The Altered Scrolls, Epilogue: What’s Worth Saving

By Rutskarn Posted Saturday Apr 2, 2016

Filed under: Elder Scrolls 38 comments

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.


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38 thoughts on “The Altered Scrolls, Epilogue: What’s Worth Saving

  1. Trevel says:

    Now I’m sad. :(

  2. Da Mage says:

    To put it simply, think of Bethesda as an indie studio. There first game was pretty bare bones and had a very small team. Their second was ambitious, but filled with generated content to make up for the small team. By the time Morrowind development rolled around that small studio was medium sized, and could actually hand-craft the amount of content a true open world needs.

    I think any indie studio that tries to make an Elder Scrolls sized game on their first, or even second try is going to fail. It seems to be something that needs to be worked up to with a growing studio.

    On the topic of aspects in the old games though, there is one thing I really think Elder Scrolls Arena did right. And that is the atmosphere of the dungeons. You’d do in, fight through 4 levels (for a generic dungeon) and find your goal. After which (when I played) you’d have this mad dash back through the dungeon to get to the exit before the RNG rolled an enemy you couldn’t handle. Couple that with the short view distance and randomly spawning enemies was simply terrifying and fantastic.

    1. Xeorm says:

      Yea. If anything, I think a good Elder Scrolls clone needs a medium-sized studio. Not too big because it’d be too niche, but it’s also too much work for a small/indie sized studio. Of course…those studios are incredibly rare in the current industry. They’re also hard to fund for games that aren’t well proven.

      I would like to see more iteration done on the concept too, but ah well.

    2. TMC_Sherpa says:

      When Morrowind came out it was do or die for Bethesda. Battlespire was bad and Redguard was worse.

      Now that Altered Scrolls is done I don’t feel bad posting All Your History: Bethesda

      Edit: Thanks YouTube. Corrected the link

  3. Mark says:

    This has been a great series, Rutskarn. Thank you.

    I don’t think an indie developer could create Morrowind (not one that was expecting to get paid, anyway) but I suspect something like Arena, using a deliberately retro graphic style, could be within their reach. I could even picture a Daggerfall which went through an endless early-access period of maturing and polishing, although that particular target is pushing it — there’s a much bigger market for an Arena-style dungeon crawl than a big, sprawling and unfocused procedural world.

    1. Amstrad says:

      This is why I’m reasonably certain that will be at least a modest success.

      1. Andy_Panthro says:

        I really do hope it will be a success.

        I’ve been a big Ultima fan for a very long time, and I was really surprised that it’s taken this long for a new Underworld game to be made.

        Origin and Ultima were huge for their time, easily the 90s equivalent of Bethesda/TES. It’s a real shame that they’re increasingly forgotten about. Perhaps Rutskarn could tackle that series next?

    2. Echo Tango says:

      using a deliberately retro graphic style, could be within their reach

      This is why all indies use retro graphics – they’re orders of magnitude cheaper to produce. Some day in the future, we might have the tools and/or libraries of cheap/free pre-made assets, such that even indies can have good-looking games. But for the time being, they’ll have to make do with lots of chunky pixels, or toon-shaded / low-poly games. :)

      1. Richard says:

        The only thing I’d like to contest is the idea you’ve implied that only modern graphics can equal good-looking games. Perhaps that’s not what you meant, but I am prepared to fight on the internet about it!

  4. Cuthalion says:

    Wow. That was really great analysis, and I’m so used to your humor that I literally just double checked to be sure it was Rutskarn! But you seem to have done as well with the funny hat off as you usually do with it on.

    Reading this really makes me want to work on a 2d, open-world game ambivalent to the player and their self-directed antics. But even that isn’t the full package, since 2d is not the same as first-person 3d.

    Honestly, the whole series has been enlightening. I’d never really thought about the common threads through and differences between Elder Scrolls games until I read this series, and I feel like I’ve learned something. Thanks.

    Btw: Did you contribute a voice to Skywind? I did a couple, assuming they don’t throw them out. :D

  5. Decus says:

    For as much as I and others clown on bethesda’s modeling and animation I think I’d clown on any 3D indie efforts trying to capture the same spirit even harder. There is going to be either a quality problem from the beginning or a quality problem over time, as you spend so long making everything great that it’s now great for four years ago and looks aged. To me that’s essentially what the skywind and other variant projects end up being–by the time they’re finished a new elder scrolls will be out and everything will look aged without the benefit of nostalgia for it to the extent that I’d rather just play the original, with its own aged graphics and all. I can look at morrowind or oblivion models and faces and have a nostalgic laugh (nostalgic for the obvious reason and nostalgic because I was also laughing at the time), but if you asked me to pay money for a modern release that looked about the same I’d probably be laughing for different reasons unless the game had something really, really special to offer, enough so that I could look past its bad graphics. That’s a solid “good luck” for a genre that is in part about immersion.

