Ah. Smell that? That waft of predetermined disappointment? That thick miasma of the hopes of many being dashed by a swathe of millionaires? Oh yes. I can smell it too. And it can only mean one thing: E3 is in town.
Well, not quite yet. And not in this town. The industry-only event will be rolling into the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 16. It's the big dog of game showcases, where all the top developers swagger in, codpieces bulging, with their new products, trailers, whatever else. It's a chance for Blizzard to announce another World of Warcraft expansion. It's a chance for a Japanese man with a tenuous grasp on English to address a stadium full of antsy Americans. It's a chance for executives from large corporations to do their annual cosplay as someone with a heart and a soul. E3 is the ultimate opportunity for developers and companies to give the people what they want, but this rarely happens, because people are fickle and games companies are thick as shit.
One publisher with its bright red balls clenched in its fist this year is Bethesda Softworks. Bethesda is responsible for the Fallout series, and acquired the Wolfenstein franchise in 2014. The company is promising something big this year, hosting their first ever conference at the… conference, and getting fans hyped the fuck up.
It, naturally, hasn't been confirmed what exactly it is they'll be showcasing this year, but beside the hype for a fourth Fallout proper, rumors abound of a new Elder Scrolls game, the next in line after the goblin tundra of 2011's Skyrim. There's a bag of Reddit-based whispers that the next game will be set in the Black Marsh, home of gravelly voiced reptilian race the Argonians, but most of these have been poopooed. Perhaps Bethesda will fob off ES6 entirely, and exclusively focus on another Fallout game that I won't play. But here's hoping that doesn't happen.
Recently, buoyed by these rumors and my festering unemployment, I decided to play the past two Elder Scrolls games back to back: 2006's Oblivion and then Skyrim. It had been a while since I'd played either, and I knew in my head which one I preferred, but wanted to give them an intensive run through. All quest lines, all achievements, all everything with bells on.
The first thing I noticed when going through Oblivion was how much I'd missed it. It really is a sweet and charming little world Bethesda created for the fourth ES game, which might have something to do with the (comparatively) rudimentary engine it was running on. The colors were bright, everything had a hazy sheen to it, the whole place felt like a dream sequence in a low-budget movie. The voice acting, while not varied in any way whatsoever (only about eight cast members play basically everyone everywhere in the entire game), had a satisfyingly pleasant familiarity to it. I'm not going to say I felt like "I knew them" or anything excruciating like that, but man, there was something so nice about hanging around in one of the towns and hearing the same voice actor have a conversation with himself. It was ridiculous, but in an "Oh, you!" way.
Oblivion's soundtrack is also one of the best modern gaming has to offer. Exactly the kind of whimsical fantasy stuff you'd expect, but somehow limitlessly listenable.
Oblivion feels like a game in its purest sense—just how you imagine the dictionary definition of a game in this genre to be like. It's totally unserious, camp, silly, bright, pretty, lush. Skyrim, on the other hand, isn't. It's a game that, at times, feels more like some kind of Chernobyl fallout simulator than a quest-based fantasy adventure. It was almost uniformly drab. You could argue that when the scenes of natural beauty occur it makes them all the more stunning, but the blizzards and the bullshit are just too much. I don't feel like I'm in a fantastical land, prepared to give my life and sword fighting dragons and beasts of burden, but like Bethesda has sex-trafficked me to Russia to be some frost troll's rent boy. In short, it's not a very fun place to be in.
So what can this big publisher do to ensure that their fantasy RPG isn't a recreation of the last scene in The Shining? For one they can remember that within the genre they work they're exempt from having to make their games gritty. There are enough gritty, serious games out there without something where you literally have to shout at a cloud to progress being among them. Bethesda needs to realize that reveling in the ridiculousness of what they do is something that needs to be embraced with as many arms as they give themselves. If the next Elder Scrolls game tries to out-serious or out-bleak Skyrim, then the experience will be about as enjoyable as watching the last bus's tires deflate in front of your eyes as it pisses down with rain.
Nothing is more depressing than the cold, and now that the "snow one" is out of the way Bethesda can concentrate on making something that's a bit cheerier. Keep all the violence and drama and duplicitousness and assassinations and what have you in, they're key to the experience, but put all of those things in an environment that's as bleak as the subjects they hold and all you're left with is a taxing experience with none of the glee that draws you to these kinds of things in the first place.
Or, Bethesda can do what they most likely will end up doing: standing on stage, unveiling a new Elder Scrolls game set in a barren sandy wasteland in which you and everyone around you is under constant threat from an airborne bird flu-like virus. It's impossible to get past level one. A harsh lesson to be learned for $65.
Or Modern Wolfenstein 2: Rise of Robo-Goebbels.
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We don't know about Elder Scrolls VI, but the series' MMO, The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited, (re)launches on PC on March 17, with Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions due in June.
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