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Most Wanted Next-Gen: The Elder Scrolls VI

I recently wrote an editorial in response to Konrad Tomaszkiewicz’s hateful bash on Skyrim for being “too generic”. Mr. Tomaszkiewicz listed several characteristics of Bethesda’s fifth Elder Scrolls title that he felt made the game shallow and lacking in immersion. While the game director for the next Witcher title is entirely free to formulate such an opinion, I still stand by my belief that such a point of view could have only been drawn after exerting little to no effort to involve one’s self with the game world. Originally meant as an extension of the aforementioned article, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to highlight what made Skyrim and its predecessors the most engaging, entrancing, time consuming games to date, as well as what we can look forward to in The Elder Scrolls VI.

For those of you who’ve kept up, OnlySP has been doing a series of articles this month showcasing what titles we’re most lusting after on the next generation of consoles. While not initially on our radar, I took the initiative to include The Elder Scrolls VI on our list to reassure fans (and win over the holdouts) that Bethesda Softworks will grind out yet another multi-award winning RPG. I couldn’t justifiably let February pass by without including the eventual follow up to “the deepest, loveliest game ever made for a single player to explore.”

I try to touch base with readers any time I do an editorial regarding on ongoing franchise so that the uninformed have, at minimum, a basic understanding of the franchise in question. Unfortunately, The Elder Scrolls series is anything but brief. There is an absurd amount of information to convey, but I’ll try to keep this history lesson focused on the golden details. Feel free to skip ahead to Section II if you’re not interested in being taken to school.

It’s a miracle that The Elder Scrolls survived past its birth. The first title of the series was not even originally planned to debut as a role playing game. Arena was an absolute disaster from the get go. Bethesda’s first attempt at something other than sport or port missed the original Christmas of 1993 launch and instead hit consumer hands three months later during March down time. Furthermore, distributors felt the packaging was too misleading and as such, The Elder Scrolls: Arena originally shipped only three thousand copies.

arenacover

Conan meets Gauntlet Legends.

Daggerfall  released on time just over two years later. While Arena pushed the majority of gamers to think of what could be achieved developmentally in an RPG, this second installment rolled a d20 on those who doubted Bethesda.

The XnGine engine, one of the only true 3D engines at the time, was put center stage to support a world calculated to be around two hundred thousand square miles featuring a populace three quarters of a million! Fifteen years before Skyrim was being called shallow, Bethesda had put out a title boasting a play area twice the size of Great Britain. I’m aware that depth and size are not equivalent, but this was profound and unheard of in yesteryear. Two expansions, Battlespire and Redguard, followed shorty after.

Fans of the series almost universally agree that The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is the take all champion of the franchise. Immersion was further exemplified with the addition of various guilds that all had their own sub stories to tell, running along side the main narrative. Warring factions, religious organizations, and aristocratic agendas all introduced the player to background themes such as racism and politics. This pulled user attention to the  issues characters living in the world were dealing with rather than just focusing on the players own experience. This is where Tamriel really started feeling more like an inhabited world and less like a digital space.

Morrowind

I’m not really a people person.

Oblivion saw less in the form of innovation and more in the form of refinement. Resources shifted away from the scope of the world as a whole as Bethesda found a new tactic to pull players in. By creating more realistic quests and believable environments featuring believable characters (the term used comparatively here; we are playing in a world populated by magicians and monsters after all), players found it easier to slip from reality to fantasy. Even after the initial game’s release, developers churned out the Shivering Isles DLC, which was in itself deserving of several awards.

A.I. went through a radical overhaul as well. Fans of the previous installments cried out for more complex inhabitants.  What they received was beyond expectation. Bethesda created the Radiant A.I. system, almost completely freeing non player characters from the bondage of script. Instead, the population of Cyrodiil was allowed to make their own decisions to satisfy their “wants” and “needs” based on a predetermined personality value.

oblivionAnd possibly there willingness to submit to the dark lord.

The most recent Elder Scrolls game was Skyrim, and you don’t have to be a scholar to know that it was a massive deal. Seven million hard copies were shipped within the first week, and Steam reported over two hundred thousand individual players logged in on day one.

The design goal for world of Skyrim reverted back to focusing on fantasy elements. Draw distance was improved as per Bethesda’s usual modus oprandi, which further blurred the sense that the player was in a confined world. The limbs of trees, the petals of flowers, and even the ripples of water were given realistic weight by ditching SpeedTree in favor of ramping up the in house Creation Engine.

draw

Radiant A.I. was also beefed up, and NPCs received a new injection of realism with the addition of non essential tasking. On top of making decisions based on basic day to day needs such as eating and sleeping, non player characters now attempted to find work, such as milling, farming, or even hunting.

