The lights are on
I push past the dark environs of the prison dungeons through the barred door and emerge into the sunlight. A river stretches out in either direction to my sides, and on the far side of the water ruined arches of an ancient building beckon. In the distance, the mountains promise even more adventure. And just like that, I’m left on my own to decide what to do next.
Based on conversations I’ve had with dozens of gamers, I’m definitely not the only that was struck by this scene near the beginning of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. That sense of freedom, exploration, and discovery is at the core of the appeal behind the games released by Bethesda Game Studios. Whether you look back at the early releases in the Elder Scrolls franchise, or examine the developer’s most recent work on Skyrim, Bethesda has cemented a reputation for providing meaningful choice and true moments of discovery in each and every game. While we gamers are often left waiting for years between projects, the wait is always worth it; few gaming experiences get me as excited as those early moments of discovery in a new game from Bethesda.
Whether you label it as a strength or a weakness, I often think about the idea that Bethesda has primarily explored one game concept to its fullest in the last 20 years. However, the development team keeps making that concept better and better each time, and changing the trappings that surround that concept with such sophistication, that you’re happy to play through the experience again. Consider all the things that make Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim the same as each other. No matter the setting, we embrace the freedom these settings provide above anything else. Ultimately, the free-roaming, open-world experience was in part pioneered by Bethesda’s work on the Elder Scrolls series in the 1990s, and they’ve continued to hone that experience as the years pass. Like a chef who is known for his signature dish or an artist who always works in the same medium, Bethesda has gathered a legion of fans that play its games for a similar experience to what they had last time.
Todd Howard serves as game director at Bethesda Game Studios
Of course, it’s those trappings that surround the fundamental game concept that make all the difference. Time and again, Bethesda has carved out new niches of the Elder Scrolls universe that make it worth a return trip to Tamriel. The alien landscapes and surprising building architecture of Morrowind, the hellish landscapes that lie beyond the portals of Oblivion, and the snowcapped peaks of Skyrim all stand out as distinct among the most recent entries of Bethesda’s signature game world.
In each Elder Scrolls game, the weight of the world’s history is ever present. Books describe ancient events or major turning points from previous games. Sprawling dungeons serve as a testament to civilizations that came before. And nested monsters and long-buried undead make the locations you visit feel like real places. No matter which entry you choose, playing an Elder Scrolls game imparts a sense of wonder and mystery, and you never know what lies around the next corner.
Fallout 3 revived the franchise after years without a new entry
Bethesda’s departure into the world of Fallout in 2008 imparted a different sort of wonder: the horror of our familiar world devastated by apocalypse. By taking the beloved post-nuclear setting of Fallout and overlaying it with the action-oriented RPG style Bethesda was known for, the Fallout franchise attracted a whole new crowd of fans to the franchise. Fallout 3 also helped prove the validity of mixing familiar first-person shooting with RPG storytelling and upgrades.
Experiences like these bring players back again and again. Even when those same players complain about technical hiccups or combat problems, the lure of a new Bethesda game is hard to resist.
The Bethesda development team has contributed immeasurably to the ambition and scope of what developers are willing to try in their games. It’s not unusual to hear other developers cite Elder Scrolls or Fallout 3 as a conceptual touchstone. Perhaps more importantly, Bethesda has managed that rare feat of being a developer that many gamers recognize by name. I’m confident I’m not the only fan who is ready to embrace a new project from Bethesda Game Studios, no matter what it may turn out to be.
Email the author Matt Miller, or follow on Game Informer.