Sunday, October 30, 2011

Spotlight - Pre Skyrim Jitters

If you're fans of the Elder Scrolls series, then you indubitably know that Skyrim, the fifth installment of Bethesda's epic open-world RPG, is about to be released on 11/11/11 - less than 15 days away. Now there's been an impressive amount of hype for the game, considering it has been over 5 years since the studio released the previous game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Yes, in addition to taking frivolous legal action against indie developers, Bethesda also still makes games! Imagine that.

Oblivion was hailed as one of the best RPGs of 2006, featuring stunning graphics (for the time), a massive world to explore, almost countless quests to complete, and its signature RPG leveling system; unlike most other models of the roleplaying videogame, the Elderscrolls uses a system where your abilities improve based only on use. That is, swing a sword enough times and you'll become a master swordsman. Blast enough enemies with fiery death, and you'll become a master mage. Spin enough diplomatic circles around your enemies with your silver tongue and you'll become a master ... debater.
Heh. Had to.

Skyrim allows you to kill bears like never before. As long as they aren't pandas, I say.
Still, for all its innovation and technical marvel, there was one area where I felt Oblivion fell short compared to its peers: narrative. Plot. Story. Now, I realize that these factors aren't really selling points of the Elder Scrolls series. Still, in a world where fans often feel justified in demanding improvements to game sequels (often to suit their own esoteric tastes), I feel okay jumping on the bandwagon here. After all, what gamer hasn't dreamed of ways to make the games they play better?

It has been my contention that there are two kinds of successful fantasy stories in RPGs: one based on setting, and one based on characters. Either your setting must be absolutely original and immersive, or your characters have to be compelling. Preferably, you would have both an original and interesting world to explore coupled with characters that you care about. In the absence of both, you must at least have one for a good story to be told.

Pretty? Yes. Interesting? That's debatable.
Case(s) in point. While Dragon Age's setting may not be the most original in all of fiction, the series still told an absolutely captivating narrative through your many party members. One of the best parts of the story in the first Dragon Age was trying to penetrate the witch Morrigan's caustic exterior. Or getting to know the man behind the string of sarcastic jokes that was Alistair. Or trying to decipher exactly what the mysterious shapeshifter Flemeth was planning.

Morrowind, the third installment of the Elder Scrolls series, took the opposite approach. The game managed to make up for its lack of memorable non-player characters using a fascinating and stunningly-well crafted setting based on a truly unique culture and intricate weave of lore. The sheer drama of this politically and religiously charged world more than made up for the lack of NPCs. You didn't just get to know a character in Morrowind. You got to know a whole nation.

Morrowind's capital city of Vivec, a thousand times more interesting than Oblivion's generic fantasy.
Unfortunately, Oblivion's setting seemed in comparison to be utterly generic fantasy with an unremarkable plot and dull, forgettable characters. Oblivion's narrative had neither the expansive and intricate backstory of Morrowind, nor the well-developed and layered characters of Dragon Age. The result was an utterly uninspired story. You got to know a world in Oblivion, yes. But it was like getting to know your husband/wife of forty years. Been there, done that. Seen it all before.

Note, that I don't think Oblivion itself was bad - just this one aspect. In terms of technology, gameplay, and sheer expansiveness of its world, Oblivion should still be considered the top of the top in its sub-genre of RPG.

Standing stones in Skyrim will impart special benefits to various skills.
With that tedious and overlong introduction done, I finally come to the point of this post. What will Skyrim do to address these concerns? Most other gaming sites seem to have conceded that the story aspect of the Elder Scrolls series is unworthy of note; the emphasis in most previews I have read has been decidedly focused on gameplay. That's fine; Elder Scrolls' massive worlds and unique gameplay are after all the major selling points of the series. Still, for a gamer who enjoys games primarily for their story content, what is there to expect?

Well, Skyrim is set in a brand new location, the home of the Nords. In terms of real world correlations, Nords are essentially fantasy Vikings. They make their homes in snow-covered plains that are broken apart by frost-covered crags and frozen tundra. This is a welcome change from the generic forests and medieval cities of Oblivion. As for the actual lore and backstory, we'll have to see when the game releases, but what's been shown so far seems to hit closer to Oblivion than it does Morrowind.

We can visit everything you see here, from Skyrim. Maybe not the clouds I'm guessing. Or can we?
As for plot, very little has been revealed. Apart from the fact that for some reason, dragons are trying to destroy the world, and your character is the fated hero chosen by destiny to defeat them and save the realm. Generic? Yes. Can it be done well? Again, guess we'll have to see.

Finally, Bethesda has not made a big deal out of its NPC characters. This isn't surprising, considering Skyrim's predecessors. There's supposed to be a new NPC AI system which is supposedly pretty revolutionary in terms of giving all the thousands of NPCs their own schedules. Gameplay wise, this sounds great. Story-wise, not so much. Quantity can't make up for lack of quality in terms of developing memorable characters to interact with. If every non-player character in the game has their own schedule, but none of them has any personality, that's big minus points in my book.

Dragons are an integral part of Skyrim's lore. Also, expect to kill a lot of them.
So, in short. Looks like Skyrim's not going to satisfy any narrative cravings. I look forward to being proven wrong, but I won't go so far as to hope for it.

That said, I still plan on fully enjoying this game. Despite Oblivion's lackluster storyline, I still found its massively open world absorbing and engrossing. Fans of the Elder Scrolls series often claim to forgo the main plotline entirely, choosing to carve out their own story and make their own mark in the Elder Scrolls universe. From what we've seen of Bethesda's latest RPG so far, there's no reason to think we can't do the same in Skyrim.

It's not an Elder Scrolls game if there's not a weird zombie skeleton all up in your grill.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim releases on November 11, 2011 on PC (via Steam), Xbox 360 and PS3.

Check out my review of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion here (please note that this was done on my old 5-point review system, which has since been discarded) and then catch some of the latest footage of the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, plus the live-action trailer below!

Latest Gameplay Footage, via G4TV

Live Action Trailer!

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