What Obsidian’s Avowed Can Learn From Skyrim’s Mistakes

Obsidian's Avowed has the chance to finally fill the Skyrim-sized void in the gaming industry. It just needs to do some of the things Skyrim didn't...

Photo: Microsoft

It’s hardly a surprise that the reveal of Avowed, Obsidian Entertainment’s upcoming first-person RPG based on the Pillars of Eternity universe, quickly got everyone talking about The Elder Scrolls. Not only is The Elder Scrolls the definitive name in first-person RPGs for many console gamers, but Avowed comes just as we’re all patiently waiting for more information regarding The Elder Scrolls 6.

Besides, much like the wounds left in the wake of your first lost love, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim refuses to leave us, with plenty of re-releases and even a remastered edition to remind us of those adventures in the north of Tamriel. Bethesda even released a version of the game on Amazon’s Echo device, which started as a joke but proved beyond any doubt that the studio does not joke around when it comes to finding new ways to make you buy Skyrim.

In fact, the name “Skyrim” has become so synonymous with The Elder Scrolls series, that we’re a little surprised The Elder Scrolls 6 wasn’t just titled “Skyrim 2.” There may even be a considerable number of Skyrim players who don’t typically associate one of the most beloved games of all-time with the classic Elder Scrolls series at all.

That may seem like blasphemy, but it’s actually quite appropriate. For all the praise and accolades we could add to Skyrim’s intimidating treasure trove of them, we wouldn’t exactly call it the game that best represents the grander ideas of The Elder Scrolls franchise and the ways in which the series forever changed the landscape for role-playing video games.

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That’s why Obsidian’s Avowed is in the unique position to learn a few lessons from Skyrim, which we’re not entirely sure will be addressed by The Elder Scrolls 6. After all, Bethesda doesn’t strike us as a company that’s willing to change the formula for a game that has sold well over 30 million copies to date solely in the interest of mixing things up. Even if they were, who is to say they should? Skyrim allowed millions of gamers of varying experience levels to live out their Lord of the Rings fantasies.

Yet, Skyrim is also the game that took The Elder Scrolls series further away from its RPG roots then it’s ever been before. Much like Fallout 4, Skyrim sacrificed certain role-playing elements spearheaded by its predecessors in favor of mechanics that would appeal to a wider audience. While Skyrim arguably maintained more of its RPG spirit in the transition than Fallout 4 did, the difference was nonetheless felt by long-time fans.

Consider Skyrim’s character building options. In previous Elder Scrolls games, there was an emphasis on ensuring that certain character types could experience the game in different ways. In Morrowind, there were towers built for mages that had no stairs to the top. As such, only characters skilled enough in magic to learn levitation could truly explore them. In Oblivion, an illusionist could learn to enchant their gear with a stealth effect so powerful that it would hilariously result in most enemies being completely unable to detect them.

Such specializations still exist in Skyrim, but they tend to offer fewer unique experiences. If you want to play a hulking melee warrior in Skyrim who wears nothing but the most durable plate armor, you’ll still be able to effectively use a bow and access a variety of spells. The floor of the character building was raised while the ceiling was lowered slightly. This gave you less room for “error” but also less room to creatively explore.

A similar problem burdens Skyrim’s combat. For the most part, Skyrim was the first Elder Scrolls game that featured a combat system that felt actively engaging. You were no longer forced to mash a button or fire off spells or arrows in the hopes that invisible dice rolled your way and granted you an often awkwardly animated hit. Skyrim’s combat was visceral, lively, and often cinematic.

But something was lost in the transition. Because combat in Skyrim relied much less on your character build and was suddenly closer to a more traditional action game, you rarely felt the same reward from securing that rare item or finally tweaking your skills just the right way to win a fight. Here again, Skyrim embraced a more action-oriented style of gameplay better than Fallout 4 did, but both games suffer in terms of making you feel as if the weight of your journey has propelled you through your most monumental victories.

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Other shortcomings are based more on a change in philosophy than the abandonment of what came before. That’s especially true of Skyrim’s quest storytelling. In Oblivion and that game’s DLC expansions, quests were elaborate pre-constructed adventures that featured unique characters, mechanics, and stories. There’s a good reason why Oblivion’s quests dominated our list of the best Elder Scrolls quests of all-time. From living paintings to the parlor room of a “whodunnit?” mystery, they took you places you could never go just by exploring the game’s open world.

Skyrim took a different approach. Many of its open-world environments were more lavish and detailed than what we’d seen in previous Elder Scrolls games. You never knew what you’d find when exploring each area, but the trade-off was that many of Skyrim’s pre-scripted quests felt far more generic.

The choice between emphasizing organic exploration and adventures vs. scripted missions is really just a matter of preference, but that’s kind of the point. Even if you don’t believe Skyrim abandoned the principles of the Elder Scrolls series, it certainly went in a different direction. While games like Kingdom Come: Deliverance have admirably attempted to resurrect that classic Elder Scrolls style, the fact of the matter is that games like Oblivion and Morrowind take a great deal of talent, time, and money to complete. There are few companies that have access to those kinds of resources as well as the desire to pursue such a project.

Obsidian happens to be one of the few studios who can deliver that project. With The Outer Worlds, we saw Obsidian revive the Fallout franchise in their own image (with the help of some of Fallout’s creators, no less). As we noted in our review of The Outer Worlds, their work on that game didn’t seem rooted in declaring that there was only one way to make a Fallout game. Instead, the game worked to prove that certain design trends that may have fallen out of favor for more modern flourishes are still capable of yielding worthwhile experiences.

With Avowed, Obsidian has the chance to prove that point yet again. The Pillars of Eternity series really showed that the developers at Obsidian are still the masters of offering old-school RPG adventures that emphasize lore, character building, and worlds that are subtly (and, sometimes, drastically) altered by the decisions you make. With The Outer Worlds, Obsidian proved that they’re still capable of translating these ideas to rich 3D worlds when they’re given the budget to do so (and they can even throw in an active combat system that doesn’t entirely dilute the RPG ideas for good measure).

If Obsidian is able to take that same approach with Avowed, they’ll have the chance to do something more important than beat The Elder Scrolls 6 to the finish line or beat Bethesda at their own game. They’ll have the chance to deliver an experience that feels more like a sequel to Morrowind and Oblivion than even the mighty Skyrim. Even better, Avowed could be the game that gives millions of us who still often dream of getting lost in a grand fantasy world something to turn to other than the latest re-release of Skyrim.