On Skyrim (Part 1)

I’ve been playing a great deal of Elder Scrolls V, and feel the need to write down my thoughts. First of all, let me say that I have been a fan of the series only since Morrowind, (TES 3) though that may be pretty long by some people’s standards. I want to say from the very beginning that I could not be more pleased with the game. I find it an inspiration. In fact, I believe every facet of the game and its design is worth discussion, and that’s part of the reason I want my thoughts here so I don’t get lost in thinking on a single point. I may tidy these notes up at some point, and formalize them in one great treatise on the aesthetics of the game, but that’s unlikely as I am very lazy.

Fist I think I need to discuss some of my own background, and my experience with the previous titles to help contextualize what will follow. I am a philosophy major at Occidental college for those of you don’t know. I guess I’m a senior in college though that’s really weird to say. Our school doesn’t have any great courses in aesthetics though I find it fascinating.

I love RPGs and Morrowind has long been my all-time favorite game. I like Oblivion, I really do, but it is not Morrowind. The transition between Morrowind and Oblivion is what I take to be most people’s entry point to the series. Oblivion was, after all, enormously successful. But I’ve always felt it accomplished that at a high cost; that Bethesda had shifted the game to a more mainstream platform to make the game more broadly accessible to the Halo crowd of gamers. I find that I have problems with the slow homogenization of blockbuster games into titles that must pander to every audience possible to be successful. I feel like that is part of what motivated the changes between Mass Effect 1 & 2, and Dragon Age 1 & 2.

So really it was not that I could blame Bethesda for going more mainstream with their games, I was only a bit disappointed was all. When I met someone who really liked Oblivion, I would tell them Morrowind was the more “true” game. Looking back, I wonder what exactly I meant. Obviously, if Bethesda churned out the same game again and again I would find fault with that as well. I cannot hold it against them that they should feel a need to innovate on some level. And if they decide to cut features that are dear to me, I should not feel personally hurt, as I am not the entire audience.

So what was Morrowind that Oblivion was not? Clearly what I meant when I said that Morrowind was more “true to its origins” I meant that is was more of a genre title, or what might be a game focused on a particular niche of gamers. That niche of gamers had come to expect certain things, and Morrowind had it in spades. Allow me to identify some of the stand-out features that made Morrowind tailored for the RPG niche of gamers.

1. Complicated Stats. I can’t tell you what they all did. I know there was a luck variable that was included in every calculation. Deeply troubling that stat. But really, all RPGs are constructed around Primary statistics that influence derived statistics in complicated, sometimes mysterious ways. Morrowind had 5 or 6 as I recall, and they all made it into Oblivion, minus the luck stat that was pretty broken.

2. Limitations on Growth. Every good RPG has a set of limitations that require the player to specialize and strategize to get anywhere. It cannot be that the player character is simple perfect at everything, and one of the ways Morrowind accomplished that was to tie skill gain to level experience. You couldn’t gain more than 10 points in a major skill without gaining a level. You could add to your primary stats, and there would be multipliers for stats related to skills you had gained. Gain 10 skill points all in a skill related to strength, and you would have a x5 multiplier should you apply a point to strength. You could do this for 3 skills, since you only had 3 pints to assign. Without any multipliers, you would have only those 3 points to assign, and with 3 skills with x5 multipliers, you could have a total of 15 points assigned to your primary stats. But 10 points in a primary skill would level you, so you would need to strategize and make sure to gain 10 points in 2 other skills not your major skills if you wanted those multipliers. This continued into Oblivion, without the addition of miscellaneous skills, that would start much lower. This meant that a character that carried too much from their archetype would be the waker for it, whereas a character that specialized would be much stronger. It also gave an advantage to those who studied the system and manipulated it.

3. Invisible dice rolls. Yeah, swing a sword and miss. Did you hit it? sure looked like you did. But no, due to some math that happened behind the scenes, you didn’t actually strike your target. Try again. Each swing was a dice roll, and each dice roll had a computation underlying it that was again, very complicated. there were the related stats, like strength or agility, and then there was your skill level, your luck… it was a lot going on that you couldn’t see.

See how complicated that was? But it was kind of fun to figure out just how to make your character work. And I think that was the appeal to RPG players. RPGs are played as much before and after combat as they are during. Certainly the selection of different skills and abilities played a role, but all the hard work had been done before you got that far. What weapons did you bring? potions? skills? the battle was either won or lost long before it even started.

Oblivion changed all this and not all of that change was bad. In Oblivion all strikes were based on contact with your enemy, line of sight, etc. This was good, it helped immersion in the game which I think is important to evaluating a good game. Still though there was a lot going on that you couldn’t see. There were your stats interacting with your skills in much the same way as in Morrowind. the problem of combat had been made more simple by reducing the number of skills, but their relations to stats both primary and derived were the same, but at least there weren’t dice rolls.

I haven’t said a thing about Skyrim yet, and I’m already tired. Stay tuned for part 2 I suppose.