unpopular opinion time: bethesda kept the immersive sim dream alive, but most people were too busy bashing them for not making RPGs to care
— GB ‘Doc’ Burford (@ForgetAmnesia) July 14, 2015
I think I’m done with Skyrim.
I mean “done” as in I’ve played all the parts of the game I care about. I’ve spent a total of $80 on Skyrim and its extra stuff over the last four years and even though playing 100 percent of it was never the goal, after 170 hours I think I’ve gotten my money’s worth. Same thing happened with Fallout 3 (in which I intend to start a new character before Fallout 4 drops) and New Vegas. Anyway, I want to do this post to talk about what I think Skyrim’s and Bethesda’s real strong points are compared to other RPGs and other RPG developers, maybe even why Bethesda’s games have been some of the most commercially successful RPGs of all time.
I’ve actually been thinking about this ever since Skyrim came out in 2011. If you think back, 2011 was kind of a big year for RPGs. At the very least you had three notable ones coming out: Skyrim, From Software’s first Dark Souls game, and CDProjekt RED’s The Witcher 2. Coincidentally the developers of all three of those games are releasing new games this year. More importantly, ever since the release of The Witcher 3 and the unveiling of Fallout 4, some people are wondering if the latter can match up to the supposedly new standard the former has set for open-world RPGs. I think Bethesda and CDProjekt RED make different kinds of games, but not completely different, and each is better than the other in different areas. From Software has its own advantages that when you think about it are almost unique to it in the RPG space.
I ended my Skyrim character’s “story” with the Dark Brotherhood quiestline which I did after the Thieve’s Guild. I didn’t mess with the other questlines but found those two to be the most interesting things I did in the whole game. Figuring out how to sneak into people’s houses to rob or assassinate them felt interesting because I was doing it in a huge world where I had to figure out how to subvert the systems of the town guards, security, and ordinary people’s daily schedules. The towns you sneak through feel somewhat like believable places because Bethesda tries to make them function as such. A shop isn’t just a menu you access to buy things. It’s a building with rooms, occupied by characters who have names and stories and daily routines. That’s what makes committing crimes against them feel a lot more substantial than in say, Assassin’s Creed.
For an example, at one point doing Thieve’s Guild jobs and Dark Brotherhood hits concurrently made things pretty dicy at one point during my adventures. The client I had to talk to for the Brotherhood was a woman whose store I had robbed for the Guild — without her knowing. The primary target was a guy squatting in a ruin I had to investigate anyway because I was searching for a piece of an ancient artifact alongside a ghost. A secondary target lived in the same city as another Guild target. The last quest the Brotherhood even gives you is just an infinitely repeating randomly-generated quest, which in my opinion is a great interactive way for me to figuratively have my character ride off into the horizon to start another day’s work right before the credits roll.
What I’m trying to say is, I primarily enjoyed Skyrim as a role playing game. I mean that in the real sense — a game where you create a character and make decisions affecting a world that runs on tangible systems. This is what I think Bethesda is best at compared to CDProjekt or From Software. In today’s RPG market only Obsidian might be better at it. I stress this because Skyrim spends a massive amount of time trying to be a dungeon crawler, and to be honest it’s not all that great at that particular job.
Ever since 2011 a lot of people have been annoyed at how much time in Skyrim they spend slaying draugrs in caves and ancient ruins. I’ll say that most of them actually have pretty decent level design — better than what we get in most big action games actually, but they still all bleed together really quickly. They look really similar, and pretty much just have you doing the same thing most of the time. And then you have the Dwemer ruins. Man those things just don’t end. I am sick and tired of killing Falmer.
Fallout 3 probably has this problem too what with all the caves and metros filled with either bandits or ghouls. And you know what? Even though that’s probably a huge portion of the content in that game, it’s not what people come away from it talking about. People come away from Fallout 3 talking about their decision to blow up Megaton or stick grenades in people’s pockets. People don’t come away from Skyrim talking about the cool loot they found, they come away from it talking about how they snuck into the Gourmet’s room through a basement trap door and hid his body in a wine barrel, or waited until he went fishing and dumped his body in the lake. People come away from Skyrim talking about how they rob everyone and get away with it. I really hope those aspects are what Bethesda has really focused on with Fallout 4.
The reason I don’t care about these games as dungeon crawlers is because other RPGs already easily outclass Bethesda’s games as dungeon crawlers. Part of the reason I reinstalled Skyrim recently is because I wanted to play something that felt like an old first person dungeon crawler but with more modern technology behind it, and the Elder Scrolls games were originally an homage to Ultima Underworld. But after like the sixth Dwemer ruin and hours of interacting with Skyrim’s terrible combat system I had an epiphany: If I want to play a modern 3D dungeon crawler with an old school feel, I can just play Demon’s Souls. It and From Software’s other games have a much better combat system and much more interesting level design. In 2011 Skyrim tried hard to be a modern 3D dungeon crawler, but Dark Souls was a much better one.
Finally you have the main storylines of these games. As soon as it came out I think Skyrim was criticized for how its main quest is a lot less interesting than everything else you do in the game. I would agree. One of the big selling points of Bethesda’s games is how much you can do without ever touching the main quest. On the character with which I ended Skyrim I never even initiated the main quest. I downloaded the “Alternate Start” mod which get’s rid of the opening sequence with the dragon and immediately starts you off with the character creator, locked in a random dungeon in the middle of nowhere. On this very blog I’ve contemplated the idea of Bethesda or someone else doing a game like this that just doesn’t have a main quest — one where you just create a character and start interacting with the systems in play. In regards to its main storyline, Skyrim in 2011 was outclassed by Witcher 2. Even Obsidian outclassed Bethesda in RPG writing a year earlier with New Vegas.
It’s looking like we’re going to see a repeat of the trifecta this year with Fallout 4, The Witcher 3, and Bloodborne. People are already criticizing Witcher 3’s combat in comparison to Bloodborne. Bethesda did however make a commitment to giving Fallout 4 better first person shooter combat. I think that’s a discussion for another time though. Action RPG combat is a puzzle many developers have tried and failed to solve. People are already hailing Witcher 3 as an achievement in RPG writing, and are doubting Fallout 4’s ability to live up to that. I don’t think it will, but that’s not what I think we should be expecting out of it either. I think we should be expecting an expanded role-playing experience and hopefully more interesting systems to play with. I just hope Bethesda realizes that’s its real forte.
- I truthfully could not find a single image that in itself represents my experience with this game.
- Maybe someone who has experience with 80’s computer RPGs can tell me if this looks good or not? http://store.steampowered.com/app/333640/
- This Steam Early Access game is looking like it’s trying to be the new Descent. http://store.steampowered.com/app/355190/
- Ghost Song update. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1192311215/ghost-song-a-journey-of-hope/posts/1293682
- Nice photography page. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jasonarney/19492527970/