With the Game Developers Conference and SXSW now concluded, the video game award season has mostly come to a close. The British Academy Game Awards have yet to hand out their accolades, but the major awards have been given. For all intents and purposes, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt won 2015.
To me, there’s nothing surprising there. It was the best game of 2015 by a wide margin, and it has accordingly won more than 250 game of the year awards.
But I find it interesting that Fallout 4 didn’t win much at all. Sure it won a handful of “Game of the Year” awards, and saw some success in other categories, but its total haul was far lower than Bethesda may have felt it had a right to expect. After all, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Fallout 3, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion were all huge awards recipients in their years of release. Not only is Fallout 4 their successor, it’s quite a good game in its own right.
So, with the first Fallout 4 DLC “Automatron” dropping this week, and speculation stirring ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) about Bethesda’s next game, it’s time to take a more critical look at Betheda Game Studio’s latest hit, and ask: What went wrong?
Is the lack of accolades merely a result of Fallout 4 being released in the same year as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? Or is it something deeper. Had there not been a third Witcher, would it have been Fallout 4 with all the glory, or would it have been, perhaps, Metal Gear Solid 5 or Bloodborne? Or something else entirely? Super Mario Maker?
It’s impossible to say, but I can’t help but feel that part of its lack of award success was the notion that we’d already played this game before, and we’d already dumped accolades upon it. We did it with Skyrim, and Oblivion, and Fallout 3. Indeed, the similarities between these games going right back to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind are more than skin deep. From the combat to the world maps to the way interiors and exteriors are handled to the brief NPC conversations, these are all games in a very close family. Morrowind, it could be said, was the last time Bethesda Game Studios made a new game (Fallout Shelter and IHRA Professional Drag Racing 2005 notwithstanding).
Even back in 2008 with Fallout 3, there was a sense that Bethesda was simply taking The Elder Scrolls’ well-tested gameplay and wrapping it in Black Isle’s brilliant world. That’s not to say they haven’t made great games. They have. And they’ve been rightly rewarded. But, I think, this awards season has strongly suggested that they try new things with their franchises. Fallout 4 had better shooting mechanics, a bit more player agency, and an interesting, if unnecessary, base-building system, but the majority of the game felt like a Fallout 3 expansion pack. In some ways, such as with character attributes, it felt stripped down. It didn’t help that its writing was only marginally better than Fallout 3, and a far cry from that of Black Isle Studios or its latter day incarnation of Obsidian Entertainment. A player of any of Bethesda Game Studio’s games can jump into Fallout 4 without missing a beat.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if Fallout 4 didn’t win only because of the Witcher 3, because Bethesda should aim to beat it. If it takes anything from this year, it’s that it’s time to up their game.
It may sound like I’m unfairly picking on Bethesda. They aren’t, of course, the only studio guilty of this. The gaming world is dominated by sequels, only some of which are truly innovative. I simply can’t play an Assassin’s Creed game anymore, nor another Call of Duty, because I know I’ve already played them half a dozen times. But Bethesda has never subscribed to the predominant model of pumping out a sequel every year. We expect better. Their major releases come several years apart, and they have a legacy of excellence. If they’re going to maintain it, they can’t simply release another game in the Elder Scrolls of Fallout franchise that sticks closely to the same formula.
It’s also not enough to say that they’ve established a formula their fans expect. Even Nintendo goes to great lengths to keep Mario games fresh, and people could only play new side-scrolling Mega Man games for so long. CD Projekt Red is simply walking away from its core Witcher franchise after a massive success breaking into the mainstream conversation to focus on Cyberpunk 2077. It’s encouraging that just a few months ago, Bethesda Game Studios established a new Montreal studio to broaden their horizons. But the core team also needs to think about how they can innovate in ways beyond adding new window-dressing.
Am I suggesting that they abandon their core franchises? Certainly not. But they need to rethink what they can do within those franchises. We can safely assume that the Elder Scrolls VI will be one of the next major releases from the studio, and most likely it will be set in a yet-unexplored region of Tamriel. So what should Bethesda address for the future?
The first and most obvious thing Bethesda needs to improve on is their combat. Most of my experience in Elder Scrolls games is simply blasting all of my enemies with spells, arrows or my sword until dead. No complex systems were in place, and a deeper understanding of combat was never required. One of biggest disappointments in Skyrim were the dragon battles, most of which I beat easily from range without taking a hit.
Fallout 4 was a big step forward in bringing the game closer in feeling to a first-person shooter. It wasn’t quite there, but it wasn’t bad either. The next Elder Scrolls game needs to learn something from that. We’ve seen a lot of fantastic melee combat systems in recent games, and Bethesda may start to want to look into them. Dark Souls, The Witcher 3, Bloodborne, and even MMORPG Black Desert provide some useful starting points. Given that the game is played from the perspective of a single character, there’s no reason that combat shouldn’t feel fluid and reactive.
There are a bunch of ways to go here, from faster, combo-based gameplay to methodical and precise combat like Dark Souls. In either case, the adversaries should likewise perform more complex movements and attacks, and be paired with a stronger AI. It would be nice to enter a dungeon afraid of what might lurk within rather than simply cruise through hacking my enemies down in a few hits. When I run into a powerful enemy, I should have my skills tested, rather than simply my ability to click a hundred times.
