Quarantine Fighting Words: Ranking The Elder Scrolls Series

There’s a running joke related to smart home appliances, that the real test of a new device’s capabilities is how well it runs The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. This is humorous not only for the amount of computing power which is going into appliances like refrigerators, but also for how truly impactful the Elder Scrolls series has become among gamers. I can remember going to the Bethesda booth at E3 2011 and going through the museum they’d set up to announce the launch of Skyrim, which got recycled when they announced The Elder Scrolls Online. The amount of effort which was put into creating the artifacts and Alduin’s Wall staggered me. And while the sixth game of the series has only been teased, people are understandably excited.

With that in mind, I’ve been mulling on ranking the main line games of the series, which ones were the best, and which ones gamers could safely ignore. This does not consider Elder Scrolls Online and the supplements which have come out for it, nor does it account for the side stories of Battlespire and Redguard.

5. The Elder Scrolls: Arena

It’s not subtle.

The first game of any series is always going to be the one that has the most bugs to work out. Systems which sound great in the design process, but turn out to be less enjoyable once the game gets out to the general public. In addition to the gameplay bugs, technical bugs caused significant damage to Arena‘s reputation at release. Even when Bethesda gave the game away for free in 2004, getting it to run in DOSBox was a challenge and a half, so you can well imagine the sort of Hell one had to go through trying to get their CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files tuned just right in those early days before Windows 95 came out. For their part, Bethesda dug in and fixed a lot of the technical issues, enough that the game was able to build up a cult following.

The gameplay, however, was something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Arena set the standard of all Elder Scrolls games that came after it by ensuring there was a lot to do outside of the main quest. Using procedural generation techniques, the Empire of Tamriel featured in Arena is larger than the areas covered by Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim and their respective DLC expansions combined. Walking from one city to the next could take you literally an entire real day. Dungeons would, with notable exceptions, never stay cleared, providing you infinite opportunities for loot and character progression.

“I knew I should have taken that right turn at Whiterun.”

The downside to all this procedural generation was the lack of permanence. If you left a dungeon with loot on the ground, that loot was gone. The path you traced going from one city to the next would be lost once you reached your destination. But for all you could do, Arena did not make it easy for you to do it. Escaping from the starting dungeon of the Imperial Prison proved to be a task which was ridiculously hard, particularly since you were poorly armed and the goblins prowling the halls of the prison were ridiculously tough. If you could escape, and survive, you stood a chance of completing the main quest to save Uriel VII (listed as Uriel IV for reasons of bad continuity).

You can still download the game from Bethesda, but be prepared for lots of dying.

4. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall

Way more subtle.

For all the trouble I had getting Arena to run in a DOSBox, I never once got Daggerfall to run. And this was the freebie version Bethesda released for its 10th anniversary, much they had for Arena. Which is a bummer for me, since I have only tales of players who were able to get it to run back in the day, and they describe a game which sounds amazing.

Much like Arena, Daggerfall relied on procedural generation to describe its area, however impermanent it might be. Scaled down from the first game, Daggerfall focused its efforts on only two provinces of the empire, High Rock (home of the magically inclined Bretons) and Hammerfell (land of the legendary Redguard swordsmen), and it still weighed in at over 63,000 square miles, or about half the size of Great Britain. Because the vast majority of that territory wasn’t permanent, the game could get away with creating a tremendous sense of scale without inflicting horrific data storage and memory issues on PCs. The population of the region was counted at roughly 750,000 NPCs, a far cry from the low thousands which populated the later games.

That’s a lot of territory to cover for such a small section of the Empire.

However, the procedural generation mechanisms created a sense of sameness which critics derided. But the limitations of procedural generation were the least of Daggerfall‘s problems. Just as they did with Arena, Bethesda released Daggerfall with tremendous numbers of technical bugs. As they did before, Bethesda managed to squash most of them, though crashes were still reportedly common.

It was Daggerfall that introduced a lot of the systems which would become staples in later games. The Mages Guild would let you not only learn stock spells, but allow you to create new ones with different effects. There was a similar system for item enchantment. You could buy houses (even ships), join different factions or organizations and build a reputation based on your actions, become a vampire or werewolf (and apparently, a wereboar as well) and deal with dynamic relationships between the different kingdoms in the game. Daggerfall was unique in the series because of the multiple endings which were possible. While the impact of these choices was handwaved away in Morrowind in an explanation involving Akatosh, Aetherius (the plane where gods and Aedra dwell and an event which allowed all the endings to happen at the same time, it was still highly distinctive within the series. No other entry has allowed such potential diversity of action in the endgame. The only reason it’s sitting as low on the list as it does is because of the technical difficulties in getting it to run even today.

3.The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Understated, maybe a little too subtle.

