Elder Scrolls: Arena
The first Elder Scrolls game set the stage: magic, the continent of Tamriel, and combat systems in line with other games of the time. Believe it or not, this first game was supposed to be a combat game first and an RPG second, but programmers discovered that the game was much more fun when the player was in side-quests. Gradually, the “Arena” in the original script of the game shrank away, and the new game, a game about dungeons and sidequests and overthrowing a king, came to be, reaching completion in early 1994.
The graphics are fairly interesting! It looks a lot like Doom – three-dimensional first-person games were heavily stylized with interesting pixel art and all of the colors a 1990’s screen could produce. Doom may be red and dull orange on the cover, but the insides have levels that are entirely midnight blue, acid green, etc. Elder Scrolls: Arena is no different, they had their colors and by golly they were going to use them.
It also set up things like day and night cycles, shops that closed at night, and flavor text from NPCs, all things that weren’t unique to Arena, but certainly added to the RPG feel of the game and led to a longer-lasting playable experience. If you got out of the first dungeon. Like many games of the time, it was… somewhat unforgiving. It was also kind of demanding, computer-wise: Doom was a gimme on nearly any computer, but Arena’s size and complexity meant low-end computers would sometimes struggle to keep up.
Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall
Daggerfall looked a lot like Arena, at first. Most sequels at the time aimed to provide more of the same good stuff that sold the original game with less of the flaws and pain-points, and the story was less important than the playing of the game itself. However, the two year gap also made Daggerfall much bigger than the original, changing the character of the game into something even better. While all of the Elder Scrolls games allow you to free roam basically indefinitely, Daggerfall was noticeably freer than Arena. Now that the series knew what it wanted to be, it could use its resources better towards its goals – boasting an explorable area equivalent to Great Britain, the game moved away from the 2.5-D system Doom and Elder Scrolls: Arena used, and upgraded to one that was truly three dimensional. This meant it was still quite a heavy burden for computers, especially the older ones.
Games were moving beyond the limited confines of arcade-style shoot-em-ups, the Pac-Mans, the Centipedes. Where some like Doom had (and have) been stand-out exceptions, games that were like Arena’s first-planned incarnation were a dime a dozen. Daggerfall set out deliberately to create something that users could play indefinitely, something that offered a totally unique experience, something completely separate from the other games available at the time. Other games had no choice but to follow suit. While shoot-em-ups remained popular, RPGs and other more complex games gained market share.
Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind
The jump in quality between Daggerfall and Morrowind was enormous. Polygonal art was becoming mainstream, and every game circa the early 2000s was using it – Morrowind was no exception. Game art looks dated, but not necessarily ancient, like Daggerfall’s art can to younger gamers. The game’s open world system made it an instant classic, as just like Daggerfall, you never have to do the main quest. You have plenty of alternatives in-game, and you can actively change the world you’re playing in. Other games at the time were beginning to dabble in sandbox games too: contemporaries included SimCity 4 and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Still, open world games weren’t everywhere. Open-worlders made up a very small percentage of the games released that year, although there were more than before. Coding an entire game to always be accessible for the player can be kind of intense, and short, plot-driven games were less effort and time for developers. WarioWare, which has nearly no plot, and Silent Hill 3, which is almost all plot, are other notable standouts from this time.
Alongside Morrowind came a bunch of new developments. Game consoles were more common than ever, and screen technology was improving. Morrowind specifically was available on the Xbox, and ports were available to play on Mac and Linux – gamers who wouldn’t have had access otherwise could now get in on the series, and game designers made sure that players could jump right into the fantasy setting with minimal prior knowledge of the series. Dark elves? Tamriel? Magic that uses a mana bar? Cool. Monsters, gods, and steampunk elements made Morrowind one of the most distinct among the Elder Scrolls games by itself.
While Morrowind also earned it’s reputation as an unforgiving and sometimes cruel game (cliff racers), it also captured the hearts and souls of an entire generation of gamers, prepping them for the next step: Oblivion.
Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion
Elder Scrolls 4 for the Xbox 360 has aged just as well as many of its predecessors. The gameplay is certainly as fun as it used to be, but the art can be a little lacking in areas because of the awkward transitional period polygonal art went through to get to the smooth faces and realistic hair we have today. The NPCs are still full of life, but the scripting and voice-acting of some of the characters is awkward enough to be memed on over a decade after its release, because the voice actors were given their lines alphabetically and without context. Oblivion captures the essence of this time period – games can have artful moments, but they could also have goofy slicing and dicing. They could have serious combat and dramatic storylines mixed in with missions that were little more than ‘bring me stuff’. The AI of other characters and enemies made the game, and you could be buddies with NPCs instead of killing them.
