Ever since the days of sweaty nerds rolling twenty-sided die at each other back in the eighties, the medieval fantasy role-playing game still holds a very powerful allure to a lot of people. When it comes to video games, it would probably be unwise to try and count the amount of releases that have landed in this genre in the last thirty years. Whether it was a text-based adventure, crude two-tone sprites on black backgrounds or fully realised worlds filled to the brim with incredible detail, getting lost in one of these adventures is something never gets old.
One of the finest examples of this genre is the Elder Scrolls series. In what was typically a PC only adventure for its first three releases, 2006 saw the release of the most critically acclaimed and best-selling installment across all platforms, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Set in the fictional province of Cyrodiil, developer Bethesda Softworks created an immense, vivid world in which people, animals, enemies and events seemed alive. Granted, the story was standard RPG fare (player thrust into saving the world from all-encompassing evil) but it was the mechanics and design of the game which bore the most impressive fruit. If the player strolled into a town or city, villagers and guards went about their business in a way that was not random, but rather more structured and lifelike. Shopkeepers opened and closed their doors at set times before wandering back to their own homes, city guards returned to their barracks for food and rest after finishing their patrols. Market sales came and went, highwaymen waited until nightfall to attack wandering travellers and wild animals became greater in numbers depending on your location and the time of day.
Together, these details mixed together to create a rich, layered universe in which I became lost in for dozens of hours. That said, it was not without fault. The combat was mostly awful, bugs and glitches were aplenty and every person you talked to looked like a featureless meat puppet. Plus, I’m pretty sure Bethesda only hired about three voice actors for the hundreds of citizens you meet. But none of that mattered. The world of Oblivion was much too intoxicating to be sullied by tiny issues.
Since then, Bethesda haven’t returned to the province of Cyrodiil. Aside from two packs of downloadable content (Knights Of The Nine in 2006, Shivering Isles in 2007), the Elder Scrolls has gone quiet. Bethesda released Fallout 3 in 2008 to incredible success and now have moved to the publishing side of things, deciding to release other developer’s work under the Bethesda banner. Two of those games, Rogue Warrior and WET, didn’t meet expectations.
In a few months, it will be five years since we have heard a single thing about the next game in the Elder Scrolls series. While recent rumours point towards a Elder Scrolls MMO possibly in development, this cannot be confirmed. Even if that is the case, that is not the right direction for this series. Launching a fantasy medieval MMO is this day and age has got BANKRUPTCY written all over it and the reason for that is Blizzard’s still-insanely-popular World Of Warcraft.
What is the right thing for Bethesda is to overhaul Oblivion from the ground up. Take what made that game amazing and build on it. Iron out all the problems (combat, interactions, villagers riding on invisible horses etc) and streamline the hell out of it. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel, just polish it to a gleaming, mirror shine. Do that and do it right, and people will start talking in hushed tones about “the last RPG you’ll ever need” and “game of the year”.
First things first, Bethesda. There is one simple thing you need to do now. Not in 2011 or 2012; right now. Formally announce Elder Scrolls V. Release a logo, some concept art, a plotline, anything. Believe me, the gaming world will explode with excitement at the thought of returning to that universe. Just don’t make us pay for downloadable horse armour again.