April 20, 2018
My favorite game series is The Legend of Zelda. I have a fairly hefty collection of Zelda merchandise, I’ve played and beaten almost every game in the series, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future (meaning every day until I die). To me, there is no game series as close to perfection. With this in mind, I have a natural habit of comparing my favorite games to one another. Zelda is marvelous, but does that mean it cannot glean something by looking at what other games are doing?
This week I am starting a new series where I will dive into different game series to see what they do differently than Zelda, and how incorporating these things could allow the series to become even better, as unfathomable as that thought is. I decided to begin with Elder Scrolls. This is a series which has been compared to Zelda since my introduction to Morrowind around fifteen years ago. With the release of Skyrim on Switch, the debate has returned again, if it truly went away in the first place. I think there are two primary characteristics that the Elder Scrolls has done incredibly well since I first experienced it, and while they do not simply make them better than Zelda, I believe these features could have a positive impact on the game if they were to be combined. Let’s hop to it, eh?
While Zelda is not an RPG by definition, it has incorporated some elements from the genre ever since the original game. The Adventure of Link took this beyond most titles and added a level-up system and various magical abilities, and I would go as far as to call the sequel an RPG. Elder Scrolls is obviously well established as one of the best critically received RPG series of all time. I think there is something more to Elder Scrolls than other RPG series, however, and it is this that brings it to that level above other series. The RP in RPG stands for Role-Playing, and I believe the best simulated RP experience is found in the worlds crafted so carefully by the folks at Bethesda.
Many series add role-playing elements, giving you the ability to choose your own path. Multiple dialogue trees and other such features allow you to insert your mind into the character and “become” them. This does a world of good for immersion, which is a huge part of why people play games. It feels like it’s you in there, rather than some random avatar fighting bad guys just ‘cause. It absorbs you and makes you part of the virtual world.
How does Elder Scrolls set itself apart in the sea of games trying for the same thing? It’s difficult to put into words, but in the end whatever they do makes you feel like you are in a real place; a living, breathing world.
Breath of the Wild created this same feeling through its world design. The way things were set up operated the same as a real world. Buildings, even crumbling ruins, looked like they were built with purpose, water flowed naturally around the massive mountains, and the ability to literally touch every part of the game world made for a feeling of believability seldom seen. Morrowind achieves the same feeling by allowing you to talk to every character with multiple dialogue options, interact with them for quests (many of which tie together a large number of characters) and by giving you quests through word of mouth rather than simply giving you a checklist of where to go and what to gather.
This focus on role-play is one of the few examples of a mechanic that is truly better than it is in Zelda. Sure, I feel like Link all the way through the game, but that doesn’t quite compare to feeling like I was personally digitized and am embarking on whatever quest I want for my own reasons. If the team at Nintendo could capture this element without sacrificing the unparalleled world and gameplay structure they have already, such a game would be impossible to one-up.
It seems odd to me that I think the series can learn from a series which could be called a “Zelda clone”, but in some respects I think Bethesda has a leg up on Nintendo. This point is also hard to argue because I actually think Zelda does dungeons better than any other series, and the fact that it could learn from another game seems absurd. Still, Elder Scrolls presents dungeons in a way that gives them a sense of meaningfulness that has been absent in some of the more recent Zelda games.
In Ocarina of Time, every dungeon was placed in such a way that it felt like part of the world. Not only was it themed perfectly on the inside with all the wonderful puzzles and challenges players love about the series, but the temples all seemed to have some reason for being there. Even the oddballs like Jabu Jabu’s belly were surprisingly well thought out in terms of world-building. Running around in the belly of a god is a really awesome concept to think about. I even took this aspect and applied it to a Dungeons and Dragons adventure (don’t tell my playgroup). Such interaction with the world felt natural in Ocarina, from the ruined mystery of the Forest Temple to the giant middle finger Ganon gave to the Hylian people when he blew up their castle and built a bigger one that flies.
