What I’d like to see in the next ElderScrolls game

One of my guilty pleasures (well, actually, I don’t feel guilt about any of my pleasures) is playing a computer RPG called Skyrim. About once a week, for two or three hours, I enjoy a little bit of healthy escapism that way. In fact I often ignore the named quests and just explore the landscape randomly, looking for ‘interesting’ places and discoveries. But lately I find that the idea of designing a game appeals to me more than playing one. And as I play Skyrim, and its predecessor in the series, Oblivion, I think of ways that games could be more interesting. I’ve long felt that gaming could be used for pedagogical or cognitive purposes: I recently invented one with that very purpose in mind. And I don’t see why a popular video game couldn’t be used for that purpose too.

But that aside, here are some random notes I’ve jotted down over the last few months of things I’d like to see in the next Skyrim DLC, or the next installment of the Elder Scrolls franchise.

– I’m glad to see the carriage drivers in the major cities, and in the Hearthfire DLC. Although I’m sure most players would balk, but I’d like to see the carriage drivers completely replace fast-traveling by map. Boats, and boatmen who can take you to the various docks on the rivers and coasts and islands, could be added here too. For that matter, I’d like to see boats that you can buy and sail yourself, much like the way a player can buy a horse.

I’d like to be able to buy any house in the game. Or, as an alternative, every city should have two or three houses available for sale: one cheap and small and simple, another large and posh and expensive. I’d also like to be able to buy houses in outlying settlements, not just in cities. It should be possible to buy houses directly from the owners; perhaps not just for the right price, but also if the owner “likes” the character well enough. It should also be possible to buy from the civic authorities a house whose owner has died. And the civic authorities should also sell the bandit camps and outdoor locations, so that players could use a camp as a home instead of a house, if they wish. Not everyone wants to role-play a landlord. Taking a bandit camp as a home could be connected to minor quests to get rid of the bandits presently occupying the site, of course; and it should be possible to buy chests or containers or nicer bigger tents to set up at the site.

I’d like to design the interior of my house more personally: for instance, I’d like to directly choose the types of tapestries, paintings, etc. The more customization an RPG offers, the better. That is what makes RPG’s interesting.

– Part of the reason for suggesting extra stuff to spend money on is because I find that when I reach level 20 or thereabouts, my character has so much gold that there’s no reason to collect more. My current character, who is above level 50, has more than 130,000 coins and there’s simply nothing left to buy. I’ve got all the houses, all the weapons and armour sets, and all the materials for crafting, and I’m still rich. And there’s no challenge.

– If I rent a room in an inn, I should be able to eat the food laid on the table in the room itself. After all, I’ve paid for it.

– I’d like to be able to buy lamps or light-emitting objects to brighten up dark houses, caves, etc.

– Upon attaining the leadership of a faction, such as a guild, I’d like to see the budget. I’d like to see what the income is, and also manage how it is spent. For instance, if I am the master of the Mage’s guild, I’d like to be able to decide how many magic teachers to hire, and see a few days later what the consequences are of hiring too many or too few.

– Cyrodiil, in TES:4, had rather a lot of NPC’s. The game marketing info boasts of over 150 named NPC’s. Where are all the farms that feed those people? The game map included relatively few farms. It’s the same in Skyrim: although Skyrim does better on this count, with more farms (although they are all still small), and more hunter’s camps. Not all of the landscape in a mediaeval setting, even a fantasy one, will be wilderness populated by monsters and punctuated by the ruins of ancient societies. Also: if there are not enough farms, then where are the warehouses of imported food? A large empire would have had regular trade routes.

I’d like to see a “Merchant’s Guild” quest line. Right now, the four biggest quest lines other than the Main Quest involve fighters, mages, thieves, and assassins. These are, of course, the mainstays of fantasy roleplaying since Dungeons and Dragons (which I’ve played for over twenty years). Yet a functioning society has more occupations than these. Skyrim has references to a thing called the East Empire Company (a tip of the hat to the East India Company, I surmise). Why not create a quest line for the company, in which one undertakes trade missions, negotiates with buyers and sellers, hires scouts and investors (and perhaps mercenaries, thieves, and assassins!), eventually to become head of the company?

– Similarly, there should be a quest line for each of the nine holds of Skyrim which result in the player becoming jarl of that hold. Presumably they would be exclusive quests: starting one makes it impossible to start any of the other eight. But that’s not different from choosing the Empire / Stormcloak quests. And then, after that, the quest line could end with the selection of Skyrim’s High King. (Postscript: For TES:6 let’s go to TWO countries on the continent, not just one. High Rock and Hammerfell, perhaps?)

There should be a “fast outfit change” mechanism in which players can have two or three pre-set “outfits” that they assemble themselves, such as a armour outfit for adventuring, and a clothing outfit for going about town on social or commercial errands. It would save players a bit of time when they need to change outfits, and it would potentially eliminate the absurdity of of a character wearing heavy steel plate mail to go shopping for gifts for his children.

Dear Bethesda: You need to hire me to help you design your next Elder Scrolls game. As a professional philosopher I know about logic, and about narrative storytelling, the two essential features of computer role-play gaming. I also know how give the stories and quests more challenging moral choices, and a larger, more philosophical frame. And if you set the game in High Rock, the Celtic-influenced area of Cyrodil, I can help there too. I’ve written books about Druids and Celtic philosophy, as you can see by those links. And I teach college courses on political science and social justice, so I know about conflict, war, peace, and the many different forms of power – another mainstay of epic RPG storytelling. Contact me, and let’s talk.

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