Considering the four year gap between The Elder Scrolls III and IV and the five year dev-cycle for 2011′s Skyrim, we can only hope that Bethesda Game Studios is halfway done with The Elder Scrolls VI. No proper announcements have been made, but the errant logic of a progressive release pattern is all we have at this point. Zenimax has had a job listing for a bleeding edge RPG programmer at Bethesda Game Studios since January 2013, but that could mean anything.
Skyrim improved on Bethesda’s famous RPG formula in just about every categorical way. The versatility and verticality of vast, mountainous vistas was a stark departure from Oblivion’s relatively modest expanses. Dragons were a welcome respite from those damned Oblivion Gates. Combat was well-rounded with the addition of Shouts and an upgrade system that levelled up the skills you actually used – as you used them.
The PC modding community managed to carry out a laundry list of upgrades that teased the potential future of Elder Scrolls visual fidelity. Flora has been made fuller and livelier, while Fauna have received tremendous resolution enhancements. Extra realistic skyboxes, impressive lighting techniques and granular, geographical details have been hand-crafted and publicly uploaded by hundreds of passionate gamers. We have faith Bethesda can do better.
New consoles mean improved technical standards across the board, so, until we get that first glorious glimpse of current-gen Tamriel, passion and imagination are all we have to speculate on what’s next. Sharper textures are one thing, but The Elder Scrolls VI will need a bigger sword than that if it hopes to knock us off our feet.
For starters, they need to follow this simple ten point guide…
10. Conversation Animation Overhaul
Bethesda is perhaps most famous for their engrossing RPG systems, a reputation that just barely precedes a legacy of laughable character animations. Whether you’re chatting up some co-ed mages in Winterhold or spamming the crap out of the jump button as you hike a sheer wall, fluid movement has never been The Elder Scrolls’ strong suit.
Skyrim makes a few steps in the right direction, but these are marginal improvements and additions when compared to what truly needs addressing. NPC facial animations are in particular need of a… facelift. General expressions remain rigid, largely lifeless and unaffected by the physical intricacies of terrain. A person talking is never going to look like a person talking if they can’t move their eyes or head independently from their body. Traditionally, NPC’s have lacked the nuance of conversational gestures and glances, appearing altogether unaware of their surroundings until they feel threatened.
We want characters who don’t stare blankly until a conversation is over. Subtle environmental interaction and understated facial capture in the vein of The Last of Us would greatly enhance the believability of living bodies in space. The Elder Scrolls VI could introduce dynamic NPC reactions that remark on the weather, a scent on the wind, a view from a peak or the guidance of the constellations. Some procedural climbing animations would be icing on the cake.
9. Dynamic, Functional Combat Damage
One major sore thumb regarding combat realism is the fact that enemy NPCs aren’t affected by the weight of your sword strikes until they stagger with a canned animation or receive a killing blow. The visceral chaos of first-person fighting is missing that critical feedback loop of progress. Sure, we have enemy health bars for visual aids, but that won’t fly this time around.
We want armour and flesh to degrade in real-time, dynamically. Metal Gear: Revengeance showed us the extreme, but such hyper-stylized violence has no place in the medieval grit of The Elder Scrolls series. The sentiment remains that bodies should always react to the weight of contact, with metal plates and limbs that break differently every time and match the very specific trajectory of each attack.
Kill-cam animations could take new form as they procedurally take advantage of damaged body parts. Holding down the attack command could deliver more precise degrees of power based on the exact amount of time held. The highest-powered swing of a great sword might cut a Draugr in half, but a fraction less could stop the blade on its spine and require a manual pull-out method.
8. Upgraded Ragdolls
While we’re asking for deeper combat damage, we might as well go the whole nine yards. Skyrim is known for some absolutely fantastic animations, but none of them were designed by Bethesda. The most visually stunning, if not comically entertaining, motion mechanics in the series have always been generated randomly with dynamic physics and rag-dolled character models. These simulation systems add a much needed sense of chaos to the aforementioned rigidity of others.
