It lies beneath the skin of The Elder Scrolls. It’s barely perceptible, yet lays a foundation and musculature that will stick with the series for as long as it lives in societal memory. It is the basis upon which the games are created, the brick to the mortar of fan expectation.
In its youth, TES was impressionable. It fell back on the sorts of fantasy tropes incubated in Arthurian myth or other classic fantasy literature – devastating dragons, powerful and shrewd wizards, knights in shining armor, evil sorcerers, et cetera. It was forced to rely on its fan base, meager though it was, to arrive at any real depth in its subsurface lore while everything else was pulled almost directly from common concepts in fantasy media. There are many in the community who are unaware, but the vast majority of the lorebooks in Daggerfall were actually written by fans in the now-defunct Bethesda Softworks Forums and were included in the game at launch.
As a franchise matures and edges itself further and further into mainstream culture, one would think that it would lose its impressionability and begin to throw its own weight around, making waves instead of being moved by the waves of others, right? This, unfortunately, has not been the case for our beloved Elder Scrolls in the last fifteen-or-so years.
To frame a contrast, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was a step in the right direction. It ignored or twisted common themes of high fantasy and instead paved its own way. It took risks, it wasn’t afraid to have flaws, or to be goofy and weird, and was a more memorable game for it. We were given an alien landscape full of new and interesting ideas, a departure from the tried-and-true swords and sorcery formulae spawned in the realms of Tolkien, Lewis, and Gygax. This was a major boon for TES, and Morrowind is widely regarded as the best TES game by throngs of fans; it was a true taste of success.
In the mid-2000’s, however, the tables began to turn. The year is 2006. Despite being three years after the release of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy dominated the cultural landscape. It was then what The Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones is now. The tale of the great War of the Ring against Sauron, the destroying of his ash nazg, and the political and wartime plights of Middle-earth were fulcrum to myriad household conversation.
Even my culturally shallow and clearly-out-of-touch father (which isn’t his fault) understood the main plot points of The Lord of the Rings. The internet was flooded with some of the first true memes: “They’re Taking the Hobbits to Isengard,” “Lord of the Dancey-Dance,” “One does not simply walk into Mordor” and their like were everywhere. Having been a native of AlbinoBlackSheep at the time, I consumed these memes with avid glee.
And then The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came, and it fell neatly in line, riding smoothly on those coattails instead of flaunting some tails of its own. Bethesda had struck gold (and Game of the Year) with Morrowind, so why choose the route of assured safety instead of leveraging what had clearly worked so well? All eyes were on Bethesda, waiting eagerly to see how they could top their crowning achievement. We were expecting more of the weird, lovable character that Morrowind had, but better. And for our crimes and entitlements, we were given the red-headed stepchild that is Oblivion.
One of the most common complaints about Oblivion (aside from potato-faces and awkward dialog) was the fact that it was so boring. Tamriel was painted over with a thick brush full of “generic medieval Western Europe.” And it was an enormous step backwards.
Castles, and knights, and “evil forces” and Sean Bean dying at the end. It was Lord of the Rings but set in Tamriel. The connection was palpable. Even the Ayleid architecture took cues from Rivendell and Lothlórien, but just… broken and with walking skeletons. We got imps, and ogres, and minotaurs, and trolls… there was even a unicorn. Where’s the weirdness? Where’s the innovation? I’ll tell you where – it’s in Gollum’s clutches as he falls backwards into the core of Mount Doom.
Alright, maybe I’m being too harsh. Oblivion eventually made up lost ground with The Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles expansions, certainly slaking some of the drought of oddity we’d been suffering. But even that little bit of spice isn’t enough to balance and wash away the overall vanilla themes that Oblivion had left on our palate, and it didn’t end there.
In 1996, a man named Martin published the first in a line of fantasy novels, and he was heralded the “American Tolkien” for the world he had created. The book series was titled A Song of Ice and Fire, and its first volume was called A Game of Thrones. At the time, this book was wildly popular as far as literature nerds were concerned, but given the long wait time between installments, it fell into relative obscurity.
At least until HBO laid out plans to create a television series based on the novels, the first episode of which aired in April of 2011 – the same year that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim would be released.
Game of Thrones brought certain trends into vogue (or rather capitalized on existing trends)–gritty, shameless realism bordering on profane, the grays and browns of a wilder and darker fantasy genre, ancient and thought-to-be-mythic dragons, and a strange preoccupation with falling snow.
Oh, did I describe Skyrim by accident? You bet your fletched knee I did.
Perhaps I’m attributing the aesthetic trends a tad liberally. No, Game of Thrones wasn’t the first piece of fictional media to be dark, gritty, and have a color palette of a bowl of oatmeal. 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas did the same, Lost aired its final episode in 2010 and also featured some of these trends. Even 2009’s Borderlands echoes the same tropes in its presentation.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Bethesda has spent too much time doing what Simon says instead of slapping Simon fabulously across the face and taking the reins to steer the genre itself. The Elder Scrolls could absolutely do it; Skyrim was a massive success, selling roughly seven million copies one week in (compared to Morrowind’s 95,000 copies sold in the first two months and Oblivion’s 1.7 million in the first month), but the game itself is incredibly dull.
Even though it was less of an intellectual success in the fact that it watered down the storytelling, gave us a spell as an always-available get-out-of-jail-free card for when we’re lost (in the form of the Clairvoyance spell), and included the map markers and fast-travel that Oblivion introduced, the game did extremely well at market. It catered itself to the more casual fan, unlike Morrowind, which expected a little more from us; it didn’t insult our intelligence, it gave us a set of directions to follow and let us find our own way – it didn’t hold our hands.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the casualization is what allowed Skyrim to be successful while it simultaneously stood on Morrowind’s broad shoulders. The Elder Scrolls could lazily float downstream along with the rest of the uninteresting ilk, or it could cannon ball, shaking things up for the rest of the genre.
But the question remains – which one is more important to Bethesda and to its fans? What does “success” really mean? Making history and a genuinely interesting game, or taking the easy path to money? I, for one, firmly believe it is possible to shoot for the former and still achieve the latter, and I hope Bethesda can take the initiative and tell Simon to bugger off.This article first appeared in Volume 1, Issue 12
“Peaceful Waters” | Illustration courtesy of laspinter, DeviantArt