Diabetes Prevention

The Elder Scrolls: A Promise Unfulfilled | Complete Elder Scrolls Documentary, History and Analysis

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

“You will get lost,” the game store employee
cautioned me some twenty years ago as I held, in my hands, a sealed copy of The Elder Scrolls
II: Daggerfall. He warned of the incredibly vast world and
treacherous dungeons awaiting me in the second entry to the then low-profile Elder Scrolls
series. And he was right! I hadn’t played anything like Daggerfall
before, and rarely anything as compelling since. The moment I booted up the game I was aghast
at the overwhelming options I had. The character creation hinted at skulking
the streets at nightfall, whispering secrets to low-lifes and burglarizing houses, crafting
my own unique magic, or even becoming a chivalrous knight who could speak the tongues of royalty. Daggerfall is my go-to reference when explaining
what a role-playing game truly is: experiencing a world and story through a unique pair of
eyes. And I did get lost in Daggerfall, not only
in its labyrinthian dungeons with death traps and pitfalls, but lost in the world it begged
me to experience. So, I find it ironic that The Elder Scrolls
series, too, seems to have lost its way: in its goal, design pillars, and sense of identity.

Every title has been a vast fantasy sandbox
where you can do anything from slaying beasts, delving into dungeons, or riding off into
the sunset to discover new horizons. So how could I fault these often-claimed masterpieces? Because they could have been so much more. True, the lore has been expertly explored
and expanded upon by Michael Kirkbride, Ken Rolston and others, and the newer technology
has provided a more seamless adventure. But the developer’s original drive to create
something never before experienced has been cast aside to make more popular games. For me, the series has strayed so far so as
to become something like an estranged friend. But only the foolhardy would state that the
best-selling role-playing game series of all time is a disappointment. After all, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has
sold more copies than any other RPG to ever hit the home console or computer. So, how can I claim it’s fallen short of
its manifest destiny? I have compiled notes from over 20 years of
game development, so I’m speaking not only as a fan of the series for over two decades,
but from a documentary perspective as well.

So here is my retrospective and analysis of
the best-selling RPG series, Elder Scrolls, and why, despite its continually increasing
popularity, it has lost its ambition and identity. This is my take on how the series’ once-revolutionary
features have stagnated and even declined over time. Bethesda Softworks started off as a small
team of game developers working out of the home of its founder, Christopher Weaver. They’d created a few sports titles and other
games by the time the 1990’s rolled around, even acquiring the license to make a couple
Terminator games, one of the biggest blockbuster movie franchises at the time. But around 1992, after finishing work on Terminator
2029, game designer and programmer Julian LeFay started assembling a team at Bethesda
to create a game that would become his magnum opus: a fantasy adventure for the ages, inspired
by his love for tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, and heavily influenced by the
gritty gladiatorial exploits of the 1989 Mad Max-meets-Spartacus movie: Blood of Heroes,
starring Rutger Hauer.

The original game design had a medieval-style
gladiator theme where you control a party and fight in coliseums against teams of fighters
in each major city of the land. One notable team in this early concept was
The Blades – a name later used in Elder Scrolls lore for the faction serving as both the Imperial
guard and its spies. But during development the game became so
much more than just about the coliseum, and Bethesda decided to switch gears.

Taking inspiration from classic RPGs, they
set off to accomplish the impossible: to take the mechanics of small-scale dungeon delvers
and bring it into an immense, vibrant world that also included towns, guilds, forests,
and plains. It was ambitious as hell and the team knew
it. But about a year into development, newcomer
Blue Sky Productions (soon to become Looking Glass Studios) released Ultima: Underworld,
a paradigm shift in immersive games, featuring true 3D environmental interaction. Seeing the fanfare for Underworld’s release
was disheartening for Julian, who saw the clear technical advantage that game had over
their project’s singular plane of gameplay.

Undeterred, they continued moving forward,
as one thing that Bethesda’s project had over its competition was its scope. Only outer-space simulators like Elite could
rival it, but here they weren’t generating simple spheres and white dots against a black
background — it was creating a massive world with countless cities, towns and dungeons,
in addition to its rich history and lore. Game dev colleagues at SirTech, who at the
time were developing the latest in the Wizardry series, literally laughed at the idea that
what Julian and his team set out to accomplish could even be done. Despite never taking on something this massive
before, in 1994 we got our headfirst dive into the war-torn fantasy land of Tamriel:
also known as The Arena… Known affectionately by fans as the “Father
of the Elder Scrolls”, Julian LeFay was the project’s leader, and together with
designers Vijay Lakshman and Ted Peterson, spearheaded development and design decisions
that still echo in the series today.

These are the unsung heroes of The Elder Scrolls. Even titles released decades later borrowed
mechanics, ideas and lore from their 1994 brainchild, Arena. The game opens with you confined in a dungeon
and having a vision of a woman telling you of a sordid conspiracy: the Imperial Battlemage,
Jagar Tharn, has imprisoned Uriel Septim with powerful magic and has taken his place as
Emperor. You must now escape and find pieces of the
Chaos Staff, a powerful artifact — and the only way to destroy Tharn and save Tamriel
from a reign of darkness.

While adventuring, the sheer interactivity
and scope of the city and outdoor areas are staggering. Using procedural generation to create unlimited
terrain with countless houses, multiple guilds and shopkeepers, it was the foundation of
something great, despite its rudimentary controls and limited engine. Missing its original release date of Holiday
1993, Arena launched in a rough state in the then-unfavorable release window of March,
1994. After multiple patches, it was then re-released
featuring an updated CD version. Though now being the most dated and unintuitive
of the entire series, Arena’s controls and interface were on-par with games of that era,
with magazines praising its graphics as being cutting edge.

Their quiet release was quickly followed by
word of mouth that spread like wildfire, gaining a cult following and high anticipation for
a sequel. And after two grueling years, a sequel we
got. After Arena won a Game of the Year award in
1994 and became a sleeper hit, work immediately began on a bigger, better follow-up. Using Bethesda’s in-house XnGine, first
built for Terminator: Future Shock, this ambitious title started off as Mournhold, set in the
Dark Elf region, Morrowind. Plans changed, however, and Daggerfall became
the decided name and setting for The Elder Scrolls: Part 2. Every shortcoming of the original game was
improved upon. And probably the most signature development
in the game’s RPG mechanics was born: improving skills through use.

Utilizing plasma fractals to procedurally
generate terrain, and assembling building and dungeon tiles to create massive cities,
graveyards, buildings, and dungeons, it’s truly a marvel what a small team in the mid
90’s accomplished. With a surprisingly modern control set and
UI with a minimal fullscreen mode and full mouselook feature (considered unusual at the
time of release), the game is still quite playable today. Turning the pages of the game’s manual accentuated
the fact that this wasn’t a cheap attempt to capitalize on a successful game. This was a leap forward and was shooting right
for the stars. The ability to be a Climbing catburglar, a
Critical-Striking assassin, or even a chivalrous knight who gains honor and praise from nobility,
Daggerfall aimed to be a fantasy life simulator, not a mere “game”. It’s unprecedented scope is larger than
real-life England, and has so much to discover and do that it could take players real-life
years to experience it all. We’re accustomed to condensed game worlds
which approximate cities with a handful of buildings, but High Rock, Orsinium and Hammerfell
literally house 750,000 NPCs.

Cities are mazes of houses, taverns, guilds,
temples, and shops. And for over 10 years, Daggerfall held the
record for largest seamless world ever created for a land-based game. Project leader Julian LeFay later claimed
it was his most difficult project ever and it nearly killed him. Ted Peterson separately stated as much in
his experience, and with the massive achievement this game was in 1996, there’s no question
this was true. The story thrusts you into a secret meeting
with the Emperor himself, where he entrusts you to find the secret behind recent hauntings
by the late king of Daggerfall. This is a stirring and exciting introduction,
but things quickly go awry when your ship is destroyed in an unnatural storm. Amidst your travels, you’re gently reminded
of a quest to pursue, often with a messenger sneaking a letter into your hand or pack,

It is a subtle guiding of the hand, rather
than a giant arrow and quest tracker pointing you in the suggested direction at all times. And one has to read their journal and pay
attention to conversation to complete the storyline – an expectation rarely demanded
of gamers today. You will discover new systems within the game
as you play: randomly generated quests at taverns, temples and guildmasters; countless
guilds and factions, all with their own perks and hierarchies; deep crafting systems, commerce,
barter and banking. You can also purchase a house to rest and
store gear, and there are boats that can be rented or bought allowing faster sea travel. Wagons allow mobile storage, and riding a
horse is quicker on the roads, and grants more punctual fast travel to other locations
on the world map.

