Skyrim Versus Oblivion: A Game Design Perspective

Let’s quick get this out there: I love both Oblivion and Skyrim, and I’ve spent about an equal amount of time in each (I won’t throw out a number, but let’s just say that I could’ve made a lot of money by being productive in that time). The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages has a more mechanical list of these things, which can be found here: Differences Between Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. Of course, I look at things from a slightly different perspective than just the mechanical, and look to see if any of the mechanical changes really had an impact on core play.

Let’s first look at leveling. This is one of my major gripes with Oblivion. Oblivion’s leveling takes away any sense of progression (or danger) for me. I usually put on Francesco’s mod, or a similar mod which limits leveling, and I actually have to worry about the areas I enter, but I played a lot of vanilla Oblivion, and it really, really, really is somewhat boring by the end not because things got too easy, but because things were the same as before, so I couldn’t just run through the whole thing while indiscriminately swinging my axe nor did I ever have any difficult battles at lower levels because I went somewhere I wasn’t ready for. Skyrim’s a lot better about this; the leveling means that foes remain dangerous at pretty much any level, though I found that Skyrim was (other than Giants, who were oddly difficult unless you were “cheap” and dodged their incredibly telegraphed attacks) really, really, really easy. This is where I’m going to bring in outside sources: Fallout 3 versus Fallout: New Vegas. New Vegas uses Skyrim’s system, and it’s really fun (except for the railroading, but that’s not necessarily a horrible thing), while 3 started to suspend my disbelief at high levels when every foe was an armored super mutant or deathclaw. Oblivion and Skyrim don’t have as much obvious disconnect, since I found the Fallouts to be much more difficult, which made the region based versus player level based leveling more distinct.

Dumbing down is one of the frequent complaints I hear about Skyrim. Having had my real introduction to The Elder Scrolls through Morrowind, I liked to complain about that back when Oblivion came out, so let’s quick look at the number of skills available. In Oblivion, there are 21 skills. In Skyrim, there are 18 skills, cutting Acrobatics, Athletics, and Mysticism, all skills that, while I personally loved, weren’t really “core gameplay” skills (even though I maximized my acrobatics and athletics ASAP on all my characters). However, these did help Skyrim in the end, so it’s not really the loss of skills that matters for the game so much as the loss of the attributes. Races lost a lot of their importance in Skyrim, instead just giving a special ability. They get a few points of skills, but this only really matters at the very beginning of the game, and other than the Beast Races, who get an unarmed attack boost, there are no passive effects other than a damage resistance or a magicka boost, and powers typically can be duplicated with spells or gear.

I’m going to be “controversial” and say that there’s no meaningful gameplay changes between the two. The player’s perception changes a good deal, but it’s still a click-to-attack or cast or whatnot; Skyrim streamlines this where Oblivion doesn’t, and includes new features like regenerating health or dual wielding, but that’s just a matter of taste; Oblivion started players off with a basic healing spell and regenerating magicka, so there was never really a question of scarcity in terms of health in either game. It’s just that in Skyrim you don’t have to manually heal. The same goes for spellcasting. Skyrim has fewer spells than Oblivion before you even consider Oblivion’s spellcrafting, and the spell effects tend to be more varied than Oblivion’s on a per-spell basis but largely fall into “I can do x in y method”, with not that many “x” effects. This isn’t really a dumbing down of the game. Skyrim’s a lot faster and more streamlined (even with the notorious PC UI) than Oblivion was.

But where are the differences? Skyrim’s a mass-market game. It’s meant to be playable by anyone, though there are some questions as to whether or not it’s appealing that could be best answered by market analysts-Oblivion sold, according to a quick glance at VGChartz, 7M copies between all platforms, while Skyrim has already sold that many on the Xbox 360 alone (its total is at about 12M). Of course, I’m not entirely sure that the statistics include every possible sale, including digital sales, but certainly Skyrim was played by many people who had little or no exposure to Oblivion or its other predecessors.

As a gamer, my first tendency is to believe that tradition is sacred. I hissed when the jump spell was taken out of Oblivion, for no other reason than that I’d loved to travel using it in Morrowind. That was a technical issue. Skyrim removed a lot of features, like acrobatics, that I’d loved in Oblivion, but the truth is that it’s not a more simple game-it’s the same depth with a different breadth. As far as I know, nothing was removed because the engine didn’t support it or it was too difficult, but rather because it was a conscious design decision. Things that weren’t enhancing the game were removed, and while some of the players had a different definition than the development team, the truth is that Skyrim removed some of the things that we might have enjoyed in Oblivion, but not things that really mattered from the perspective of the game as a whole.

I’m going to do something that will tick off a lot of my friends who were really heated about the changes in Skyrim, and state that the truth of the matter is that it is, indeed, a game that looks at Oblivion as a game with a deep world, and capitalizes on the good elements and removes some of the parts of the game that were unnecessarily complex or removed the player from the narrative, which makes it a downright good game.

Of course, any good “which game is better” argument would ultimately come down to which game had the most annoying monster in the Elder Scrolls franchise. The answer? Neither.

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