We take every chance we can get to scatter the bones of our skeletal foes with a well placed strike, but stunned and lifeless bodies could certainly flail about more realistically. Rockstar Games is a forerunner in the fields of organic, procedural animation implementation. Their characters will put one foot up on a curb, lean against walls and, most importantly, gesticulate naturally when rolling out of an explosion or falling through the air. The best The Elder Scrolls has achieved looks something like a limp sack of potatoes with limbs.
Player-controlled and NPC characters alike should show some sense of self-preservation when blasted into the air. Kicking and screaming would do nicely, but procedural awareness of balance and what’s within a safe, arm’s reach would jack the realism up to eleven.
7. Snappier Controls
Throughout the series, some Elder Scrolls animations have simply taken too long to carry out. In Skyrim, the sense of weight was great, but the repetitive time delay of bow-loading and great-sword-swinging still came dangerously close to taking control away from players for those crucial fractions of a second.
Gameplay systems that reward tactical timing and a knowledge of in-game physics should be encouraged, but not in a way that forces players to fight the latency of their control inputs. General movement should be altogether fluid and swift, encouraging players to dodge attacks deliberately and nimbly hop across ledges. A combination of Thief and Far Cry 3 would satiate the screaming warrior crowd, whilst adding an authentic, tactile point of view for stealth junkies.
If control inputs in The Elder Scrolls VI are sharper all around, but simultaneously improve the overall sense of physical weight in both fighting and exploring, fans of GTA V might visit Tamriel for their next physics vacation. Now we just need some interesting ways of getting around.
6. Experimental Methods of Transportation
Skyrim makes a habit of handing us objectives that require a certain affinity for long-distance running. Faithful horses and fast traveling to familiar locales always makes things easier, but The Elder Scrolls series is overdue for a broadening of travel options.
On foot traversal proves to be the most engaging, as you’re most likely to explore every nook, camp and crevice. Horseback riding becomes a delicate balance of efficient pacing and studious elevation awareness, lest Sir Long-face should fall prey to a steep decline and a lethal shin splint. Still, that feeling of wide open freedom has the potential to reach even greater heights if Bethesda were only to bring us new ways of exploring it. A whole range of mountable beasts could make Tamriel’s already vibrant food chain even more fascinating. For that matter, Skyrim already hosts a bucket list of mythical creatures we’d love to ride bareback. Giant Spiders. Sabre Cats. Horkers. Bears. The final DLC let us ride a Dragon, but not in the way we’d hoped. James Cameron’s Avatar did some things very well, and this was one of them.
There are plenty of mechanics that make you slower in Skyrim. Over-encumbrance. Frost spell damage. Poison. Curses. Ducking. Far fewer factors boost a player’s speed. There’s no spell for running faster. No potion for speed. Skyrim’s Whirlwind Sprint Shout sends you hurtling directly forward, but the rigid mobility, short distance, lightning speed and sluggish recharge hardly constitute a method of transportation. Don’t even get me started on…
You’ve gotta jump that gap, but you need a running start, which means you’re screwed. Wait! A Whirlwind Sprint will launch you straight across. Heck yeah! Remember now, you can’t be running or jumping when you use it. Screwed again. And the ledge you need to reach is a foot higher than the one you’re on. What? Whirlwind won’t send me up into the air? Only straight ahead? Triple-screwed.
For all the hop-skipping one does up Skyrim’s foggy hillsides, it seems ludicrous that the sprint and jump commands don’t crossover. What the Fus is that about? Can the Dragonborn only process one simple motor mechanic at a time? It’s 2014. We should be able to jump out of a run for greater distance. Tell us if we’re crazy, but we’re pretty sure this feature’s been around since the original Super Mario Brothers.
There’s nothing less immersive than a video game halting you from accomplishing something you could definitely do in real life. High-tailing it away from a Sabre Cat is all but effective when we’re forced to stop at the base of a boulder before we can jump onto it for safety. Such logical fallacies shall be stricken from the very time and space that the Scrolls govern! All hail Runair, the God of Sprint-Jumping!