Critics and consumers agreed that Skyrim deserved no less than a 90 out of 100, with Famitsu (a Japanese gaming magazine) giving the game a 40 out of40, the first western RPG to ever receive a perfect mark from them. This is made even more impressive when you take into consideration that Japanese role playing games are considered to be the guidebook for all others to follow. Everyone concurred that a masterpiece had been made, and Gamespot went as far to say that “Skyrim performs the most spectacular of enchantments: the one that causes huge chunks of time to vanish before you know it”. Shallow indeed.

 

Section II: The Future

Despite being referred to as the most immersive series ever conceived, elitist critics have constantly pointed out that Elder Scrolls storylines are ankle deep and short on innovation. Well buckle up kids, because I’m about to take you for a spin. While it certainly helps, an engaging plot is not a prerequisite of immersion.

It’s true, the primary narrative of most Bethesda titles are often perceived as lackluster and hardly progressive. They do however doll up the story enough as to not appear copy and pasted or outright generic. I say “outright generic” because, in all fairness, there isn’t much room for originality left in storytelling. Whether it be in books, movies, games, or even lyrical concepts present in songs, some form of my every tale as been told. There’s even less room to adventure when the writers are restricted within one genre.

genericstoryA small group trying to survive/stop a corporate/government induced zombie plague/virus. GENIUS.

But Bethesda has never dropped players into a world devoid of tales to tell. The key plot is regularly supported by three or more guild quest lines that feature their own stories to experience. Each of these optional series ends with their own unique perks for the player, and they all create the feeling that the plot exists within the world, and not vice versa.

Skyrim shipped with 233 scripted side quests coupled with 300 points of interest. Underneath these there operated and infinite quest generator. After some time, these randomly spawned adventures started feeling like mere reconditioned “gather/kill w of x for y, because z”, but the dialogue offered by the NPCs handing out these quests was detailed just enough to make you feel that their problem was their own. It was a nice touch that formed a realistic atmosphere for the player. An individual’s problems don’t disappear in yield to a tragedy half way across the world.

The Elder Scrolls VI would benefit tremendously from something as simple as putting a little more variety and depth in the random quest generator alone. Rather than formulating simple fetch quests, why not create new quest lines? What happens after I retrieve your cursed family heirloom? How was it cursed? Why was it taken? The context is already there to justify this upgrade, and just like the optional quest lines, they would not interfere with the key story.

Also, the optional guild and faction quests could do with some similar tweaking. We’re seeing a lot of cause and effect in current RPGs, with player decisions altering the outcome of the story. With Bethesda’s emphasis on role playing, it wouldn’t be unlikely to see something akin to this next time around. Say, for example, in a future Mage’s Guild quest line. Which school of magic do you prefer? Destruction? Alteration? Your tasks, how they unfold, the final confrontation, and your reward would differ based on something as simple as your spell preference.

voyer“Thank you for rescuing my husband, but now…”  *Quest Accepted: The Voyeur*

Personally, I don’t thinkBethesda needs to appeal to any crowd of people who feel they have to be tucked in and read a story. The lazy don’t deserve to have their hands held, and The Elder Scrolls only rewards those willing to open their hearts to the lore. But putting marginally more writing into the development of quests with these ideas would definitely sedate disgruntled players who felt the main plot didn’t merit their time. Didn’t like it? Well there’s ninety nine other stories waiting to unfold.

As with most forms of high fantasy, The Elder Scrolls has put considerable detail into their lore and back story. Over the series, the writers have woven a vast tapestry of culture, religion, race, prominent figures, world shaking events, and political discourse. Books and tomes are littered across each rendered province that gives us a glimpse by glimpse of the history of Tamriel. For those of use who put the effort in, new installments are much coveted promises to deliver unto us a little more  lore about the world we’re escaping too.

Bethesda pays extra attention to their graphical goals during development of their Elder Scrolls games, attempting to outdo themselves time and time again. Skyrim was beautiful, and the developers crafted the most stunning environment they could within the confines of the current generation’s capabilities. But there were some points where more could have been accomplished. What I’m about to show you is still Skyrim, running on an i5 processor and a GTX670 video card. (Which in layman’s terms means high performance, but now dated. Most ultra performance gaming rigs come standard with an i7 processor and about a gig more worth of GPU memory.)

mod1

mod3

 

If you’re not experiencing an optical erection right now, please contact your optometrist. While there are a LOT of modifications that were made to achieve the above, you should note that most of these changes are post rendering; the ENB series shaders, depth of field, and screen space ambient occlusion are pulling most of the weight. In game, the biggest improvement is the relatively simple addition of high definition textures.

