So I’d like to get something off my chest. I don’t like Skyrim. The game rated number 1 by Game Informer as the greatest RPG of all time. Skyrim is rated higher than games like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger and Pokemon. My issue is less about Skyrim and more about Bethesda’s philosophy toward the role-playing genre in general. First, let me start by saying that I love RPGs. I grew up with Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate, the Legend of Dragoon and Final Fantasy. I spent days and months in the worlds of Spira, Faerun, and Tamriel. I’d remember getting excited watching X-Play and the Fallout 3 trailer as I prepared to take a dive into the Capital Wasteland.
Now, I love RPGs, so why would I attack a game like Skyrim? It’s been seven years since its release, and only now am I saying something about it. Well, I would argue Skyrim and Fallout 4, another game made by Bethesda Softworks, are not good role-playing games. Honestly, I have my reasons for thinking this, and it starts with how these games are designed. It also has to do with what I think makes a good RPG and how these games compare to other games within the same genre.
Bethesda Softworks has put together a blueprint for franchises that’s intensified over time. The open world concept is a good concept, sometimes. I’ll explain: One of the major issues with Skyrim and Fallout 4 is that they repeat missions over and over again. Similar to fetch quests in an MMO, the game will essentially make you do the same type of missions with just a different paint. Now, you do have the occasional mission that is interesting, like the Mind of Madness quest which builds on the lore of prior games. But in a game as big as Skyrim, these missions aren’t frequent enough.
Some games drop you into an open world and don’t necessarily point you in a specific direction. Fallout 4 does this thing where you start the game and you can literally go anywhere. To me, this is a problem, and you need look no further than Fallout 4’s predecessor, Fallout: New Vegas, to see how to properly craft an RPG story. You start New Vegas in a clinic; you’ve been shot in the head and lost your memory. From here you get to choose how to build your character. After picking up a Pip-Boy and some basic starting gear, you can enter the Mojave Wasteland. Now, you can’t just go anywhere as the game designers placed obstacles in the player’s path that prevent them from going certain directions.
Enemies will be too powerful to go down certain routes, and this forces the player to either game the system or progress down the route the designer wants you to go down. Going down the route the designers made for you puts you in contact with Caesar’s Legion, the New California Republic and other factions. It gives you a semblance of world building and storytelling. This funneling effect makes you play through a well told narrative. Fallout 4 and Skyrim do not do this as they leave the player to decide how and what they should do. Which would be fine if at times the games didn’t feel barren. These games have gotten too big, and developers are unable to fill them with enough content to justify exploration, in my opinion.
The best part of an RPG is its replay value, whether that be through incredible storytelling or through playing the game differently using different builds. Now, the ability to make different builds and play the game in a different style is what made doing multiple runs of Fallout and the Elder Scrolls worthwhile. Skyrim and Fallout 4 have killed that very idea. Both games have no level cap, which means you can level up every stat and ability in the game.
This means doing multiple builds is hardly worth your time. Why start a new game when you’ve done every mission and have maxed out all your stats? You have no incentive, and enticing the player to continue to play is how you make a successful title. Skyrim and Fallout 4’s replay value does not come from their design or combat, which is mediocre. It comes from a massive library of community-made content.
Now, this is an issue unique to Fallout 4, but I feel it needs to be said. Giving your character a background story and voice hurts in an RPG like this. You are no longer assuming the role of a character of your creation. You are taking on the role of a specific person. The level cap disappearing takes away from being able to choose the type of character you want to be. Giving your character a background and a voice on top of sub-par writing and dialog just intensifies this feeling. It hampers the choices you make when deciding your role.
Fallout 4 also got rid of the Karma system, and you can be allies to two warring factions with no issue. By giving your character a voice, you remove the identity of the player. Maybe that’s a remnant of me growing up with Forgotten Realms games, but I want to feel like I’m creating this character and that I dictate how he feels and acts. I want to decide if he is a scientist or a medic or a baseball-slinging fool. But they shoehorn you into your past as a character.
This has to be said after Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas: A massive modding community was built during that four year period before the release of Skyrim, and you can tell that Bethesda took notice. I’ve had this dislike for Skyrim and Fallout 4 for a long time. They have just felt empty, especially Fallout 4, and the gameplay was just repetitive. Bethesda, I feel, has taken advantage of their modding community. These games are notorious for bugs and game crashes. Don’t worry, there’s a mod for that. Not much to do in the game? Don’t worry, there’s a mod for that.
I was shocked by how little content was in Fallout 4, and the major new addition they added to the game wasn’t something they came up with themselves. Base building: That was a mod in Fallout 3 and New Vegas called Wasteland Defense. Bethesda essentially created sandboxes and hoped their community would promote the game for them. They’ve gone as far as to monetize mods. The sad part is, it worked. When I tell people my dislike of these two games, most times the response I get is “but the mods”. If your game needs mods to function properly and to be worth playing, it’s not a good game.
The State of It All
Bethesda makes a certain type of RPG. Their RPGs are the continuations of the tabletop RPGs of old, except there isn’t a Dungeon Master to restrain where the player can go, nor are their limitations on player stats. This may seem contradictory, but it isn’t. Games need rules; they need order and substance. Madness is one thing, boredom is another. Skyrim is not the greatest RPG ever made. I would hesitate to even call it mediocre. Fallout 4 is just a bad game on both a technical and gameplay level, especially when comparing these games to their predecessors.
FO4 and Skyrim aren’t even better than the titles that came before them. Placing Skyrim in the same breath as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, Mass Effect, and Diablo II is ridiculous. Even if you would place it into the adventure category, games like Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War (2018), and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, all games released in the last two years, are better than Skyrim.
Of course, all of this is merely my opinion. You could very well disagree, and I wouldn’t blame you. But I’ve played a lot of RPGs in my life, and I’ve played a ton of good ones. Skyrim could not entice me to keep playing. It was boring, and Fallout 4 is just an empty, sad game, one that I wanted so bad to like considering my love of the Fallout series. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. And the future doesn’t look bright for the next entry either.
Bethesda has taken heat as of late from people other than myself, especially over the paid mods situation. As a publisher they’ve put out some good titles, it’s just when they develop their own games that they fall off the rails. I do hope Bethesda rights the ship, but right now, for me, that doesn’t seem likely.