Skyrim has been massively successful, topping most “Best Of” charts of this year, both as an RPG and usually best game in general. That’s a pretty substantial feat for a game which really caters to fans of fantasy mostly. A whole other topic could be the recent trend that fantasy and science-fiction both are becoming mainstream staples, no longer on the peripherals. I can see the moment that it began to switch. It was the winter of 2001 and both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring roared into theatres. Aside from the debate over which cave troll was more menacing, these two movies had a common goal: to invite the uninitiated into a world of fantasy. Consider these movies gateway drugs. Both launched extremely successful movie franchises and allowed for the creation of series such as Twilight and Game of Thrones as viable franchises (I understand you may hate Twilight but you cannot deny its commercial success).
Well, here we are 10+ years later and it seems like things that were once taboo are now mainstream and acceptable. The movie Role Models gave us a loveable look at live-action roleplaying and the game Dungeons and Dragons has prime end-of-the-row displays in the nearest Barnes and Noble. And this past winter break, the game Skyrim exploded onto the scene and I’ve seen gaming statuses from friends that I wouldn’t have expected. Video games has also been fighting for a place among the other art medias that are truly considered art, so when you team up these two newcomers into the arena of worldwide media, you have a volitile combination.
What is it about Skyrim that is so accessible? You don’t have to do anything. If I were to put the controller in the hands of a stranger and ask them to play Dragon Age: Origins, they’d be lost within minutes and the game would eat them alive. But I could (and have) given the controls of Skyrim to someone and just watched as they explored the world through totally non-gamer eyes.
It’s a fascinating and alive world. As demonstrated over at PC Gamer, you can truly live in the game and not be an adventurer. You can cut wood and make a living. May not be that exciting, but it’s possible. That is what makes this game accessible. Think of The Sims. I want to live in a world, get to know people, choose an occupation, and become good at what I like to do. Exactly the same formula.
So now, the bar is set extremely high. Skyrim’s predecessor Oblivion also marked itself as a milestone in gaming and Skyrim improved on its formula ten-fold. So, what could the team at Bethseda possibly do to make a better sequel?
Choice and Lack of Choice
I’m about 50-something hours into Skyrim and I’ve done a lot of things. If you wanted to, you can join the warriors’, thieves’, and mages’ guild, plus a few other semi-factions. There is tons to do but the incentive to replay the game is minimal. Whoa whoa whoa. Hear me out. You could do absolutely everything in one playthrough, basically. If I wanted to try out being a thief, it’s never too late to learn those skills. Other games, which may be more confining, lead you down a path which makes the game very different based on your role. I kind of wish that certain paths became unattainable at certain points. The only exception in Skyrim is the Civil War questline. You choose to help one of two factions and the world changes based on your decision. It’d be great to build in feuds between factions, so that maybe the warriors’ guild and the thieves’ guild wouldn’t allow dual membership. Sure, you could find rogue lockpickers to train you but you couldn’t absolutely master those skills and you wouldn’t explore their questlines. This would make a 60-hour game something that would be unique, as opposed to the current model of Skyrim which would you become a multitasking god by level 25. I love the idea of leveling up whatever you use, but it might be nice to revert back to some exclusivity, for the sake of replayability.
In regards to other aspects of “choice,” Skyrim was fairly minimal. The Civil War quest was really the only shining example. A friend of mine brought an example to my attention that I didn’t pick up on until he said something. The world of Skyrim is racist. But whatever race you choose, it’s never racist against you. If I’m talking to a guy who hates elves (and I’m an elf) why does he still serve me? I’d love to see more reaction from the world around you based on your initial character choices.
Better Facial Models
The design of Skyrim is fantastic. But when I take a break from the breathtaking scenery and I roam into the city, I’m astounded by how horrible some facial models are. Not intentionally ugly, but this weird polygonal flat face disease. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a drastic leap from Oblivion, but it seems like something that could have easily been remedied.
I do give kudos for a drastically better acting ensemble. Oblivion had me groaning from some of the dialogue but the choices made in Skyrim were very nice and unobtrusive.
Size and Scope
All of these worlds have been increasingly large and increasingly diverse, so there’s an incredible bar that they’ve set. From the rivers and Autumn colors to the tip of the mountain peaks down to the ocean and floating ice chunks, there are some really varied environments here. I think the physical size of the world is just about perfect, as exploring on-foot is one of the best things about the game, but they’ll have to try hard to find a new environment that can match Skyrim’s versatility.
And in terms of scope, there is nothing like accidentally wandering into a herd of mammoths being led by a giant. They make you feel like the world is truly a big place. The dragons that fly overhead and roar menacingly in the distance help give you a sense of scope.
Depending on the world they create, I think it’s important to keep this scope. We’re not the biggest thing in the forest. Maybe it’s friendly whale-creatures that you can swim with in the ocean. Maybe it’s griffons that fly overhead in the area’s capital. And maybe things can work in reverse. I loved watching foxes and rabbits run next to me and remind that the world is living around me. Maybe there can be more enemies that are tiny but massive in numbers, like swarms of beetles or something. I’m not charged with writing the game, so you can’t hold me to any of these ideas.
Story and Being a Hero
In both Oblivion and Skyrim, you’ve been rescued from your inevitable death and you’re told that you’re the chosen one basically. This has been done to death (pun intended) and now it’s time for something new. Maybe you’re given the choice (along with race) to choose a humble beginning. Maybe you can choose one of the more crafty skills and you receive a bonus in that area (ie, you begin as a humble alchemist). And somehow, you get roped into this mess. You’re not the chosen one, you’re just in the right place at the right time. And you have the skills to get you through it.
And why do you have to be the hero? In Skyrim, there is an evil dragon named Alduin that you are destined to destroy (spoiler?). But what if there was a path where you become one of his acclaimed dragon priests and gained special benefits. You can join the Dark Brotherhood and pretty much assassinate anyone you meet, so how does that make you into a good guy? I don’t think there should be a morality system, but there should choice points that allow you to shape the world around and choose how you want to interact with it. In Fable III, you are allowed to make decisions about the city that you’re ruling. Why not allow your character in the next Elder Scrolls game to take control of a city and make decisions that could help or hinder its population?
Skyrim is a fantastic game and rightfully deserves to be #1 on a lot of lists, but that doesn’t mean it can’t push the limit even further. It’ll be awhile before we see anything from the Bethesda team but I personally can’t wait to see what they come up with.