It’s been nearly a decade and two console generations since Skyrim came out in 2011. Since then, Bethesda has been keen to focus on its other franchises: we’ve had two new Fallout games, and the studio is now working on an all-new sci-fi IP called Starfield.

As far as The Elder Scrolls series is concerned, all we have to go on right now is an announcement trailer so vague, it’s literally just the words “The Elder Scrolls VI,” accompanied by theme music. Todd Howard’s made it clear that the next Elder Scrolls is far off, set to arrive at some point of time after Starfield. However, the recent Microsoft acquisition has raised questions about Bethesda’s plans. Are Bethesda franchises going to turn into Xbox and PC exclusives? And is Microsoft planning to get the Elder Scrolls VI out the door sooner?

Click to play the teaser video

We don’t have the answers right now. But, as the franchise turns 26, it’s a good idea to take a look back at how things got started. No, “Skyrim 2” (cringe) probably isn’t coming out anytime soon. But there’s plenty to discover and plenty to love across a quarter-century of Elder Scrolls history. Let’s dive in!

The Early Years

In the early 1990s, Bethesda was a fledgling developer that collaborated with EA on John Madden Football, then it set out to create a fantasy arena fighting game.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena players were originally meant to travel from city to city, fighting in different arenas and progressing to the Imperial City. Along the way, they’d do randomly generated side quests for NPCs.

As development progressed on the game, the side quests and exploration became increasingly important. Bethesda eventually scrapped the arena idea completely and doubled down on dungeon crawling and questing across an immense open world.

The early and mid-90s were a heyday for first-person dungeon crawlers. Titles like Ultima Underworld and Wizardry 7 superficially resemble Arena. However, they were far more limited in terms of scale and interactivity.

Click to play gameplay video

By using procedural generation, Bethesda was able to create an immense open world, almost as large as the continental US. This was something of a double-edged sword, though. The continent of Tamriel featured only 17 hand-crafted dungeons. Just about everything else was created by the algorithm, using a limited number of premade assets. Arena’s first-person combat and exploration drew heavily from titles like Ultima Underworld.

While the open world itself was nothing to write home about, the dungeon crawling experience was immersive for 1994.

Arena doesn’t hold up today with its barren world, basic 3D graphics, and limited quest variety. This was clearly a first effort from a developer finding its footing in the RPG space. However, Arena did establish the lore and setting for future Elder Scrolls titles. It also introduced players to the hallmarks of future Elder Scrolls titles: wide-open spaces, exploration, and complete freedom. Its sequel, Daggerfall, proved that Bethesda was onto great things.

The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall

Daggerfall doubled down on Arena’s innovations to deliver an experience that was just better in every way. The real change here was in terms of density. Arena had a huge open world with few meaningful things to do. Apart from the 10 main story quests, Arena featured a number of randomized quest types, which all boiled down to trudging across yet another procedurally generated dungeon. Daggerfall’s 227 quests gave players a real reason to immerse themselves in its world.

The xEngine renderer delivered a massive improvement to visuals and while the procedurally generated locales still had a bit of a samey look, environments were far more diverse than Arena.

The world was a fraction of the size of Arena’s: 200,000 square kilometers instead of 6 million. However, it was (and still is!) absolutely gargantuan. With over 15,000 cities, dungeons, and villages, Daggerfall actually featured a built-in search engine for players to find places of interest.

With hundreds of quests, unique NPC interactions and a relatively detailed open world, players could immerse themselves in Daggerfall for hundreds of hours. For mid-90s gamers who started out with pen-and-paper D&D, Daggerfall was a revelation.

From thaumaturgy to banking to sailing your own ship across Iliac Bay, Daggerfall featured a remarkable number of gameplay features and mechanics, most of which never made their way into future Elder Scrolls titles. Future titles focused more on the narrative and exploration, streamlining core gameplay systems and cutting others out entirely.

Does it still hold up today? Well, yes and no. It’s possible to get an authentic experience by running the original game under DOSBox. But if you’re interested in actually playing Daggerfall, you’ll want to consider the community-led Daggerfall Unity project. As the name suggests, Daggerfall Unity is an effort to rebuild Daggerfall from the ground up in the modern Unity engine.

The project has come a long way over the past few years and is now mostly feature-complete. Apart from making it considerably easier to run Daggerfall on modern machines, Daggerfall Unity supports modding tools. Modders have added in everything from 3D NPCs to AI-enhanced textures and dynamic light sources.

If you’re looking for an experience that mostly hews to vanilla Daggerfall gameplay, but with considerable visual improvements, we suggest using the D.R.E.A.M mod pack that replaces thousands of sprites, textures, models, and audio files.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

Six years after Daggerfall, Bethesda released Morrowind in 2002, the third mainline Elder Scrolls game. Morrowind was, in many ways, the opposite of Daggerfall and Arena. Where the early two titles relied on procedural generation to build immense play spaces, Morrowind’s Vvardenfall island was a mere 16 square kilometers. But every inch of it was hand-crafted, with diversity and attention to detail not seen before.