    That said, I would at least be willing to entertain a bethesda-esque game done with 2D sprites. Why? Well, because if everything about the graphics is 2D more of it will exist in my imagination and thus just having one “old lady” sprite for every “old lady” in the game is perfectly acceptable. Give them actual names and schedules that don’t at all overlap and I’ll probably even be able to “tell them apart”, even without the indie studio having to design them accompanying portraits or any other assets. The more realistic assets look the more likely they are to also be two other things: 1) amateur 2) hard to acceptably re-use. Making enough artwork for a bethesda-sized game with 2D sprites would still be a massive, massive undertaking though, but much less of one than a 3D game given the greater ease and acceptability of asset re-use. The closest things I can think of that exist are old, early 2000s MMOs, really.

    Though now I’m thinking about cell-shading and similar styles–an indie studio would more likely be able to handle that than a realistic style provided enough talent and it’d probably be easier to find that talent than it would 2D sprite talent. The closest things I can think of like that are again MMOs. Some of them even reboots of the old, early 2000s MMOs that used 2D sprites.

  6. Rutskarn, if you want to do some open world compare/contrast, you NEED to look at the Gothic and Risen serieses like, yesterday.

    Heck many of the gameplay innovations that Bethesda put in Skyrim (like, mining) were present in Gothic II years before anyone had even heard of Oblivion.

    Bethesda is NOT a completely unique model. Piranha Bytes (or whatever they’re calling themselves these days) does something very similar. Their games are kind of a bridge between Skyrim and The Witcher, really.

    And looking at those games will give you an idea of what a lower-budget indie-ish Skyrim would look like.

    1. In particular, take a look at this thing:

      1. djw says:

        Looking forward to it.

      2. bigben1985 says:

        Ow wow, that opening text blurb gave me goosebumps. “Gothic team” and “Science Fantasy” especially… Gonna keep that one on my radar

      3. Ahiya says:

        “1.There will be no character customizatioN
        2.The character will have a background story
        3.He will have a name and won’t be nameless
        4.Will be male
        5.Will be third-person for sure
        6.Our decisions will have a big impact on the game”

        All of this is completely opposite the freedom-first philosophy of Bethesda games, though.

        Open world RPG, yes. But it illustrates the monopoly Bethesda has on their specific genre of freedom-first RPGs rather than providing a counterpoint to Ruts’ post.

        1. Where are you reading that I said “here is a counterpoint to Rutskarn’s point”?

          Similar means SIMILAR. Ruts was complaining that there’s nothing even enough SIMILAR to Bethesda to begin fleshing out the space and what alternatives in the genre could look like, particularly indie alternatives. Well, the Gothic series IS similar and DOES flesh out that space. And Piranha Bytes/Deep Silver are smaller, nearly-indie companies.

          Heck, the gameplay aspect of Skyrim’s entire crafting system was lifted basically intact directly from Gothic II. There’s a good deal of overlap going on.

          1. Mortuorum says:

            Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was similar as well – it even had Ken Rolston as one of the designers. Of course, it essentially bankrupted the studio that made it, which is instructive in itself.

    2. djw says:

      I love Gothic and Risen, but I’m not sure that they scratch the same itch as Elder Scrolls. It’s harder to avoid the main quest line in Gothic and Risen, because you need to unlock trainers to use your skill points, and the best trainers are locked behind factions. The lack of level scaling makes it essential to get those skills (unless you have supernatural reflexes).

      Note that I personally think that gating interesting skills behind faction trainers is a GOOD thing that makes factions flavorful and useful, but it seems anathema to Bethesda’s approach.

      1. I’m not saying they’re identical, but there are a LOT of similarities that can help flesh out the entire concept of the “open world genre”, and like Bethesda it’s the only type of game that they do (as far as I’ve seen).

        Plus if you want to compare and contrast janky combat, you need look no further than Gothic. The “you must hold down a button and a movement button to swing your weapon, but you can’t move while doing this, so you have to get good at timing your movement and weapon swings while fighting a VERY FAST-MOVING OPPONENT WHO CAN KILL YOU ALMOST INSTANTANEOUSLY” still boggles me.

        Granted, if a fight was too tough for you, you knew VERY, VERY QUICKLY.

        1. Squirly says:

          I own but have never gotten into Gothic 1 or 2, but I did play Gothic 3 extensively. It’s still a shining example to me of how a properly open fantasy world could be shown, instead of this gating off of inside and outside that Bethesda still relies on to this day. I’m convinced it’s a design choice at this point, though I wouldn’t know what the reason would be. Immersion always gets touted by the devs, but nothing breaks that more than another goddamn loading screen.

