a suicidal rat.

    So I am much more forgiving when it comes to combat in Morrowind, because it is not my preferred game style until I have enough money to invest in basic combat training.

  8. That lil grey box assumption about Beth’s motives strikes me as remarkably silly. It’s reductive for one, presumptive for another, and seems to come at it from the logic that the development and marketing departments of a company are by default in complete synch with each other. Okay I guess, though that hasn’t been MY experience.

    I think the big thing they did with combat was move the camera around. Obliv and Mar basically had the half-life floating camera that didn’t acknowledge bobbing or head movement of ANY kind, whereas Sky’s camera flies all over the place. It basically did a lot of relatively subtle things to acknowledge verisimilitude.

    1. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

      You could also say combat felt more “meatier” compared to the older games, which felt more like you were wildly swinging a leaf then a sword.

  9. Bubble181 says:

    I will simply re-iterate what I’ve already stated earlier – I don’t feel like rehashing too much or trying to find new ways or new points of view today: I didn’t like Skyrim, because it was boring as all get-out.
    I admit, I never even finished it once. Yet, in, what, 20 hours of playing (and sorry, I’m an adult with a job and a family and a household and all that, so 20 hours is a MONTH), I wasn’t engaged even once. I never cared about anyone. It didn’t grab me, in the worst way.
    Daggerfall was awesome for me, in large part because it was my First Big RPG. For some it’s the FF series, or Ultima, or Might & Magic, or whatever, for me, this was it. It also did a LOT of things that hadn’t been done before. There was more flavor to the quest text of some knightly order in Backwateristan where you never had to go, than in the main quest of Skyrim. It was Huge! The Biggest Game Ever! Sure, it was 10 or 15 years ahead of its time, but it’s the basis of the game I always wanted. Procedurally generated, with some story, a political world that makes sense, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and you can keep coming back to it and find new things.
    Morrowind was awesome because it tried a LOT of new stuff and was DARING. It didn’t succeed in everything, but it was Fun and Interesting. It was something no-one seemed to have tried before – even though it was still in the ES universe, it was…Not Tolkien’ Fantasy. As far as Western RPGs go, that was fairly new – certainly for a game of this scale and quality. Again, you could get lost in there and wander and wonder around for hours.
    Oblivion was….good. It went for a much safer route, it was in some ways much better than Morrowind, no doubt, and in other ways just more bland. Oh, and it had a horrible conversation system, but what else is new. Sure, it was a nice game – but the difference with other games of its era was smaller. I’m too lazy to go look it up, but whether it’s Two Worlds or Two Worlds II that came out around the same time – it was more or less interchangeable. Far from identical, but….More of the same. Generic. Sorry, the “real living” characters were a bust, the “living” world as static as ever, and the great noble fantasies and higher aspirations of Morrowind far gone. It was regular, down to Earth fantasy. Except for the Kahjiit, and some naming conventions, this could’ve been Middle Earth.
    Skyrim…I dunno. It’s the ES game I’ve played least, as mentioned, and I’m sure there’s lots of interesting stuff in there. But, having read what Shamus had to say about it – broken quests and all – nothing grabbed me. You know what? in Daggerfall, if you were Archmage, that made a difference. It granted access to courts, it closed doors in some cases, and pretty much every mage in the world knew who you were. In Skyrim? No reaction. Gee golly, maybe they can have NPCs react to what you do in TES VI! Brand new idea. Maybe in TES VII they can introduce a system where you can *gasp* make your own magic spells? With different effects and different costs, which you can then imbue in items?! Like the magic and enchantment system in, you know, Daggerfall – better and deeper than Skyrim and less broken than Morrowind.
    I do feel I should point out that I’ve always chosen to be a mage, in one way or another. Plenty of weird options to play (no restoration, no magicka replenishment, two or three banned schools, the complete glass cannon, the battlemage,….), I never did enjoy the fighter archetype (though, of course, I did become leader of the Fighter’s Guild whenever possible. Not all of my Daggerfall characters could, though all of my Oblivion characters could manage. Gate content based on playstyle? MADNESS) enough to play it for 40+ hours. maybe that’s part of why I didn’t like Skyrim all that much.

  10. Neko says:

    Actually, I think they absolutely remembered Skyrim when making FO4.

    “We need an open-world power-fantasy game”.

    “The player is the chosen one, and gets to fight a mighty behemoth in the opening act”.

    “There needs to be precisely two factions, who are at each others’ throats, that the player can choose which to join!”.

    They’ll be quickly recognised for their greatness, and get to lead an army!”

