A theory called “dominant strategy” tells us that given an ultimate means of victory (like a chainsaw) a player will never use anything else (like a fork). This can be applied to developers too. Since Bethesda has hit on a formula that guarantees sales, they don’t have to change their act. Their dominant sales strategy will always be to just keep churnin’ em out.
This isn’t too strange in video games. Look at the yearly sports games, separated only by a number, or the Call of Duty games that switch wars but not styles. Even franchises like Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, once famous for their creativity, are now in a kind of holding pattern where they shuffle the same cards every few years and just draw a new hand. This year: New Super Mario Bros. 2. Next year: Super World Mario 3D Land Bros.
Since so many in the industry do it, it may seem odd to pick on Bethesda, a company famous for putting out grand and distinct adventures every few years. But what if that so-called distinction is a trick of good marketing and clever design, and those adventures aren’t as grand as we thought?
This is a shortlist of issues that apply not only to The Elder Scrolls games but to Fallout as well, which is telling. How can such seemingly different games be so similar in their problems? Like the yearly sports schlock, they’ve landed in a formula. Only our perception can encourage them to change it.
Bethesda has a habit of advertising a dazzling story, even within the game itself, and then presenting a game with very little focus. It may be the player’s choice to pick a cardinal direction and run until they hit water, but when the skeletal narrative that features in all of these games rarely holds much incentive for players to pursue it, it should be removed completely. Fallout is particularly guilty, expositing for over an hour before dropping the player into a world in which the established story is the literal least interesting thing in it (a bit disheartening when three-fourths of it is garbage piles). So players want a freeform adventure—why are we still jumping through threadbare narrative hoops to get one?
When I say the story isn’t interesting, fans would say that the story isn’t the point at all. Then why is it still in there? This unwillingness to change the formula is the ground level of the problems with these games, and the resulting problems in our low expectations of them.
Since Morrowind proved that you could hire three voice actors, model one face for each genderand no one would notice if you spread them out good, Bethesda games have slacked so hard on character modeling that I’m surprised their polygons even hold together (indeed, sometimes they don’t). This may seem like nitpicking, but all these points address a higher one: that the supposed grandness of Bethesda adventures is undermined by its inner contradictions. The first one is establishing a world using an epic story, in which the most epic thing about it is ignoring the story.
Now take the people, in Skyrim particularly. Here’s a game that renders environments across miles of game-relative space, thrusts the player into a world that prioritizes its immersive realism in every variegated leaf and slick drop of dew, and yet every town contains the same group of a few people played by the same voices, with only slight variation. The size of the adventure is undermined by a detail that pulls you out of its immersion, leaving so much sizable work on the cutting room floor of the player’s sense of adventure.
Another great example of how a detail can shrink your perception of a game world is in the pathfinding. In Fallout 3, the set paths of non-player characters were so limited that the boneheaded dopes blocking your path or running against a structure popped in so often that it couldn’t even qualify as a “glitch,” which has to be anomalous enough to classify as a problem and not just an expectancy. The terrain was so varied that a tin can in the wrong place could upset a whole mission by blocking a courier or stopping an ally character from getting out of the radius of the grenade you just threw.
But missions aside, remember this is a game world meant to seem vast. If the people in it can’t find their way down a dirt path, in a game made entirely of dirt paths, you feel like you’re interacting with soulless computers and not people. This makes even Fallout 4 a victim of what I’ll call the “Bethesda Photo-Unrealism Effect,” which is when you have a game that looks photorealistic in screenshots, but as believable in motion as wind-up toy soldiers bumping into each other on a baize tabletop. On the grand next-gen hardware, can’t we expect a little more than improved textures?
At a certain point in any Bethesda game I have to ask myself if rummaging through another dozen barrels and sock drawers in the hopes of finding more than apples and twine is really worth it. When such an integral game mechanic is so exhausted that the player feels the need to ignore central goals like treasure-hunting and exploring in order to have a good time, this may be a good time to change the formula. It’s also one of the things that can make those stories seem like a formality.
Worst of all, you often find books when you loot, the game’s only form of stable lore. The fact that you have to read the game’s context is bad enough, but that it’s a byproduct of scrounging, a task Bethesda seems to think is one of titillating investment, is just insulting. If a game like Dark Souls can establish lore visually, in the architecture around you or in the shape of a boss’s helmet, why would I play a game in which learning about the Tower of Darkness Pain or the ducktail on Lord McGuffin’s headpiece is a result of cleaning up a room and then reading about them? Aren’t video games supposed to be what you do instead of chores?
The Map and Everything in It
All of this affects the perceived size of the world you’re exploring, and this is the main issue. Bethesda makes games with the explicit goal of acting big, whose bigness is undermined by a lack of vision. A sprawling map in a Bethesda game, even pre-DLC, is a huge, flat golf-course. There’s no serious effort put into engaging the player in learning complex spaces or creating any notable set pieces on the vertical axis (you can’t get anywhere without the map, for instance). The over-advertised size doesn’t mean there’s more to it, just that you have to hit the ball farther. You even have caddies in the form of fast-travel to get you places without the bother of actually going there. Doesn’t that mean that the size is just a formality?
In both The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, how many times do you have to plow through identical dungeons n’ subways, or rifle through sock drawers, or watch loading screens take you across huge distances because you can’t be bothered to walk? How many times before you start holding cookie-mold Bethesda game worlds accountable for their astounding laziness, not only in creating deserted K-Mart parking lot overworlds populated by manikins, or having game-crashing glitches on next-gen hardware in 2015, but even just for being so uncreative?
In the games industry, creativity has to be asked for. If you want Fallout 2k17, you’ll get it. But in Dark Souls we have a perfect model for how games can be spatially varied, vast, interesting, and with goals integrated into the goals of the player. Which are? To explore dungeons, fight big monsters, and get fabulous treasure. Pretending to have a story or creating a deceptively big map connects with players like a sandbox does. It provides an opportunity to make up fun. But the fact that we keep coming back to the same sandbox with no improvement in our idea of fun just means that the majority of gamers are still toddlers when it comes to adventures.
Ask yourself if it’s okay to add in Sims building into Fallout, if it sounds like a well-thought-out concept that a game about exploring wildernesses should waste its resources on a mechanic that allows you to sit in one place and sift through menus when there are still game-crashing graphical glitches on launch day. Think real hard about fast-travel. Isn’t a mechanic that allows you to instantly go to places the last thing you should be doing in a game about going places? There are auto-Mario levels and now auto-adventures. They won’t get smarter if we won’t.