The Elder Scrolls games are each a product of their time. The first three, Morrowind included, came out in the late 90s to early 2000s. A time of games on three discs that you would pour hours of your life into. It was an age of writing information down on paper. Sometimes you’d be forced to walk away from a quest until you understood how to complete it. The games were harsh, and so were many of the worlds. For example, Vvardenfell was mysterious and intimidating, just like the game as a whole.
Oblivion brought in the Xbox 360 generation, when Xbox Live came into its own and games truly hit the mainstream. The AAA games market was pushing towards the height of realism, experimenting with new physics and mechanics. It used features like radiant AI and new dynamic facial expressions to enhance the sense of realism. And for as horribly as they’ve aged, they were state-of-the-art at the time. The new lighting technology also created a contrast of light and dark that I still love to look at today.
Skyrim was my first “real” Elder Scrolls game. With the others, I’d mostly watched the action but didn’t really participate or make my own decisions. When Skyrim came out in 2011, I knew immediately that I had to play it. The hype behind it wasn’t like anything the series had seen. It was the first game in the series to release in the true Internet age, when online playthroughs were becoming more popular and hype culture was alive and well. In a time when AAA developers were perfecting the gritty aesthetic, Skyrim promised to deliver on realism like we couldn’t even imagine. The web blew up when Skyrim was released. It was immediately released to critical acclaim, some praising it as one of the best games of all time. And at the time, it was absolutely revolutionary.
Even after just a few years, though, people have already tired of Skyrim. What started out as a love affair between the public and its new big video game has become a serious seven year itch. So it only seems right to judge it based on its own merits and see how much it really changed compared to the game before it.
Let’s sling some arrows, shall we?
Story and World
Skyrim‘s tone is completely different from Oblivion‘s. Like the other games before it, it’s highly prone to bugs and general gameplay flaws. However, the serious, gritty overtone of Skyrim made these flaws stand out like a sore thumb. In Oblivion, it adds to the charm. In Skyrim, it turns out to be more of a distraction in my opinion.
Oblivion has a diversity of environments and quests that I think makes Skyrim look like a chore. While I think Oblivion‘s side quests are better than Skyrim‘s, though, the major questlines may be better or worse depending on what you value as a player. Oblivion is high fantasy, and it’s not afraid to embrace absurdity, so I never felt any sense of high stakes. I’d say the most tension I ever felt was the end of the Thieves’ Guild questline, but I won’t spoil it.
Meanwhile, Skyrim has more serious atmosphere and plotlines, so its quests tended to be more action-oriented.
As main story goes, neither one is good. I found Skyrim‘s to be more compelling, but the sense of participation is lacking in both. It’s all either “go fetch this” or “go kill this,” and I considered dragons in Skyrim to be more interesting than Oblivion gates.
Mechanics and Stuff
After a while I started to feel like the quests in Skyrim lacked creativity. The first time you do a block rotation puzzle or a claw puzzle it seems interesting and creative, until you reach your 40th one and realize that this game can be a real one-trick pony. For how big and beautiful the world is, it’s sure filled with a lot of repetitive challenges. The good news is, I started with the major quests. At the time their novelty made them feel more epic than they really were.
Oblivion wasn’t much better. I’d say since its dungeons were darker and more open, they had more atmosphere. Both games suffer the same problem. With each game in this series, the world gets bigger and bigger. The amount of content in that world has to get bigger too, to fill out the empty space. There’s an increasing distance between the designer and the player here. In Morrowind, the world wasn’t massive, but Todd Howard and his team focused on crafting every inch of it deliberately. Every location had a purpose. Starting with Oblivion, they couldn’t help but copy and paste a little bit. How could they? 100 years of work across the entire studio went into Morrowind. Multiply the number of quests and NPCs, and you’re talking about an inhumane crunch. I think the solution would be to take a step back to the simpler, more personal way of doing things.
It’s no coincidence that both Oblivion and Skyrim also have the quest marker. There was so much to the game that the designers felt the need to direct the player. I’ll admit, the ability to follow a dotted line to get through a quest was convenient. But in the long run, I wonder how much it really makes the game better. I don’t think Skyrim moved things forward there.
Combat in Oblivion is terrible. It’s fast, and blocking is more useful than it is in Skyrim. But there’s very little balancing, and not much need to experiment with different options. Weapons have very little sense of weight, and Skyrim fixed that problem. The addition of shouts makes the combat way more interesting and engaging, and finding new upgrades to shouts is a great incentive. That said, fighting things in Skyrim starts to feel like dead weight when you’re fighting your 58th Dragur Deathlord. I think the lack of enemies is a problem in both games. Most of them fall into fairly plain tropes. You fight one, you’ve fought a thousand. This is something I hope future games try to fix.
The first 60 hours of Skyrim landed it permanently in my list of favorite games of all time. Would I say it’s necessarily better than Oblivion? Maybe. Although I definitely prefer Skyrim, I’d say it’s completely subjective.
Overall, Oblivion is a game I play with my friends while Skyrim is a game I play by myself.
Counting all DLC, I played Oblivion for 90 hours and Skyrim for 150. Oblivion is dated as all hell, but it’s a great time getting together with people who know nothing about it, to see them experience its weirdness firsthand. It’s so awkward it’s become a meme, but I love it all the same.
I left Skyrim feeling very disillusioned, because I went back to the well so many times that the magic was completely gone. And yet, I barely got over half the level cap. There’s a good deal left in Skyrim that I never did, but I feel no desire to go back. I want to show the final part of DimeTree’s series, “The Elder Scrolls Problem,” because I think it sums up how I feel. In fact, I suggest anyone interested in these games watch his videos.
I’ve heard a lot of people say the same kind of thing, and it’s brought me to this conclusion. There are some people who mod Skyrim and play it for thousands of hours on end, but for the rest of us, it’s the most magical game of all time until you exhaust it. From that point on, instead of remembering the magic, we remember all the busy work and glitched quests. We remember running into the same bandits or the same draugr for the 117th damn time. Everything is so slow and deliberate that it starts to feel like punishment. The thing is, those first 60 hours of discovery are unlike anything I’ve felt in any game. They’re unique, and special.
These two games are both very flawed, but Elder Scrolls games are more than just a reflection of their times. They’re about doing everything at once. Maybe they don’t do everything well, but they definitely try. I still can’t think of another series that looks so good, has full voice acting, hundreds of quests, and still lets you sit down in your house to read a book. People had to create all of these things, and that alone is a feat.
This is why we play the Elder Scrolls games. This is why I’m going to play them for a lot longer. As long as there’s still caring, I’ll always go back to Tamriel again.
“May your road lead to warm sands.”