    (Admittedly, not that I’ve played FO4 but I’ve gotten the gist of it, and the design parallels seem startling)

    1. Radkatsu says:

      Eh, Fallout 4 has four factions and each is distinct, it’s pretty much the only thing they learned from NV… though they implemented it in a shallow way. Still, the factions are at cross purposes and there are actually a lot of interesting shades of grey there now (like the Brotherhood being jackasses again; they say they have the best interests of the Commonwealth at heart, but they’re brutal and dictatorial).

      Your other points are spot on though, power fantasy 101 is still very much there.

  11. Da Mage says:

    “But I might have felt differently if I'd played a mage. Combat spells in Skyrim are weak, but at least they look and sound good.”

    No. Because fireballs lose all impact once you have launched 10 or so, run around trying to recover magicka, and only chipped away half the enemy health. Magic only really works for the first few levels, after which it turns every combat into a grind.

    It also doesn’t help that NPCs seems to have near unlimited magicka, but you cna only fire a few bolt, or cast one utility spell before you run out.

    1. MichaelGC says:

      Aye right – and I think this guy would agree with you:

      Whoever that guy is. Some guy. Anyhoo – I have an embarrassing number of hours sunk into Skyrim (eight or nine hundred) but have only once tried a mage-run. Once was more-than-enough.

    2. Will says:

      There’s a fix for this, which isn’t even cheating (though some might argue it’s an exploit). It’s fairly straightforward to enchant equipment until all spells of a given school are free. (In fact, with the dual enchantment perk, you can do this to *two* schools.) Fighting with magic is actually decent when you can just chain-cast staggering fireballs until whatever you’re pointing at is dead and charred to ash. (Or ragdolled all over the landscape. Either way.)

      Of course, this is exploiting one crazily unbalanced mechanic to balance out another that’s far too weak, and nothing interesting ever happens when you fight with magic. (It’s just fireball after fireball after fireball. Every now and then you can mix it up with a lightning bolt if you’re fighting something fire resistant.) But at least it stops being tedious and boring.

    3. Viktor says:

      Combat spells does not necessarily mean Fireball. Conjuration is great, Illusion is fun, and every char needs Restoration. Just ignore damage and armor spells and magic is great.

      1. Tizzy says:

        The illusion spells could be fun. Especially the ones that get the enemies to fight each other. Except, the epic level one is over-powered: its range is so large you don’t get to see half of the damage you’ve caused, which spoils the fun…

  12. Kalil says:

    Three comments.
    First: I still feel that Daggerfall had some of the best dungeons I’ve /ever/ explored in a video game. You could honestly get lost in them, and that’s a feeling that the latter games totally lost. Every time I went through one of the thoroughly linear dungeons in Skyrim, and popped out a secret door right above the entrance, I felt really let down – another bloody canned experience. The Daggerfall dungeons didn’t care about your personal convinience. I /liked/ that.

    Second: there was a major awful bug that kind of ruined combat for me in Skyrim. The special kill animations (for enemies on the player) were triggered by checking to see if an attack would do more damage than the player had health, but the trigger did not take into account damage reduction effects or armor. This meant that however much protective effects you layered on, you’d still randomly get one-shotted by enemies who could not possibly do enough damage to significantly hurt you without this bug. That drove me crazy.

    Third: magic was /really/ awful. Even with infinite mana (or rather, free casting) equipment, you’d spend all day slowly chipping away at an enemy. The physical schools got damage buffs from their relevant schools, their perks, your smithing skill, your enchants, and potentially alchemy if you’re the kind of person who uses consumables. Magic got.. alchemy, school, and a few small perk boosts. No damage synergy with enchanting, and nothing like the huge boost to base damage that Smithing offered melee/archery. I’d also add that magic was kind of a let-down in its effects – the destruction spells were mostly ‘archery, but with slower projectiles and lower damage’. I’ve been playing Dragon’s Dogma, and I’m throwing around farking /tornadoes/. It’s awsome. Skyrim is.. bland.

    1. Wide And Nerdy â„¢ says:

      I liked the secret door that pops you back at the entrance (or serves as an alternate exit from the dungeon.) Not everybody enjoys getting lost.

      In my case, getting lost would result in me using tcl or, failing that ‘coc SomeCity’ or failing that I’d simply start playing a different game.

      I don’t enjoy that feeling of running around in circles for an hour because I forgot something or the game wasn’t good about conveying something. That is not an hour of entertainment. This goes doubly for Morrowind and its crappy written directions.

  13. Christopher says:

    I would never have considered this would be Skyrim’s strength. Its combat is a weird action first-person melee/arrow/fireball RPG, and at the time I felt it was good enough, but miles away from what I was getting out of Dragon’s Dogma or Dark Souls. Instead, if I told someone about why I liked it, I would say it was because I could wander in any direction and have an adventure completely of my own, and that made me play it for something like 40 hours straight when I first sat down and played it during summer vacation.

