Bethesda’s Legacy and the Road to Skyrim

One of our newest writers, Eugene, has given us his perspective on Bethesda and their upcoming game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

 When Ted Peterson, a designer at Bethesda Softworks, brought the idea of making an RPG to the table, it was met with laughs from the gaming community. Many doubted the ability of the fledgling company to break away from the sports genre they had stuck to in the past. Nonetheless, Ted Peterson and Chief Programmer Julian Lefay spearheaded the project and The Elder Scrolls: Arena began to take shape. Originally the story of the game was designed around the player traveling from town to town and fighting in arenas, gaining rank as a gladiator. However, when the idea of side quests and different areas of the map were developed, the main story was all but abandoned, and the title took on the guise of a metaphorical nickname for the violence that plagued the game’s setting of Tamriel.

Arena launched in March of 1994, four months after the crucial holiday season. This was a grievous blow to a company as small as Bethesda Softworks. On top of that the somewhat racy packaging of Arena led to a rise in consumer concern for the game’s content, and the initial distribution shipment was under 10,000 units. “We were sure that we had screwed the company and that we’d go out of business.” recalls Peterson. In spite of the disaster of it’s launch, Arena’s sales rose steadily climbing from a sleeper hit to a cult sensation.The game ran well on powerful rigs, but the average user was met with somewhat sluggish gameplay. Technical problems aside, Bethesda’s initial Elder Scrolls release set the new standard for RPGs and demonstrated how much more room for innovation existed in the genre.

 Throughout the next decade, Bethesda’s reputation continued to grow, and with the 2002 release of Morrowind – and the Game of the Year Edition that followed – their success was solidified. Eager fans around the globe watched and waited. In 2006, the waiting was over, and Bethesda released the fourth installment in the franchise, Oblivion, which quickly became one of the most popular role-playing games of all time. Oblivion’s tremendous success lay in its masterful combination of RPG and shooter elements, appealing to a wider range and a new generation of gamers who were enthralled with its realistic combat system. Apart from the user interface, the game was released in gorgeous next-gen graphics, and it was the first game of its kind to release for the Xbox 360. This created the perfect combination of the old school Elder Scrolls style that diehard fans would love, and a modernized user-friendly makeover that would convert countless others. Oblivion too made Game of the Year, and went on to sell roughly 6 million units on the console alone.

Then, at the Video Game Awards in December of 2010, the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim trailer premiered and took the gaming world by storm. Easily one of the most anticipated games of the year, fans clamored for every bit of information they could get their hands on, and even a new screenshot became a major news event. The trailer on Youtube quickly gained a million views, and even the game’s theme song secured a hasty half-million. The theme song features the same general rhythm and tonal patterns that Bethesda’s been using since Arena, but, like other titles, has received a badass makeover. It’s definitely worth a listen. You can watch part one of the gameplay trailer here:

 The shiny plastic texturing of Oblivion has been replaced with a more gritty and intense feel. Metals are dull and worn and characters are dirty, scarred, and have a much more realistic look to them. One of the new engines, entitled the Creation Engine, governs over things so subtlely and stunningly complex as how snow fell on objects, building up in depressions, and sprinkling lightly through the pine needles of evergreens. It’s even been reported that there is coding responsible for the percentage of sunlight that would filter through the forest canopy dependent on the density of the foliage in the area.

 Another new engine the team has created is called Radiant Story, which changes the game world based on the character’s actions. However, it’s not as simple as games in the past that have merely treated the player with a cinematic to show the consequence of their choices. The idea of Radiant Story is to incorporate those consequences into the game in real-time.The engine basically stockpiles information on what the character has done, and the game reacts accordingly. If the player kills a local merchant,  then the merchant’s family will find out, and perhaps decide to take revenge. Or not. This provides a level of depth more profound than anything that’s been do so far in RPGs, perhaps in gaming as a whole. The engine also logs what areas of the map you’ve explored, and sets quests in areas you’ve never been to, encouraging exploration of the games roughly 150 hand-crafted dungeons–a great step forward from Oblivion’s cookie-cutter levels.

 The other engine worthy of note is the Radiant AI system, which is the deciding factor in whether or not that dead merchant’s family embarks on their quest for vengeance. Radiant AI controls how the NPCs of the game react towards you, and although it was utilized in Oblivion, it’s received a major update for Skyrim. In Oblivion when a character spoke with an NPC, the camera zoomed in on the NPC’s face, and the character selected from a list of prompts. This style of speech interface has been dropped from Skyrim in favor of something more realistic. When a player engages an NPC in Skyrim, the NPC continues whatever they were doing before, while talking to the player. This difference is huge when you realize that in Oblivion all most NPCs ever did was walk around and talk to their neighbors. In Skyrim, though, all the NPCs function very realistically–they have jobs, families, and entirely time-consuming lives of their own. The player will be allowed to build such a life of his own, as he can get jobs from local businessmen, learn to cook food, join the Companions (think fighter’s guild), the Thieves Guild, the College of Winterhold (for mages), of course the Dark Brotherhood, and even get married. Coupled with Radiant Story, this makes a gaming environment to be reckoned with.

 The combat system in Skyrim is much the same as Oblivion’s but, again, with added realism. The player can equip a weapon, spell, or shield in either the left or right hand, and each hand is controlled with a different button, allowing the player to wield a fireball spell in one hand and a sword in the other, or even two different spells, which could then be combined to create something else entirely. The combat has been given a thick visceral makeover, the blood is more realistic, and when the player is hit with an arrow or a sword, the character staggers with the kinetic force in much the same way they would in real life. On top of this realism, though, are the stylistic takedowns. In the middle of combat, or during a stealth kill, the player will be treated with a smooth cinematic flourish incorporating a stab, decapitation, or a spinning slice to the midsection. The cinematics are supposed to be just long enough to be enjoyable and short enough that they don’t hinder the real-time feeling of the combat.

 Bethesda has also done away with one of the fundamental building blocks of previous RPG blockbusters: skill presets. In Skyrim, instead of choosing a general allocation of skill points in the beginning of the game, the player is presented with a blank slate, skill points naturally accumulate in skills that the player uses the most often, similar to real-life practice. When a player assesses the skills menu, the character looks to the heavens, and that player’s skills are presented as constellations in the night sky. Every skill is a different constellation, and every constellation has its own skill tree, so players are able to add perks to certain skills as they grow better at them. The map functions somewhat the same way as the skill menu. When the player accesses it, the camera zooms out to reveal a to-scale topographical map of Skyrim. The inventory is also 3D and allows players to examine every facet of the items they obtain. This all comes together to form a flawlessly smooth and beautiful interface.

 Oh, and we mustn’t forget the dragons. These monolithic terrors inhabit the game world as random encounters, and much of the main quest is centered around the protagonist, called the Dohvakiin, fighting these vicious brutes and harnessing their souls to learn and perform dragon-shouts, ancient pieces of magic centered on the language of the dragons. The character must learn these shouts and become powerful enough to stop the looming catastrophe of a gigantic world-eating dragon returning to Skyrim. Bethesda has been quite particular about not giving too much away about the main quest line, but it has to do with an ancient society known as the Greybeards, and is somewhere around 30 hours long.

As the November 11 release draws closer and closer, excitement is mounting, and it’s not hard to see why. Bethesda has long exemplified everything that an RPG should be, and more importantly, everything it could be. Skyrim is an amalgamation of everything the team has worked towards so far, from the release of Arena, to the raw next-gen power of Oblivion, and it’s sure to impress even the most skeptical among us.

 Look for more of my articles in the future as I cover Skyrim more in-depth, take a look at other games in the genre, and explore RPG gaming as a whole.