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There s a theory that no one ever loves one of Bethesda s open-world games as much as they love their first. Whichever of the Elder Scrolls games was your introduction to the format will be the one that sticks with you forever, the theory goes, and none of the others will measure up. But although there certainly is a format shared by all the single-player RPGs in the Elder Scrolls series, there isn t a formula each new game makes significant changes, and many of those changes seem like responses to common criticisms of the previous one. It feels like Bethesda pays attention to the things people complain about and use mods to fix, though the company rarely gets credit for it. It s especially noticeable when you put all five central games in the series—ignoring the spin-offs—side by side to see how they ve evolved, and how different they are. We'll follow that path now, starting with The Elder Scrolls: Arena.
Speaking of evolution, The Elder Scrolls: Arena went through some famously massive changes even before it was properly begun. Initially conceived as a game about a team of gladiators competing in turn-based battles (hence the subtitle), what started as a series of sidequests in dungeons and cities took over during early development and became the core of the game, reshaping it into a first-person real-time RPG in the mold of Ultima Underworld.
What Arena added to the genre was a massive overworld. Its scale still hasn t been matched by any of the follow-ups in the series: players can travel across the entire continent of Tamriel, including the main locations of each of the later games. It isn t like the continuous open worlds of today, though. Fast travel is the only way to get from one settlement to the next because the wilderness is algorithmically generated filler surrounding each town. You can walk down roads looking at trees and stumbling across the occasional dungeon for hours, or at least until the game s memory fills and it became unstable, but you ll never reach the next town.
In those towns the people are created by a similar algorithmic process. Each character has an individual name and career, but every butcher tells you about the same shipment of mutton and every second joiner complains about dryrot. Each place feels like a remix of the last, the random name generator throwing up forgettable shops like The Basic Merchandise with the same white-skinned human character models for bartenders and other service providers no matter which race of people the rest of the populace in that area is composed of. There are sidequests in these population centers, picked up in bars, but all are variations on walking around town to collect or deliver things.
Where Arena shined was in its main quests. Not for their bare bones story—after escaping from a prison you d been locked in by an evil wizard who banished the Emperor to another dimension, you were sent to collect the pieces of a magic artifact to defeat him—but for the dungeons each chapter is set in. They re hand-crafted, making them far more atmospheric than the randomized dungeons in the rest of the game, and each has a dramatically different theme. In Selene s Web spiders are bred in pits and signs warn their trainers to be careful, while in Labyrinthian (revisited in Skyrim) the story of two brothers cursed to guard the place is written on the walls.
Most of the dungeons have an alternate way of exploring them that monsters won t use, perhaps by jumping into mineshafts or underground rivers, as if the player is an alien in the ventilation shafts leaping out to launch surprise attacks before scurrying away. And though its sound palette was limited, the roar of a troll in the distance or the beating of drums in the deep adds menace.
The rest of the world isn t so atmospheric, and not just because of the randomization. Tamriel then was a much more generic fantasy setting. Its Orcs are typical dungeon fodder rather than a playable race, and the Khajiit are described as feline and sleek but look like ordinary humans. There are no Daedra and no Dark Brotherhood assassins. Though the Elder Scrolls themselves are referred to throughout Arena, repeatedly looked to for clues to the location of the next dungeon, a lot of what we think of as essential parts of the Elder Scrolls series aren t present, and wouldn t appear till its sequel.
There were two ways to make a character in Arena. You could choose a class from a list of 18, or have one chosen for you after filling out a questionnaire like a cross between the quandaries at the start of Ultima IV and the Voight-Kampff test from BladeRunner. Daggerfall adds the option to create your own class, as well as a second set of interview questions to determine your background, asking about your childhood nickname, motivation for seeking adventure, and so on. As well as influencing starting skills, these answers were incorporated into the player s journal to create a backstory for who they were before being roped into helping the Emperor with his latest problem. From the start Daggerfall aimed for a higher level of detail than Arena.
To achieve that it shrunk in scope from an entire continent to two provinces, High Rock and Hammerfell, which is still massive compared to the later games. The world map is so intimidating, each town and dungeon a single pixel, that there s a search function without which you d never find anything. Although fast travel is still a necessity for getting around because it takes hours to walk anywhere, it is possible to trudge from one location to the next even if you see the same trees and mushrooms a hundred times in between. Some locations, like the witches covens, are almost impossible to find except by stumbling across them this way.
To get to that overworld though, players have to survive the beginning. Although Arena and Daggerfall are both games in the then-popular good luck surviving the starter dungeon genre, adding more options to character creation in Daggerfall made it even easier to create a hero who s ill-equipped to face the brutal beginning, a dungeon where resting can summon grizzly bears and there are enemies who can t be harmed by mundane weapons.
