I had finished Skyrim for the third time and was trying to figure out what to do next. I thought about loading up a bunch of mods and starting a fourth playthrough, maybe taking the Nords side in the Civil War this time, then I thought maybe I would play through Morrowind and Oblivion again first. And that made me start thinking about how much things have or haven’t changed from those games.
Now I’m not talking about the game systems themselves. Obviously the graphics are better, the gameplay has been streamlined and the user interface is improved. I’m talking about the game world itself.
In Skyrim it has been over 200 years since Martin Septim sacrificed himself at the end of Oblivion but things in Tamriel are remarkably the same. Yes, parts of the Empire have fallen away. Yes, there was a war with the Aldmeri Dominion and the Altmer are now the enemies of the Cyrodillic Empire. But, overall, the world is pretty much the same as it was. You would have thought that something would have changed beyond a few broad strokes of politics, but that seems to be all there is.
As someone living in the early 21st century we are used to the relentless advance of progress. Science, technology, society… all these things have improved or otherwise changed even in our lifetimes. The idea of complete stagnation, which seems to be what is happening in Tamriel, seems out-of-place.
True, there have been periods of stagnation throughout history. In Medieval Europe (which of course is what Skyrim resembles) the average person probably did not see much change in their lifetimes. On the other hand, we call that period of history the Dark Ages for a reason.
And the problem is not restricted to the pseudo-Middle Ages of Skyrim. Take the Fallout series for example. In the first Fallout one of the first places the Vault Dweller visits is the town of Shady Sands where he meets Sandi, the teenage daughter of the mayor. Then in Fallout 2 the descendant of the Vault Dweller visits Shady Sands again, now the capital of the New California Republic, and meets the 70-year-old Sandi who is now its president.
By the time of Fallout: New Vegas a hundred years or more have gone by but the Mojave Wasteland still looks pretty much the same as it did when the original Vault Dweller left Vault 13. It has been over 200 years since the war but the world still seems to be stuck as if was just a few weeks ago. Yeah, the New California Republic has expanded over the entire southwest, but no one has bothered to move a wrecked car off the New Vegas strip? The town of Novac can run a gift shop but not fix their own “No Vacancy” sign?
This isn’t a case where things have never been discovered. There are computers and records from before the war. To give one example, why has the NCR not built a rail system (beyond the tram to the airport)? Or even a working vehicle: They have a power grid, why are they not using it?
By all logic the society in the Fallout series should be much further along the road to recovery than it is. So why isn’t it.
Well, it wouldn’t feel like a post-apocalyptic world if it was so they have to keep the gritty, dirty, edge-of-survival feel. Just like Skyrim wouldn’t feel like the Elder Scrolls without its dirty medieval world. But if that’s what they want, why set these games hundreds of years after the previous ones.
It feels like they’re moving into the future but remaining mired in the Dark Ages. The more things change, the more they stay the same.