While the biggest feather in their hat has always been their open worlds, Bethesda Game Studios’s games always begin with a linear and scripted introductory sequence before you’re let loose into the open world. In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion you begin in a jail cell and proceed to fight through a dungeon and sewers, before escaping. In Fallout 3, your character has lived in an underground nuclear bomb shelter known as Vault 101 all their life, before a series of events forces them to leave their home and face the unknown world outside.
It may seem like a counterintuitive design choice to begin with a set path for the player if the rest of the game emphasizes freedom of choice, but it does serve a purpose. These intro sequences do three important things: they allow the player to learn basic game mechanics like combat and speech in a controlled environment; they give the player time to learn about the world, characters, and themes of the game without being dropped headfirst into the world and feeling lost; and, most importantly, by initially limiting player exploration, they serve to make the reveal of the open world much more powerful. Emerging from the sewers in Oblivion, or from Vault 101 in Fallout 3 were both awe-inspiring moments. You simply had to stop and look around, reeling in the notion that everything laid before you was waiting to be explored. These moments are what Bethesda games do best. That feeling of truly being in a world bigger than you can imagine. A world teeming with life and stories that you can only hope to discover.
But why doesn’t Skyrim‘s reveal feel like that? At least in my experience, leaving the caves beneath Helgen and seeing Skyrim for the first time felt simply empty and uninviting, nothing like the moments from Oblivion and Fallout. It has a similar linear intro sequence and subsequent reveal of the open world, but being set free into Skyrim doesn’t have the same impact as in Oblivion or Fallout.
The problem can be found in the very first moments the player is presented with after emerging into the world. That initial view of the world is critical to the feeling of freedom, and Skyrim‘s presentation, along with a few contextual elements hurt that feeling. So let’s take a look at what Oblivion and Fallout 3 did right, and what Skyrim did wrong.
This is the first thing you see after completing Oblivion‘s intro sequence. You’ve just fought off assassins, goblins, and giant rants through barely-lit catacombs, caves, and sewers. You look up and this is what you see. Everything about this landscape is designed to make you want to explore the world. The green hills and blue sky are a stark contrast to the dark, dank sewers you just left and make the world seem inviting. The first thing your eye is likely drawn to are the ruins, nearly dead center on the screen. Immediately, the game gives you something to explore (and some bandits to kill), a promise that the world will be filled with places like this one full of danger and mystery, waiting to be found by you. The rolling hills on the right hand side of the screen are clearly flat enough that you can hike over them, tempting the player to see what’s on the other side and, once again making the player feel like the world is open for exploring. The large mountains on the left and in the distance give an impression of the world’s massive size.
The view presented in Fallout 3, just after leaving Vault 101 is quite different from Oblivion‘s. The bright, friendly colors have been replaced with brown, brown, and brown. Instead of having most our view blocked by hills and mountains like in Oblivion, we’re instead perched up on a cliff able to see the desolate, wasted landscape extending far out into the horizon. And yet Fallout‘s world feels just as inviting as Oblivion even with this depressing view. Part of this is due to our expectations for the game. This is exactly what we want to see when playing a post-apocalyptic game. Oblivion‘s cheery colors work well for its high fantasy tone, but in Fallout we want to experience the harshness of life without society and order, and that’s exactly what we get. Also important are the easily recognizable American landmarks on the horizon. We’re shown barely more than silhouettes of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument, but seeing real life locations mangled and ruined is an intriguing tease and tempts the player to come find them.
And this is the view after escaping Helgen in Skyrim. It’s certainly lovely to look at, but it doesn’t inspire the same temptation to explore as Oblivion and Fallout‘s vista. Like Fallout, the player is once again up high looking down on a landscape, but, like in Oblivion, part of that landscape is obscured, this time by tall trees. The mountains on the side and in the background look jagged, steep, and hard to climb. Unlike Oblivion‘s rolling hills, Skyrim‘s mountains initially look more like barriers to exploration than invitations for it. The player is also set on a path that winds down the hillside with rocks on either side blocking the path in. This naturally encourages the player to stick to the path and discourages the player from deviating from it.
There are also a number of elements besides the landscape that distract from or hurt that feeling of awe in the world and the temptation to explore it. First, both Fallout and Oblivion begin indoors. It’s not until after the intro sequence that you finally see the outdoors for the first time. In Skyrim, the very first moment of the game is outdoors as you ride in a cart through a forest and into Helgen. Just about half of the game’s opening sequence takes place outside as you’re almost executed, and proceed to escape from the dragon attack. Despite the second half of the intro being indoors and underground, that moment of magic we should feel when seeing Skyrim‘s wild terrain is partially stolen by the very first moments in the game.
Second, Fallout and Oblivion make leaving the intro and entering the world feel like an event. In both games, you have to activate a door before leaving their respective intros. You’re then prompted with a “Finalize Character” type screen, where you confirm your character’s look and skills. This helps create a clear line with what came before and what comes next. It let’s the player know that the real game is about to begin. In Skyrim, the character and class stuff has all been streamlined, so there’s no need for a screen like that. Instead, you simply walk out of a cave. There’s no feeling that you’re truly leaving the intro behind and entering the world.
Lastly, Skyrim has two NPCs exit into the world with you after the intro: either a Stormcloak or Imperial soldier, and the dragon that flies overhead. There’s a small scripted moment where the soldier takes cover as the dragon leaves Helgen and flies off. Then the soldier begins to walk down the path, and gives a bunch of dialogue about going to a nearby town. The player is distracted from that special moment of seeing the game world for the first time by these two characters and this moment. Instead of marveling at the world you can explore, you have to pretend to hide from a dragon and have some guy you don’t care about give you your next quest.
Now, for the disclaimer: I LOVE Skyrim. Like, seriously, love this game. Like, favorite game of all time material. But this is one big flaw I noticed the first time I played it in 2011, and I noticed it again after getting the game gifted to me on Steam just recently. Bethesda games are all about the open world, and Oblivion and Fallout do such a good job of making that world feel accessible, inviting, and interesting in those first few moments of seeing it. But in Skyrim they somehow managed to totally screw it up. It’s just a good thing the rest of the game is absolutely filled with moments that make up for it.
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