Escape to the city of Daggerfall, as the tutorial suggests before promptly breaking and never reappearing, and things change. While the streets are still on a 1:1 scale, making travel from one shop to the next take minutes, the people on those streets have a lot more to say. Reviews of Arena had said things like NPC interaction is rather lifeless , but in Daggerfall there s a bewildering variety of conversation topics to choose from and different answers based on whether you ask bluntly or politely. Many characters belong to factions, and completing sidequests for them increases your reputation with those factions—another layer of complexity aimed at giving life to the NPCs.
The NPCs still draw their answers from a common pool that repeated quickly, but the intent was clearly to address one of Arena s flaws. Another criticism of Arena s towns was that wandering monsters infested them at night, gangs of skeletons stalking the streets like they were auditioning for Westeros Side Story. In Daggerfall, there s an explanation for this: the ghost of King Lysander and his army of wraiths haunt the city, moaning VENGEANCE! and driving everyone into well-lit taverns for safety.
Every city has guilds, and now they re joinable and have quests associated with them. There are secret guilds too—pick enough pockets and the Thieves Guild will recruit you, murder innocents and the Dark Brotherhood will be impressed, get bitten by a vampire and their brethren will be in touch. Summoning the pagan Daedra triggers quests for artifacts that would recur throughout the series, like Azura s Star and the madgod s staff Wabbajack. These side stories are richer than Arena s, but also more likely to break. NPCs you need to interact with might not spawn, and the math behind the random dungeons that sidequests send you to sometimes place objectives in inaccessible rooms.
Where dungeons were Arena s strong point, they re Daggerfall s weakest. Twisting staircases and angled floors make for jumbled geographies that turn the automap into an eyeboggling mess: rotatable 3D sculptures that look like they were drawn by M. C. Escher. It s easy to get stuck on objects or fall through the floor, which happened so frequently a keyboard shortcut was added to teleport players to their last stable position (Alt-F11 if it happens to you). Other bugs let arrows fly through walls and doors, transformed the sound of torches into an angry buzz, and sometimes made the main questline impossible to complete. While Arena wasn t free of bugs either—notably reloading the same save too often would cause a crash, and sometimes so would simply attacking with fists—Daggerfall became infamous for its bugginess and gave Bethesda a reputation that s stuck with it to this day.
Yet even though Daggerfall was unfinishable for many players, Bethesda took its endings seriously. Part of the overall goal of adding to the variety of options included having six different endings, allowing the player to choose who to side with. Rather than have one be the canonical conclusion, books in later games referred to a mystical event called The Warp in the West that allowed all six of them to happen simultaneously. It was Daggerfall that added these readable books to the series, filling them with history and legends, jokes and songs. The Elder Scrolls background was becoming richer and stranger.
While Daggerfall followed two years after Arena, Morrowind had six years to ensure its relative sturdiness—the longest development period of any game in the series so far, though that includes a year spent working on one of the spin-offs. That six-year gap also made for the most radical shift in terms of presentation, with the similar interfaces of the first two games replaced entirely. Where they d had thick bars of buttons hogging the bottom of the screen, Morrowind s HUD is unobtrusive, and while Daggerfall s move to 3D had included an option to mouselook by holding Alt, in Morrowind it s standard. The sensation of presence within its world was radically improved.
That world is also significantly smaller. Bethesda boasted that Daggerfall had a game world the size of Great Britain , but Morrowind s setting only takes up approximately 24 square kilometers. Early in development it was planned for the entire province to be playable, but then its scope was reduced to the single island of Vvardenfell. Likewise, plans to have all five of its Great Houses as joinable factions with their own questlines were scrapped, and their number reduced to three. The payoff for these reductions in size is a setting with a greater degree of interactivity. Daggerfall s scenery was untouchable, but Morrowind is full of objects that can be picked up and plants that can be harvested. It feels big because there s so much to do. (And also because fast travel had been removed.)
Rather than being algorithmically generated, Vvardenfell is a hand-crafted place, designed to present stunning vistas. Giant mushrooms, flea-like Silt Striders, floating Netches, buildings hollowed out of the shells of dead behemoths—its overworld is distinctive where Arena and Daggerfall s had been generic. Its lore builds on Daggerfall s to add to that distinctiveness, and people have written entire essays about what its hermaphrodite poet god Vivec is really on about.
Still, the actual quests are fairly cut-and-dried with the player cast as another prisoner given a job by the Emperor, this time living up to a prophecy to defeat a dark lord on his dark throne within a volcanic wasteland. It s underpinned by some of the best mythic fantasy writing in video games, but the quests themselves frequently boil down to traveling to a place and clicking on a person.