          But yeah, janky combat was a thing in Gothic 3 as well. It usually swung wildly between “i have them in a stun-lock and they’re going to die regardless of the shitty sword I’m using” and “they have me in a stun-lock and I’m going to die against a goblin”. Eugh.

          1. This was one thing I liked a lot about the Gothic series, too. Buildings that are actual buildings that you can just run in and out of.

            The first game had EXACTLY two loading screens–both when you went into deep mines. Everything else was 100% accessible. It was very cool.

        2. Ahiya says:

          Gothic and Elder Scrolls are fundamentally different in the way they treat players and the freedom players have in the game. One is story-first, the other is PC-freedom first. That these are the closest we can get to Elder Scrolls competitors supports Rutskarn’s point.

          1. djw says:

            I think that you are overplaying your point to say that they are “fundamentally different”. They are obviously not the same, but there were *a lot* of similarities, especially with Gothic 3 (which absolutely had a focus on player freedom).

            It is true that all of the games in the series forced you to play a Caucasian male, but there is a lot more to player freedom than just picking your race and gender. For instance, you can murder anyone you want to, although you might not be able to finish the main quest if you do so. Maven Blackbriar would not have survived long as an NPC in Gothic 3.

  7. Hermocrates says:

    Amazing series Rutskarn! Sadly, though, all it makes me want to do is play Morrowind again.

    Maybe that’s not a bad thing after all.

  8. Brandon says:

    Thanks, Adam. You’ve given me a lot to think about with this series, but particularly this post. I never enjoyed Morrowind’s combat, at least not early on. Due to the nature of the combat system, I always gravitated to very quick weapons like daggers and would just enchant them up to have massive magical damage on hit. I was attacking so quickly that I hit often, even if my percentages were low, and did lots of damage in a short period of time. But when I think of Oblivion’s combat, in contrast, I didn’t really enjoy it any more. In fact, due to the way the game leveled, I enjoyed it less, because I had less flexibility and less relative power or competence. Morrowind made me feel like I could become the combatant I wanted to be (and ultimately I really could). Oblivion told me I was already the combatant I wanted to be but was lying.

    If you asked me where the transition point was between those two systems, I don’t know what I would tell you. As you’ve pointed out, there really isn’t one. But there are actually some other places to look for similarities, and those places aren’t in open world game. We need to look at MMOs. When I first played Morrowind I still had memories of watching some college friends play hours and hours of Everquest. It struck me that combat in Morrowind reminded me a lot of Everquest combat. Given these similarities (even if surface only), it might be appropriate to look how MMO combat has developed to see if there’s a deeper connection to Morrowind. It may be that MMOs provide a better transition to modern systems than Bethesda’s own Elder Scrolls games.

    1. Loonyyy says:

      That’s a really good point, I feel like I like the Morrowind combat more than Oblivion, because Morrowind allows for different playstyles, most of which can be exploited to hell and back, whereas Oblivion has fairly standardised combat, which is aggressively scaled.

      When I played Morrowind, I’d collect various overpowered weapons, and a long collection of enchanted items that I’d use in sequence to take down enemies, but my brothers had completely different styles, one used magic and levitation, while the other found some paralysis gear which gave them a massive advantage.

      Oblivion just felt like an exercise in being outleveled slowly. They throw enemies at you taht you’ll beat fairly standard, and then the experience just scales, new gear just acting as a stat buff (That you need because the enemies scale). The combat’s more satisfying to fight through, at least at the start, but there’s no progression.

      In Morrowind, your combat will suck at the start, low damage, high chance of misses, etc, but by specialising or getting the right gear, it’ll eventually completely change the way that you play, and that feels better, I wish they’d improve on that style of play.

  9. Christopher says:

    Morrowind isn’t my nostalgia in the same way it’s yours. Judging by the descriptions of every game, I wouldn’t have enjoyed any game older than Skyrim. But I’m sorry there aren’t any other options out there. Kickstarter/Indiegogo has done wonders for the games I like that aren’t made that much anymore, and it’s not that easy with 3d open world RPGs.

    Thanks for this article series! It was very nice. I hope you’ll get your Morrowindlike eventually.

  10. Starker says:

    The scrolls have been altered. Pray that Bethesda doesn’t alter them any further.

  11. Decius says:

    Morrowind had the problem where there was bad feedback regarding hits and misses. Later installments had the problem where player skill dominated character skill.

    Would a workable compromise be one in which character skill was reflected in player controls? A poorly skilled character would attack more slowly and wildly, and even more so with higher level weapons because gameplay reasons.

