Now the dust has settled on Skyrim after it’s explosive release it’s a good time to assess some of the reaction to the game as the hype dies down to a more nuanced view.
One of the things I’ve always noticed about the Elder Scrolls series, of which Skyrim is the fifth entry, is the number of gamers who are turned off by the sheer scale of the game world, Tamriel, and the seemingly unstructured way in which you can play it.
Every new entry in the Elder Scrolls series has attracted more and more gamers, from Arena to Morrowind before Oblivion finally blew the series to the heights of a premium AAA game that sold millions outside of the usual RPG community.
Many reviews often fall along the following lines: “I’ve never understood the appeal of the Elder Scroll series, after playing *Arena/Daggerfall/Morrowind* (delete as applicable) I felt it was too vast/sprawling/shit, until I played *the latest entry into the Elder Scrolls series* where I was finally drawn into the world of Tamriel and quickly clocked up 100 hours in a few short weeks.”
It would be interesting to see people who have been introduced to the Elder Scrolls through Skyrim go back and play Daggerfall and Morrowind to see how they react to it.
Guiding Principles of the Elder Scrolls
Yet despite the ever increasing number of converts to the Elder Scrolls series it’s hard to say that the guiding principles of the series have changed at all since Arena came out nearly 20 years ago.
Being free to do what you want, when you want, to be the adventurer you want to be, whether a murdering assassin, loveable rogue or honourable knight have all been options since the first game.
The ability to ignore the main quest has always been a central component, allowing you to roam around, join guilds and complete quests, exploring random dungeons and tombs or simply living your life as a common thief.
What has changed is the power behind the games, which has given the developers greater opportunities to write deep, original and varied quests tailored to the way the character is being played. It’s to be expected that Oblivion or Skyrim played on a dual-core PC offer a much more unique role-playing experience than you can have on Arena, which I played on my 386 33mhz PC and is limited in the number of unique and varied quests you can take on.
Nonetheless I’m still mildly surprised when people get drawn into the latest Elder Scrolls game having resisted earlier incarnations. It’s all a continuation of the same principles that are being realised with ever-more powerful games consoles and computers.
Perhaps with Arena and Daggerfall the systems were too primitive to fully realise the vision (although ‘solo quest’ games like Eye of the Beholder were hardly pushing the boundaries of narrative structure) but certainly from Morrowind onwards the complexity of the game world has increased exponentially.
How the Elder Scrolls has changed over time
In Arena and Daggerfall the bulk of the quests were randomised, creating endless amounts of dungeon crawls to find such and such a person or kill such and such a monster. It was fun and people clocked up hundreds of hours doing it, but it was admittedly quite limited in it’s scope. The flipside is the scripted main quest still existed if you chose to focus on it.
Since Morrowind the randomised quests have stopped and have been replaced by a vast number of fully scripted quests and dungeons. There’s more of them but the layouts of dungeons are the same every time you play them, albeit with multiple ways of playing the quests depending on the decisions your character makes.
Despite the increasing number of people being won round to the Elder Scrolls series, those who adopt a position on the series tend to fall into two distinct categories, those who like open ended worlds and those who do not. This is notwithstanding people of both camps who complain about the legendary bugginess.
Structure vs Freedom in Skyrim
A large number of gamers love being able to go anywhere and do anything and consequently don’t really bother with the main quest in Elder Scrolls games. For instance my brother-in-law played Oblivion simply by walking from one end of Cyrodiil to the other and going into all the caves and dungeons he found and clocked up many hours doing this and ignoring the main quest.
Other people can’t stand this style of play and it puts them off playing it altogether. This happens even though they could simply choose to focus on the main quest and spend a similar amount of time playing as they would on many other mainstream titles. The general feeling is that the wide-open nature makes the game lose focus with the result that everything suffers.
Alternatively perhaps the gamer feels overwhelmed and wants a more structured experience as they play the game.
It’s a fascinating divide because the idea of any Elder Scrolls title simply being a thirty or forty hour main quest with a few side quests bolted on goes against the entire ethos of the series. Yet if the sequel to Skyrim was done in such a format that is exactly what would appeal to a significant number of gamers, albeit turning off many others who have been fans since day one or since won round to the series.
It’s clear some people prefer a more structured experience when playing games, even at the expense of having more to see and do. Skyrim is so vast it’s sheer scale can be off-putting. It’s as if people say, ‘If I can’t explore everything this game has to offer in a reasonable amount of time, I’m not going to bother playing it at all.’
It’s an understandable feeling in many respects, as games getting bigger and bigger and the market more and more crowded, it can be frustrating to know that a game will require 100+ hours to experience all of it when there are so many games you would like to play. Far easier then to simply not play it in the first place.
Other people revel in it, and create characters they role play convincingly over hundreds of hours. My favourite quote about Skyrim was on a website where someone complained about how repetitive the game was before confidently predicting he would ‘only’ get around 500 hours of gameplay out of it. Bearing in mind you can play through the original Mass Effect in it’s entirety in under 40 hours those are some high standards!
There is an argument that perhaps if Skyrim toned down the sheer number of quests they might have been able to give more attention to the remaining ones and improve their quality, but in a way that feels besides the point.
If the writing is an issue, then that’s separate to the philosophy of an open world that aims to provide the gamer with as much freedom as possible.
It’s not about quality versus quantity per se, it’s about the structures that underpin the games and how they appeal to different types of gamers.
If vast, open-ended worlds don’t appeal to you then you will never really feel settled with Skyrim or any of the Elder Scrolls games that come before it or after it.
However if you do feel comfortable with open-ended worlds then Skyrim is unparalleled, although 500 hours might be pushing it a bit.