You may not have heard, but Bethesda’s RPGs are pretty popular. For over a decade, Bethesda has been famous for its unique, free-form, sandbox RPGs. From THE ELDER SCROLLS to FALLOUT, millions of people enjoy the worlds, the lore, and the gameplay of Bethesda’s RPGs.

…But, somewhere along the line, things went wrong.

Over the past few years, Bethesda’s reputation has started to wane. While the popularity of their games remains more or less stable, the company is becoming more well known for its bugs, laughable storylines, and shady business practices than the depth and quality of their worlds.

In the short-term, this means little. Bethesda is still making massive profits, thousands of people play SKYRIM and FALLOUT 4 every day, and fans of the company can write off detractors as a “vocal minority,” but it seems the gilded veneer of this studio is wearing thin.

Bethesda
I want to love you, but you’re making it so hard.

Whether you enjoy Bethesda’s RPGs or not, it’s pretty clear they’ve been stagnating over the past few years. Little has been done to move the games forward, and at times, it feels like they remove more features than they add or improve upon. As of now, Bethesda is in a pretty enviable position.

They have no real competition and a strong fan-base willing to buy whatever they sell. But how much longer can this last? What happens when another company competes with Bethesda? What happens when they make something just as good or better? Well, that’s what I want to address today.

So, where did Bethesda go wrong? How do they get back on track? What does the future look like for this storied company? Well, let’s take a look!

Build Up, Don’t Break Down

At every turn, Bethesda seems committed to removing features from their games. Be it spellcrafting in THE ELDER SCROLLS, or the gutting of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system in FALLOUT 4. Whenever Bethesda is given a choice between improving a feature or removing it, they inevitably choose the latter.

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The common excuse is that these features were flawed, complicated, or flat out broken. Still, the solution shouldn’t be to remove them. I’m of the mind that a game’s sequel should improve upon existing systems. If something didn’t work in a previous game, removing it should be the last option. If you keep cutting corners and chipping off features, you’ll inevitably end up with an inferior product. This has been the modus operandi of Bethesda Since MORROWIND, and it’s become almost comical in its absurdity.

Are Recent Bethesda Games Better Than Their Predecessors?

Let’s take a look at SKYRIM, for example. What, exactly, did SKYRIM do better than its predecessors?

The first thing that comes to mind is the combat. To be fair, it certainly feels better in SKYRIM. In OBLIVION, using a sword felt like waving a pool noodle around, and SKYRIM introduces some real feedback to the weapons. That being said, is the combat itself any better? The inclusion of dual wielding is fine on paper but does little to change the gameplay beyond restricting your ability to block.

Dual-casting was a step in the right direction but was underdeveloped to the point of irrelevancy. Restricting magic to the player’s hands did nothing to enhance the gameplay, encouraging the player to switch between weapons, shields, and magic in the middle of combat.

Unlike previous games, every character I made felt pretty much the same: an oafish, clumsy nord. The complete gutting of the game’s mechanics didn’t help either. As you may know, SKYRIM removed most of the spells and stats from previous games, homogenizing the experience. It could be argued that some stats were redundant, while others didn’t matter much in the first place, but their exclusion leaves the player with fewer options for character development.

Variety is Everything

The argument for removing stats and play styles rests on the faulty assumption that redundancy is bad for an RPG. It may be redundant to be able to open a door with a lockpick or with an unlock spell, but it gives players additional options and ways of completing the same task.

Ideally, both methods would be viable, but there would be benefits and drawbacks to each. Maybe using a spell is faster than using a lockpick, but louder, attracting potential enemies to your location. This is how you create an RPG with a diverse set of play styles.

Oblivion
All of this was removed with nothing to replace it.

Skills like athletics (which increases your speed) and acrobatics (which makes you jump higher) may not have had much practical combat purpose, but removing them destroys an entire play style that allowed your characters to be agile, jumpy, and nimble.

Previous games allowed your character to be an acrobat; they could hop on the surface of the water, dodge attacks, jump to high places no one else could reach, and escape guards by outrunning them. It was an ideal play style for bosmer and khajiit characters, and SKYRIM ruined those races for me by removing this play style. Diversity and variety are what separate a hollow experience from a brilliant one.

“What will Bethesda cut next”?