A related criticism is that The Elder Scrolls has never quite figured out how character progression should work. The difficulty of enemies scales linearly with their level, but the power of the character scales exponentially. Contrary to expectations, and arguably contrary to good game design, the hardest moments in any Elder Scrolls games have come in the first few hours. Only then is caution necessitated in a fight. Once the character gets some good magic weapons, decent armor, and starts filling out a skill tree, the combat largely becomes trivial. The power granted to players vastly outstrips the added difficulty of monsters.
Bethesda needs to reign this in. All of the magic items and armors and skills can remain, but their impact shouldn’t be as great. The enchantment on my sword shouldn’t make it ten times more powerful than an un-enchanted sword. Combat should never be trivialized by my gear unless I’m fighting things well below my power level. Gear should feel important to keep pace with my enemies and to open up new places to explore rather than simply make me invincible.
Creating a Believable World
One of the core criticisms I’ve always had of Bethesda’s games is that the world never feels real. Towns and cities are small and sparsely populated, while caves and dungeons exist around every corner. Bandits, raiders or even draugr seem to outnumber the law-abiding citizens 100:1. There’s no doubt that the worlds of Tamriel and post-apocalyptic America are supposed to be dangerous. But it’s hard to accept, in either case, that 95-percent of the sentient population desperately wants to kill you.
Bethesda may also need to revamp its engine to allow for crowds. I’ll never forget the Battle of Whiterun in Skyrim. It’s intended to be a momentous occasion with armies throwing themselves against each other. Yet, in game, with only a couple dozen NPCs on screen at any time, it looks like nothing more than a minor skirmish between rival families. Fallout 4 did slightly better with some battles later on in the game. But it too had the problem of populating its world with psychopaths that will shoot at you for no apparent reason as soon as they can see you. And none of the existing civilized communities felt like more than an impromptu tent city.
The next Elder Scrolls needs bigger and more interesting cities, with crowded alleys and bustling markets. A little bit of urban intrigue couldn’t hurt in addition to the sprawling exterior world. There is, after all, a Thieves Guild in most provinces that feels a little underwhelming without great buildings to rob. Commerce and connections between towns and cities should be highlighted, and the number of random bandits in the world toned down. It’s fine to have lots of big dungeons full of spooky monsters, but unless there’s a good reason, not every sentient being outside of a city should be hostile.
Relatedly, Bethesda needs to take a different approach to dungeons. It’s fine to have lots of dungeons and caves, but Bethesda needs to make more of an effort to ensure that more of them feel unique, interesting, and important. The vaults in Fallout, each of which has its own unique story, should be a guide.
In Skyrim, the repetition of similar-looking dungeons led to a tedium that reminded me more of procedurally-generated levels in Diablo III than what should be an immersive RPG. Certainly, this is asking for a lot more work, but a focus on quality over quantity can assist with that. A single intriguing dungeon with a narrative and challenging encounters will certainly take longer to play through than several dungeons full of cookie-cutter enemies that I can chop through without slowing down.
Developing an Interesting Story
Bethesda needs to shift more resources into narrative development, even if that means bringing on some new writers. By writers I don’t mean lore-smiths who toil figuring out which Daedric deity’s feast falls on the third day of Last Seed. I mean writers capable of crafting an interesting narrative for the player to experience, with developed characters and believable dialogue.
Every narrative the Bethesda team has come up with has fallen somewhat flat. The characters are, with a few exceptions, not terribly memorable, and the dialogue is workmanlike at best. This is especially unfortunate in an RPG, since other RPG companies like BioWare, CD Projekt Red, and Obsidian have proven that RPGs are a fantastic storytelling medium when good writers are on board.
The next game doesn’t need to be a masterpiece of storytelling, but it should be something that goes beyond their past offerings. Both Oblivion and Skyrim simply lost me about half-way through. I didn’t care about Mehrunes Dagon in Oblivion, nor about whatever dragon awakening was supposed to happen in Skyrim. After seventy hours doing other things in Skyrim, I never finished the game. I certainly never felt compelled. Fallout 3, meanwhile, was a disappointing exercise in black and white morality full of one dimensional characters.
Fallout 4 was a definite improvement, and a clear effort at bringing more humanity to their games. But while it had its moments, too much of the plot is driven by stone-faced NPCs concisely summarizing what they need the player to do for them. Only Valentine, among all of the characters, is likely to remain with me. This certainly isn’t a problem that arises because of the nature of the game, either. I found Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas to be a substantial improvement from a narrative perspective, other issues notwithstanding.
A strong narrative has been one of the core offerings of so many RPGs, including The Witcher 3. There’s simply no reason the Elder Scrolls can’t have one too.
It’s time for Bethesda to revisit its formula and shake things up. What seemed so spectacular five year ago will no longer cut it in today’s market. The suggestions above are the straightforward ones. More experimentation and innovation would be welcome, and Bethesda may want to consider altering the Elder Scrolls in more fundamental ways. But nonetheless, the suggestions above would serve to update the Elder Scrolls for a new generation without changing its DNA. The franchise would lose nothing, but players would have much to gain.