Yet fast travel in Daggerfall isn’t instant
like in most games – it documents actual days and hours spent, which have consequences. Events and holidays can pass, and windows
for important meetings can close. Loans from banks of each region are available,
but if you default you’d answer to that region’s law enforcement in the future. For this and other crimes, guards will try
to arrest you, requiring you to go to court to plead innocent or guilty. You can then choose to use evidence or, with
the right skills, lie your way out of serving a sentence – a glimpse of how ambitious Daggerfall
is. The game also features language skills. Speaking to imps, dragons, giants, and other
creatures results in them being non-hostile, but to me this feature does seems underdeveloped,
as one can’t carry on full conversations.

In addition to a comprehensive alchemy system,
you can trap your enemies’ souls in gems to craft powerful magic items; and has now
become a staple of the series. Daggerfall tracks reputations with various
economic classes, and you can use specific skills to better communicate with nobles,
merchants and commoners. This helps you carve out a niche for your
character who will seek out similar folk to get help, directions or quests. The new engine, though still featuring flat
sprite models, is fully 3D, clearly superior to its flat 2-axis predecessor. I’ve rarely seen dungeons so multilayered,
complex to a point where the 3D map can’t always save you. Tall castles, mountains and deep falls punctuate
the world, and a new skill at the time, Climbing, was implemented.

Dynamically scaling any wall or building,
and sneaking into the 2nd floor was never before seen in a game, and sadly, has never
been re-implemented in the series since. However, the game’s shortcomings do surface,
as the lovingly nicknamed “Buggerfall” has major technical issues. One can fall through walls and floors into
an endless void, and occasional quest-breaking glitches and crashes occur. And after playing many hours you’ll begin
to see an overuse of textures, and repetitive, uninspired terrain, mostly empty of life. Daggerfall introduces probably the most comprehensive
spellcrafting system ever made for a video game. Levitating to reach higher elevations, walking
on water, draining life, as well as dozens of other effects, with modifiers like durations,
types of targets affected, and combinations of multiple effects. Much of this was carried over from Arena,
demonstrating how staggeringly powerful that system was. Travel and camping are immersive and dangerous
and you’ll feel genuine dread when you read the four, horrible words, “There are enemies
nearby.” The howls of a lycanthrope, or the shrieks
of a wild atronach still get me to this day.

The sound design, though simple, repetitive
and outdated, is still effective at times. Sometimes Daggerfall’s brilliance is subtle,
with weather patterns that change the landscape during winter and summer months, and the dynamic
shift of Eric Heberling’s inspired soundtrack into eerie music as you near a crypt, or the
swell of whimsical strings during the pitter-patter of a rainy day, or the gloomy drones of a
dungeon — occasionally accented by a distant howl, or worse, the creak of a door opening
behind you.

It’s little details like these that make
Daggerfall… Daggerfall. An unmistakable atmosphere, so memorable,
and honestly, never quite replicated in any other game I’ve played. It triumphantly raised the bar for what computer
role-playing games could be. After Daggerfall’s release, plans for a
third entry buzzed around Bethesda’s office. Various ideas and plans were thrown around,
but after deliberation, the project was temporarily shelved and two smaller spinoff games were
planned instead: An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire and The Elder Scrolls Adventures:
Redguard. Originally planned to be an expansion pack
for Daggerfall, 1997’s Battlespire ended up being quite a different beast. According to Bethesda’s website, it was
a game focused on the “best” part of Daggerfall: dungeons. Of the entire series, Battlespire has the
strongest visual influence by Mark Jones, who, as lead artist and Art Director at Bethesda,
created many of the creatures in the series, as well as Battlespire’s cover, manual,
sprites, and much of the texture work. The campaign is set during the reign of Jagar
Tharn, mid the events of the first game, Arena.

You are an apprentice headed for your final
test at the Battlespire, a training facility for Imperial Battlemages. Once there, you realize the Daedric prince,
Mehrunes Dagon and his army have killed nearly everyone and captured your partner. Thus begins your adventure into the dark unknown
of varying realms of Oblivion to find your friend and defeat the prince. The Battlespire itself is in a pocket dimension
of Oblivion, introducing firsthand the most personality, lore and insight into Oblivion
and its inhabitants than in any other game in the series. Full voice acting also debuted in this game,
and surprisingly, most of it is well-executed. Something about arguing with a Scamp, yelling
at a Vermai, or trying to impress the aristocratic Dremora is both uncomfortable and strangely

You can even have conversations with most
Daedra, showing the multifaceted nature of their ethos and personality. The Dremora, Scamp, and Mark Jones’ personal
favorite, the Clannfear, were all unveiled in Battlespire, and remain in the series today. However, gone is the expansive wilderness,
cities and most friendly NPCs to talk to – this is a linear dungeon romp. But it does feature a solid character creation
system that in many ways is even deeper than Daggerfall’s.

Like its predecessor, you can add advantages
and disadvantages to your character, but instead of adjusting how fast you level, you gain
points to spend on skills, stats or starting items. You can even purchase magic or quality material
items before starting the game. When the game does begin, you will be in for
an adventure. An expertly crafted dark and moody atmosphere,
with a chilling soundtrack that creates a more desolate mood, as opposed to the sometimes
bright and energetic soundtrack of Daggerfall. But Battlespire is stuck in a technological
rut. The game runs in an improved 640×480 SVGA
resolution, but is still MS-DOS based and doesn’t support 3D acceleration. Enemies are strangely still 2D sprites, yet
you acquire and wield fully 3D modeled and textured weapons and items. As the only multiplayer Elder Scrolls title
for the first 20 years of the franchise, it features online play in free-for-all and team

Team deathmatches, as well as co-operative missions. This was an unusual feature to develop into
such a deep RPG series at the time, though when the online component does work, it is
impressive seeing other player characters inside your own game. Probably the biggest strike against Battlespire
other than its dungeon focus and insufficient scope, is its instability: glitches, broken
geometry, crashes, and plenty of other issues. It’s hard to pinpoint the cause, but the
dated XnGine, restrained to a limited operating system seems to be a culprit. The game received mediocre reviews at the
time, being cautiously recommended as a stopgap until a “true” Elder Scrolls sequel was
released. What do I feel Battlespire succeeded at most? The sense of being helpless, lost, alone,
and unwelcome.

And though Battlespire may not be the most
popular game in the series by a long shot, it's easily one of the most intriguing from
both a development and story standpoint. Julian LeFay had more creative control here
than in previous games and considers Battlespire to be the smoothest production he’d worked
on during his time at Bethesda – it was released in one year, without delays. Concurrently with Battlespire’s development,
another team at Bethesda were hard at work on its sister project. And the two couldn’t be any more different. In a drastic shift from the gloominess of
fighting Daedra in Oblivion, The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard is, as the title suggests,
high adventure. A swashbuckling tale set in Stros M’Kai,
a small island off the coast of the Redguard nation of Hammerfell, it is a giant tonal
shift from the somber Elder Scrolls games of the past.

But the complete shedding of character creation,
standard role-playing elements, experience gain, and leveling up, is even more jarring. This is an action adventure game, taking more
inspiration from Prince of Persia and the popular Tomb Raider series, than RPGs of the
time. The storyline and gameplay are engaging enough,
taking control of a young Redguard named Cyrus, and his tumultuous adventures during the Imperial
takeover of Hammerfell. Though focusing on adventure game tropes,
conversations, and puzzles over role-playing, it feels more like Pirates of the Caribbean
than The Elder Scrolls. In what seemed like fate, a few years after
its release Bethesda also created an official Pirates of the Caribbean game for Disney. Redguard was Todd Howard’s debut as project
leader in an Elder Scrolls game. Others, who began here on Redguard, would
also become integral to the series’ evolution, like Ken Rolston (who’d done some writing
for Battlespire) and Michael Kirkbride. Designer Kurt Kuhlmann, who had worked on
Daggerfall was signed on as well. This was the biggest team Bethesda had assembled
so far, dwarfing the relatively small crew of Daggerfall and Battlespire, likely due
to the leap into fully 3D art, characters, animation, and world.