I pulled these examples from modder Unreal’s website. This individual showcases his ability to fluidly run one hundred mods at once, and I encourage you to take a look at his work on his site here. (Beware of ads.)

Before I attempt to convey how nerve wracking it is just to imagine the modding possibilities for the next generation Elder Scrolls, consider this. If non compensated individuals are not only willing, but able to generate something that beautiful on what is now partially dated technology, try to fathom what Bethesda will be able to produce for their next baseline installment.

mod4

And now on to my favorite part of every Elder Scrolls game, and the biggest reason anyone should be excited when another is in the works. Community modifications. To start off, I need to make it clear that playing a title on console versus playing that same title on a computer is much like driving to work in your mother’s sedan versus driving to work in an Italian supercar, even when the technology gap separating the two is minimal.

With just a few mods installed, it’s like you’re not even playing the same game anymore. Graphical upgrades aside, there is almost nothing that can’t be modified to satisfy a users preference. Everything can be changed. EVERYTHING.

screenshot1

That’s a screenshot I took of just one website supporting Skyrim modders. That is twenty three thousand and change divided up between fifty different categories. Some of the biggest hitters on the site don’t even add anything new to the game, they just polish what Bethesda already implemented. Inventory overhauls, improved companion commands, upgraded spellcasting, fixed character animations to appeal to hyper realism; the list feels near endless.

Admittedly, I dove head first into the superficial addons. Apart from what you’d expect to see, such as the bountiful amount of weapon and armor mods, you can create a drastically deeper level immersion just with your character. Skin, facial features, hair, race, posture. All can be changed. Don’t like your house? How about a home perched high above a mountain overlooking twin waterfalls? Don’t think the dragons are interesting enough? How about sixty new types? “Adult” interactions, footprints in the snow, new NPCs that come fully voiced with background history, custom dungeons, creatures that swear at you when hit. There’s even a mod that adds hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and exposure, essentially altering how you play the game on the most basic level. You can custom tailor Elder Scrolls games to fit your play style. I pulled a few of my favorite screenshots off the Skyrim Nexus to give you a visual. Courtesy of their respective users:

Armed to the Teeth and Better Khajiit textures. Image from EiriesPinup Poser, and custom body type with realistic skin. Image by AzenethHD Fire spells. Image by BuzzDee84Deadly Dragons. Image by IsinsocalHD Rain. Image by Tru3lMagicRealistic Lighting Overhaul. Image by Nautiluse

These are fan creations so it’s arguable whether or not you could classify mods as a feature to anticipate for an upcoming title. However, Bethesda pays ample attention to what their fans are capable of doing with their products. If they aren’t able to reproduce it with a follow up title, someone will put it out on one of the many community sites within days. In other words, potentially limitless DLC.

Before you console zealots get your panties in a bunch, screaming at me because this doesn’t help you at all and that your computer couldn’t possibly run these upgrades, let me put your collective minds to ease. I’m going to guess that most of you own an average performance computer. Well, that’s all it takes. I run my copy of Skyrim on a three year dated laptop with half the video memory as the guy I pointed it out in my above example. Using the same high resolution texture packs and slightly less powerful shaders, I’m able to achieve a fluid thirty frames per second throughout.

PersonalPersonal1

 Courtesy of my rig.

No matter what platform you choose to experience Elder Scrolls on, you’ll be rewarded with immeasurable opportunity to lose yourself. Even though trends in modern role playing games steer clear of randomly generated environments, the systematically constructed worlds Bethesda gives birth to teeter on overwhelming. There’s so much to take part in, and so much more to contribute too. My initial playthrough of Skyrim took me eighty six hours to complete the main quest line, the option guild lines, and nab each of the achievements. That’s eighty six hours just doing the bare bones minimum.

I haven’t stopped playing the past two installments, but I desperately crave the next chapter. Every time I open an in game book or hear non player characters reference events outside the province, I catch myself begging to see how the writers will incorporate the information into the next title. With several provinces left unaccounted for as playable zones in the series of Elder Scrolls, there’s no shortage of opportunity to spend hundreds more hours engaged in fantasy land.

I guarantee you that OnlySP will be all over The Elder Scrolls VI, whenever Bethesda comes around to announcing the successor. With their track record, it wouldn’t be shocking if it has already entered its infancy in development. Keep it locked here for when the dragon drops.

closer

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