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Killer Feature: The Elder Scrolls' learning by doing

By Ian Dransfield. Posted

While the very first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, didn’t feature it, there’s been a focus by Bethesda ever since on making it so that you upgrade your skills and abilities in its endless-roam RPGs by just doing things.

Need to get better at sword wrangling? Wrangle more swords. Need to spec up your sparkly click-fingers (‘magic’)? Then do more of that. Want to cheat to improve your combat skills? Punch an undying enemy who won’t get aggressive in the back of the head, forever. Need to get better at jumping? Jump everywhere, all the time, always.

Admittedly that latter point was lost by the 2011 release of Skyrim, given the acrobatics skill no longer existed in the dragon-baiting sequel, but it’s certainly a fond memory for anyone who put countless hours into Oblivion or Morrowind.

The best way to get better at acrobatics was indeed to spam the jump button, meaning anyone who had this little nugget in their brain would make a habit of bunny-hopping their entire existence in whichever game it was. It may have looked stupid, but it worked, and became such a force of habit that some of us (hello!) continue doing it to this day in Skyrim, even though that is, indeed, pointless.

But it does all come back to the very smart and sensible decision by Bethesda 25 years ago to make it so that you got better at things by doing those things. After all, that is how real life works. Usually. It’s a staple of the RPG genre – encouraged by Dungeons & Dragons in the most part, no doubt – that you choose what to upgrade when levelling up, at least at certain milestones.

So while you might have spent your entire campaign wailing on any and all that passed in front of you like a true murder hobo, when it came time to choose an attribute to rank up, you might well have gone straight for Charisma. After all, there’s nothing more charming than hitting everyone you ever see with a mace.

Story of my ruddy life.

I don’t mean to imply anything in D&D, the Elder Scrolls – Fallout, whatever it might be – is realistic: it’s obviously not. But there’s an element of realism to how things work out when you learn by doing. When you’re on your serial-killing rampage only to spec up your charm, it feels wooden, like a game system being played with.

When you get better at chatting up the locals because you’ve put time into bartering and deception… well screw it, it does feel more realistic. And as a result, it doesn’t take you out of the experience as much as it otherwise might.

See Bethesda’s other big RPG series for a fine example of just this: Fallout operates on a straightforward system of earning experience points, levelling up, and choosing from a list of perks.

Previous entries to the series saw the ability to bump skills up point by point, meaning you could indeed talk your way through literally every situation you encounter only to put all your levelling into energy weapons. As a game mechanic, just as with D&D, it does a job. But it also takes you out of things as you weigh up the pros and cons of where to assign your new Token Of Power.

The fantasy side of the RPG aisle, meanwhile, offers a far more elegant approach and one that has served the Elder Scrolls series very well over the decades. It’s one that’s been lifted from whole-sale by other RPGs – though, to be fair, I can’t say for sure if Bethesda’s series was the first to go this route (and I doubt it was).

Talk to Khajiit, become better at talking (to Khajiit).

It also helps to make something that can be overwhelming and off-putting to newcomers that little bit more reasonable to get their head around. One more time with feeling: it’s learning by doing. You get better at picking locks by picking locks, just like you haven’t got better at playing the clarinet because you stopped playing it when you were at school. It might be a world surrounded by house-sized mushrooms and thieving cat-people, but everyone can understand the concept of ‘do the thing, improve the thing’.

As mentioned, Skyrim did remove some skills – more than just acrobatics, there were plenty of elements nixed for the most accessible entry to the series. But I’m hoping this isn’t the case with The Elder Scrolls VI, whenever that releases. I wouldn’t say it needs to go the direction of Morrowind, which had you learning entirely different skills for long and short blade, axes, and spears as if there are no transferable skills in this fantastical realm.

Nor would I want it pushed back to a Daggerfall level of having to learn medical skills in order to be able to diagnose the disease that’s currently killing you. That would be silly, and off-putting, and overly complex – as well as just not fun.

But I do sincerely hope acrobatics gets reintroduced, because I want to once again be jumping everywhere I go with a purpose in mind, instead of just because that’s the only way I know how to play the Elder Scrolls.

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