By Rothbart 7 Comments
I wrote a short retrospective on The Elder Scroll's series for the school newspaper, thought I might as well post it here too!
Any true fan of role-playing games is certainly wishing they had a time machine right about now. Sure, the obvious benefits of being able to go back and steal Washington’s wooden teeth are great, but what we really want is to jump forward to the release of Bethesda Softworks’ latest installment in their hallowed PC series, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, coming out this November for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Let’s assume, however, that you’ve never heard of the land of Skyrim, nor gazed upon The Elder Scrolls, nor even know what a role-playing game is; why should you give a mudcrab’s ass about this game? Well, let me spin the tale of The Elder Scrolls’ creation; perhaps then you’ll find yourself anxious to immerse yourself in the world of Tamriel as well.
Our story begins with the tale of The Elder Scrolls: Arena, in the prehistoric year of 1993. Bethesda Softworks used to be a small time developer, praised for making enjoyable sports games for the Atari video game console and home computer. That fateful year, however, the Bethesda team decided they wanted to try something different: create a role-playing game where your character would form a team of gladiators, and fight out epic battles in fantasy arenas. In layman’s terms, a role-playing game, or RPG for short, is a game usually set in a fantasy or science fiction world where emphasis is placed on the story. Common themes and mechanics include loot systems, an amount of character customization, open-world exploration, a leveling up mechanic and skill upgrades, and a penchant for making your character become the savior of the world. The setting of this particular fantasy world called Tamriel was lifted directly from the developers’ handmade Dungeons & Dragons campaign, an old tabletop game where players assume the role of heroes and go on adventures.
During development, however, the focus of the game started to shift away from simple arena fights and more towards world exploration. Not long after, with the addition of a vast number of towns, dungeons and NPCs (non-playable characters), the game was ready to ship in March 1994. Even though some mainstays of the RPG genre were missing, such as the ability to vastly customize your character and adequate rewards for exploring the environment, the game became a cult hit, despite negative reviews and poor initial sales. In response to the success of Arena, Bethesda began work on a sequel of gigantic proportions: Daggerfall.
Production of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall started immediately after Arena, as the developers sought to feedback from the first game to their advantage. Daggerfall brings us to the Northwestern province of High Rock and Hammerfell, where the most evident improvement is the sheer immensity of the game world. Whereas Arena’s world was all procedurally generated (made up by the game’s engine as you saw it), Daggerfall’s world boasts the honour of being one of the largest designed game worlds in existence. There are 15,000 towns, dungeons, cities and villages to discover, and over 750,000 unique NPCs the player can interact with. According to Bethesda, the game’s geography is equal to twice the size of Great Britain! Along with the ability to create a custom character class (specialization), allot skill points as you wish and a friendlier leveling mechanic, Daggerfall became an instant success with PC gamers everywhere. Quite the achievement, considering Daggerfall was released only two years after their first RPG.
Riding high on the boost in popularity given by Daggerfall, Bethesda’s next project, set in the eastern region of Morrowind, was due to be even more massive and refined their last. Unfortunately, due to the technological limitations of the time the team had to put their project on the backburner. During the interim period that lasted from Daggerfall in 1996 to Morrowind in 2002 Bethesda created two spin-off games, Battlespire and Redguard. Battlespire was a much more action-oriented game, eschewing the exploration and story elements for a faster paced combat system and online multiplayer. Redguard on the other hand was the polar opposite; a story driven game with a set, unchangeable protagonist that had next to no combat, the main goal of the game being puzzle solving. Both these games were moderately successful, but their departure from the established formula caused them to never attain the status of their predecessors.
The release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind signified a huge return to form for Bethesda, as the lessons they learned from Battlespire and Redguard coalesced into one unforgettable experience. The graphical overhaul that brought us forth into a fully three-dimensional environment vastly improved upon the previously quasi-2D nature of prior games, even though the size of the world suffered as a result: Morrowind’s land mass is approximately 0.01% that of Daggerfall. This reduction of size actually benefitted the overall coherence of the game, though, as developers could now add minute details to every town, object and character in order to give us something that seemed much more alive when compared to the blandness of previous installments. We should also remember how unimaginably huge Daggerfall was; even being a fraction of its size, it would take approximately four to seven hours to walk Morrowind from tip to tip.