Where has this been in the latest games, though? It’s still there, but it doesn’t feel quite as natural. The world of Skyward Sword felt like it was designed for the express purpose of getting Link to the dungeons. Perhaps this had more to do with the design of the overworld than the dungeons, but maybe that’s part of my point. I loved temples like the Ancient Cistern and the crazy slide puzzle dungeon at the end, but rather than feeling like an integral part of the world, they felt like the next destination on the checklist. The linear, uninteresting, and awkwardly segmented overworld was just an obstacle between you and the next dungeon.
The only dungeon in the game that didn’t feel forced was the Sandship. You stumble upon it naturally, the lore adds to the world, and it has such a cool theme that I can’t help but love this place. So it’s not like the design team has lost the ability to create this feeling, I just think the dungeons have become the focus of the series in that game at least. It felt like the whole world was only there to get you to the dungeon rather than the dungeon adding to the world in a natural way. This is true of many titles as far back as Twilight Princess. I think in that case it was just that the sheer number of dungeons led to a confusion of how to integrate them. It was not as much of a culprit as Skyward Sword or Spirit Tracks, but some of the dungeons felt just a bit forced.
Now that I’ve driven that point into the ground, how is it that Elder Scrolls design ideas can assist? Well, think about the dungeons in Oblivion. This is my least favorite game in the series, but it still manages to keep the idea of dungeons existing naturally in mind, even with many of the dungeons being held within pocket universes that pop up through portals all over the world. Even though this game pales in comparison to other open worlds because of its relative linearity and minuscule overworld, the dungeons manage to give a new life to the game, and they are basically the only reason I kept playing despite my frustration at arriving time and time again at the edge of the map, which in an open-world game, should happen little if ever.
Of course, leading off with my thoughts on Oblivion was just a springboard to get to the golden child in the series, Morrowind. Many of my gripes with Oblivion was that it felt like a condensed version of everything its predecessor had done. Like they spent most of their budget on Patrick Stewart’s four lines and then just decided to cut off production because they were out of money. As good as the dungeon integration was, it was at least four hundred thirty-seven steps back from what Morrowind had set as a standard. Every random thing you found in Morrowind was big enough to be called a dungeon. From the classic tropes of exploring old ruins and tombs to unique oddities like insect hives that are mined for eggs, the world of Morrowind felt like every place you went was an adventure on its own, and putting these all together made for a journey grander than any I have had since.
The best part is that my most played character and I had trekked across the land for over two hundred hours without even exploring half of the map, and along that way I never once felt like I was seeing something I had seen before. Even when revisiting towns, I would go a different direction, sometimes on the paved roads, but more often in a straight shot from wherever I was in the general direction of my destination while stopping to look at anything neat or strange I found along the way. In fact, the only time I have experienced such a feeling since that time is Breath of the Wild.
The latest in the series, this game recreated that feeling of exploration out of similar means. There was much to explore, do, and cool unique items to find along the way. The difference is that when you entered a dungeon in Breath of the Wild, you knew it was a dungeon. Each shrine had a very obvious entrance (though some had harder entrances to find) and this comprises the majority of the game’s dungeons. While not traditional Zelda-style dungeons, it worked marvelously in the context of the game, but imagine this: as you explore, the shrines’ puzzles are just laid about in the overworld; even if you go in through some sort of semi-traditional dungeon entrance, it’s not labeled as a dungeon. It just seems like you’re exploring ruins, a cave, a forest full of bad guys, whatever. Eventually you solve the last puzzle in this sequence, and out pops a monk with your spirit orb. You might not even know you’re in a dungeon, you might just be exploring hoping for treasure because you broke your good sword on a Moblin on the way up the mountain. But here you are with this sense of accomplishment and an item arguably more useful than a new weapon. I think there is so much design potential here that could increase immersion, believability, and replay value that it is a no-brainer to incorporate this element in the next Zelda game. Although I said they should go open world before Twilight Princess came out, so perhaps we have a bit of a wait ahead of us.
That’s it for my first installment of this series, be sure to check back for more coming… eventually…. Let me know what you think too! Is there anything else the series could learn from Elder Scrolls? Are the dungeons fine the way they are? Would you like to hear my thoughts on another series? Please let me know in the comments or on Twitter and we can keep the conversation carousing!