Lessons Learned From The Elder Scrolls: The Devil is in the Details
Numerous aspects of gaming that have been changed or influenced by the Elder Scrolls series, for better or worse, over the past decade or so.
If video games are one thing above all others, they are fun. Sure, the occasional title may teach us a life lesson or two, and every once in a couple blue moons, a game alters our collective perception of storytelling, and what a game may be. But at their most bare, basic state, games are just plain ol’ mindless fun. With that being said, what happens when a game forces its audience to delve deeper? To inspect the most minute of details. What happens when a game envelops its players in a shroud of complete realism, and refuses to relent? Well, when this occurs, you are most likely playing an Elder Scrolls game.
At the core of any Elder Scrolls title is first and foremost the player experience. From Morrowind to Skyrim, the Elder Scrolls franchise focuses on letting the player be any character he or she chooses, and unleashes that same character in a giant fantasy sandbox, filled with daring adventure and endless questing. But here, where most games would stop, at the point most would consider “good enough,” the Elder Scrolls chooses to carry on. Books fill every shelf in Skyrim. Non-player characters banter back and forth about current events. And the world around the player, whether he be an Orc or Argonian, is without a doubt, alive.
This, above all else, is the true genius of most Bethesda titles. Instead of resting on well established RPG laurels, the folks at Bethesda choose to go above and beyond the call of duty with each subsequent release, delivering an interactive experience that mirrors reality better than any game in recent memory (read: ever). You see, the majority of players are not going to take the time to read about the history of Tamriel in one of Skyrim or Oblivion’s endless novels. And many of these same players are not going to stop their current plethora of quests to wander the wilds of Tamriel, scouting the landscape for the various flora and fauna that may be used to craft a potion or poison. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter if only a handful of players enjoy and implement these gameplay features, because the fact that they even exist in the first place speaks volumes of the dedication and devotion to reality that goes into an Elder Scrolls game. In this sense, Bethesda conquers the devil in the details. By enveloping their titles in near complete realism, the developer leaves very few design stones unturned, and very little to be desired.
Taking a class in the Bethesda school of realism, many current developers are going the extra mile to ensure that their games too contain relevant collectibles and interactive design elements that enrich the storytelling experience. Take, for example, Alan Wake; the story of an author with a horrendous case of writer’s block, struggling to find a balance between reality and the ethereal darkness that is consuming him. The game, developed by Remedy and released in 2010, takes cues from titles like Morrowind, and places little gems of back-story throughout the game world. Explorable forests and houses, among other environments, are littered with television sets that play live action TV episodes of the fictional show Night Springs. This incredibly clever homage to The Twilight Zone adds a layer of depth to the story of desperate writer Alan Wake. Not only is the protagonist at odds with an uncontrollable, venomous darkness, but he is also haunted by the delirious, incoherent tales he sees while viewing Night Springs. To add to this sense of terror and lonesome, other areas in Alan Wake contain radios that may be tuned in to the local talk radio station, where a concerned DJ updates Alan, and the entire town, on inexplicable happenings related to the cursed author.
Just as in the Elder Scrolls titles, watching episodes of Night Springs and listening in to the despondent radio in Remedy’s Alan Wake are completely optional tasks. They don’t adversely affect the game in any manner if left untouched. But for those of us that appreciate the small things in both life and video games, efforts to fully flesh out a narrative universe do not go unappreciated. In this regard, Bethesda has raised the bar to unheard of levels, when it comes to creating real world simulations in environments that would otherwise be completely unbelievable.