With Skyrim’s Special Edition managing to feel not that special, it’s put me to thinking about what it is I want from the next Elder Scrolls game. What are the features I would love to see in The Elder Scrolls VI: Hammerfell? What are the series' tropes that could use a tweak? I've expounded on this below.
Restarting Skyrim in its marginally better engine with its equally dreadful NPCs, it’s hard to entirely settle back into a once-familiar game and enjoy it all over again. Five years is a long time in gaming, and with what I can only ascribe to Bethesda’s singular dedication, they’ve made a special effort to preserve all the bugs and weaknesses of the original release, rather than fix them like a lesser developer might think to do. So this is a game that not only feels a bit ragged (albeit occasionally rather pretty), but one that really goes to some efforts to frustrate by still featuring all the things that were rubbish with it half a decade back. (I mean, five years to create a special edition, and at no point did anyone think to maybe even speed up the achingly dreary and agonisingly slow opening sequence.)
Of course, you could argue this is a problem even more endemic. Most of the things that are rubbish about Skyrim were rubbish about Oblivion too, which doesn’t inspire an enormous amount of hope that the team will ever eradicate the problems that plague their genuinely excellent games. It seems fair to say that Bethesda knows that any new Elder Scrolls (offline, clearly) will sell eight-hundred squillion copies even if its extraordinary open world and myriad quests were packaged with a hand that kept reaching out from the screen and poking you really hard in the eye.
It is the perennial problem with the studio, emblazoned across all their games, that they know their scope is big enough that enough people will put up with their most egregious issues for the sake of the rest of the experience. While of course there are those who apparently have made it their full-time job to inform other users of the internet that they won't play Bethesda RPGs until those issues are fixed, for the vast majority - including me - what's good about the games makes putting up with the rubbish bits worthwhile. I’ll pick up Hammerfell when it comes out in early 2018, and I’m increasingly convinced I’ll swallow down all those same bugs, frustrations and tiresome design decisions because of just how much there is of everything else.
But just in case, on the off-chance that Simon Bethesda is reading this, here are my dreamy wishes for what might get changed in that next edition.
Just some effort on character faces
There is extraordinary talent at Bethesda. That can’t be said enough, and as flawed as they clearly are, their games are ambitious and embellished like nothing else out there. But obviously there’s an office instruction manual with the page for, “Spend a bit of time making people not look really ridiculous,” fallen out. It’s probably behind the solid gold ceiling-high trophy cabinet, just too heavy for anyone to move. And each time they get a game finished before remembering, “Oh no! The missing page!”, then realise they’re late for the daily swimming in gold.
But the effect of this most peculiar of incessant issues is pretty dramatic. The Elder Scrolls games are, I’m pretty convinced, holding themselves back from being far more absorbing and impactful by making everyone you encounter, everyone you help, hurt or kill, look completely silly. Which brings me to....
Maybe spend a bit more money on voice actors?
Because combined with their daft faces, when they open their mouths it’s impossible to take anything seriously. Sure, they’ll hire someone who was famous two years previously for a TV show to do a voice for someone near the start, but then apparently the rest are done by half-trained parakeets, madly squawking lines written by their patented Cliche Machine 3000.
And it does so much damage to these amazing countries. These places into which I only ever feel like I’m immersed when either on my own, or with only skellingtons for company. The moment you walk into a town, or bump into a travelling goofball on the roads, all the illusion is shattered and it’s, “Oh yeah, I’m playing a dumb game.”
If these NPCs felt alive, by pulling facial expressions previously seen on humans, and speaking like people instead of screaming pantomime villains, then imagine how much more empathy you’d feel, how much more engrossing it could be. Maybe the things you’re doing would start to matter, rather than just be the reason you’re having fun over there.
Don’t have loading times for going in tiny buildings
Look, I don’t know how games are made. I assume it’s something to do with witchcraft and crisps. So I don’t have a good understanding of the technical demands of an engine, and why it’s apparently capable of offering me an entire country to wander around without pause, but needs to go to the load screen to walk into a one-room house. But gosh, I wish it wouldn’t. Honestly, I’d rather a loading pause every now and then in the wider world than having to feel my heart sink when I realise I’ve accidentally clicked on the exit and have to now see at least another three loading screens before I’m done with this shed.