Despite the Redguard installer working only
in Windows with the dated DOS-based XnGine, the added 3D acceleration does make for a
sleeker and smoother experience. Nevertheless, this may have been a preview
into Bethesda’s future stubbornness against change when it comes to game technology. Some of Redguard’s voice acting is good,
with the actor who plays the protagonist, Cyrus, going on to voice characters in Elder
Scrolls titles as late as 2007. But there are some duds here as well, with
some of the worst voice acting I've heard in a big-budget game. But I
feel the most damning thing about Redguard, is that the real reason most people picked
up the game was the Elder Scrolls label, and all the expectations that came with it.

Had this enjoyable action adventure been called
something like 'The Legend of Cyrus: A Swashbuckling Adventure', I think audiences would have been
more forgiving. But in the end, Computer Gaming World reported
that both spinoff games, Battlespire and Redguard, were financial failures. Looking ahead, many on the team, including
Todd Howard, Ken Rolston and Michael Kirkbride, were put onto the Elder Scrolls III project
after Redguard’s launch.

With loose concepts and early ideas mostly
scrapped, real production began for what would become a legend among RPGs: Morrowind. TODD HOWARD: “The company went through some
very hard times, we were very close to going out of business. Daggerfall did fine, then we spread ourselves
thin, we started doing a lot of games, and they just weren’t good enough. And they weren’t the kind of games we should
have been making at the time. “We did Battlespire, I did Redguard — a
game I love, it didn’t do well for the company, and we had been working on The 10th Planet,
and there were other projects no-one heard about. So there was this period — Daggerfall was
‘96, maybe to 2000 — we went through some very rough times and that was when Bethesda
became part where ZeniMax Media was founded and Bethesda became part of ZeniMax. And that gave us kind of a new lease on life,
really. And we went into Morrowind.

“I mean there were SIX of us at the time,
right, the studio had gotten that small, and I was in charge of Morrowind. But by that time, once you get to that point,
there was this element of ‘no fear’. Like, what’s the worst that gonna happen? We could go out of business. Well, let’s go all in. This is the game!” The original title for The Elder Scrolls Part
III was going to be Tribunal, and set in the high elf region of the Summerset Isles. They planned to build it using an SVGA version
of XnGine, but when production finally hit full stride, that idea was abandoned in favor
of a new and more modernized engine, NetImmerse — later to be known as Gamebryo. This engine was designed for expansive, massively
multiplayer worlds, and iterations of it would later be used for titles like Warhammer Online,
Defiance and Dark Age of Camelot. The once cohesive development team by this
time was split into groups working on multiple games which divided the culture at Bethesda. Morrowind’s development had started and
stopped several times, so Julian LeFay, who fully expected to continue work on this sequel,
started developing a small side project in the meantime.

When the Morrowind project launched into full
momentum, however, he wasn’t picked for the team, and due to creative differences,
the changing culture at the company and management conflicts, Julian, the creator of the Elder
Scrolls series, departed Bethesda Softworks in 1998. CEO and founder Christopher Weaver was upset
at his friend and longtime employee’s departure, but later they did reconcile, with Julian
briefly consulting with Morrowind programming staff remotely. Yet Bethesda as a company was working on borrowed
time, and after two large-scale game failures, they had to cover operating expenses or they’d
have to fold. In order to acquire much-needed funding, in
1999 Chris Weaver co-founded a parent company, ZeniMax, with lawyer Robert Altman.

Weaver contributed his entire Bethesda stock,
and Altman came on board as CEO. ZeniMax procured funds from various entertainment
investors and, in turn, kept Bethesda afloat. Then the turmoil began. Bethesda was split into two companies: Bethesda
Softworks, the publisher, and Bethesda Game Studios, the developer. By 2001 – two short years later – the research
and development branch Weaver managed as CTO was closed and his contract left unrenewed,
effectively firing him from the company he founded. In a Frankenstein-like tale, Chris, in his
efforts to save his own company, created the shell company that terminated his involvement
in it. Multiple lawsuits against ZeniMax went on
for years, with the latest settled out of court. Chris now teaches at universities including
MIT. Altman resides as CEO and Chairman of ZeniMax at the time of this video’s release. It's undeniable that the 1990’s experienced
the most lightning-fast growth in video game technology than any decade before or since.

Even though the look and elegancy of games
in the last 10 years have improved, compared to the advent of 3D accelerators, two new
console generations, and a boom in hardware advancement, 1990 to 2000 was a technological
paradigm shift! The 6-year gap between the second and third
entry to The Elder Scrolls demonstrated this staggering change. Even in the era where role-playing games lagged
behind the ever-popular shooter and action game genres, Morrowind was one of the most
interactive and technically impressive games of that year. You could pick up items and place them on
various surfaces or stow them away.

Stealth was based on line of sight, and running
and jumping were tied to stat algorithms. Some comical interactions with these systems
included building your very own “Usain Bolt” – running bullet fast and leaping over valleys. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind played its
cards in 2002, and it was a good hand: with 3D accelerated graphics and a half decade
of improved technology, the beautiful environments, smooth and articulated NPCs, advanced physics,
and tailored architecture and terrain were mind-blowing. Having fully abandoned 2D sprite models for
a fully polygonal world, major issues that had plagued Arena, Daggerfall and Battlespire
were remedied overnight. Many systems Daggerfall put in place were
simplified or scaled back in Morrowind. Despite its world being a fraction of the
size — the land mass of Vvardenfell was a 6000th the size of Daggerfall’s map — it
was a lot more detailed with denser locations and activities per square mile.

Yet the lack of scale was jarring to returning
fans of the series. As an example, at one vantage point in the
game I could pan around and look at two completely separate cities, it was that condensed. This was the first time the act of creating
your character was integrated into the beginning of gameplay, with various steps along the
way, such as when an NPC asks your name or what your background is. In fact, it may have been one of the very
first times this technique was used in a major game release. Morrowind begins with you as a prisoner on
a ship headed to Vvardenfell; you awaken from dreams filled with mysterious visions after
a strange storm. The main plot surrounds the Tribunal, the
three god-like beings that rule over Morrowind. One character suspects you to be the Nerevarine,
a reincarnation of their legendary Nerevar, the Protector of Morrowind.

And as part of the main quest, you must perform
five trials to prove your worth and destroy the malevolent Dagoth Ur. Though the rich lore and history of Morrowind
was enjoyable, I did feel the Chosen One storyline could have been structured more creatively
or less linearly. The game made NPCs into miniature encyclopedias
with linked keywords so you can delve deeper into the lore if you wish. More options unlock if you increase their
persuasion bar through bribes, flattery, threats, or other methods. You could also now potentially kill any NPC
on the map, an improvement over Arena and Daggerfall.

Guards reacted more naturally, rather than
incessantly shouting “HALT!”, and if you managed to murder secretly, you could get
away with it. And any Morrowind veteran will have flashbacks
of the terrifying creatures found in Daedric shrines, or the abominable cliff racers shrieking
at you from the skies and incessantly chasing you down. Morrowind eschewed the fast travel system
of Daggerfall and Arena for a contextual travel system using Silt Striders, voyages by boat
and occasional Magic Guild teleportation. This choice, along with a glacial movement
speed was probably done to make the world seem much larger than it actually was. Yet it was enjoyable to have to locate NPCs,
paths or signs in order to navigate to a destination, as compared to the overbearing navigation
options of most modern games. With the undeniable boon to the technical
aspects of the game due to a more powerful engine, a bigger team, bigger budget and a
smaller, more handcrafted scope, Morrowind was so impressive that we didn’t notice
aspects of the series this new entry shed in its gestation.

Well…most of us didn’t. The advantage and disadvantage system of Daggerfall
was cut, where you could take on positives like regeneration, spell absorption or being
especially good at attacking specific monster types…or assign negatives, like being deathly
prone to disease, or being unable to use a given weapon or armor type. This was replaced with birthsigns, with predetermined
modifiers. Your skills no longer determined your starting
gear, the starting reputation feature was removed, and the skill list was slimmed down
immensely. Most notably, all language skills were removed,
Streetwise and Etiquette were combined into the Speechcraft skill, and the climbing system
was gutted. This diminished many character-carving ways
you could define yourself. You can’t be a nobleman, a knight or a person
of high esteem; you’re always going to be that prisoner, fresh off the boat. Despite changing the aesthetic and some of
the lore established in Arena regarding the Dark Elf nation and its culture, Morrowind
easily offers the most personality and unique look and feel of any Elder Scrolls game world:
an unconventional wasteland populated with flying jellyfish; the eerie magical barricade
surrounding the Red Mountain region; the adobe cities and steaming geysers and lava pits
scattered across the volcanic landscape of Vvardenfell were alien and foreign, standing
out from other fantasy RPGs of the time.