When you get right down to it, every “feature” Bethesda added to SKYRIM restricts the player instead of rewarding them. Meanwhile, various mechanics were removed or streamlined, leading to a more shallow experience.  I often find myself wondering, “What will Bethesda cut next”? How much further can this “streamlining” go before people stop playing?

This insistence on removing features can only go so far. As of FALLOUT 4, the shallowness of Bethesda games has become a literal joke. Forcing a restrictive backstory upon the player, making it impossible to express yourself via dialogue, and homogenizing the stats to the point of irrelevancy. This is the current state of Bethesda, and I don’t think it can last.

Hire Some Damn Writers

FALLOUT 4 had no dedicated writers. I wish I could say this surprises me.

It seems most of the writing was spread out among quest and environmental designers, led by Senior Designer Emil Pagliarulo.

In fact, going back as far as SKYRIM and FALLOUT 3, it would appear Pagliarulo has been the closest thing to a “head writer” within Bethesda. This corresponds with the brain drain that happened after MORROWIND, the game that arguably made Bethesda a household name.

Morrowind
I still remember hearing friends talk about this game as a kid.

MORROWIND saw a complete overhaul of THE ELDER SCROLLS world, transforming it into a bizarre, creative, alien fantasy world where mythology and politics are one and the same. Since MORROWIND, the people behind this overhaul have slowly trickled out, leaving Pagliarulo in charge, and leaving an intellectual black hole at the heart of Bethesda.

It can be argued that many games don’t need exclusive, dedicated writers, but RPGs are an exception here. These games rely on a convincing story to draw the player into the world, to immerse them in the environment and to allow them to express themselves. As far as I can tell Bethesda never hired dedicated writers to build their games, but it’s clear there was a passionate, talented, and an eccentric team of developers writing fiction, lore, and mythology for their worlds. With most of these people gone, isn’t it time to bring on some new talent?

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Times are changing. The bar is rising. A decent story isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s expected. If Bethesda’s developers can’t handle writing a story on top of their primary jobs, then it’s time to re-organize.

Others Have Done It Better

I keep coming back to this, but it’s worth repeating: Bethesda’s greatest strength is their lack of competition. No one makes a game quite like Bethesda, and it’s one of the reasons their titles are successful despite their problems. In recent years, however, a few developers have begun to encroach on their territory.

Take THE WITCHER 3 for example. One of the most highly regarded games of this generation, THE WITCHER 3 is an open world RPG that emphasizes freedom, exploration, and choice. Sound familiar? To be fair, the games aren’t quite similar enough to truly compete, but the massive success of THE WITCHER 3 is a sign of things to come.

Is this the future of open world RPGs?

In contrast with FALLOUT 4, THE WITCHER 3 had 15 exclusive dedicated writers. It’s not the quantity I care about here, but the quality. Many of these people are acclaimed for their previous works, which include detective and fantasy novels. These people were hand picked to deliver on the tone, style, and subject matter the game was trying to achieve. This quality paid off, as the game was massively successful both critically and financially.

People are still talking about this game; it won more “Game of the Year” awards than any other in history. While THE WITCHER 3 didn’t come close to FALLOUT 4’s sales, it easily eclipsed the game critically. The game’s writing ties everything together, from the gameplay to the environments to the quest lines, enhancing every aspect of the game by drawing the player into the world. This is the power of a few good writers.

The Power Of Writing

Can you imagine if SKYRIM had this quality? If you actually cared about the people? If you felt a real sense of dread and fear when faced with Alduin? Can you imagine if you cared about your son in FALLOUT 4? If each of the factions were sympathetic and realistic in their motivations? How would that affect your overall experience?

Some will say I shouldn’t be comparing THE WITCHER with Bethesda’s games, that they’re made for different reasons and different people, but follow me here. The common argument I see for why Bethesda games have such poor writing is that making an open world game is hard.

We can’t expect anyone to make a massive, sprawling open world and a compelling story. It’s just too difficult. Well, if nothing else, Games like THE WITCHER 3 prove this argument wrong. You can have a detailed open world, deep branching quest lines, and a great story to tie it all together. So why is Bethesda slacking?

Skyrim by Bethesda
I wish I were afraid of this guy.