Have a human use your user interface
Clearly space robots have a very different desire for menus and user interfaces from humans. Space robots have no use for aesthetic appeal, and can operate multi-tiered structures in microseconds. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Bethesda has always entrusted the menu design and interface choices to their team of cruelly enslaved space robots and forgotten to have one of their evil human overlords take a peak before release. I mean, I literally cannot think of a more realistic explanation for the monstrosities they produce.
I strongly suggest that for TESVI, they do a form of “focus testing”, where they find a human being - perhaps someone they met in a Starbucks - and ask them to use the interface without previous instruction. This process should be recorded on video, so that the team can then watch back for all the occasions the human picked up the keyboard or mouse and threw it at the monitor, shouting, “WHAT ON EARTH? SERIOUSLY? WHO WOULD EVER THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?” And then attempt to make adjustments.
Let me break stuff
I know this is pretty trivial, but it really does stick out like a sore knee. I’m equipped with a bloody enormous sword (fnarr), and this is a world liberally decorated with pots and urns, and yet the two cannot meet. It doesn’t stop me from trying. But my greatsword swings uselessly past their incorporeal clay and I move on, despondent. Smashing stuff in games is good. The next Elder Scrolls game should definitely want to include good stuff.
Get a little bit darker
While you couldn’t really accuse the series of being an upbeat romantic comedy, I think there’s room for TES to find a deeper, more meaningful darkness. It’s interesting to go back to the game five years on, in what historians will eventually call a “Post Game Of Thrones Era”, and realise the potential for a more mature approach to the games. I don’t mean boobs and willies and the obligatory whorehouse, I mean more complex, more possibly unsettling themes. Storylines that have perhaps even more courage, more desire to speak to the player - not moralise, not even allegorise - just feel like they have something they are burning to say. It has felt too fluffy to me, even in the hell-like world of Oblivion, too shallow and courteous. I want a bit of rage, a bit of imposing danger. And I’d especially love it if that narrative could entwine itself more convincingly in the billions of discovered quests, allow you to put chilling flesh onto the non-obligatory bones. Just a far greater emphasis on storytelling betwixt and around its incredible openness and freedom.
Have a godforsaken FOV slider in your options
The Elder Scrolls games are really great, apart from all the loads and loads of ways they’re not. And that creates such an interesting response from players and non-players-afflicted-with-a-curse-to-tell-everyone-in-the-whole-world-that-they-aren't-playing alike. There is outcry at how a game that fails at one or other of these listed flaws gets such broad acceptance and celebration, which is to fail to realise how others appreciate things differently from oneself. Heck, it’s possible to buy Skyrim just as an expansive horse-riding simulator, and have a tremendous time despite doing nothing else.
If it fails at the aspect that’s most important to you, then yes, gosh, what a disappointment. And no, it’s really not good enough that they so egregiously fail, nor indeed that they launch with so many outrageous bugs. The games remain amazing, but the criticism is deeply important. (It’s why scores are stupid, see?) We remain insistent that Bethesda must do better, and reject the notion that it’s important to respect their audience’s expectations of bug fixes and the like. (A tolerance that will expire one day, no matter how much they think it might not.)
The next game will, I’m sure, be fascinating. I desperately hope that Fallout 4’s relative disappointment won't affect a new TES, different teams and all that. The fear would be that they realise just how much they can get away with and yet still see such huge sales, but let’s hope not. Let’s hope they stretch themselves in new ways, broaden their ambitions beyond scope and scale into finishing the vital details too.
There are three other key things that should be included or amended in The Elder Scrolls VI: Hammerfell, and I’ve not listed them here so that you can enjoy realising, nod sagely at my deliberate decision, and then write up in your own words below without feeling the need to precede them with phrases like, “Why didn’t you mention…” and “How could you not care about…” Gosh, you’d look silly if you did that now!