    But you’re totally right, Rutskarn. Having read this series of articles, at least, that seems like one of the biggest things it does undeniably better than all of its predecessors. If the combat system had been any of the others, I wouldn’t have bothered and quit out of frustration instead. And I was playing as a sneaky conjuration wizard with a bow ready. It was still fun to walk around in that world discovering new locations and killing things, only being mildly annoyed at incredibly boring main/faction quests I wandered into after hundred hours or so had passed and I felt like I owed it to the developers to try them out.

  14. Mersadeon says:

    Ruts, will you talk about the DLC? I am dying to hear what you have to say about Dragonborn.

  15. Matt Downie says:

    I think I’ve said it before, but the Oblivion’s biggest combat problem melts away if you can just swallow your pride and turn the difficulty down. This increases all the damage of your attacks.

    I wasn’t so keen on Skyrim radiant quests. I play these games to go around meeting people and solving their problems. I build up a to-do-list quest log, and go through it ticking things off as I get things done. A radiant quest does not satisfy this urge. These ‘quests’ clogged up my log, contained no unique content, did not (usually) lead to other interesting content, were clearly springing into existence only to give me something to kill, and it was impossible to complete them all. The only purpose is to stop you running out of quests and make the game last longer. But Skyrim wasn’t a game that needed that – lack of content was the least of its problems.

  16. Aitch says:

    I’ve been loving this longform critique of tES. Not a hatchet job or fanwank, but honest in praise and with that depth of knowledge to point out true weakness that only comes with loving a series enough to see past the obvious.

    Also loving the captions below the images so I’m not stuck fiddling with my mouse half the time in the middle of trying to read. Now all I need is a return to the hover-over annotations in other entries, or better yet parenthesis or brackets, and I wouldn’t be able to find a single nitpick in the entire site.

    It’s a shame there’s so few franchises that build up a world large enough to freely swim around in like this, because the form and exercise of it is so potentially excellent. I’m always pleasantly reminded why I check what’s happening in this place every day, nothing else or very little like it.

  17. SyrusRayne says:

    So, I’ve just remembered something that bugs me about Skyrim. It’s only a niggling detail, but I’m wondering if anyone else feels the same way.

    The weapons – swords specifically, with some other examples – feel very… Small, in first person. The world model is fine, decently sized, but when you wield them they feel piddly and knife-like. It feels like they totally fucked up their foreshortening, you know? Anyone else feeling me?

  18. Mokap says:

    >Skyrim”˜s dungeons might not be genius and its NPCs may or may engage the player

    Guessing that’s meant to be may or may not.

    Anyway, while I do agree with most of this. the dragons are an absolute chore to fight, and it feels just like playing Oblivion again (admittedly, every enemy in Skyrim isn’t a dragon, though).

  19. Nixitur says:

    Typo police coming through!
    “it as tested and it worked” should probably say “it was tested”.
    “its NPCs may or may engage the player” should probably say “may or may not”.

    And a non-typo, not-really-error-but-kinda-weird thing: The “worst way possible” link is not a link to the post itself, but a link to a Google page that redirects to the post.

  20. Abnaxis says:

    Have you addressed/do you plan to address mods at all in this series?

    I feel like the way mods have worked and the way the TES community has used mods has evolved as the series has moved through its iterations.

    To me, the most damning thing about Skyrim is the fact that no matter what I do, I can’t mod it to make character building compelling for me anymore. Compare that to Oblivion, where the default way leveling worked was ape-shit bonkers, but there were dozens of mods available to fix the leveling and make it fun. At the same time, however, I feel that the vast majority of PC players who have put hundreds of hours in Skyrim credit a compelling mod (usually Frostfall or RND) for making the experience compelling to them.

    Despite the fact that every time Bethesda yanks out features to streamline the game, they reduce the ways modders can tune the experience–and though it has soured the experience for me, it seems like it has somehow solidified the staying power of Skyrim. I wonder if reducing the complexity of mods somehow has something to do with this? Since there are many fewer options available for modifying the Skyrim experience, maybe that makes it easier to find support if you want to mod the game? Maybe there’s a “critical mass” of mod users that greatly increases staying power?

  21. Phantos says:

    Skyrim…made combat feel good.


    Ruts, are… are you okay?

    Are you feeling alright, man? We’re worried about you.

    1. Wide And Nerdy â„¢ says:

      Compared to the previous games? I stand completely with Rutskarn on that. The moment to moment play of fighting was much better, whatever you might think of what they did to the leveling and magic systems.

  22. Anthony says:

    I dunno, combat in Skyrim was a huge step up compared to previous games, but it was still a chore. If I want great combat, I’m going to play a Souls game, not Skyrim. Skyrim combat basically just consists of walking up to an enemy and spamming the attack button. There’s pretty much no thought to it.

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