With Bethesda’s release of Morrowind in 2002, a whole new generation of gamers became immediately enthralled in the world of The Elder Scrolls. The game was novel: a first person RPG set in a sandbox world. The game also made promises of self directed questing, and a unique take on character development. Bethesda claimed their game had ascended beyond concepts that had become cliche in the role-playing community; things like skills, classes, experience points would have no place in their new production. Soon the release date rolled around, and something magical happened: most of those promises were fulfilled. Expectations were met. People were actually happy they had bought the collectors edition. The people rejoiced.
As it turns out, the game mechanics weren’t just novel, they actually proved that innovation wasn’t just a buzzword. It could lead places where gaming had never been before and for the better. Even the setting was unlike anything people had seen before. Giant insects traveled between cities, their hulking chitinous bodies became armor for those that hunted them. A strange race of dark elves built cities guarded by an alien looking elite military force. Magic and Lore were pervasive, with books detailing the histories of this new strange lands scattered everywhere for the player to read and enjoy. The assets of the game were innumerable, and within months of its release people were already calling for online support.
Yet they were mollified quickly by developers who chastised them for their enthusiasm. “The technology just isn’t there yet. It would be impossible.” They didn’t see online as an opportunity to make TES really sing. They saw it as a chore that could never fit their goals for the TES series: exploration, sandbox gaming, and a lone hero on a quest to save the world. They didn’t trust their fans to understand the game, and in this mistrust they continued onward without a second thought to online play.
Then Oblivion was released. The reception was good, and the game had merits. Improved graphics were first among them, but the game also did a good job of quickly drawing the player into an immersive world. That being said, the game had it’s flaws. Though the world was big, it was fairly boring. In many ways, the new setting was a throwback to an earlier period in role playing games. Indeed, the first TES game made back in 1992 was set in the same pseudo late-Roman, early dark ages setting. No strange giant mushrooms, no bizarre wildlife, just good ole fashioned fantasy RPG. Even TES lore names were dumbed down. Dwemer became Dwarf, lest the uninitiated find these unusual words off-putting.
Furthermore, the sense of accomplishment from exploration was drastically reduced because dungeons now leveled with you. Very rarely was a player actually at risk of dying. A loud minority had won big with their complaints about the original Morrowind game’s difficulty. People ended up in situations too big for their character to handle. Instead of finding this danger an interesting game mechanic and simply being more careful, they demanded that gamers should be able to tackle any dungeon, any mission, at any time. To the biggest fans of Morrowind the new changes meant Tamriel felt decidedly smaller, less dangerous, less interesting.
Somehow, most gamers didn’t mind too much. Despite it’s issues, it was still a compelling game. Criticisms about the games “cliche fantasy” nature were quickly dispelled with a reminder that The Empire was conceived during a simpler time, way back in the early 90’s when fantasy computer games were in their infancy. PC gaming itself was still only in it’s adolescence. Surely the next entry would be as creative, as compelling as the first game. We need only give them the benefit of the doubt.
In the meantime, gamers still clamored for online play. Just because the world was less interesting didn’t mean that experiencing the world with friends would be any less fun. At this point, fans were practically begging for the inclusion of online in the next game. The developers cautioned their fans. “Listen,” they chided “online play would be extremely difficult. Don’t you want more content? Don’t you want a bigger, more unique world? Surely you see that online would hamper our ability to deliver on what really makes TES great.” We listened, we considered, and we nodded our heads. They were right, we assumed. An online TES game would just be too difficult. We contented ourselves with just another game and once again the developers ignored their biggest fans, writing them off as out of touch.
Then came Skyrim, a game that frequently divides fans of the series. Everyone has played it, and if they haven’t they should. It’s an interesting case study in losing touch with what your biggest fans want in favor of mass appeal, but then that trend was well on its way during Oblivion’s development. Combat was redone to be even more action-game like. The setting was dumbed down, with Nords going from an odd blend of Celtic and Viking culture to essentially Anglo-saxons with smatterings of norse mythology. The flora and fauna was recycled from Oblivion, more or less. The monsters were, aside from new models, nearly the same. The world, while interesting, had become as cliche as ever. So much so that you were literally a knight fighting dragons. To people who always enjoyed the novelty and creativity of the series, it simply highlighted the increasingly lazy writing that began to seep in with the release of Oblivion.
In general the developers had struggled to make the Nordic lands and people interesting. They instead relied on the most easily telegraphed “norse” traditions for fear of confusing their player base or themselves. The same player base that had once happily gotten on top of a giant bug and rode cross country from one bizarre mud-hut city to another city grown out of giant mushrooms were suddenly being treated like idiots who couldn’t stomach anything too far out of the ordinary. In short, it did not feel like The Elder Scrolls anymore. The mystery and diversity of Morrowind was almost completely gone. In its place was a sprawling, yet somehow boring action RPG whose pretty packaging had difficulty hiding the lack of depth.
In fact there are ways in which Skyrim outright ignored its TES heritage. The developers barely even acknowledge previous lore. After all, the dragon-born had always been the title for those in the line of Uriel Septim, and here now it was some random nord who according to Executive Producer Tom Howard had nothing to do with Uriel Septim’s line. It just sounded cool when the gravelly voiced narrator read the words. “Dragon Born” Ooooooooh, that’s nice.
Like so many other aspects of this game, it was TES only in the looser sense of the word. Where was the sprawling, exploration driven world we’d been hoping for, a world that we’d gladly given up any dreams of online play to achieve? It was only there in bits and pieces. A long and slow process that had started the moment after Morrowind was released was finally complete. The Elder Scrolls had gone from the centerpiece of Western RPG innovation to just another fantasy RPG. They had ignored their fans on many fronts, opting to cater towards a new bigger sect of gamers, ones who played the game with less intensity, who stopped reading the lore, who didn’t care about the series beyond it’s ability to keep the occupied for a few hours at a time. As long as they got to kill stuff they were happy. Meanwhile, the biggest fans of the TES series wondered why they’d been ignored over and over. Why their desire for more lore, more interesting locales, and a removal of the much hated world scaling system had been ignored. Why had online never been implemented, even 10 years after Morrowind? It was the culmination of a long running attitude that TES developers believed they understood what players wanted more than the players themselves.