4. Real-Time Only Mode
This is hardcore. The Elder Scrolls has always allowed us to freeze time when entering a menu, whether it be an objective check-in or inventory switch. What we’ve never been able to do is opt out of this paradoxical feature.
The Elder Scrolls is all about deep gameplay mechanics and an engrossing open-world, but all of this feels artificial when we’re forced to pause so often. Sure, a million decisions are made in these standstills – like potion drinking, enchanted item charging and book reading – but such improbable time exploitation takes the gut-wrench right out of split-second combat or dungeon sneaking. Not only does this negate the tension of forethought and proper strategy, but it unavoidably reminds us we’re playing a video game.
Hot-key favorites take some of the sting out of an otherwise demanding interface, but we want a menu system that keeps us connected to the world. Rifling through an impossible, Mary Poppins-esque bag might be a bit much, but a more immersive approach to managing ones inventory would be a nice change of pace from the traditionally text-focused menu screens.
3. Console Access to PC Mods
Since launch, the vast majority of content created for Skyrim has been unofficial. With hundreds of unique textures, effects and pop-reference skins, the modding community has achieved both absurd and remarkable technical feats. Not all of us can afford to invest in a decent PC gaming rig, but we’d all love the chance to dance about The Elder Scrolls’ realm of user-generated content.
Obviously, graphical enhancements and the like would be irrelevant, as Bethesda can only squeeze so much power from the fixed RAM in our newest consoles. Unfortunately, the power of high-end PC’s greatly surpasses the capabilities of the PS4 and Xbox One, but we know we’ll be getting an upgrade either way. Texture replacements are last on our list of mod priorities.
Bethesda could just throw in a comprehensive toolkit that allows players to tweak the levels, sizes and shapes of every in-game asset, but that’s easier said than done. More likely, a selection of popular PC mods could be ported and packaged as DLC. Either way, us console gamers want at least a shred of the same creativity afforded to our PC brethren.
2. Autosaves Every Time You Kill Something
Skyrim lets us save our progress whenever we want. If you’re halfway through a powerful axe swing aimed straight for a Troll’s face, you can pause and save your game. Some people don’t have time to finish their axe swings. If you forget to save manually, you’re simply warped back to the last loading checkpoint. That’s a big “if.”
If you’ve ever wandered into a dungeon full of monsters that outclass you in every way, you’ve also gotten so worked up in the fight that you forgot to save. It doesn’t matter how many bastards you’ve slain. You start at the beginning of that room. Rules are rules. We’re fine with some kind of consistency when it comes to saving our game, but the system should support us every step of the way.
Taking a stab at something Dark Souls tried, albeit cruelly, The Elder Scrolls VI should save every time we kill something. Where else will the game autosave if there’s…
1. No Loading
This one is a given. Every current-generation game is making a big stink about how seamless their experience is. From gameplay, to cinematic, to gameplay, seamlessly. Entering and exiting interiors, seamlessly. From land, to air, to sea, to land again, without seams. We get it.
Considering the accumulative hours we’ve spent rotating random assets and pretending those “useful hints” are “useful,” it’s almost impossible to imagine an Elder Scrolls game in which we can simply enter a new area, no strings attached. As trivial as this may seem to some, loading time is one of the last, great immersion breakers in gaming. Show us a game designer who loves loading screens and we’ll show you a lot of angry gamers and a game designer who just got fired. Obviously, such things are far from intentional, but merely the technical limitations of an era, one that’s rapidly coming to an end.
If The Elder Scrolls VI were to load once and simply be, we wouldn’t have to endure thirty seconds of darkness just to see if we want to go deeper into that cave. We wouldn’t have to twiddle our thumbs forever just to enter the top floor of that tower. Bethesda’s epic, medieval fantasy frontier would become our seamless oyster, and we just might finally run out of reasons to leave home.