In terms of visuals, Morrowind was a massive step up. While Daggerfall’s xEngine technically used a 3D renderer, characters and many objects were sprite-based. Morrowind made the leap to polygonal 3D with the Gamebryo engine, featuring fully-modeled and textured characters and environments, as well as a day-night cycle.

While some systems still echoed the D&D-derived mechanics of the earlier games (melee combat with a chance to miss, for example), Morrowind set the template for every Elder Scrolls game to come.

From a lore perspective, Morrowind started the process of creating a unique identity for the Elder Scrolls universe, instead of relying on standard high fantasy tropes like Daggerfall and Arena. This was best seen in the environmental narrative of Vvardenfall itself: a volcanic island with mushroom architecture, mysterious daedric ruins, and airborne jellyfish. While it’s been technically surpassed by newer titles, Morrowind’s weird and wonderful environment still stands out compared to the generic worlds of Oblivion and Skyrim.

It’s also important to note that Morrowind was the first Elder Scrolls title available on console. While it was still very much a PC-centric experience, in terms of the interface and depth of play, Morrowind’s appearance on the original Xbox proved that deep, open-world RPGs could work on console. Future Elder Scrolls titles doubled down on the console experience by focusing on accessibility and by streamlining gameplay systems.

Morrowind was also the first Elder Scrolls game to build an active modding community around itself. Morrowind modders have spent the past 20 years working on a mind-boggling range of projects. From graphical overhauls to gameplay enhancements to DLC-size additions like Tamriel Rebuilt, the Morrowind modding community has added far more to the game than either of its official expansions, and they continue to do so.

The In-Between Years

The four years between Morrowind and the arrival of the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion were a strange period of time for the franchise. Bethesda worked with Vir2L studios to bring Elder Scrolls titles to early 2000’s feature phones, as The Elder Scrolls: Travels spinoff series. Most of these were (frankly terrible) dungeon crawlers that had little to do with mainline games. The most ambitious (and infamous) of The Elder Scrolls Travels games was Shadowkey, on Nokia’s ill-fated N-Gage gaming phone.

Unlike its J2ME predecessors, Shadowkey was meant to provide the full-fat Elder Scrolls experience on the go. Unfortunately, the N-Gage’s 104 MHz processor simply wasn’t up to the task.

Technically, Shadowkey featured a full-3D open world, with first-person exploration and combat. So far, so Morrowind. Unfortunately, the N-Gage’s hardware limitations meant that Shadowkey’s draw distance was so short NPCs and objects would literally pop in and out of existence. The frame rate would often drop to the single digits during action scenes, making combat an exercise in frustration on the N-Gage’s number pad. In many ways, Shadowkey looked and played like a 5th generation demake of the Elder Scrolls.

If nothing else, it gave us a glimpse of what Morrowind would’ve looked like if Bethesda launched it two years earlier on the PlayStation 1.

Oblivion and Skyrim: When The Elder Scrolls Went Mainstream

In today’s world, The Elder Scrolls (or at least Skyrim) has garnered about as much mainstream appeal as possible for a western fantasy RPG series. This wasn’t always the case. Morrowind and earlier titles were popular on PC, and they continue to have dedicated fan communities, however they were very much still niche games in a niche genre.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim took from PC to mainstream console audiences. Bethesda’s E3 2005 Oblivion trailer turned into a system-seller early on in the Xbox 360’s lifecycle.

When Oblivion came out as an almost-launch title for the Xbox 360, it was clear that Bethesda’s priorities had shifted. A number of schools of magic, weapon types, and interactions found in Morrowind were ripped right out (no more levitating boots, for one).

Most interactions in Morrowind were chance-based, determined by the roll of invisible dice. Oblivion swapped this system out for a standard hitbox-based combat and magic system. Havok physics was an unnecessary, but oddly compelling addition.

Dialogue was scaled back considerably, with most NPCs offering only two or three options. However, all of it was voiced, unliked Morrowind. Oblivion was criticized for its setting, too. In earlier Elder Scrolls, Cyrodil — Oblivion’s setting — was described as a lush jungle with settlements in between. In Oblivion, only the areas around Bruma and Leyawin even remotely approach this original description. Most of Cyrodil is a generic, pastoral high fantasy environment. This, too, was perhaps part of the push towards mainstream appeal, but Oblivion lost some of its soul in the process.

With Skyrim in 2011, the push towards a mainstream experience was complete. Crafting and customization were further stripped down, as were dialog options. Bethesda put combat and exploration front and center, with many questions adhering to a “go here, kill that” loop.