There’s probably a few eyebrows going up at this one. “Skyrim is the latest and greatest in the series!” you might be thinking. “What the hell are you smoking?! Are you nuts?!”

Not at all. I will be the first to commend Skyrim for the things it does right. It’s reasonably stable, there are far fewer game-breaking bugs than pretty much any prior entry in the series, it’s got a lot of great visual appeal and plenty of storylines to get involved in. Five games into the series, players get to fight dragons for the first time and those fights can be glorious. Some might deride how heavily it borrows from Norse myth and Viking culture, but the entire series has been like that in one way or another. And it manages to make those borrowings feel like natural cultures within the context of the game world without necessarily devolving into blind stereotypes. It even manages to incorporate a high degree of moral ambiguity with its Civil War quest chains, a feeling that no matter which side you back, you’re not really helping either one of them.

“You’ll find it hard to breathe fire with an axe in your gullet!”

The voice cast is expansive, with heavyweights like Christopher Plummer, the recently deceased Max Von Sydow, and Joan Allen to complement veteran voice actors like Kari Wahlgren, Charles Martinet and George Coe. The soundtrack might possibly be the biggest one Jeremy Soule has ever done for the series, and certainly one of the most stirring any game could ask for.

So why is it only the third best game in the series? There are three significant reasons for this. The first reason is the absurd limitations within the game. For all the things you can do as a Dragonborn, from building your own homes to crafting your own gear, there’s an almost oppressive lockdown in other areas of the game. From Daggerfall through Oblivion, you had the ability to build your own spells and enchanted gear. You could do things that could frankly break the game to an extent, but it demanded a lot of commitment to make it happen.

“We did all that grinding for nothing?!”

Spells in Skyrim, on the other hand, are locked down. You can get perks to cut down the mana costs or bump up damage and duration, but those are locked to specific points of a tree for advancing your skills. Enchantments are equally gimped, static improvements which are primarily straight bonuses to skills or resistances to damage types. Magic in Skyrim quite frankly doesn’t feel magical, which might explain why everybody ends up playing a one-man Special Forces operator sneaking and sniping through dungeons.

The second reason ties in, to an extent, with the first. One of the completely underdeveloped plotlines in the game had to do with a ban on worshipping Talos and his removal from the official pantheon of deities in the Empire. Ostensibly, this was one of the reasons the Stormcloaks were rebelling against the Empire, seeing it as a betrayal of culture, history and faith dictated by an invader. Within the game, you could build shrines in your homes (including one for Talos), but there was a decided lack of mysticism compared to previous entries both from the religious perspective and the specific discipline for mages to train in. While the ability to fast travel is nice, the ability to be able to quickly escape from a bad battle via teleportation to a designated spot or through the intervention of deities is not only mechanically useful but helps put the player’s abilities in perspective. It weirdly keeps a player humble.

A Dragonborn armored in dragonbone.

As for the third reason, it’s a complaint which first came up with Oblivion‘s infamous Horse Armor DLC. There are a number of one-off quests, short chains, and items which have appeared in prior Elder Scrolls games which are now walled off as paid Creation Club selections. It’s basically Horse Armor with an extra step involved. Now, instead of paying money directly, you buy Creation Club Credits. It’s nickel-and-dime crap, possibly more onerous in its own way than Fallout 76 and its Atom currency.

2.The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Stark but stylish.

This one beats out Skyrim in the ranking only because it wasn’t quite as hobbled as its successor, though it’s still a little less impressive than its predecessors. While Daggerfall has the distinction of being the first Elder Scrolls game to take players to a different plane within the game’s cosmology, Oblivion made it almost a central feature. The Oblivion Gate dungeons took players to different locations on the plane of Oblivion. It’s also the last instance of randomization outside of loot within the series. There were 100 potential gate locations which would open up, but the game would only ever open up a maximum of 60, ten of which were necessary for the main quest or important side quests. This certainly gave players who didn’t want to force the gates open with console commands a powerful incentive for replay.

This was also the first entry in the series to have more than just the typical professional voice actors. Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman, Super Troopers) has appeared in every game since Morrowind, but she tends to be doing generic lines for NPCs for the most part. Oblivion was the first game to call in some heavy talent. I’d always wondered what Uriel Septim VII sounded like, and for the rest of my days, I will probably never be able to play Morrowind without hearing Patrick Stewart’s voice when reading something in the Emperor’s handwriting. Between that performance, Sean Bean as the reluctant last scion of the Septim line, and Terence Stamp’s scene chewing turn as Daedric cult leader Mankar Camoran, this was probably the game that established the series as finally “making it” in the larger world of the entertainment industry. No longer could it be considered that funny little cult classic RPG.

“Sorry, we blew the budget on voice actor pay. You’ll need to buy your horse’s armor yourself.”

