As we come to the end of this series, I’d like to do something I’ve thus far tried to avoid: I’d like to wallow with the disgruntled.
It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at nerd nostalgia, especially when there’s no central complaint–just portfolios of pleas for more “old school” sensibilities. Get rid of invulnerable NPCs. Get rid of the compass. Put stats back in. Put Levitation back in. Put Passwall back in.. But there’s one thing that makes these kinds of grousers unique in gaming circles: the experience they want is genuinely growing scarce–nigh inaccessible. You can get new roguelikes and MUDs and arcade shooters and metroidvania games if you know where to look, but a renaissance of old-Bethesda open-world games is growing more unlikely by the day.
There’s a dozen obstacles, but one immediate one is lack of examples for new developers to work from. There weren’t a hundred TES-style games coming out a year; in gaming history only a few games have tried to do what Bethesda does with any measure of success or recognition. What’s worse is that not even Bethesda’s own library can offer much instruction to game designers; since the franchise evolved at an aggressive rate, there’s not many middle-children or half-measures to provide context and insight into the series’ evolution. Effectively overnight Morrowind’s roll-to-hit combats, with basically constant weapon damages and few level scaled enemies, transmogrified into action combat, skill-based weapon damages, and aggressively level-scaled enemies. It’s hardly surprising that it did so very poorly. But the biggest relevant loss is not an entertaining combat system in Oblivion–it’s a missing link that demonstrates what parts of Morrowind’s combat could work with newer models and what parts were dead ends. A successful old-school retread wouldn’t just embody Morrowind’s flawed combat but recapture the important parts and keep the modern innovations. Since we didn’t get to see a gradual shift, modern designers would basically be revisiting the material anew.
Maybe now you’re thinking that the combat doesn’t matter so much–or maybe now you’re thinking that Morrowind’s combat was perfect and changing it would be a pointless disaster, that nothing needs to change at all. That’s a second and related problem: since there have been so many different stages and failed experiments and wild tangents in the Elder Scrolls franchise, there’s no easily-referenced “old school” at all. My own “ideal” philosophy of the franchise–interestingly-fashioned open-world games that allow players a set of tools and don’t restrict their use–only existed once between periods of compromise, and there are plenty of empowering elements from Daggerfall and even Arena that I wouldn’t mind recapturing. How could we establish enough consensus to justify a nostalgia venture–how could we agree, with such a small and polarizingly diverse sample to work with, what to keep and what to leave behind? And for that matter–while we’re finding problems–who would be doing the keeping?
It’s not that no developer is willing to make an open world game without, say, unkillable NPCs and constrained player agency–it’s just that the field is so small you already know I’m talking about Obsidian and New Vegas. Besides, I don’t think we should forget they got to make that game only because the engine and much of the assets were already firmly put in place by Bethesda, who also endowed the project with vital brand recognition. Would New Vegas have been even marginally successful if Fallout 3 hadn’t swept the market a few years before–and could it have done that if it had been as unforgiving as Obsidian’s project? Even ignoring these considerations, it’s worth noting that just because Obsidian eschewed level scaling and invulnerable NPCs doesn’t mean what they made was an old-school open world game–or at least, not the one old Bethesda fans would be looking for. It wasn’t styled with the freedom of movement and ambivalence toward player behavior Bethesda games offer; rather it was developed around a particular (if differently old-school) interpretation of the old “mostly nonlinear” 3D RPGs, the Baldur’s Gates and original Fallouts Bethesda provided an alternative to. Obsidian’s Nevada is not laid out to encourage gluttonous consequence-free exploration; quite the contrary, new and prudent players have one cardinal direction to pick from. Your actions in New Vegas are pregnant with purpose from structured beginning to permanent end. The game is not built to convey grandeur and majesty and exploration, but to reward character build and ingenuity and engaging with a narrative. If anyone’s going to bring Bethesda’s “old school”, it’s not likely to be them.
So what about indies?
It’s true that the modern indie scene can do with advanced technology and larger pools of thirstier talent what larger, better-paid teams did in days past. Plenty of small studios survive making games nobody else will at modest production values and for a semi-guaranteed audience. It’s a thing fringe gamers increasingly depend on–that somebody, somewhere, will defy perilous markets and miniscule salaries to make a niche ideal a reality. But these wing-and-a-prayer nostalgia studios have limits.
Technology aside–how does a small studio build a big, immersive, resonant world, replete with unique assets and interesting context? Even assuming a team exists with the drive and sensibilities and talent to get it done, how do they put in the man-hours needed to make and configure and style all the buckets, nails, duck ponds, glasses, bottles, lumber mills, and goblin thongs you need to provide the variety of experience required for an immersive open world game? Fans will happily donate time to recreate pre-designed, pre-configured games made in the past–and very occasionally, the sum of these donations amounts to a playable meaningful release. I might well donate a voice clip if the payoff is that four years later I get to play Morrowind in modern HD. But I won’t do the same for some studio I’ve never heard of working on a project I don’t yet care about, which is what anything but a remake is bound to be–and why Skywind can hope for something a fresh studio with a fresh vision can’t. This is all conjecture–I haven’t tried to oversee a project like this and am not fully acquainted with the workload demanded–but it’s not uneducated conjecture and it’s certainly supported by the results. If a solid open-world first-person RPG with an fully-realized setting to explore and old-school sensibilities has been made, I haven’t yet found it. I don’t doubt there are hundreds of games a few steps or qualities removed, but the complete package remains elusive.
So Bethesda’s never going back to what it was, hasn’t left much of a template for other to borrow from, and probably nobody can afford to anyway. Bethesda and its runaway success are what we’ve got. Bethesda has the budget, the team, and the inclination to make first-person open world experiences based less on tasks and storylines than personal liberation; they’ve found one really successful way of doing that and have no incentive to stop. And–somewhat uniquely for any genre of anything at all–they may hold a monopoly.
Part of the point of this series is that few people have played all the old Elder Scrolls games. Few people have even played most of them. As successes mount, and the audience expands, the percentage of gamers whose idea of an open world title is shaped exclusively by the most recent triumphs will increase. If there’s anything in those old games worth saving, we had better figure out what it is–and we had better figure out how to make it work with a modern vision. Otherwise, it stands to be well and truly forgotten.
Another PC Golden Age?
Is it real? Is PC gaming returning to its former glory? Sort of. It's complicated.
Dead or Alive 5 Last Round
I'm not surprised a fighting game has an absurd story. I just can't figure out why they bothered with the story at all.
The Dumbest Cutscene
This is it. This is the dumbest cutscene ever created for a AAA game. It's so bad it's simultaneously hilarious and painful. This is "The Room" of video game cutscenes.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
The Game That Ruined Me
Be careful what you learn with your muscle-memory, because it will be very hard to un-learn it.