Elder Scrolls Video Games Quest Design Critique – Part 1

Though some designers seem to think it has the opposite effect. This is the concept I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while, and this topic was triggered by my comparison of the quest design in the two most recent Elder Scrolls games. If we throw in the third game, Morrowind, the trend becomes much clearer, and I suppose I wouldn’t have missed it for so long had I played more of that game (alas, it was hard to go back to it as Oblivion was my first Elder Scrolls game).


The thing that has been bugging me regarding Skyrim’s quests for forever without being able to articulate why is the accessibility of its quests. Not just the absurd way you can go through the Mage’s College questline and be named Archmage without ever casting a single spell (though that is one of the more egregious examples), but the way that philosophy applies to every quest and questline in the game. This is not the only change between the games I’ve noticed, but it is one of the more pronounced and progressive changes between them.


Think, for a moment, on this question: Have you ever failed a quest in Skyrim? Simply been unable to complete it? Your answer, most likely, is no. There are a few quests in the game that can be failed, but they are exceedingly rare. The only one I know of off the top of my head is the Dark Brotherhood questline, which only has one failure point I’m aware of: Aggroing Astrid after you are kidnapped and taken to the Abandoned Shack (if you attempt to pickpocket or attack her, the quest fails).

Both design choices have a subtle, but insidious effect on the game. They make the game smaller. Or, less satisfying to replay in many ways. Not in scope but in the player’s mind. Past the first playthrough or two, since anybody can do anything, quests are reduced to a checklist of Things To Do To Get Certain Rewards.


This is a certain part of any game to be replayed, mind, but it’s especially pronounced in Skyrim, which already suffers from lackluster quest writing in most areas (I’ll get to this at a later date). It’s not something I noticed until I started forcing myself to think about it, but I utterly decide which quests I do, in which order, and which side I choose (for the very, very rare quests/lines where there is a choice at all) based on their rewards. I do not find myself psyched to do the Companions because it is a fun, well-written questline, I do it because I want to be a werewolf. And usually drop the line after that because there are more interesting things to do. Likewise, I do the Mage’s College almost solely for the Archmage’s robes.


This problem is not absent from Oblivion or Morrowind, but it’s certainly less downplayed, and that is in part because the focus on accessibility is also downplayed. It means more focus is put on making the quest fun and unique in its own right rather than making sure everybody can do it on their first and potentially only playthrough. The only quests I can think of that I’m motivated primarily by greed to do are the Mage’s Guild (for access to better spell merchants) and Knights of the Nine (mostly because that line is basically just an excuse to get a neato armor set).

Most others, like Paranoia or the Dark Bortherhood line are ones I do because they’re just fun to do. Mind, Skyrim has some very fun quests of its own, like the Hangover inspired A Night to Remember, but that quest is problematic in its own right for basically punishing people with a high Speech skill, since much of the quest can be outright skipped with moderate Speech checks. I’ll talk about that later too; it’s symptomatic of one of Skyrim’s other big issues.


Mind, I really like Skyrim. I wouldn’t be playing it for the umpteenth time and analyzing parts of it for articles if I didn’t. And this issue clearly hasn’t completely eliminated its replay value…but it has negatively impacted it, and it’s a mistake many open world sandbox games make as well. While I low-key hate Fallout 4 (and love it at the same time; we have a complicated relationship) it is heartening to see that some element of choice and consequence remains in Bethesda design, and I hope this carries forward to the next games even further. Fallout 4 having mutually exclusive factions at least in THEORY provides more replay material and prevents some of the narrative issues of the main character having too many conflicting character traits and skillsets.

Part 2 Coming Soon

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#Elder Scrolls Video Games Quest Design Critique – Part 1