Morrowind also made thorough changes to the controls. Movement in the first two games was directed either by left-clicking the edge of the screen you wanted to walk toward (which meant painstakingly centring the screen on objects before picking them up, which made collecting keys from the floor a trial), or by using the arrow keys, with sidesteps bound separately. Morrowind s WASD controls are far simpler, and so is its combat, which no longer requires right-clicking and then dragging across the screen in the direction of your swing. Morrowind s stealth is activated by crouching, where in Daggerfall it had been an invisible skill check modified by the speed of your movement. With this change playing a thief class suddenly became fun.
Three more classes were also added to the character creation options, as well as Orcs and more beast-like versions of the Argonians and Khajiit. But one of the most important additions to Morrowind was the Elder Scrolls Construction Set, which not only made it easier for the designers to add new things to the game, like its expansions Bloodmoon and Tribunal, but also for players to do the same. Morrowind was the first game in the series to embrace modding, with over 3,000 mods available for it today. That would turn out to be one of the series most enduring changes.
With Oblivion, Bethesda tried to marry what was best about Morrowind—the feeling of hand-made specificity—with the larger scope of the first two games. Using procedural generation tools, they created swathes of terrain and then edited them into shape, trees made of splines snapped to columns and algorithmic erosion roughing up the landscape.
Its setting of Cyrodiil is more than twice the size of Vvardenfell, with an extra 33 square kilometers, but with that increase in scale comes a decrease in uniqueness. As Bethesda s Todd Howard said, We wanted to get back to the more classic Arena and Daggerfall feel of a fantasy world that felt more refined and welcoming, a place that you instantly understood. But in that, we sacrificed some of what made Morrowind special: the wonder of discovery.
While Oblivion begins with the hero a now-standard prisoner who is given a vital task by the Emperor, it steps back from turning you into the prophesied chosen one. Instead that role is played by Martin Septim, voiced by Sean Bean (Oblivion was the first fully voiced game in the series). Players help Martin live up to his world-changing destiny, rather than having their own. Instead, you discover your potential through sidequests. While the importance of these sidequests grew with each game, Oblivion emphasizes them to the point of feeling like a different game once you abandon the central story. Join the Thieves Guild and you eventually steal one of the Elder Scrolls themselves; join the Dark Brotherhood and you become a master assassin; hunt down the Daedric shrines and you earn artifacts of the gods.
As well as focusing on the freedom to find their own path, Oblivion emphasizes the freedom for players to explore in any compass direction. Earlier games funneled players with mountains that pushed them away from more dangerous areas, or with level limits on quests. Oblivion s level-scaling means that no matter where you go enemies are balanced to provide an appropriate challenge.
While the intention was noble, it had strange side effects. Certain animals disappear from the land once out-leveled, and NPCs who began the game in rags carry magic swords later. Meanwhile, the arcane way character improvement works in Oblivion—with variable bonuses per level depending on whether players have been dutifully grinding to improve their lesser skills—could make one level eight hero a combat machine while another is still a wimp. It s entirely possible for the same challenge to be harder for a higher-level character than a lower-level one.
In other ways, Oblivion reduced confusion. Morrowind players sometimes felt lost about what to do next, faced with a journal that filled itself with notes until its usefulness as a questlog vanished (the Game Of The Year edition addressed this by adding a filter for quest-related entries). In Oblivion, the journal became less messy, and an arrow points to the next objective for whichever quest is currently active. Along with the return of fast travel this infuriated the kind of fans who complain about dumbing down, but it definitely reduced the amount of time you spent wondering where you were and what you were doing, especially if you didn t play for several days and tried to pick up where you left off.
Oblivion was also the first Elder Scrolls game to add downloadable content, while we re on the subject of infuriating fans. Its horse armor selling for $2 became a running joke among critics of DLC. Later additions would be bigger and often cheaper in response, and were followed by a full-sized expansion in 2007 s Shivering Isles. Set on the island home of the god of madness, Shivering Isles replaces the fantasy European look of Cyrodiil with a twisted version of Alice In Wonderland that concept artist Adam Adamowicz memorably called Walt Disney on steroids crapping a rainbow into your brain. Deeply strange and small in scale, Shivering Isles recaptured Morrowind s magic but with Oblivion s commitment to cutting out filler.
Depending how you measure it, Skyrim s map may be slightly smaller than Oblivion s. It s much less flat, however, and there s a lot of geography outside the bounds of the game, only visible from the top of its tallest mountain on a clear day or during the quest in which the player is summoned into the sky to commune with a god. That it contains climbing mountains and chatting with gods are part of Skyrim s commitment to making everything feel epic. The main quest is the focus again, and the player is restored to the center of the plot—born a chosen one, with powers beyond those of mortals and a destiny to fulfill. Unlike Oblivion, Skyrim s most impressive set pieces all take place during its main quests, whether battling dragons or traveling to the land of the dead.