Morrowind was the stepping stone between the
precepts set forth by Arena and Daggerfall, and what The Elder Scrolls is known for today. It made the introduction of many series staples,
such as the wondrous theme song and musical style of Jeremy Soule. Despite its inspired and evocative composition,
though, it was crudely laid over gameplay. With music tracks grouped into two sets, “explore”
and “battle”, it was like switching between two short playlists, and music often didn’t
match the tone of what was happening on-screen.

A new magic discipline, Conjuration, allows
you to summon Daedra to fight by your side, as well as temporary magic weapons and armor. It’s a welcome addition to the already vast
spellbook the series had to offer. Morrowind also showcased the widest range
of projectile weapons in the entire series, hence its skill being dubbed “Marksman”
rather than “Archery”. Most casual dialogue during gameplay was competently
voiced now, and their selection of actors was mostly stellar. The gravelly world-worn voices of the Dunmer
of Vvardenfell are unforgettable and strangely soothing, and the Imperial guard are sufficiently
better-than-thou. This game was the final entry of the mainline
series to see artist Mark Jones’ aesthetic influence.

The notable 3D artist behind much of Daggerfall
and Battlespire’s haunting visuals, along with stirring concept art by Michael Kirkbride,
many of the morbid and unusual creatures and denizens of the wasteland were sparked from
their unique styles – sometimes charming, and other times surreal…like from an eerie
dream crafted by the likes of Boris Vallejo and Salvador Dali. After the massive success of Morrowind selling
4 million copies, numbers the series hadn’t seen before, and thanks to a growing fanbase
and Xbox release, the team was immediately assigned to creating an expansion, which within
five short months released as Tribunal. Set in the mainland Morrowind capital of Mournhold,
it is a constricting change even from Morrowind’s relatively small setting. Though receiving mostly positive feedback
and touting some inspired architecture and plotlines, in the hearts of most players,
Tribunal didn’t quite capture what made Morrowind appealing as an open-world RPG. On the positive side, Tribunal is considered
unique as it was the only expansion in The Elder Scrolls series to actually continue
the core game’s storyline, rather than being a standalone side adventure.

The next expansion, Bloodmoon, was released
in 2003, about a year after the core game launched. Featuring snowy vistas and savage new creatures
to battle, it was a more open-ended adventure, and was better received than the more linear
Tribunal. Taking you to Solstheim, a small, frigid island
sharing the coast of Morrowind and Skyrim. Bloodmoon re-introduces lycanthropy, a feature
missing since Daggerfall. In the years that followed, another ZeniMax
studio, Vir2L developed three mobile phone spinoff games in the Elder Scrolls Travels
series — titled Stormhold, Dawnstar and Shadowkey.

They struggled technologically on the primitive
cellphone hardware of the time, but featured some of Mark Jones’ final work on the series. Morrowind was a stunning technical leap from
Daggerfall over its six years of planning and development, and improved many features
in the process: AI, tailored environments and a more interactive world, but in its haste
to shed the ways of the old, the team moved away, in part, from what made its predecessor
so compelling: a colossal game world with nearly limitless opportunities and possibilities.

Now all that was left was to make the game
bigger, better and more dynamic. And Bethesda attempted to do just that in
the years to come. With each new entry, the Elder Scrolls series
has grown a much wider audience, but its aspirations have lessened. The first title, Arena, struggled with its
restrictive technology and a scope which encompassed the entire land of Tamriel, but its sequel,
Daggerfall, with tweaks, changes and additions is often regarded as the most ambitious role-playing
game ever made.

Conversely, after the technological leap of
Morrowind, the fourth entry, Oblivion, offers a less striking improvement. Perhaps as a side effect of the Xbox 360 being
the lead platform and a Playstation 3 port releasing later on, with console optimization
being paramount, the graphical leap is a more modest one. Going back to a more traditional European
climate and architecture, our first foray since Arena into the imperial province of
Cyrodiil is an interesting one; vast towers and buildings piercing the sky were indeed
impressive after the more primitive architecture of Morrowind. Shunning the refreshingly brief introduction
and character creation of Morrowind, and starting you in yet another dank dungeon to fight rats
and other beasts before reaching the surface, it was a little disappointing. Oblivion does, however, feature an innovative
character creation and opening sequence which introduces you to the game’s controls, the
core plot hook, as well as stealth, melee, ranged, and magic mechanics BEFORE you design
your character. This allows you to settle into a playstyle
before specializing in it. An NPC at the end of the tutorial even suggests
which class fits you best, based on your behavior up to that point.

This inspired technique would be later used
in Oblivion’s designer, Ken Rolston’s next game: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. It’s clear Bethesda Game Studios, its publisher
and investors were going all-in on this franchise. The series’ recurring character, Emperor
Uriel Septim is now voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart, with his son Martin given life and
personality by actor Sean Bean, with other supporting roles by Terence Stamp and Jonathan
Pryce, bringing Hollywood-level production values to the game’s story. And if you would note Oblivion for a single
shift in direction, it’s a much stronger focus on plot and the ever-present main quest.

At the beginning of the game, you are given
a mission by the Emperor right before his assassination to seek out his true heir and
through the power of his bloodline, restore the now-broken Covenant that keeps the dark
forces of Oblivion at bay. This is an epic story of a grand scale, and
is the game in the series most closely involved with the Daedric realms since Battlespire. Cyrodiil is an impressive 22 square miles,
over twice the size of Vvardenfell in the previous game. With so many freedoms and such a vast open
world, one can easily get enraptured in wanderlust and discovery, instead of engaging in the
story written for you, something The Elder Scrolls has struggled with since its inception. But instead of making side quests and player-driven
activities the point of the adventure, Oblivion wrangles you into the plot with a firmer hand,
giving you immediate goals and missions to accomplish right off the bat, along with the
introduction of the ever-present compass and quest marker system. Bethesda changed the game’s controls to
emphasize combat over activating objects and speaking to NPCs.

Combat, most would agree, has been one of
the weaker parts of the series — and is what Oblivion attempts to improve on most about
its core gameplay. Weapon damage is now simplified to a single
flat number, instead of damage ranges, and multiple attack types like in Morrowind. This scaling back resulted in many weapons
feeling similar or identical in effectiveness. And more skills were condensed, such as combining
Short and Long Blade to simply “Blade”. Oblivion swapped out the “miss-athon”
of previous games’ hit chance system, and instead, guarantees strikes — and amplifies
weapon damage based on your skill stat instead. Fighting feels simplified, but more kinetic. If a strike or projectile lands on its target,
it hits, no questions asked. Blocking is now assigned to your right click
(or left trigger), so you must time your blows and blocks effectively to fight an enemy,
rather than just swinging endlessly until one of you dies. Combat animations were overhauled, and bows
have a new zoom option and are considerably more intuitive — all to be expected with
improving technology and the team’s familiarity with their engine.

Excluding ethereal undead, like wraiths, material
requirements for weapons to inflict damage on higher level monsters was removed. No longer do you feel the panic of attacking
a Daedroth with an iron weapon, only for it to have no effect. The removal does make some sense: I mean,
why should a character’s fist deal damage when a steel blade does not? But this limitation did make those encounters
scarier and more exciting in previous games, the result was that certain battles were impossible
until your character progressed — probably by design. Additionally, Oblivion introduces the scaling
mechanic where enemies get stronger as your character levels up.

This is meant to make areas you haven’t
visited yet still challenging should you take them on later than intended. But this has the side effect of occasionally
making fights more difficult than they just were before you leveled, diminishing the sense
of power you’ve gained. The game retains most of the character creation
options Morrowind offered, but innovates in two areas: This is the first game in the series
to introduce the now standard face-generation system.