No one’s tried to beat Bethesda at their own game. Yet. If Bethesda keeps floundering under its own mediocrity, if they keep neglecting the brilliance of their own worlds, it’s only a matter of time before someone does.

Remember Why We Play Their Games

Like many, I was drawn into Bethesda’s games by a simple promise: to live a life in a virtual world. To drop myself into a strange land and forge my own story within it. This is Bethesda’s mission statement. It’s how they’ve pitched their RPGs since the beginning.

But Bethesda has become complacent in its goals. Years of cutting corners and chipping away at features have left their games hollow. After the first few hours of SKYRIM or FALLOUT 4, the world begins to feel artificial. You begin to see how limited you really are, how hard it is to express yourself in a way that matters.

It becomes less of a world and more of a theme park, railroading you down specific paths with mediocre set-pieces and repetitive content. Instead of moving forward, they’re moving backward, and eventually, the market will move on.

Foster the Connection Between the Player And the World

Above all, Bethesda needs to improve the way you interact with the world. The connection between the player and the environment is core to the Bethesda experience, and there’s a number of ways to strengthen this bond.

Bethesda games never had the deepest dialogue systems. At best they’re mediocre (FALLOUT 3), and at worse, they actively ruin the game (FALLOUT 4). Future games should provide more options to express your character’s personality and allow your stats to influence your options.

For example, a character focusing on magic should be able to express their knowledge in dialogue, opening up new choices and opportunities. The player should feel like they’re creating a person out of their character.

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In general, quests need to be diverse, with branching storylines and multiple ways to complete objectives. If I’m a stealth player, my experience should be completely different than a magic or melee player. I should be able to avoid boss fights, or secretly sabotage them without ever being seen. I should find alternative routes through dungeons, and the game should react to my choices through story, dialogue, and consequence. Put simply, I should feel like my choices have an impact on the world.

Fallout 4 by Bethesda and Fallout: New Vegas by Obsidian
A look at a single quest in FALLOUT 3 vs. FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS. The difference is stark.

The infuriating thing is that nothing I’ve said here is unprecedented. All these suggestions are basic features of RPGs and have been for decades. I shouldn’t have to spell this out. These aren’t luxuries. They’re staples of RPGs. For whatever reason, Bethesda is content to ignore all this, all the while claiming they want to make a living, breathing world. Well, you can’t have it both ways.

How Did Bethesda Get To This Point?

So, how did we get to the point where a story-driven RPG lacks a single dedicated writer? Why does Bethesda keep cutting corners and removing features? As far as I can tell, there’s simply been a massive shift in priorities for the company. In the past, Bethesda seemed genuinely interested in achieving their goals.

Their games were about dropping the player into a strange world, exploring an environment that felt alive and giving them the tools to make an impact within it. It didn’t always work, and their games have always had problems, but I always felt like there was a real passion behind their games.

It’s become increasingly clear that Bethesda has no interest in their own mission. They’re not concerned with creating interesting worlds for the player to live in. They’re more interested in creating playgrounds for the player to exist within. There may be a place for that in the industry, but if Bethesda’s goals are truly shifting, it’s only a matter of time before someone fills the void they’ve created.

There’s a small but growing unrest in the fanbase. We’re sick of waiting for Bethesda to care again, to deliver on its promises. When another series picks up where Bethesda left off, when the core fans get tired of their mediocrity, will it be too late for them to change?

The Point

It’s become increasingly clear that Bethesda games will never be what I want them to be, what they claim to be. As much as I love THE ELDER SCROLLS and FALLOUT, it’s become increasingly clear that Bethesda has no interest in giving these brilliant IPs the respect they deserve and that breaks my heart.

The argument I always see is that the casual gamer doesn’t care about any of this. That we’re in the minority and that the majority will continue to enjoy the mediocrity Bethesda peddles. But if Bethesda doesn’t change, eventually the “hardcore fans” will move on. Without the hardcore fans making mods, posting videos, and constantly keeping Bethesda games in the zeitgeist, will the casual gamers stick around when another company inevitably makes a better game?

Only time will tell, but as far as I’m concerned Bethesda is living on borrowed time. They likely won’t release another RPG for several years, and when that time comes around, what will the market look like? As the industry moves forward and Bethesda devolves before our eyes, will anyone even care? Unless Bethesda drastically changes their formula, I doubt they will.

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