What is the point of an Elder Scrolls game?
Why did a team of game developers who set out to make a schlocky, plotless combat sim follow a trail of feature-creep-as-inspiration until the result didn’t just clash with their design document–it clashed with the packaging they’d already ordered? What did they suspect that made them take that kind of risk?
Why did Skyrim become not just game of the year, but game of about five straight years in a row?
Why should it come to pass that Nexus has ten mods for a hugely successful open-world game where you play freaking Batman–and forty thousand for a game where you yell at dragons? (Sure, it has a robust toolset–but Fallout 4 doesn’t as of this writing and it’s still got more mods than any non-TES or Fallout game on the market. Having a toolset is no guarantee you’ll get mods, and having no toolset is evidently no guarantee you won’t.)
How does Bethesda do it?
I’ve identified a lot of differences and precious few similarities between the Elder Scrolls games. I’ve accurately stated that their goals, atmospheres, mechanics, and outlines are wildly divergent–that it’s nearly impossible to identify one ideal shared between them. The temptation is to define the central tenet of the franchise as “player freedom,” and plenty of fans are happy to do so…and are inevitably disappointed whenever a player freedom they personally cherished, like the power to kill or fly or build a spell, is trimmed away.
While it’s fair to mourn the loss of those features, it’s also fair to say they weren’t what the games were about–and fair to say that “player freedom” is a nebulous and squishy and impossible target. So what are the Elder Scrolls games about if not freedom?
Well–what kind of freedom? What can’t you do in an Elder Scrolls games?
You can’t be a villain. Occasionally guilds let you murder and steal, but you’re never in league with the real nemeses and on a day-to-day quest-to-quest basis your potential for evil is rarely cultivated. So the games aren’t about total roleplaying freedom, and in fact, roleplaying is often a distant consideration.
Except for one solitary game you’re barred from killing half of the characters in the world–or else you can’t kill them until you’ve wrung them dry of quest potential. So the games aren’t about total interactivity even within the boundaries of the tools provided. It’s not hard to mod the game to make everyone killable. Plenty of people do just that–in fact, plenty of people insist. But that’s their idea of freedom, not Bethesda’s.
And for all its open-world trappings, there’s a lot of roles the game doesn’t bother to simulate. You can’t rule. You can’t sow. You can’t have children that share your flesh and blood. You can’t run a shop or crew a ship. Never once did the developers seek to furnish a simulation of these activities for players–because all of them, bar none, contrast with the one broad freedom these games are really built around. It’s the same freedom Bethesda inexplicably jeopardized with Preston Garvey’s incessant, infamous demands the players babysit settlements in Fallout 4, to universal uproar and contempt. It’s about two privileges above all else:
Go wherever you want, whenever you want. Do only the jobs you want to do when you want to do them.
Anything else is secondary–those two items specifically are Bethesda’s secret recipe. Compare to other open-world games on the market.
In Arkham City, you’re Batman. The city needs you, the people need you, and the game is always waiting for you to choose the next story mission. You’ve got a job and responsibilities. It’s fun because it lets you explore and screw around, but it never lets you shake your responsibilities and you’re mostly exploring the same city–just like in your real life.
In Grand Theft Auto, you’re a criminal. You have a very limited number of missions and jobs available and most of the game’s content is gated off by story progress or how much money you have. It’s fun because it lets you explore and screw around, but your job is always waiting for you once the hangover wears off and you’re mostly just exploring the same city–just like in your real life.
In World of Warcraft, you’ve got a few zones you really ought to stick to if you want to make money without being fatally outclassed. It’s technically absolute freedom restricted severely by what’s reasonable and appropriate–just like in your real life.
In The Elder Scrolls? There’s story missions, if you care. (They went from being the only major questline, to one questline based around forgiving deadlines, to being free of deadlines and totally optional for three entries running.) There’s a big world full of different things to see, all of which can be accessed almost immediately. (Every single game has let you travel to any major city in the game within a few minutes of beginning; rarely have the games punished exploring dangerous zones.) All the demands and obligations and constraints of a modern urban life, preserved reflexively in other open-world games, are absent here. If you want to just roam and ignore your job, you can do that–and it’s the right thing to do. You know it’s the right thing because wandering aimlessly doesn’t close off opportunities–but open them up. There’s no pressure because there’s no punishment, not even boredom.
Some balk when having no pressure means having no consequences, and that can be disappointing, but it is the lack of pressure that is all-important and ultimately sacred. It’s vital that there is no correct way to play, there is no questline that waits impatiently, there is no zone locked away and denied the player for long, and someone making choices with utter caprice is ultimately as well-off as someone who frets and fusses. This is why Bethesda has been experimenting with invincible NPCs and level scaling; though some may find the idea perverse, it’s actually about their prized brand of player freedom. If players need to worry about accidentally killing the wrong person or wandering into the wrong neighborhood their sense of immersion or control over their environment may increase–but at the cost of the all-important catharsis that comes from being unable to make wrong decisions.
Level scaling and invincible NPCs aren’t impediments to Bethesda’s freedom. They’re parts of it–and probably part of why it’s become so accessible, and why it’s parlayed mere accessibility into becoming one of the most popular gaming franchises in the world.
Next time: where the series is going and what that means.
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