In previous Bethesda games each face was pre-modeled,
so you’d have only a handful to choose from for each race/gender combination, and thus
you would often see clones of yourself as NPCs. Oblivion attempts to solve this by providing
a morphable face, allowing players to look unique while also serving as a tool for the
devs to rapidly create NPCs that looked different from one another. Impressive for the time, but this system is
far from perfect. The doughiness of the simple face model with
only minor alterations for each race meant that every NPC seemed slightly related and
off-putting. And the horrible skin textures and blotches
of miscolored flesh tones wouldn't be quite as bad if the game didn't zoom uncomfortably
close to their faces as you talk to them, putting these issues front and center. Disagreeable faces aside, the much touted
Radiant AI system is easily Oblivion’s most original improvement to the formula. Perhaps borrowing a page from Gothic or Arcanum,
non-player characters now wake up, talk to other NPCs in dynamic conversations, walk
the streets, do their jobs, set up shops, and close them in the evening to sleep.

Characters can now transfer into and out of
buildings and other zones in realtime, rather than stay stuck in the zone they started in. Alert guards or hostiles can now run out a
door or pursue you through one. This immersive quality makes the world feel
that much more alive, and the series has improved for it. Voice acting is more expensive and time-consuming
than inserting written words, yet Oblivion admirably made all dialogue in the game voiced
rather than the previous hybrid of both voiced and text speech.

The problem is that dialogue comes off as
uneven at times. It now features simpler, more linear conversations,
with questionable and at times comical voice acting. Inconsistent voiceover QA resulted in bad
recording takes still existing in the final release, as well as abrupt conversations between
NPCs and some poor delivery. This has led to Oblivion becoming the most
unintentionally humorous game in the series. In a commendable but misguided attempt to
“gameify” the speech system, a persuasion minigame was designed around the tenets introduced
in Morrowind: admiration, coercion and bribery. But it was clunky and didn't add much to gameplay,
so it's no wonder it was scrapped for the sequel. Two dearly missed features from Daggerfall
were re-introduced, though touted as “brand new additions” for newcomers to the series:
Horses, which are invaluable in traversing this larger game world; and the purchasing
of houses in various towns around the country.

Despite this expanded world, the game’s
contextual travel options by boat and via the Mage’s Guild are no more, instead reintroducing
the always-available fast travel to any major point on the map you’ve already visited
before, with several locations immediately available from the start. These ease-of-play features make backtracking
a breeze, though it dramatically lessens the sense of distance. If players overuse the fast travel system,
it results in a world much larger than Morrowind, but FEELS smaller. In a call-back to the original game, Arena,
and its earliest design concept, the Imperial City featured a coliseum with exciting gladiatorial
fights. These grew progressively more challenging,
and winning or losing a duel to the cheer of a bloodthirsty crowd was a fun distraction. A scrutinous eye will notice that many minor
features have vanished since their last outing in Morrowind, two examples being lycanthropy
and many weapon types. Additionally, all jump enhancing and levitation
spells have been stricken from the spellbook in Oblivion moving forward. This is likely due to the limited technology
and memory constraints put on the game and how cities were built.

Morrowind was actually advanced for its time,
as all settlements, cities and the like existed out in the open, right alongside the wilderness. As many of us tried in Morrowind with the
Scroll of Icarian Flight, we could jump over mountains or cities in one gigantic leap,
but Bethesda decided to cut back on resources used here, making major cities and buildings
their own “walled-in” zones rather than keeping them in the open world. If you could actually levitate in Oblivion,
you’d be met with an invisible wall or find yourself in a void between zones.

Console hardware limitations likely had a
big impact in the decision to divide up the Imperial City into smaller zones, as a similar
compromise was reported by team members at Obsidian who used Bethesda’s same engine
and toolkit to make the Fallout 3 spinoff, New Vegas, years later. Oblivion’s High Dynamic Range effects and
bloom give a strange, overexposed and plastic look to many of the buildings and settlements
in the world. And in spite of this being titled after the
Daedric realm “Oblivion”, artist Mark Jones’s absence is felt. The Elder Scrolls setting here felt more like
run-of-the-mill generic fantasy compared to Morrowind, Battlespire or even Daggerfall. Entering the foreboding Oblivion portals reveal
but one realm, which, though looking impressively evil, felt a little too similar to the recent
Lord of the Rings movies’ interpretation of Mordor, Sauron’s Eye and all. Much of Cyrodiil’s overworld is more pleasant
and less dangerous than Morrowind, with little fear of swarms of slaughterfish in lakes,
or monsters waiting over every hill. It’s indeed breathtaking to soak in the
emerald green of the expansive forests, hills, underbrush, and plains, mostly inhabited by
deer, rabbits and the like.

It is fitting for a much more civilized and
populated region of the world, but we have lost the nagging sense of danger as well. If Oblivion did one thing differently than
the sardine can-packed world of Morrowind, it expanded the world and put partially procedurally
generated terrain in-between locations, letting each area and location of interest breathe
a little. Oblivion introduced a limitation of only having
one summoned creature at a time, and made spellmaking a late-game feature, rather than
being available early on. Stolen items are now marked as such so you
can’t sell them outside of a Thieves’ Guild fence. Shop inventories are now sometimes stored
off-map so you can’t pilfer all items. These changes are meant to balance how useful
stealing is, but it’s annoying when you find out that the goods you want are impossible
to steal, for no other reason than the designers didn’t want you to.

The user interface in Oblivion probably displays
the most personality of any of the games in the series, though not as customizable as
Morrowind’s. Each stat, skill and ability has illustrations,
icons and stylized descriptions, and breathes life and flavor into the game's menus and
screens. Dungeons are more densely designed with frequent
enemies and challenges, probably due to feedback that the long tunnel-like dungeons in Morrowind
weren’t as immediately satisfying. And lore-established cities were much sparser
than described in previous games. With the Imperial City being impressive but
diminutive, instead of the sprawling metropolis it was described to be. This may actually have to do with onscreen
NPC limits within the Gamebryo engine itself, but is more likely to have been a compromise
made for easier porting to consoles with limited memory. Later in 2006, an expansion to Oblivion called
Knights of the Nine was released. In this Arthurian tale, you must gather the
mythical Crusader armor and weaponry and reassemble the titular Knights of the Nine in an effort
to defeat the powerful demigod, Umaril. This compelling narrative follows through
to a satisfying conclusion, but doesn’t change much with the basic gameplay tropes
Oblivion had to offer.

The second and final expansion released the
following year, in 2007. Shivering Isles takes the player to a never-before-seen
plane of Oblivion, the Realm of Madness. Featuring the vastly differing isles of Mania
and Dementia, you must navigate the schemes of the Daedric Prince of Madness, Sheogorath. Any venture into a new and interesting Oblivion
realm is always welcomed, but this expansion does lose some steam later on with its more
repetitive quests. In the end, Oblivion is a smoother, more kinetic,
yet uneven upgrade over Morrowind. The loss of more unique worldbuilding and
the shedding of some of its deeper mechanics are missed, but if major steps forward like
doubling the map size and improving AI were the direction the series was heading, then
The Elder Scrolls V would surely go even further to impress us with its scope and ambition,
right? From the very first moment you hit “New
Game” in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you can see a different design philosophy pervade
than in previous games.

In the most linear introduction to an Elder
Scrolls game yet, one entire third of the lengthy opening finds you motionless in the
back of a wagon. Another third literally has your hands tied
with nothing to do but run. Forced camera movements requiring you to look
skyward at the dragon, Alduin, charring Imperials with its scorching breath, or to jar your
camera around in order to make things “epic”. Borrowing the narrow-corridor tricks many
triple-A games of the time were using, this introduction is out of place in a game where
95% of the time you aren’t experiencing that sort of staged excitement. This shift is most readily explained by the
departure of the lead designer of Oblivion and Morrowind, Ken Rolston, and the entrance
of Emil Pagliarulo (who created the Dark Brotherhood questline for Oblivion and led the design
team on Fallout 3), now as senior designer and writer for Skyrim, alongside series veterans
Bruce Nesmith and Kurt Kuhlmann. Easily the most contentious thing about Skyrim
is its complete overhaul of the progression system.

While Morrowind’s shedding of Daggerfall’s
character creation depth was disappointing, Oblivion’s fixation on its main quest, while
simplifying abilities and item stats was off-putting, these now look like minor changes compared
to the clean sweep Skyrim made with The Elder Scrolls’ RPG system. The attribute system that has been a staple
of the series since day one was completely removed, replacing it with a simplistic Health,
Magicka and Stamina system. It’s a weird combobulation of the previous
stats. Health defines your hit points and how fast
they regenerate (like a simplified Endurance), Magicka increases maximum spell points and
their speed of recovery (like Willpower, but does not boost magic effectiveness), and Stamina
governs carry weight and how fast you get exhausted (a sort of hybrid of Strength and
Endurance from previous titles, but does not augment your damage). This foolproof “increase the green, red
and blue bars” design almost reeks of arcade games.