Some of Skyrim's changes can be seen in user-made mods for Oblivion. Popular mods that added more combat moves were mimicked in Skyrim s system of perks, unlocking new abilities with each level that made its combat more interesting the longer you played. An individual mod that sped up the rate arrows flew in Oblivion, which made a surprising difference to how enjoyable they were to shoot, was replicated for the archery in Skyrim. Other aspects seemed designed with gaps for modders to fill deliberately left in them, like the crafting and detailed weather and wildlife systems that seemed to beg for survival mechanics to be bolted onto them, as they inevitably were.
Way back in Daggerfall players had been given the option to create their own class, and Morrowind removed limitations on which classes could use certain equipment or learn spells. Skyrim took away the concept of classes completely, with starting skills determined purely by choice of race. Any skill could be used by any character, essentially leaving you to create your own class as you played, turning the entire game into one of the earlier entries Q&A sessions about what kind of adventurer you are.
Also removed was the ability to create your own spells. As far back as Arena, the Elder Scrolls games had let spellcasting characters edit spell effects and in doing so give themselves game-breaking magical powers, whether to knock down walls, fly, or become invincible. Skyrim s crafting remained open to abuse, however, through tricks like making potions that temporarily increased your skill at creating enchanted items, which allowed you to make equipment that boosted your ability to brew potions—a loop that ended with low-level characters able to craft some of the best gear in the game.
That crafting system is a rare example of outside influence on an Elder Scrolls game. While first-person RPGs Ultima Underworld and Legends Of Valour have been cited as inspirations for Arena, and apparently the addition of vampires came after the team played the tabletop RPG Vampire: The Masquerade, the Elder Scrolls games have largely done their own thing. They ve become influential, but only rarely been influenced. That changed when Skyrim not only added crafting but companions and romance options—rudimentary ones, but still. It s an example of a willingness to borrow from other RPGs that s new.
Of course, Skyrim was also influenced by lessons Bethesda learnt while working on Fallout 3 between Elder Scrolls games. It and Skyrim share the same level-scaling mechanic, which balances each area to be a challenge for players when they first arrive in them, but then keeps them at that level of danger, making the areas first visited less of a threat when returned to later. Another idea from the same source was giving NPCs unique conversations rather than mixing their personal dialogue with a generic pool of rumors and observations that sometimes jarred. Skyrim s random narrative encounters, like the thief who hands you a weapon moments before the hunter he stole it from arrives, also came from Fallout 3. We realised in Fallout 3 that that kind of environmental storytelling, where you come upon a little scene, is really good, Todd Howard explained. And so we ve tried to do it a lot more.
With Fallout 4, Bethesda has taken even more influence from other RPGs, namely by adding a voiced protagonist, and has also given a nod to building games with settlement construction. It seems natural that the lessons Bethesda learns from these changes, positive or negative, will also make their way into the next Elder Scrolls, along with lessons from Skyrim and its predecessors—although it s probably not going to bring back the game-breaking spellcrafting system. More's the pity.
On this week's Mod Roundup, a better way to conduct conversations in Fallout 4, followers that level with you in Skyrim, a complete—and we do mean complete—overhaul of The Witcher 3, and a big update for a Game of Thrones mod for Mount & Blade: Warband.
Here are the most promising mods we've seen this week.
Fallout 4's conversation UI leaves a lot to be desired. For example, instead of a list of full responses, you only get a brief idea of the tone of what you might say. It can lead to some misunderstandings. And, since this is your character, it makes sense that you'd know what you were actually going to say before you say it. This mod reverts the system to one more similar to Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Find it here.
As you climb the ladder of power in Skyrim, you followers join you... up to a point. Most followers have a level cap of 20, and you may have noticed that when you reach level 40 or 50 your lackeys are comparatively weak against your enemies (to the point that they're getting their lights knocked out immediately). This mod, available on the Steam workshop, means they'll level right alongside you. The Skyrim's the limit.
Modders are hard at work on changes—major ones—to The Witcher 3. The School of the Roach mod just entered open beta, and it comes with a huge list of changes, starting with increases to the game's difficulty. It also aims to improve combat, rework the economy, provide a more realistic encumbrance system, and make changes to the leveling system. Alchemy, armor, weapons, skills, menus... it sounds like nothing is being overlooked. Read more about it, and help test the beta, right here.
This mod for Mount & Blade: Warband, which transforms the game into Westeros from Game of Thrones, first arrived in 2013, but it's still being improved and added to. It's just entered it's 8th beta version and with it arrives a whole host of changes, additions, and improvements. The list of changes is too long to tackle here, but you can read more about it, and download it, it at Mod DB.