On Monday, we talked about the problems with game difficulty, and we had quite a few shooters put in the spotlight for bad or good design. Now, let’s shrink down to one developer of Roleplaying Games, Bethesda, and rip apart the meat of a game’s storyline: the characters.
A “Review” with some Character…. Get it?
We’ve had a load of things come out of Bethesda Shitwor- I mean, Softworks. From the Oldest Scrolls game to the newest Falling-out, we’ve got a ton of fun little quirks to make fun of (even if we still love their games enough to appreciate Skyrim on the newest iToaster). Fortunately for your eyes, we’re only going to look at one aspect of their little bubble: their characters.
Characters are what make RPGs shine above most other genres. You need a good cast in order to immerse your players in their world. Be it supporting characters, main characters, or player characters, it’s very important to get it right no matter the setting. Bethesda, however, has been really good at taking the best intentions and flushing them down the Fallout Shelter. Well, we’ve got to start somewhere, so let’s take a look at the main man himself.
Main Characters for Bethesda
Typically played by the player, the main character needs to be flexible enough to play a straight-faced hero-protagonist, a diabolical she-demon, or a hardcore hoarder with a grudge against table spoons. That is the lot in life for playable characters in RPGs, and fortunately, Bethesda did a wonderful job with it…. for awhile, anyway.
At first, you get the amazing options in Morrowind, wherein you’re just a random dude(ette) thatr wanted to immigrate too the land of racism, slavery, and destruction. That means that, aside from any intelligent characters, you could be anything you wanted to be! In Oblivion, you’re a random prisoner guy that wandered into the life of “Savior of the World”. Hell, one might even say that you’re not the main character of Oblivion, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Then Fallout 3 happened. You get this preconceived backstory for a character, preventing any player agency, and almost forced us to play this goody-goody hero. You go out into the Wasteland to do stuff, but if you act evil, it feels very odd given your background. The same thing happens in Fallout 4. You’re this character that’s stuck in a role, except you’re in a roleplaying game in order to give a role to yourself that you come up with.
To give a parallel to the Scrolls franchise, Skyrim, the most beloved of the franchise (sorry Morrowind, you’ve been outshined), has you stuck as the DragonBjorn, a heavy-metal guitar god that has killer vocals and a “can-do” attitude. It’s hard to be a stealthy sneaky snake when your main method of attack is to literally shout at things until they die. It’s hardly a player-choice, and there’s several mods out there that specifically alter the start of the game to give you more of an option. Sure, Oblivion was forcing you to be a prisoner at the very beginning, but before you really get any backstory as to who you are or what you’re doing there, you’re done with your character creation. The character creation process after choosing your appearance is seamlessly integrated into your playstyle for the tutorial dungeon, providing you with a huge advantage over just plopping you into the world.
Yet people absolutely love Skyrim, and hate Oblivion. While there’s plenty of reasons to hate Oblivion, though, I’m going to prove that its’ story is better than every other Elder Scrolls story combined.
Don’t worry, I’ll try not to blow your mind too much.
The Oblivion Defense
As I said near the beginning of this rant, you aren’t the main character of Oblivion. Sure, you play the protagonist and you are the focal point of gameplay, but you’re just a means to an end. The real “main character” is Martin Septim, the Emperor’s son. He is the Chosen One, and he gets to be the big badass dragon fighting Satan at the end of the game. Who are you? You’re the guy who gave him a piece of jewelry and ran about the world delivering messages. Just like Mike from Breaking Bad, you’re not the focus, no matter how special you are.
While this may seem like a downfall to the game, it’s actually the sole reason why Oblivion holds up better than Skyrim. In Skyrim, you’re basically told that you’re a huge important due. In Oblivion, you just choose to become an important dude. You don’t have to get the Amulet of Plot to Martin Septim, you choose to do so because you want to either get rid of the weight on your shoulders or because you want to do the right thing. One of my favorite playthroughs is where I ran to Kvatch, walked right into the city, told Martin to get his ass to Weynon Priory, and noped the fuck out of Demontown. I then went on a quest to fill my entire haunted mansion with ale whilst simultaneously working my way up the ladder of the Arena. The game had natural stopping points where you could go off and do your own thing. Martin has to research shit, and Jauffre has a temple to clean. That gave me time to become part of the world.
In Skyrim, I didn’t get a stopping point like that. Instead, I was given quest after quest, each with so much importance standing behind it that I couldn’t leave the Main Quest without feeling an abrupt stop. Then, if you wait to do the faction quests until after the Main Quest is finished, everyone treats you like a peasant. I killed the Eater of Worlds, and this scrub is calling me a scrub? Let me get my Bjork on and sing you to death.
Fixing Main Characters – Conclusion
Lately, Bethesda games have been pushing a certain character with each game. Fallout 4 is the heroic soldier-parent. Skyrim is the heroic soldier-Nord. Fallout 3 was the heroic… nerdlinger? Anyway, the point is that they tried really hard to give you the character they wanted you to be. That’s fine in linear games; for the love of all that is anti-Satan, DOOM‘s character was incredible even though you couldn’t play him as a fluffly bunny-vegan. But with their RPG’s, Oblivion shines because of their willingness to give you free reign over your character, while giving the “Main Character” title to Martin.
There’s a lot to be learned from this, and I hope you devs are listening to this: stop making the players the main characters all the time, and let them breathe a bit. Make the main character someone you can look up to, or despise, or love, but don’t force your players to be your iteration of the main hero. Perhaps with a little luck, you’ll find that players will have more fun if they are the supporting character. It certainly helps me when I’ve decided to roll my next PC and I choose to be a kleptomaniac butcher from beyond the grave!