    The problem I see is that it’s a double hit against new players: they don’t know how to fight and neither does their character. Also the animation budget for all of the various ways a noob can fumble every type of exotic spear/fork/trident/polearm.

    1. Christopher says:

      If you’re up for that kind of experience that only appeals to niche roleplayers anyway, maybe it’s fine. Or if weapons just have stat requirements that dictate which you can use. Souls games do that, or require you to two-hand weapons with high strength requirements, and it’s fine(If you can’t match either requirement, the animation is wonky and wobbly the attack lacks strength). But if the controls started out bad and you had to upgrade them to even begin to feel as good as Skyrim’s kinda bad action combat, I would turn around and walk out the door.

    2. Syal says:

      That would give the player more feedback, but I don’t think feedback was the problem with the system. It’s just not fun to have to aim and then roll dice to hit.

  12. Nersh says:

    Thanks for the great series, Rutskarn.

    I was wondering, have you played Nehrim or any of the other total conversion mods by SureAI? They seem to function like alternate-world Elder Scrolls games, like they’re what Bethesda would have made in a different dimension, taking the same engine and tools and eking a different kind of RPG out of them.

  13. In Chris’ video of Fallout 4, he talks about how the Special system was changed from give/take to ‘started from the bottom now we here’, which makes sense once you take off the nostalgia goggles and actually look at the issue in terms of mechanics.

    TSO are games played in the first person in realtime and those mechanics take priority. How to move, look, and interact with the 3d environment are the first tutorial prompts you’re given in Morrowind before you even create your character. That’s not an accident. The thing is the demands and expectations of a FPG are fundamentally different from a stat-based system (at least as far as they’ve been implemented in TSO games past AND present) and in order for them to even begin playing nice with each other, you first need to be willing and able to make adjustments to those stats so that they’re appropriate for the game they’re being placed in. A FPG has physicality that is determined entirely by player input, primarily movement and perception. They are a base standard entirely removed from stats. You don’t get better at pushing the WASD keys or at moving your mouse to look around, so a game that’s going to feature a stat system needs to look at what those direct player inputs are going to be and understand that interfering with them requires an appropriate amount of feedback to inform the player or otherwise leave them alone entirely.

    But since they are the primary form of input on the game, they immediately communicate to the player a base set of skills that cannot be undone or removed. They will never be ‘bad’ at moving, looking around, at clicking on a chest and removing its contents. These fundamental forms of interaction communicate a system that contradicts the ‘you can be good at some things/bad at others’ systems of TSO’s past and explain the switch in SPECIAL in the video I mentioned earlier. To wit: The problem with Morrowind’s combat wasn’t that you missed constantly, but the communication breakdown as a result of the swings. The games primary FPG mechanics communicated success, showing a 3d rendered sword clearly striking a 3d rendered foe, while the secondary mechanics determined failure.

    In order for the ‘classic’ form of stat-based systems to be successfully implemented in a FPG, they need to resolve this breakdown by acquiescing to the fact that the primary form of communication as to what a character is capable of has to be done through the FPG mechanics and both adjust what stats to implement accordingly AND create the proper communication of those stats through the primary mechanics.

  14. Bubble181 says:

    Things like Pillars of Eternity or Might and Magic X show that it *is* still possible to make a fairly old-school RPG on a limited budget. Not the same style, sure, but I’d guess it’s about the same amount of work as far as world building and art and all that is concerned.

    While I loved Morrowind (and Daggerfall), I could never get into any of the Fallouts. haven’t tried 4 yet, but considering neither 1, 2, 3 or NV could keep my interest, I’m not buying that until it’s much, much cheaper. I’m just not that into the post-Apocalyptic world vibe. The faux-fifties-thing is too American for my tastes, or something, I don’t know.

    Anyway, thanks for the series, it was interesting.

  15. Merlin says:

    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?

    Is it unreasonably snarky to suggest that Stardew Valley does basically this, albeit with a very different tone & focus from Bethesda Game?

    1. jawlz says:

      I enjoy Stardew Valley for what it is, but it is neither big nor particularly immersive (in the ‘explore a full 3D-world’ sense). It’s a different genre, and an entirely different scale.

      1. Merlin says:

        Fair, with a tiny caveat that some of that speaks to the nebulousness of what the “open-world” actually means. A Harvest Moon ‘Em Up that lets you explore its entire world without connecting that exploration to a plot progression is, I would argue, an open-world game, even if not in the same way that Rockstar/Ubisoft/Bethesda target making the world friggin’ gigantic. And like you allude to, it’s a very different take on “immersive” as well.

        I think the findings here are pretty conclusive: I’m being a ridiculous pedant.

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