It also strangely disadvantages melee characters,
where you will have to alternate between enhancing Stamina and Health each level up — but mages
can simply go full-Magicka to become spellcasting powerhouses. For the first time in the mainline series,
Skyrim has a completely classless system where you’re meant to discover and evolve your
character through your actions rather than through character creation. This is an admirable goal, but for every great
idea Skyrim has, it stumbles with another that undermines its elegance.

For example, removing attributes makes it
so you improve at activities purely through using them, but then when you level up you
have to decide which perk you want to acquire in any of the skill trees — which all have
minimum skill requirements. So you don’t organically improve your skills
but still artificially get boons to them through the skill perks screen. To make this even more jumbled, each perk
has prerequisite perks which sometimes have little to do with another.

Why should you have to take a perk that increases
sneak attack damage with a dagger before a similar sneak attack bonus for archery? This idea was heavily inspired by Bethesda’s
last game, Fallout 3, then transplanted into the Elder Scrolls system — which was well-known
for its logical, improve-as-you-use-it skill progression system. Combined with rapidly reusable skill trainers
in towns, which can train you up to high levels in a particular field in a matter of minutes,
and the level scaling system which makes enemies tougher as you level up, it’s possible to
change lanes with your character or apply perks in such a way while increasing your
level that you inadvertently make combat much more difficult for yourself after leveling
— a puzzling side effect of this inconsistent system.

I don’t criticize the classless system on
its core concept. I’ve played many games without classes I
love and enjoy. I criticize the lack of weight and consequences
within any character progression. Everyone can cast fire or healing spells;
everyone is competent using any weapon type, and anyone can sneak and steal items. It’s not that you can no longer choose a
class, it’s that you’re all classes at once. Your character is just magically great at
everything. To top it all off, you get dragon powers to
boot, which further separates you from being just another inhabitant of this living world. You are a “protagonist” with a capital
“P”, no longer a normal denizen who rose to become better than the rest. Fantasy fulfillment is one thing, but the
enamorment with convincing the player that they’re The Chosen One or a Messiah can
get old fast. Additionally, there are actions and sequences
that are much easier to pull off with spellcasting, so everyone by necessity simply becomes a
magic user hybrid by default. Creating a compelling challenge isn’t always
about having an easy solution in hand, limitations are a necessary component to any game, so
how you choose to overcome a given obstacle using your own set of abilities makes the
experience engaging.

Mechanics, such as elemental physics, introduced
early in the game’s dungeons are all but abandoned later in the game. And by tying major progression directly into
the mainline quest in the form of learning dragon shouts, Skyrim is actively guiding
you through its storyline, rather than leaving you to discover your own story. This speaks to the streamlining approach Skyrim’s
design took this time around. In a talk with senior designer, Emil Pagliarulo,
reveal his design priorities: to cut rather than add. His self-proclaimed love of the K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple, Stupid) axiom characterizes
him as a designer more focused on removing ideas that don’t immediately work or have
much function, rather than adding or expanding on existing concepts. EMIL: “But you could look at a standard
controller, the general gist was, you know ‘A’ would be a positive response, ‘X’
would be a neutral response, ‘B’ would be a negative response and ‘Y’ would be
a question. Okay, and so that would allow us to have more
fluid interactions with our characters.” This isn’t a closed-book analysis of the
approach used in the series as of late, but it does paint a compelling picture of why
The Elder Scrolls, and Skyrim in particular, has narrowed its focus to such simplicity.

The result is seen everywhere: Since Morrowind,
the number of weapon types and armor set pieces have been halved; alchemy is less comprehensive
and spellmaking has been completely eliminated from the game. Incidentally, the need to “rest and meditate
on what you have learned” in order to level up was also cut in Skyrim, which is a trivial
but telling change in its quest to streamline the game, at the cost of its endearing and
unique qualities. Simpler tunnel-vision dungeons that are much
less punishing than the ones featured in earlier games, lead you directly to the end like an
amusement park ride. Cities, forts and settlements are smaller
than ever and are sparsely populated with citizens, who only converse in mostly scripted
one or two-liners. And the game world is so condensed you don’t
FEEL like you’re in a real fantasy nation; more like an interactive theme park.

The punishingly harsh climate of Skyrim — alluded
to in previous games’ lore — has no bearing on your survival. You can walk in the barren wilderness during
a blizzard for hours to no effect. Had they taken advantage of this missed opportunity
and made survival a challenge, keeping warm in the colder areas and hunting and cooking
your prey, that would have made traversing the wilds much more compelling, thematic and
dangerous. Crafting food in Skyrim is so fleshed out
that it seems like it was at one point in development, a much more important feature
cut down at the last minute. Crafting what are essentially weaker potions
doesn’t make any sense alongside self-regenerating health and healing magic everyone starts out
with. Oblivion had raised the bar of NPC interaction,
having the denizens of the world wander, go to work, interact and converse in realtime. Due to unintentional hiccups though, it appears
the Radiant AI system was turned down a notch for Skyrim, resulting in scripted dialogue
between characters you were absolutely meant to overhear when first entering the area.

It felt contrived and forced, rather than
Oblivion’s secret joy of eavesdropping on others’ conversation. Skyrim killed off all movement-enhancing skills. Running, Jumping, Swimming and the like can
no longer be improved, effectively eliminating builds like Acrobats or Catburglars. Many other skills were combined, such as merging
all melee weapon skills to the simplistic One-Handed and Two-Handed skill trees. This removed the personality and choice of
using different types of weapons, and often resulted in just chasing whichever had the
biggest damage number. Designer Emil Pagliarulo and director Todd
Howard are on record stating they are more interested in cutting superfluous features
or content rather than expanding what they have. But that, in the end, can be subjective. Are larger, expansive worlds with the ability
to levitate, climb, run faster or jump further unneeded or unwanted? Many would disagree. TODD: “We go at it each time with ‘let's
not just look at the last one and say ‘what does it need?’ you know, I think most people
— most fans will look at it and say ‘It's great, you should change the leveling, add
spears, add crossbows, add this and add some more races,” and I usually approach it from
‘well I want to know what skills are superfluous,’ that we should fold into something else to
make the choice of what your character is more meaningful.

Make THAT choice more meaningful, and how
are the races different, you know? I think ten races is enough. How is playing an orc different than playing
a high elf? Or you know, those kind of things.” Blacksmithing is a compelling new addition
that debuted in Skyrim, where one can harvest materials and create their own armor and arsenal. Bruce Nesmith, one of the last people still
working on the series since Daggerfall, also unveiled the Radiant Quest system, which was
supposed to be the flagship feature of Skyrim. Radiant generates side quests based on your
actions and behavior during the story, and populates locales you’ve yet to visit with
tailored encounters. This is an interesting development, and it’s
good to see someone at Bethesda trying to push the envelope beyond the safety of the
proven successful formula, but the result is so subtle that most players may not even

Though its unprecedented sales figures might
mislead you otherwise, there are three likely reasons Skyrim sold better than any of its
predecessors. Firstly, it released day one on the most popular
console platforms, the Xbox 360 and the PS3, several years into their lifecycle so the
install base was much higher than when Oblivion launched. The second is that game franchises gain more
fans over time, and with now two console releases under their belt, hype was high.

Third was that Skyrim was clearly designed
from the ground up as a more marketable product. For the first time in the series, it has a
branded and marketable mascot, the Dragonborn, with their iconic horned helmet silhouette. The game showcases its slick silver-on-black
minimalist look, consistent through the disc case, its main menu, user interface and all
throughout the game. Additionally, the trailers and gameplay focused
on its big selling point: you are a Dragonborn and you get to fight massive dragons — something
many video games have struggled with technologically over the years. It was dead simple, and you could sell that
appeal to anyone in a 30-second trailer. Another impressive thing about Skyrim is its
effortless and emergent physics. Improving on the already satisfying Havok
physics system in Oblivion, Skyrim flaunts its kinetic weight and ragdoll systems with
giants who can launch you a hundred feet into the air, projectiles that knock back enemies
and pin them to objects, and massive dragons who swoop down, snatch up victims and fling
them far into the distance.

