On the Level

So Skyrim, the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls series, is coming out next week. I’m looking forward to it, mainly because Morrowind, the third game in the series, is one of my favorite games of all time, as are Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, both also done by Bethesda.

You may notice that I didn’t mention Oblivion, the fourth Elder Scrolls game. That’s because I think Oblivion made a mistake, one that wasn’t in the Fallout and thus I am hoping that won’t show up in Skyrim. That mistake was having the world level along with the player.

Everyone wants to feel as if they get better and more powerful as they go through a game. Whether this is an improvement in our skills as a player as we learn the game or the improvements in our character’s skills and equipment, we like our character at the end of the game to be better than they were at the beginning.

This is especially true in fantasy games. This goes all the way back to Dungeons and Dragons, the first of the modern role-playing games. We want to see our weak, nearly helpless first-level characters developing into nearly-unstoppable demigods at level 20.

This is something expected in fantasy. No one blinks when Aragorn single-handedly slays his way through an orcish army in The Lord of the Rings and it is just expected that Luke, Leia and Han can blast their way through dozens of Stormtroopers in Star Wars, but for some reason a lot of games seem to be afraid of letting players get too powerful.

In Oblivion everything in the world increased in level as the player did. So at the beginning of the game you are about the same level of ability as the elite soldiers guarding the emperor himself. Then by the end of the game the lowliest town guard is far stronger and better equipped than these “elite” troops.

This breaks the illusion of the world to me. If everything is always going to be about the same level as me, why bother letting me gain levels at all?

What they are trying to accomplish is to maintain the challenge to the player but I don’t feel that simply making the world around me harder is the way to do that. Go back to Morrowind for a minute. By the end of that game my character could probably slaughter half the population of Vvardenfell if he wanted. But his goal was to stop the return of an ancient god. That was the challenge to the player, not a random bandit outside a random city.

In Oblivion, gates leading to that world’s version of Hell have opened and demon spawn led by a demon lord are invading. My character is the hero who is tasked with defeating the demons and closing the gates. But, if my character is barely more powerful than a random city guard, then why does the world need me as a hero in the first place?

Make the demons the challenge to the player, not the guard who catches him stealing three gold pieces from a merchant.

In heroic fantasy the player character should feel heroic. They should be the only one who can save the world, not just the one who happened to get around to facing the evil first.

In Skyrim, I want to be the Dragonborn of legend who saves Tamriel from the return of the dragons and thus gains the respect of its people. I don’t want to be “just another adventurer”.

I want to be the Hero.

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