From The Fishbowl

Scribbles about stuff

Here Be Dragons

I have a confession to make. I didn’t like Fallout 3. In fact, I pretty much hated it.

For the uninitiated, Fallout 3 is an RPG video game made by Bethesda and released, ooh, three years ago now. It currently has a Metacritic score of around 93, and is often named as one of the best games of this generation of games consoles (Xbox 360, PS3 and, to a lesser extent, Wii), and indeed, one of the best games of all time.

But I could not deal with it at all.

Something about it just does not click with me. Maybe it’s the overbearing sense of depression. Maybe I couldn’t get a handle on the main gameplay mechanics. Hell, maybe it just simply wasn’t for me.

Bethesda made a few other games before Fallout 3, although not the first two Fallouts. But they did create the Elder Scrolls series. Oblivion, the fourth game in that series, was the game that encouraged me to get an Xbox 360. It is essentially Fallout 3, but with magic, and swords, and High Fantasy. It’s Dungeons and Dragons in video game form. And I loved it. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but it was a great game in its own right. Dated, now, but then, the pinnacle of the form.

I spent around 100 hours split across four completely different characters. And, y’know what? My abiding feeling is that there’s still a lot of Cyrodil I didn’t even see.

Now, there’s a fifth Elder Scrolls game, called Skyrim. If you’ve been reading my Twitter feed recently, you’ll have seen that I’ve been pretty much having an orgasm over it since Friday. Because it is, simply, fucking incredible.

The point is the same as it was in Fallout 3. Total, utter freedom. Want to kill everyone in a town? Go right ahead. Want to dive into caves and dungeons looking for treasure? Knock yourself out. Want to be the hero and save the world? Feel free. Want to explore every square inch of the gameworld? Why the hell not?

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a game so freeform. It’s actually pretty insane. In Oblivion and, to a lesser extent, Fallout, there were still some limits to what you could do depending on the character you started off with. So, if you made a character that was designed to wear heavy armour and swing axes five times the size of Big Ben, you pretty much had to do that all the way through. There was very little chance of you doing stuff like the Thieves Guild, which required you to be stealthy and quiet, or the Mages Guild, which required heavy use of magic.

But Skyrim laughs in the face of these concerns. Currently I’m playing a lightly-armoured melee warrior with a slight tilt towards using healing and destruction magic when the need presents itself. But if tomorrow I decide I want to focus on ranged combat with a bow and place a heavy emphasis on raising the dead to fight alongside me, I could do so pretty easily. I’ve already joined its version of the Fighters Guild, I’m a Bard, and I’m planning on joining the Dark Brotherhood (assassins, basically) and the Mages Guild as soon as possible. Basically, there are no classes. It’s a revelation that should not work.

All modern Western RPGs owe a great debt to Dungeons and Dragons – the first single-character pen and paper RPG – whether they know it or not. A lot of its mechanics are still in use in video games, from the XP system to the class format, which bind you to playing one type of character. A wizard, a fighter, a rogue, a barbarian etc. etc. There was little room to manuever in this system and, so it goes, in most video game RPGs.

I don’t think I’ve ever played a Western RPG of the D&D lineage that has had no class system at all. The way in which Skyrim rips up the rulebook without losing its core identity is incredibly brave, but it works so so well. For the first time in a video game I feel completely free. For the first time I can be what I want to be without constraint.

You can tell that a lot of work has gone into this game. Everything that was even a minor niggle in Oblvion has been pretty much eradicated, from the strange conversation system to the, frankly, boken (but optional, in fairness) third person viewpoint. There are bugs, but there are always going to be in a game of this ambition. And they’re mostly cosmetic. I’ve never been trapped somewhere with no escape, for instance.

All in all, it’s a fantastic piece of code. Definitely one of my favourite games of all time already. And after a few more hours, maybe it’ll turn into something more. But that remains to be seen. For the time being, I just know that I am in love.

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