But for all the heavy metal thrown towards the voice work, there’s a strange feeling of shoddy workmanship in the visuals. The architectural designs for most structures have this odd “rough draft” feel to them, as if somebody forgot to incorporate all the textures properly. And while the different varieties of Men, Mer and Beast Folk were easily distinguishable in Morrowind and Skyrim, the character models in Oblivion to one one degree or another looked like the same two or three people with slightly different but equally terrible makeup changes. I defy you to look at Mankar Camoran and not see Marlon Brando during his “fat, rich and out of shits to give” period.

While Bethesda might have caused completely appropriate embarrassment with their Horse Armor DLC fiasco, the actual expansions for the game were definitely worth spending extra money (assuming you didn’t hold out for the Game of The Year editions). To this day, The Shivering Isles might be one of the best expansions to an RPG ever, and there’s a lot of competition out there even within Bethesda’s own library. Yes, Knights of The Nine wasn’t exactly overawing, but still good solid gameplay and a story which tied into the world. But even the best expansions couldn’t quite erase the sense of diminishment Oblivion conveys. Whether it was a feeling they couldn’t outdo Morrowind, or a conscious decision to veer away from the previous game’s sensibilities, it’s hard to say.

1.The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

The antique look.

What is it about Morrowind that inspires such passionate, nigh on religious, zeal in its fans? From a purely technical standpoint, it has its good points and its bad points. Buggy as hell, which seems to be par for the course of any Elder Scrolls game if not every Bethesda game. Tremendously limited character skins, so much so you kind of wondered how badly inbred the population of Vvardenfell really was. A soundtrack which was minimal to the point you could be forgiven for believing the entire score was written on a cocktail napkin. And game systems one could charitably describe as “arcane” even when you weren’t discussing magic. Yet for all those deeply abiding flaws, fans still love it so much that when the latest installment of the series comes out, somebody wants to remake Morrowind with the new and improved engine.

Considering Morrowind was my go-to installment of the series, even before getting the Game of The Year edition on Steam, it’s probably a safe estimate I logged several hundred hours just in the base game alone. And when the Tribunal and Bloodmoon expansions came out individually, I bought them without hesitation because I was eager to see what new adventures awaited me. My original character (which I wish I’d been able to port over to Steam) was a monster of a Dunmer, the result of an entire game year suffering through the ill effects of the Corprus disease while racking up the benefits. And he still got his ass handed to him by the goblins underneath Mournhold, no doubt a nod to the brutal little buggers infesting the Imperial Prison in Arena.

“And you say the goblins told you, ‘The ending of the beatdown is Almsivi’? Harsh.”

Yet it was an awareness of how the world worked, how all of those little gears and systems interacted, which made it possible for me to build him into that sort of god-slaying hero. There was a feeling that I wasn’t simply moving around a sandbox, but exploring and familiarizing myself with a terrarium of sorts.

If you had to point to one thing which really set Morrowind apart from the other games in the series, it would have to be the inversion of the familiar. Previously, you had a very typical Western European style throughout much of the environments. And after Morrowind, you had virtually the same thing. In this respect, Morrowind stands out because those familiar elements were the exception in the game, not the rule. The island of Vvardenfell felt like a world apart, not a rehash of fantasy tropes we’ve been playing over and over again since Gygax started rolling for initiative.

A glorious sunset over the weirdest little island in the Empire.

You had giant insectoids which could move you from town to town, or you could learn enough of the Mysticism discipline to set a teleportation point anywhere you wanted. Everywhere you went, there were mysteries to uncover, from the mundane to the sublime. By the end, when facing off against a living god, you could be damn near one yourself, a champion for everyone on the island (if you got through all the side quests and ranked up to the top spot for every faction). But only if you did everything right. The only thing worse than a crash at an inopportune moment was killing an NPC, either by accident or bloodthirsty design, and getting the terrible message that you’d broken the thread of prophecy and couldn’t truly achieve your destiny.

There was a depth to the systems in Morrowind which I don’t think has been rivaled, much less bettered. Yes, there were some items one could obtain which were drastically overpowered, but that gave you something to shoot for. You had an inkling that if you worked at it, found the right components, mastered every necessary skill, you could create something equally game breaking without having to go into the TES Construction Set.

Not the ideal working conditions, but I can build anything, or my name’s not Mah-Gai-Ver!

I can still remember my favorite handmade artifact, a pair of rings, one which summoned a suit of Bound armor, the other a Bound sword and shield. It took forever to get the right soul gems filled with the right souls, cost thousands of septims to get the right rings, but it was worth all the effort. For five minutes at a time, I was virtually a demon made flesh, and I loved it. It was the first fantasy RPG that actually felt fantastic. And for all the bugs, all the crashes, all the headaches players had to put up with, it was worth it just to truly experience that feeling of the fantastic. Of being immersed in a completely different world where even the strangest things could become familiar, but never dull.

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