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Adding Wonder to an Open World

    • 77 posts
    March 25, 2014 6:15 AM EDT

    Skyrim is a great generalist game; perhaps the best. In my experience it always leaves you wanting more, though. I could hardly argue that there's not enough content or value; it is literally the best money I've ever spent on a game. The quests feel spread too thin at times; with many dungeons leaving me wishing there was a neat quest to accompany the awesome environment. With so many randomized loot and crafted items unique pieces of gear serve to flesh out an area. Remember Fin Gleam from Oblivion? Of course you do. That unique item made literally thousands of people swim out into the barren ocean to scour the sands for a helm. That's the power hidden secrets have. Skyrim's tundra, while beautiful and varied, didn't have much of that.

    I would like to put forward the hypothesis that Skyrim's world would feel deeper and more alive if there was greater variation in quest content in different areas. What I mean to say is that if the more intriguing areas, like Kagrenzel, were expanded upon with quests and quest chains that Skyrim as a whole would gain a greater sense of wonder.

    The Zelda series masterfully utilizes this concept. Nearly every area has a purpose and several secrets to be found. See a volcano? Freeze it and explore inside. See a tree branch? Climb up to it with a hookshot. While the elder scrolls doesn't need Zelda-style items, it could benefit from really developing its best areas.

    Spoilers for Blackreach, Kagrenzel, The Sightless Pit, Halldir's Cairin, and the Forgotten Vale ensue.

    Skyrim has done this area development in a smaller way, choosing to focus mainly on non-quest linked stories. Many dungeons have notes and unique books detailing the fate of some explorers (spoiler: they always die). These stories are great, but a lot of them are underwhelming and predictable.

    Mount Anthor Peak is a cool secret area atop a mountain. It consists of a dwarven pillar with a chest, some ice wraiths, and 10-15 potions atop the pillar. Figuring out how to jump up to the pillar or knock the potions down is a cool little puzzle that really adds to the uniqueness of Skyrim.

    Blackreach has the crimson nirnroot side quest to develop it outside the main questline. Besides that there are many side areas and mini dungeons. It also has the non-quest secret of hitting the orb with unrelenting force to summon a dragon. That kind of secret makes this probably the best area in vanilla Skyrim.

    Kagrenzel is a unique area that drops you into the dungeon, literally. However, this strong start is followed by a normal falmer and bandit cave. If this dungeon had been more than a linear cave it would have proven more interesting.

    The Sightless Pit has a similar entrance, dropping you in without the ability to return. You proceed through a mind-bending cave full of abstract ruined dwarven architecture and vicious falmer. This is one of the coolest dungeons in game and one of my personal favorites. Despite this, it has no quest or story associated with it. The final area, called the altar of Xrib, is screaming for some kind of explanation. Who is Xrib, why is there an altar dedicated to him, who worships him? None of this is explained. Vagueness is a valid narrative technique, but there is just nothing but a name here; a question with no answer.

    Bethesda's time would have been better spent developing the Sightless Pit's story than Halldir's Cairn. The story there involves bandits entering a ruin and feeling odd, that always goes well, before being spoken to by a dragur mage, who we know by now are evil. So Halldir sacrificed the bandits to bring himself back to life, blah, blah, blah. Everyone's interests would have been better served by Bethesda spending their time giving Kagrenzel or the Sightless Pit an epic story rather than giving Halldir's Cairn a predictable one.

    After the mixed bag of vanilla dungeons Bethesda got it right with Dawnguard's Forgotten Vale. A secret area you only discover after traveling through deadly caves filled with falmer and exotic plant life. You emerge into a beautiful Vale with unique locations and an epic backstory, explained by a quest. You explore the ruins of an ancient civilization via secret teleportation stones found around the Vale. These stones open up secret treasure troves, one of them containing the unique item Auriel's Shield.

    The Forgotten Vale is an example of how to combine epic quest and non-quest secrets into an awesome setpiece dungeon. Not every great dungeon even requires as many unique assets as the Vale. Blackreach was epic with only the orb, giant mushrooms, and red nirnroot unique to it.

    Elder scrolls games should learn to combine epic setpiece dungeons like Blackreach and the Forgotten Vale with normal locales like Bleak Falls Barrow. This creates a near-constant sense of wonder and exploration. It inspires the player to expect great things from a painstakingly crafted world. Skyrim is great, but TES VI will be even better if it utilizes setpiece dungeons, unique item rewards, epic quests, and non-quest stories to craft a truly epic world.