And, most importantly, the game was slightly easier to get around in than Morrowind, making it more friendly to a younger audience. You could, in most cases, outrun enemies. That wasn’t always the case in Morrowind – Cliff Racers are absurdly fast and forced you to fight as you ran.
Other games from this time include Call of Duty 3 and Gears of War, a Hitman game and Bully. Classics from this era still scatter critics’ favorite game lists – the philosophy surrounding games had changed.
Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
Skyrim came out in 2011, ten years ago now. The game itself is pretty good, it has all of the same features of the games before it plus a near-infinite amount of dungeons. It’s also surprisingly easy to mod in the modern era – everything from tropical weather to new enemies to new character skins can be found in the modding community. One mod turns trees into hands. People with enough expertise to code on top of a base no longer need to learn how to make a game from scratch to see their ideas for preexisting games realized.
Other parts of the game, such as it’s incredibly muted color palette, are common threads among games of this time. Call of Duty’s muted color pattern, Dark Souls’s distinct color palette of blacks, browns, and every shade of gray, the plainly bleached out sky and buildings in Grand Theft Auto 4, the list goes on. Computers and screens had evolved to the point where games could wash everything in gray and still be legible, and Skyrim was victim to this design choice. Only the spells and the occasional butterfly break the pattern.
Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim again
DLCs have existed for other games too, and in an increasingly online world, gamers can buy and download those DLCs directly to their console, which makes them much less of a hassle to get on said consoles than they used to be. Skyrim has a number of DLCs, most notably Hearthfire, which allows players to marry NPCs and adopt children (who will all still use the same lines they always have before they were married or adopted by you) and Dawnguard, which allowed werewolves and vampires in the game.
Their third DLC, Dragonborn, expands even further and allows players a glimpse of what happened after the events of Morrowind. It’s a symptom of a larger trend – it’s easier to build out levels on top of preexisting games than it is to make new ones, and when players aren’t quite done with the old world even though they’ve completed all of the interesting missions and completed the mainline quests, this can breathe new life into the game.
Oblivion had DLC. Borderlands had DLC. DLC was the hot new thing to show off that you could download stuff online, and when it wasn’t prohibitively priced, many gamers were cool with it.
The issue seems to be when DLC and other projects for a preexisting game stop the development of new ones. The big difference between Oblivion’s DLC and Skyrim’s DLC is that Oblivion eventually stopped getting DLCs – because Skyrim came out. The same goes for Borderlands and Borderlands 2, the DLC stopped because competing with the next game in the series was going to split the player base and funding.
In 2013, Bethesda released a compilation of the DLC plus a patch that made the game work better. That’s cool, it’s a way to still give the players good value for triple A price.
In 2014, Greymoor, an online version of the Elder Scrolls that was really still very Skyrim-flavored, launched. Cool – two games so close together kind of glazed over the lore issues of so much content being Skyrim.
In 2016, Bethesda released a remaster of Skyrim. That’s cool, whatever – if Oblivion got a nice makeover, it would probably sell better to new players too. However, the game is now five years old, and this is the biggest gap between games since Oblivion and Skyrim. Fans are beginning to wonder whether or not they’re going to get a new Elder Scrolls anytime soon.
This is where Skyrim breaks from the path of most games.
Ten Years of Skyrim, Skyrim Forever, Only Skyrim Now
The answer was no. Starfield, Bethesda’s next big game, is set to release on 11/11/22. There is no chance of an Elder Scrolls game getting released before or right after that date, because Elder Scrolls games are huge and consume a lot of the company’s resources to make. This means Skyrim is going to be all we see until the mid 2020’s if we get another Elder Scrolls game at all. Games have evolved. They’re bigger, now.
Skyrim continues to update only to add more things to itself. Instead of seeing more from swamps or other worlds, Skyrim’s base engine allows for essentially infinite dungeons to spawn. Other games, too, follow the pattern of riffing off the best rather than making something new, but usually, it’s not all stuffed into the last great release unless it’s a perpetually online game like Overwatch, Fall Guys, or Fortnite.
Every update to Skyrim is a disappointment to fans who want more lore about the rest of the world, or even improvements to flaws within the game that the engine couldn’t handle at the time. There’s supposed to be a civil war going on in one of the cities, and yet Skyrim can’t spawn enough NPCs to make it feel like one – wouldn’t it be super cool for a game to be able to really nail that? Skyrim did many things Oblivion did, but better – we may never get a game that does many things that Skyrim did, but better, because of how long Skyrim has spent on the buffet table. Why fix perfection if people still play the game?
The ten year anniversary of Skyrim came with a special anniversary edition pack you could buy, and that would be super cool if there were other games in the same universe that could have distracted long-term players from Skyrim in the meantime.