Morrowind was also Bethesda’s first foray into the mainstream video game business. While in the past only the most diehard of fans would dedicate time to The Elder Scrolls, now even casual gamers could approach the series with ease. The one event that proved this shift in audience was the decision to create a version of the game for the original Xbox; PC gaming has always been considered a more in-depth, ‘elite’ form of gaming, whereas home consoles are usually seen as a form of mass media. The Elder Scrolls broke out into the consciousness of the masses with Morrowind, gaining a devoted following ever since.
The huge critical success of Morrowind prompted Bethesda’s team to split into two groups: the first would end up working on Morrowind’s two expansion packs (additional content to the game), Tribunal and Bloodmoon, and the second immediately began working on the next game in the Elder Scrolls’ lineage: Oblivion. The four-year gap between Morrowind and Oblivion allowed the team to start developing the game for consoles that didn’t even exist at the time, namely the Xbox 360 and PS3. In fact, the team didn’t have final builds of the hardware their game would ship on until the last six months of development. This long period of pre-production, however, allowed Oblivion’s graphical fidelity to be leaps and bounds above any 2006 competitors.
The game was their first in high definition, and with the addition of the Havok physics engine to give weight and gravity to the world’s engine it ended up being their most immersive experience yet. Among other improvements were the ability to cast spells from any position, without having to assume a spell casting stance, and the loss of the old “dice-roll” combat system; in previous games your chance to hit an enemy were entirely based on your statistics, so even if you were swinging your sword at the Dark Elf right in front of you it was only possible to hit him if your stats outranked his. The new combat system was vastly improved; if you swung your sword and it hit him, you did damage. If you happened to be attacking, say, a skeleton warrior with a dinner fork, you probably wouldn’t be doing any significant damage, but at least you’d still be able to hit him. Along with a streamlined quest management system, the ability to fast travel to any location by selecting it on the map, and a fully voiced cast of NPCs that would respond to your behaviour, Oblivion became a much faster paced experience than it’s predecessors.
Some criticize Oblivion for being too simple. The quests are straightforward, items and gold are easy to obtain, and the world map had shrunk to about half the size of Morrowind’s. The plethora of bugs were also an issue, as players would fall into the world’s geometry, have objects disappear, or have vital NPCs get stuck repeating the same action infinitely. However, the modding community came to the rescue and fixed most everything that was complained about. A mod is a player-made modification to the game world, usually made to fix or add elements to the game world. By playing around with the games code, these people have practically formed entire games’ worth of content to be downloaded as you wish. Morrowind and Oblivion’s modding communities are still quite active even to this day, with graphical and mechanical replacements available to improve both games’ looks and playability.
Now that I’ve finished my history spiel, why should we look forward to Skyrim? Well, if Bethesda’s past experience is anything to go by, it will be the smoothest Role-Playing experience to ever be released! This series didn’t get where it is by mimicking other RPGs, but by striving to maintain it’s own style amidst the sea of competitors. Every installment in The Elder Scrolls has managed to top the one before by shaving off the rough edges; taking landmass as an example, Arena’s was nigh infinite, Daggerfall’s was gigantic, Morrowind’s was challenging, Oblivion’s was feasible, and from the looks of things Skyrim’s will be just a bit smaller than Oblivion’s. You lose some of the customization options from game to game, but the story, characters, mechanics and so on get more and more refined and detailed. Whereas previous games were littered with dungeons and environments that were copied and pasted throughout the world, each and every aspect of Skyrim’s landmass has been handcrafted to optimize our ability to immerse ourselves in this land. The additions of the ability to dual-wield magic and weapons, along with the enhanced Radiant A.I. system allowing NPCs to live their own lives in your absence, are just two examples of what there is to look forward to this November 11.
By the way, for enthusiasts new and old, both Arena and Daggerfall can be downloaded legally from Bethesda’s website, although you’ll have to follow their instructions precisely to get the games working on modern machines. Morrowind and Oblivion can also be found on Steam, the world’s best digital download service, for 20 Euro each.
That’s going to do it for this month’s video game column; I hope you’ve enjoyed our time together as much as I enjoyed writing it!