These were mind-blowing the first few times
we witnessed them. Skyrim’s minimalist interface, though slick-looking,
handles like a spreadsheet of names, lists and categories. Combined with Skyrim’s new dual-wielding
control system, while intuitive for simple loadouts, you end up going in and out of menus
more than ever before when switching between weapons, shields and spells — breaking the
pace of gameplay. The first expansion to Skyrim was Dawnguard,
which focuses on the titular faction of vampire hunters. You can join the Dawnguard or their enemy
faction and become a Vampire Lord, introducing a specialized skill tree with vampire powers. Werewolves are given a skill tree as well. This continued the trend of marketable and
easily digestible content packs. In Skyrim you can fight dragons. In Dawnguard, you can fight or become a vampire. Simple, easy to pitch, and was met with a
positive reception.

The second expansion was more controversial,
however. Hearthfire didn’t possess a grand storyline
or much of a plot. It just allows the player to build a house
in one of three locations in the world, and the option to adopt children. It has been criticized due to its fairly limiting
options: the inability to customize your home as much as you might expect, and children
do not develop or age. Hearthfire was a neat distraction, but many
reviewers agreed there wasn’t much of a point to it.

In its third and final expansion, Dragonborn,
you again visit Solstheim, the same island featured in Morrowind’s second expansion,
Bloodmoon. Though treading familiar ground, it builds
on the lore introduced in the core storyline, making you feel challenged. You’re no longer the only Dragonborn in
town. Most interesting to me was visiting the Lovecraftian
realm of Apocrypha, the Daedric realm of Hermaeus Mora — a welcome peek into previously unseen
planes of Oblivion. Skyrim has to date been released on five separate
console platforms, as well as releasing on the PC twice: the original version in 2011,
and in 2016 with the Special Edition that included improved shaders and post-processing
effects, as well as support for some community-created mods on console. A full Skyrim virtual reality conversion was
released in 2017, and though impressive and immersive with the right VR setup, this business
practice has drawn ire from many players, especially on PC, where one might have bought
the retail-priced game three whole times, for what is at its core, the same game content
with different controls or visuals.

The uglier, corporate side of post-Zenimax
Bethesda reared its head following Skyrim's success, however. With a failed attempt at monetizing community
modifications on the Steam platform, proceeded by a complete microtransaction-based mod store
for Skyrim and Fallout 4, launched a few years later called the Creation Club. While I support the idea that hardworking
amateur developers in the community get paid for their work, it rubbed many fans the wrong
way, seemingly just a way to get a cut of the money raised by hardworking modders, rather
than creating compelling content themselves. Skyrim was the biggest stamp of approval the
company has ever received on their products. Nothing about “23 million sold” says you’re
on the wrong track, and that's disappointing. For every good addition or tweak to the controls
or formula I felt the game aced, I can think of three others that were simplified, dumbed
down or completely removed. At this point it seems like Bethesda is treating
their series like a zero-sum game — where you can only add a system or feature if you
cut another.

A far cry from the aspiration of the earlier
Elder Scrolls games – to achieve something greater that has never been experienced before. It seems that in the minds of many regulars,
the series has already peaked — and that is one mountain Todd Howard’s team hasn’t
been able to climb. Taking a page out of Blizzard Entertainment’s
playbook, ZeniMax formed a team to start working on a massively multiplayer online game set
in The Elder Scrolls universe. With talent who had worked on Dark Age of
Camelot and other titles in the past, they formed an entirely new division to create
the game: ZeniMax Online Studios. Production began in 2007, just a year after
Oblivion launched and was a business decision that made sense given the gaming climate at
the time. Blizzard Entertainment’s leap into the world
of MMOs had proven to be a colossal success, enjoying several years of over ten million
paying subscribers. The prospect of guaranteed customers each
month is any company’s dream, and so the troubled development of The Elder Scrolls
Online began.

After seven long years, ESO launched in 2014
to a resounding thud. Major influencers and reviewers panned the
game, citing its bugs, stability issues and exploits. Some users paid for a subscription but their
account wasn’t activated. And reports of terrible zone instancing where
you’d enter a solo quest area only to see everything you’d have to fight already dead
and looted. With a retail-price entry fee on top of a
paid subscription model set against the shiny and polished World of Warcraft and Guild Wars
2 as competition, ESO had a long, hard climb to regain its trust and interest from fans. But eventually, they managed to do just that. ZeniMax Online launched Tamriel Unlimited
a year later — a major update to the game which eliminated paid subscriptions, and simultaneously
launched the game on current gen consoles. With this dramatic shift in business model
and years of patching and content updates, the game has improved greatly.

Playing it today is a smooth and enjoyable
online experience, and has all the hallmarks of an MMO you can sink hundreds of hours into. But does it replace the single player experience
of a proper Elder Scrolls game? Well, the combat is solid. There are the abilities you’d expect in
the genre that will have you cycling your number keys, tossing spells and using abilities
against your enemies. They brought back Oblivion’s lockpicking
system, and the mainline series’ stealth mechanics which allows you even kill some
townspeople and evade guards, as well as other features familiar to the series. But there are so many more limits and guidelines
this time around. Some chests will literally tell you that you
need to start a questline to open them. The enemy AI is woefully short-sighted and
half the time won’t notice their cohorts’ slaughter next to them, and the entire experience
feels like an MMO modified to be more like The Elder Scrolls, not the other way around.

It’s difficult to immerse yourself in a
world that earnestly tells you that you’re its savior, when you’re surrounded by hundreds
of other “heroes” riding flaming horses. No suspension of disbelief can overcome the
spectacle of townspeople stepping over their dead colleagues, or not batting an eye at
dozens of Daedra pets trampling through their town. The Elder Scrolls Online clearly wanted to
emulate the single player RPGs that inspired it. And it does a competent job at that, considering
the standard MMO trimmings players expect from this type of game.

It looks and sounds like a bigger Skyrim,
it plays somewhat like an online Oblivion, but it FEELS like an MMO. If Oblivion and Skyrim’s less original look
and feel wasn’t enough, ESO’s brand new team and graphics department further diluted
into a more generic aesthetic. Take away the branding, and now it looks just
like any other fantasy world. Even the series’ staples like the Clannfear
have been changed to look and act more like velociraptors. The game’s story and setting was headed
up by a newly-appointed loremaster, Lawrence Schick, longtime friend of Ken Rolston, who
had worked on Kingdoms of Amalur together.

Relatively new to the series, Lawrence carefully
studied the previous games’ history and plots to build up a true-to-form reimagining
of previously explored locations. Now I can’t tell if I’m personally maddened
more by the team’s apparent reverence of the series’ lore and roots, or the actual
gameplay’s disrespect of everything the Elder Scrolls universe was meant to be. For starters, ESO’s worldbuilding is as
subtle as a troll’s club to the face. Glenumbra, for example, was featured in the
game Daggerfall, right? Daggerfall featured a ghost story and a temperate
rainforest climate. So naturally, in ESO, there are towering monster
vines with undead and necromancers sprawled everywhere. It's like they take and understand the lore
of each province then crank it all the way to a screaming 11 — but that's part and parcel
for an online game that must house and entertain thousands of people at a time in a densely
populated environment.

It's a shame the subtleties of the single
player games were lost, because at times, ESO is a marvel to look at. I actually liked playing it a lot more than
I thought I would, considering my long history with the series. And I do enjoy the exaggerated world it lays
down before me — but I don't believe it. In a way, an Elder Scrolls MMO was the eventual
goal of the series, even as early as the second game. In my YouTube interview with one of the series’
creators Julian LeFay last year, he stated that he designed, all the way back in 1996,
each and every NPC to have their own individual stats, skills, inventories, and everything
that would define an actual player character, with the intended goal to eventually implement

He described his vision to make a fully-featured
world of the same colossal scope of Daggerfall, but with each and every NPC being able to
be taken over by a player. A truly ambitious idea, but as the troubled
small-scale multiplayer in Battlespire showed, the engine and the hardware at the time was
hard-pressed to do what we can do so effortlessly today. Later taking another cue from Blizzard’s
successful franchising of their Warcraft property, a digital card game spinoff was developed
called The Elder Scrolls: Legends. Announced at big expos like E3 and PAX, it
was met with little fanfare from most audiences, arriving a couple years late and competing
against Blizzard’s financial and competitive home run: Hearthstone. Though Legends introduces interesting mechanics
like multiple combat lanes and such, in the end, you couldn’t escape the fact it was
just another attempt at the Magic: The Gathering formula. Enjoyable, but forgettable unless you’re
an ardent fan of the collectible card game genre, or just enjoy the game for its beautiful
artwork and the quality Elder Scrolls narrative.