The well-realized open world and the extensive Creation Engine modding tools Bethesda provided have given the game remarkably long legs. A decade down the line, Skyrim retains the most active modding community of any game. Massive total conversion mods like Enderal: The Shards of Order even have their own mods. Meanwhile, mesh and texture replacers push modded Skyrim visuals well past the newer Fallout 4.

The only real problem with Skyrim is that it is, arguably, too popular. This is an issue on two counts. First, it’s very likely the main reason why Bethesda’s taking this long to produce The Elder Scrolls VI. Skyrim: Special Edition, Skyrim on Nintendo Switch, and Skyrim VR — all essentially old Skyrim in new bottles — continues to sell well. For Bethesda, Skyrim’s the gift that keeps giving.

The second issue? Brand recall. Skyrim has done such a great job of embedding itself in the mainstream psyche that a good chunk of players have probably never heard of the other Elder Scrolls games. They’re on the lookout for “Skyrim 2,” not The Elder Scrolls VI. This is bound to have an impact on the kind of experience Bethesda’s looking to create, both in the next Elder Scrolls game and in titles like Starfield.

As franchises like Assassin’s Creed lean more heavily into core RPG mechanics, Bethesda’s likely to further simplify things, thanks to Skyrim mania. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Believable animation, improved combat, and better NPC interactions could lead to a better Elder Scrolls, even if Bethesda eschews the series’ roots. Where are they likely to go with The Elder Scrolls VI, though? Are we going to see a Skyrim successor or a return to roots?

The Elder Scrolls Online

The Elder Scrolls games have always had a distinct element of Solitude to them (and we’re not just talking about the city in Skyrim). In each mainline title, exploration and questing are complemented by long, self-reflective stretches where players could just immerse themselves in nature.

Cyrodil’s grassy meadows, Morrowind’s mushroom spires, and Skyrim’s valleys were often places of quiet, places to just “be.” It would be sacrilegious to turn something like that into a multiplayer experience. Or would it?

The Elder Scrolls Online was Bethesda’s brave attempt to bring its steadfastly single-player RPG franchise into a world where fantasy fans were investing hundreds of hours into World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2. Did it succeed? Not exactly. Was it an abysmal failure? Also, no.

By packing in meaningful quests and narrative, as well as a combat system that at least superficially resembles Skyrim and Oblivion (though no longer hitbox-based), Bethesda tried not to stray too far from the series’ single-player roots. While ESO can be played as a social experience, the core questing experience is more or less in place, helped immensely by fully-voiced dialogue.

It’s not The Elder Scrolls VI by any measure, and the cartoony graphics and relatively static NPC behaviour can be off-putting. But all in all, ESO is arguably the best MMO that Bethesda could have made while staying within a broad Elder Scrolls template.

Looking towards The Elder Scrolls VI

If we’re just talking graphics, those recently confirmed leaked Starfield screenshots give us a decent picture of the technical direction Bethesda’s taking its next-generation RPGs.

The Elder Scrolls VI is set to release right after Starfield, so it will likely reuse the same core technology. The leaked screenshots are from 2018, and overall visuals may very well improve in the final revision. However, from what we can see, Starfield uses a physically-based materials pipeline and models with a polygon count higher than what we’ve seen in current Bethesda titles.

Bethesda’s RPGs have always been about immersion, about being lost in a strange new world.

Fallout 4 introduced PBR (physically-based rendering) to the Creation Engine, so we expect great material quality. The higher poly assets would also scale well on next-gen console GPUs. The Elder Scrolls VI launch “trailer” also hinted at massively increased draw distances. If the landscape in the trailer was indeed in-engine, we could look forward to bigger vistas and much less pop-in.

What about all the things we don’t know?

The most meaningful improvement to The Elder Scrolls VI could be in terms of gameplay depth, not graphics. Both 9th-gen consoles feature 8-core Zen 2 processors that are an order of magnitude faster than the anemic Jaguar-based CPUs in the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. This level of CPU horsepower could be harnessed to build in deeper, AI-based NPC interactions, more detailed worlds, and branching, multi-state quest designs.

Bethesda’s RPGs have always been about immersion, about being lost in a strange new world. While visuals have gotten markedly better, basic interactions and quest design in Elder Scrolls games haven’t changed all that much since Morrowind. Newer RPGs like Cyberpunk 2077 are redefining player agency. It’ll be fascinating to see how Bethesda uses the extra CPU power on tap to build more believable environments.

The Elder Scrolls franchise could be pushing 30 by the time The Elder Scrolls VI comes out. In the decade and two console generations since Skyrim, we’ve seen remarkable development in the RPG space and in terms of gaming technology.

Now we’re at the beginning of a new console generation, and we’ve yet to see what developers come up with by tapping into the full capabilities of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. From that perspective, a few more years of development could be a good thing.

A fully-formed next-generation Elder Scrolls has the capability of turning into the RPG of the decade.

Keep Reading. Gaming at TechSpot


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