By Brandon Paul
I’ve caught glimpses of it several times. It’s ugly. It’s heartbreaking. It scares me, puzzles me, and disappoints me all at the same time. It’s an unseen force in the gaming industry today that takes developers’ freedom to create unique, awe-inspiring art and crushes it, forcing a shift instead to create watered down title after mediocre title, catering to the casual gamer instead of the hardcore fanbase that gave them so much love and devoted support from the beginning. Oh, wait… It’s not an unseen force at all — It’s called money. “Hey, how about we adjust the next game to allow us to reach a wider audience!” No. How about you stick to what made the original game so great, instead?
BioWare’s Mass Effect series immediately comes to mind. The first title was downright sensational; an open-ended science fiction experience featuring incredible depth and re-playability, engaging mechanics, endless equipment customization, and satisfying exploration. Fast forward to an EA-infused Mass Effect 2, and you’re greeted instead with a dumbed down shooter on rails, devoid of most of the RPG elements and non-linear gameplay that made the maiden title so great. All of this “streamlining” for the sole purpose of reaching the masses. Disappointing is too feeble a word.
Luckily, this trend hasn’t fully molested my first love in the RPG world: The Elder Scrolls. However, Oblivion came treacherously close to making me lose hope in the series altogether. Don’t get me wrong — It wasn’t a bad game. In and of itself, it was a great game… but it didn’t feel like The Elder Scrolls I came to know and love while playing Morrowind.
Morrowind… You will be missed.
Morrowind was the third installment in the series, and was the first one that I had the chance to fully enjoy. Daggerfall and Arena, while I’ve gone back to play them since, weren’t on my radar as a kid — At the time of their of release I was probably knee-deep in Super Metroid and Quake. I can remember the months, the weeks, and the days leading up to Morrowind‘s due date as vividly as if it was just released last year. It was 2002, I was an acne-ridden overweight teenager coping with the horrors of high school, and I was chomping at the bit to get lost in the world of Vvardenfell. Every screenshot, every video, every article posted with any relation whatsoever to Morrowind gave me a raging nerd-boner. If my memory serves me correctly, its release was pushed back an agonizing six or seven months… and then, as if by some miracle, there it was — nestled safely in the bottom my EB Games bag, belting passionate screams to be played while still locked deep within its shrink-wrapped prison cell.
At the moment when I closed the disc tray on my XBOX, I had no idea what I was in for. Looking back on it, never before had I been so fully engrossed in a game. It consumed every part of my life. Every waking hour spent away from my XBOX (and probably every sleeping hour) was spent thinking about Morrowind. I couldn’t get enough of it; from the beautiful and inspiring art style to the captivating questline and lore, to the countless hours spent running errands for one of the numerous guilds, I became lost in Morrowind. Sometimes, I was just plain lost. Morrowind’s HUD was devoid of a compass, and very seldom was there any sort of destination map marker when setting out on a quest. The player’s guidance for reaching a specified location often consisted of nothing more than a few vague directions from the quest-giver. Seems pretty involved by the sound of it, but isn’t that what a role-playing game is supposed to be? This reliance on player-exploration was great, because you’d stumble upon obscure treasures and dungeons en-route to your destination that would’ve otherwise remained undiscovered. Hollowed out tree stumps, secret merchants, hidden caves filled with unique weapons and armor that you couldn’t find anywhere else, tons of sunken ships with treasure nestled deep inside — You could track down rare items and characters, and that introduced a new level of immersion to the game. There was an actual reason to go dungeon crawling. These little easter-egg-esque gems were a welcome sight in-between quests, yet they almost fell completely out of existence in the series’ next chapter: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Talking You To Oblivion
What happened to the imagination, Bethesda? With Oblivion, you abandoned the serious nature of Morrowind‘s hardcore RPG style and took a step in the worst direction possible — an extremely casual one. I don’t want the world’s baddies to level as I level, I don’t want to hear countless lines of pointless NPC drivel, and for the love of God, I don’t want HORSE ARMOR! Oh yeah, about that “NPC drivel”… Somewhere along the way, Bethesda felt the need to lay out every single detail through extensive voice-acting in order to explain their story and engage us. For some reason, there seems to be a trend in gaming these days to emulate a movie rather than letting Player 1 evaluate the story and experience it in their own way. I suppose part of me just has a deep appreciation for the developers of yesteryear that challenged me to interpret what I was given from small bits of information found in my travels.
Horse armor. You actually charged money for this, Bethesda. I hope you’re proud of yourselves.
I won’t say there weren’t certain elements of Oblivion that I enjoyed, but I couldn’t get past the feeling that I was just playing a generic, “blah” action-RPG set in a nondescript medieval world rather than an Elder Scrolls game. Yes, I realize that Oblivion was set in the Imperial province of Cyrodiil, so of course it wouldn’t look the same as Vvardenfell… but I couldn’t help but feel that there was a bit of laziness in the overall design of the world and dungeons. The occasional bit of lore tossed here and there was the only thing that brought me back to realizing I was even playing an Elder Scrolls game. With all of my other gripes aside, I guess what it really comes down to is the fact that Oblivion was basically “RPG porn.” It was instant role-playing gratification with little to no thought involved on the player’s part. I suppose Bethesda realized you’ll be in business forever if you can appeal to the lowest common denominator.
And so here we are, six years later, with the new and exciting world of Skyrim at hand — or as I like to call it, “Fallout with Swords.” I’m happy to say that I feel like the series’ fifth chapter has brought back some of what made Morrowind so special. Leading up to Skyrim‘s release, I was beyond excited. I’ve waited years for a new Elder Scrolls game that could give me the same feeling of adventure and elation that I had once experienced back in that Summer of 2002.
“Skyrim, […] or as I like to call it, “Fallout with Swords.”
The verdict? Well, I still have the same gripe about Bethesda’s lame storytelling and their NPCs’ diarrhea-of-the-mouth, but altogether I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the game — minus the numerous glitch issues, but that’s another story for another article. The combat system is an improvement over Oblivion‘s, although not perfect, and that elusive sense of exploration is finally back.
For the first time in a long time, I actually feel like dungeon crawling again! Oblivion left me a little dungeon-shy, permanently engraving my brain with the thought that every single dungeon in Skyrim would be a cookie-cutter clone of all of Skyrim‘s other dungeons… but I’ve stumbled across more unique caves and items than I would’ve expected. (Well done here, Bethesda… well done.) However, one thing that bugged me with the vast majority of these barrows and bandit caves is the convenient little “escape door” at the end of them that brings you right back to the entryway. Thanks, Bethesda… but I think I can manage to find my way back. I don’t need you to hold my hand. Furthermore, there’s the removal of character stats and the addition of the “perks” system. While I do enjoy it for what it is, it just doesn’t feel like The Elder Scrolls. It feels more like someone got their Call of Duty in my Skyrim… er… maybe I got my Skyrim in their Call of Duty. Either way, I don’t love it and I don’t hate it… to me, it’s just another lost battle in the war to keep The Elder Scrolls grounded in pure-RPG land. Another point to the casuals.
All joking aside, I’m genuinely happy that Bethesda saw the errors of their ways with the series and attempted to get back to their roots. Make no mistake; Morrowind was and will always be my favorite title in the series. However, while Skyrim isn’t perfect, it does do a lot of things right — a lot of things that Oblivion forgot to do. As of today, The Elder Scrolls has garnered so much acclaim from such a broad audience that there’s really no point in hoping for a return to a time when Bethesda made games purely for us hardcore RPG lovers — I just really hope they keep us in mind when making The Elder Scrolls VI.
God help us if it’s a co-op Kinect-fest.