As early as Morrowind, Elder Scrolls games
provided a flexible toolset released for the public to create modifications. This ignited the now massive Elder Scrolls
modding community we know today that grows with each new game. The skill requirement for the system was low
enough that just about all the designers could work and build quests, ideas and designs directly
into the game on the fly, which allowed for deployment of concepts sometimes literally
overnight. This flexibility no doubt aided in the creation
of these worlds by Bethesda, but as time went on, it might have become a crutch as well. Having a huge team of cooks in one big kitchen
may have resulted in the mixed and uneven world we have in the Elder Scrolls today,
where each area, zone and quest sometimes feels like it was designed in a vacuum.

You may be questing alongside a Daedric dog
one minute, getting attacked by a massive dragon the next, to be followed by a reenactment
of the Hangover movie right after. It felt like a kitchen sink with everyone’s
own sometimes well-crafted but inconsistent creations inside. Having a more specialized team might have
kept the staff working with their best skills, to a more quality product. The relatively short runway to the same level
of control that the developers have has been a powder keg for a bustling community though,
and modifications and additions have been crafted by players as early as 2002. There exists a complete rebuild of Daggerfall
in the Unity engine. Supporting all sorts of graphical enhancement
options and room for modification, this could breathe new life into the most ambitious entry
to the series. The detail and lengths fans have gone to in
keeping the dream alive is nothing short of inspiring.

The modification community is both a testament
to the undying love gamers have for the series, but it is also hard proof that they want so
much more. From projects that add missing survival mechanics
to Skyrim, to bringing completely new lands and campaigns to the game like Elsweyr; from
creating and making hundreds of brand new spells available, to rebuilding Morrowind
and Oblivion into the latest engine from the ground up. Let alone the truly daunting recreation of
the entire continent of Tamriel into one game world, including the Iliac Bay as featured
in Daggerfall, with a reimagined Orsinium, High Rock and Hammerfell. Truly inspirational, and easily mistakable
for an official game release.

Given the same tools the developers at Bethesda
use, the modding community seems to be able to pinpoint our desires more accurately than
the creators themselves. In a strange twist of expectations, the Elder
Scrolls titles are becoming more and more like platforms for community content rather
than games themselves, and with the scope of mods ranging from minor tweaks to massive
overhauls available, it’s coming to a point where fans are openly anticipating that the
community will fix the problems with the series, rather than the game’s actual developers.

With free, community-made content eclipsing
the work that inspired it, this begs the question, “What could Bethesda possibly do now that
would impress audiences more than the content the fans are creating themselves?” And in the longest gap we’ve experienced
in the mainline series to date, they have yet to answer. "…He should act like those prudent archers,
who, when the target they are aiming at seems too far off, aware of the capacity of their
bow, set their sight a good deal higher than the desired target, not to reach such a height
with their arrow but rather to be able, with the help of aiming high, to reach their target." – Niccolò Machiavelli A quote alluded to by Julian LeFay in our
interview, it resonated with me. What the Elder Scrolls accomplished in improving
technology and presentation, it lessened in scope and ambition.

I listened as one of its most influential
creators talked about the big plans for the series that never came to fruition, and I
peered through the early design documents of Morrowind which showed a massive, sprawling
map of all of Morrowind, not just the island that became its final setting. Each segment in this grid features a combination
of tailor-made locations and procedurally generated wilderness, spanning over 12 square
miles each. You heard right – the entire map of Vvardenfell
would have fit into just one of these squares.

Not only would the world have been incredibly
expansive, but would have included much larger cities, more dungeons and activities to take
on, and a conflict between all five Great Houses of Morrowind, allowing the player to
join any of them. With terrain maps featuring highlands, lowlands,
swamps and forests, with Vvardenfell likely being reserved as a dangerous volcanic location
for later game events. This seems like the natural progression from
Daggerfall that many of us longed for. A combination of highly detailed and handcrafted
environments in-between massive wilderness – the best of both worlds. What we eventually got in Morrowind, though
fantastic and it remains one of the best RPGs ever made, was the first step to where we
are now in the series. It was at this point when the intention shifted
from letting the player decide their fate, to guiding them toward a more narrow destination. Morrowind isn't a bad game, but the changes
it made to the formula only became stronger with each successive entry, eventually leading
to the loss of what I found most engaging about the series: the immersive and magical
quality of The Elder Scrolls.

Where Skyrim may have aimed for the foothills
and hit its target, Daggerfall had its eyes dead-set on the stars. And though missing its mark, it left an impact
whose aftershock resounds even today. From everything I’ve experienced throughout
playing the entire franchise, to all that I’ve read, listened to and watched, it seems
to me that modern Bethesda is trying their best to make the most enjoyable game possible
for the widest audience that will have it. And based on the immense success the company
has seen over the years, I’d say Todd Howard and the team have done everything they were
hired to do, and more. But it’s also clear whatever grand vision
the creators of the series had those decades ago has been progressively walked back with
every entry. So it's inevitable that in the years that
follow, newer, fresher and more ambitious games will try to take the crown of RPGs. Such as the The Witcher 3, made for the same
budget as Skyrim, in a world three times the size, effectively surpassing it in terms of
atmosphere, compelling storytelling and breathtaking environments. Though many NPCs and buildings were less interactive,
the writing and quest design were top-notch.

And unlike many of the bland and forgettable
quests in the Elder Scrolls series, The Witcher 3 managed to make just about every main and
side quest fascinating. The tools used to create games have become
easier to use and more powerful than ever, but the canvas on which to paint them has
become smaller with each coming year. The question then becomes, how can you speak
reason to a business venture that has been nothing but successful in their changes and
decisions? Skyrim is the single best-selling RPG of all

What could be wrong with that? My argument is that mass success and appeal
can only, by definition, remove rough or offending edges, to become a well-crafted but mediocre
product, with the aim of appealing to precisely the most widespread and average audience possible. You can’t make it too deep, or too shallow. You can’t challenge your audience too much,
or dumb it down too far. And that’s not just being cynical. Think of all the greatest TV shows, movies
or novels you’ve enjoyed over the past decade. If the Big Bang Theory, American Idol, the
Transformers movies, or Fifty Shades of Grey aren’t on your list, then perhaps you agree
with me that overall quality doesn’t exactly equate to mass popularity – which is what
each of these achieved in excess.

Skyrim shed its deeper and less intuitive
mechanics, and shaved away the travails and rough edges the series was known for. You can never really fail, you can never get
trapped, you can never get lost. So without failure or occasional frustration,
what does it truly mean to succeed? Even the most recent Elder Scrolls games are
by no objective metric, poor ones. But the decline of ambition and its narrowing
of features trend toward simplicity and ease of play rather than inventing new mechanics
and ways to engage the player. It has strayed from one of the deepest fantasy
life simulators ever created toward a fun, but increasingly shallow story-driven action
adventure game that dabbles in role-playing. But this brings up the unfortunate truth about
a series that so many gamers from diverse backgrounds enjoy. Everyone scribes their own perfect Elder Scrolls. No amount of features added or taken away
can eliminate the fact that no game will satisfy everyone. What I want for the series is likely different
from others'. Your perfect Elder Scrolls game might be one
I wouldn’t give a second glance at — and that’s okay.

Maybe Bethesda has taken much of the criticism
of their recent games to heart and will blow us away once again with their next offering. Or maybe, someone from the community or another
developer will rise to the opportunity to fill the void. Perhaps we will have to look for our ideal
role-playing game elsewhere. If you made it this far, you clearly have
an investment in The Elder Scrolls games or at least enjoyed my thoughts and analysis
of them, so why don’t you share your thoughts about the evolution of the series in the comments? This was easily the biggest and most ambitious
video I’ve done to date, so if you’d like to see more content of this caliber, please
subscribe and consider checking out my Patreon to help support my work. A huge thank-you to my Patrons whose generosity
and patience allow me to take on massive projects like these. And as always, thank you for watching!.

As found on YouTube