Lateral Motion: When Sequels Are Different, Not Necessarily Better


On a whim earlier this week I decided to start up a new playthrough of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I really liked this game back in the day (it was my first Elder Scrolls game, and also my first Xbox 360 game) and I wanted to see if it still held up after all these years and all the hours I’ve put into Skyrim. The short answer is yes, it holds up very well actually (especially with graphical mods), and there’s a few articles I want to write about the game, or at least use it as a springboard to talk about other things. The first one that struck me though was this: Skyrim changed a lot from Oblivion…and much of it was not for the better. Mind you, just as much of it was, but I was struck by just how much of Oblivion‘s mechanics feel better to play than Skyrim.

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It’s a phenomenon not unique to this series, or even just these two games in the series (Morrowind has much about it superior to either, for example), but it typifies an interesting type of sequel design that doesn’t fall into the typical mold of “The last game, but improved and tightened up”. For all the flak Bethesda gets for trying to fix what isn’t broken (some of it thrown by me, admittedly, particularly where it comes to Fallout 4) ( have to give them props for changing so much about the experience between games even when I don’t like the specific choices.

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For two major examples of what I’m talking about, let’s talk about the magic systems and how map traversal works between the games.

First: Magic. Let’s put aside completely (and sadly) dropped subsystems like custom spellmaking, and the lack of spell effects like Drain Attribute for a moment and just talk about HOW you cast. In Oblivion, you tap a button and the spell is cast. This happens regardless of what type of weapon you’re holding or whether your hands are raised or lowered. This allows for an ease of play that is lacking from Skyrim, and enables character concepts that are sadly cumbersome in the sequel (like a character that wields two-handed weapons or a weapon and shield and can still cast spells; this makes Paladin-like character concepts difficult).

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The tradeoff however is that spells lack the punch that Skyrim spells have, and the variety in casting styles between sustained and burst damage or healing spells is nonexistent. A spell is either cast, or isn’t, and mix-and-matching two spells to be cast simultaneously is also impossible. This makes casters feel more versatile in Skyrim even accounting for the unfortunate tendency for Dual Casting perks to discourage you from casting two spells, one in each hand. It also just feels good to cast at all, with left and right trigger use making you feel more connected to the act of casting a spell (or swinging a weapon for that matter). I honestly haven’t yet figured out which I like better, both have pros and cons to them. But I love that they tried to make things different.

Being a Knight of the Nine Eight sucks in Skyrim.

Map traversal is another change that has both good and bad design implications. To make a long story short: The PC is much more mobile and acrobatic in Oblivion than Skyrim. With a maxed out speed stat you can run circles around any in-game foe and your prodigious leaps make getting into places you ostensibly shouldn’t relatively simple. It feels GOOD to move around in Oblivion, you simply glide along at high speed and go where you please. It makes for a compelling power fantasy. However, the flipside is unlike Skyrim it’s much easier to sequence break and the devs countered this by applying far too many invisible walls to certain areas to create artificial difficulty. This, likewise, feels BAD and can take away from the fun. Skyrim levels this curve by making your movement speed and jump height largely immutable factors, allowing the devs to predict how fast a player can move and how high they can jump an design areas accordingly. In many ways this makes sequence breaking feel more rewarding, but also allows them to use less cheap tricks to constrain the player. While I prefer Oblivion’s approach I completely see what the Skyrim team was thinking with the changes.

There’s one other huge change between the two: the leveling, but that’s something I want to save to talk about and contextualize in tomorrow’s article. Suffice to say for now, I wish more games would take such risks with their sequels every now and then, shake things up ad see what works, then move those lessons learned from both games to the NEXT sequel. Here’s hoping Bethesda learns, grows, and changes the series more in The Elder Scrolls VI.

#Lateral Motion: When Sequels Are Different, Not Necessarily Better

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