The Elder Scrolls is a personal series for me. It comprised a major part of my childhood, sparking my imagination and giving me a vast, fascinating world to explore. But as I grew up, I began to see the flaws and little imperfections that helped define the series. This article goes through the main entries in the series (sorry Redguard and Blade fans), discussing its world, its quirks, and its idiosyncrasies.
Now, before digging into the meat of the matter, let’s talk about you. If you’re an Elder Scrolls fan already, or you’ve played the games and determined whether they align with your tastes, splendid! You’re ready for the article. But if you’ve never played an entry in the series, it’s worth asking a simple question: should you?
Who is The Elder Scrolls for?
Those who appreciate the fantasy genre, RPGs, and Bethesda’s other work (the Fallout series, for example) all have good reasons to give The Elder Scrolls a shot. But something that might not come across to those unfamiliar with the series is the way your customized character interacts with the world around them. Be anyone, do anything, and go everywhere are all phrases associated with TES (including in its marketing). In determining whether TES is for you, that idea should be exciting. Initial interactions with the game should light up the synapses in your brain with countless possibilities.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that this is a notoriously buggy series, that the lore is often much stronger than the moment-to-moment writing itself, and that they’ve never quite nailed a satisfying combat system. That said, Tamriel is one of gaming’s most enduring, compelling settings. Moreover, TES has always managed to create momentous, exciting adventures where you get to define your character with your choices, thereby shaping the world into your own unique playground of wanton destruction.
The Elder Scrolls Games in Order
Starting with the oldest game and working out way up, let’s take a look at all the Elder Scroll titles. We’ll start with Arena.
1. The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994)
Ah, Arena, where it all began. The game’s title refers to the land of Tamriel itself, which has become so violent and unstable that people have forgotten the name “Tamriel” and call the landmass “The Arena” instead. This is weird, considering it’s a naming convention that’s dropped in subsequent titles, where the name of Tamriel is anything but forgotten. And funnily enough for someone like me (who started with Oblivion), the Emperor of Cyrodiil in Arena is Uriel Septim VII, the very same man assassinated in Oblivion’s opening dungeon.
Arena necessitates funny retcons while also showing the roots of characters, worldbuilding elements, and storylines, which would develop in the years to come. It’s also an interesting game to play (if you can get it to work) in terms of its structure and dungeon-crawling.
Resting is key to success, as is navigating a dungeon without quest markers or labeled points of interest. I learned to rest in corners, preventing enemies from creeping up behind me. In town, I marked a smithy on my map as I set out to find lodging for the night so that I could find it in the morning. While considerably clunkier than its successors, Arena has an intriguing way of approaching adventuring, reminiscent of old-school D&D. Just be prepared for technical hassles.
2. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996)
Both Arena and Daggerfall (available for free on Bethesda’s website) require a DOS emulator to run. And even then, there are often technical difficulties in-game.
Daggerfall boasts a well-constructed FMV cinematic with exciting plot hooks. But aside from that — and despite sporting Arena’s systems with updated visuals and various additions — the second Elder Scrolls game seems to have even more technical difficulties than the first, and it can be quite a headache.
Daggerfall and Arena are relics of a bygone age, and for those interested in gaming history (and/or people who are technically-minded), there’s certainly value in revisiting them. But for everyone else, the earliest Elder Scrolls game worth playing is Morrowind.
3. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)
Morrowind was a massive landmark for the series. The free-form gameplay so emblematic of TES was on full display in the troubled, volcano-dominated land of Vvardenfell. While so much of fantasy is fixated on familiar ideas like black-and-white morality, dungeons, dragons, and knights, the home of the Dunmer was an utterly alien landscape.
Humongous fungi dotted roadsides, huge, chitinous creatures ferried travelers from Vvardenfell’s bleak coastlines to its arid ash wastes, and the cities and strongholds of the Dark Elves were great complexes of ziggurats. Other areas were carved out of the shells and bones of ancient creatures, and its architecture was strange and wondrous to foreign eyes. The struggles of that place were mired just as much in politics, religion, and outright xenophobia as the they were by the forces of good and evil that defined them.
Morrowind was also buggy, awkward, and clunky as Hell. Conversations were similar to browsing through a Wikipedia article, clicking on various links to get plot details and lore. Combat was an ill-conceived mishmash of first-person action and random dice rolls, ala D&D. You couldn’t go an hour without experiencing the unsatisfying feeling of watching your weapon clip through the enemy character model, only to hear that telltale swishing sound: a miss.
That said, Morrowind managed to make progression compelling and meaningful. In part because of the awkward combat (made more frustrating at lower levels), optimizing stats and growing in power became an engaging throughline. Enemies once frustrating and impenetrable, would wilt under the pressure of spell and blade. The wizard’s towers of House Telvanni, once mysterious and inaccessible to a flightless nobody like Daeron (my primary character in Morrowind), became an amusing pretension to him when he claimed the title Archmage.
4. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006)
Oblivion is probably the most nostalgic Elder Scrolls game for me, and many of its elements hold up today. The combat and spellcasting mechanics keep the depth of Morrowind, while wisely putting aside the RNG in combat. When your weapon touches an enemy’s hitbox, you always hit, and spells can no longer have a chance to fail.
The questlines of Oblivion (especially the Dark Brotherhood questline) are a significant improvement on Morrowind, and they comprise one of the game’s greatest strengths. The soundtrack by Jeremy Soule incorporates the theme introduced in Morrowind and amplifies it, making it more stirring and triumphant. The ambient music which plays while in towns and during travel is relaxing and melodic; this, paired with the lush green scenery, makes for a genuine moment of despair when the sky darkens to a Hellish red and Daedra come pouring out of a nearby Oblivion Gate.
But then, there are other reasons to despair when that happens. Sadly, the game’s namesake is also one of its biggest problems. The dungeons within the dreaded Oblivion Gates are overly repetitive, with each one being some combination of outdoor Hellscapes, twisting caves, and spiked towers. Go in, kill everything in your path, retrieve the Sigil Stone, and close the gate. Rinse and repeat.
If you’ve made enough progress in the main story, be prepared for this to become an increasingly tiresome part of your routine. Speaking of tiresome, that’s a good way to describe the level scaling, along with phrases like “immersion-breaking” and “unsatisfying.” While the idea is to make sure that combat is always a challenge, the result is a world that seems to revolve purely around the player character. Yet the player never actually feels more powerful, and the strong sense of progression found in Morrowind is lost.
Like the main game, Oblivion’s DLC is something of a mixed bag. There is, of course, the much-maligned Horse Armor DLC, as well as several other smaller add-ons, which included player’s homes and dungeons containing powerful items like Mehrunes’ Razor. More significant were the expansions Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles. The former saw a crusade against Umaril, an Ayleid sorcerer-king bent on slaughtering the adherents to the titular Nine Divines. The latter somewhat redeemed the title of the game, introducing a much more interesting and dynamic plane of Oblivion than that of Mehrunes Dagon.
The plane of the Daedric Prince of Madness, Sheogorath, split between the realms of Mania and Dementia, is beset by the forces of Jyggalag, Daedric Prince of Order. It’s a worthy addition to Oblivion, adding a setting that breaks up the scenery of Cyrodiil. It introduces parts of Oblivion less like Hell and more like a magical, weird manifestation of its Prince’s power and characteristics. It’s affected and afflicted both by its own contradictions and by its metaphysical opposite.
5. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
Skyrim is the world-eating dragon of the series. It is many people’s introduction to TES, and it took parts of Oblivion like NPC routines and incorporated them into a more streamlined, less awkward world. Other elements, like the much-maligned persuasion wheel, it removed entirely. Furthermore, rather than the repetitive Oblivion Gates, Skyrim goes old-fashioned and throws dragons at you to slay. And as the Dovahkiin, that’s a shouting match worth getting into.
With various elements from the aforementioned shouting, Skyrim spawned countless memes and garnered a lot of media attention. It was a significant contribution to Western RPGs on release. But Skyrim also comes under fire by fans for its removal of spellcrafting, the oversimplification of mechanics, and — of course — all the bugs.
Speaking of rereleases, Skyrim is at an interesting place in its lifespan. In some ways, it’s a game that’s aged poorly, with other massive Western open-world RPGs like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt making huge strides in visuals, questing, and narrative. It makes Skyrim look somewhat quaint in comparison. And yet, in other ways, Skyrim is a game that’s constantly reinventing itself, not only with its expansions and DLC but with the large, devoted modding community that has grown around TES.
Don’t think that Skyrim’s frozen climes are reflected enough in the game’s mechanics? Frostfall is the mod for you. Pro tip: don’t jump in freezing water if you don’t want to die of hypothermia. Perhaps you don’t feel like playing the bloated opening for the umpteenth time? Opt for the Alternate Start mod and you’re golden. Without mods, Skyrim is a great adventure that’s a vital part of gaming history. With them, it’s an experience tailored entirely to your tastes. Be anyone. Do anything. Go anywhere. Make all the dragons look like Macho Man Randy Savage. And even without mods, Skyrim remains one of the most influential games of all time, and it is far and away the most popular, most well-known Elder Scrolls game. And it’s certainly left some big boots to fill.
6. The Elder Scrolls Online (2014)
The Elder Scrolls Online had some big questions to answer upon release. Could the free-form style of TES be preserved in a massively multiplayer game? How would it be distinct among MMOs? How would a traditionally single-player series translate to cooperative and competitive play?
Initially, ESO seemed to have weak answers to these questions, given its lukewarm reviews. However, a steady stream of DLC, expansions, and tweaks have improved the MMO’s critical reception as well as attracting a sizeable player base. It certainly won’t appeal to every TES fan, but The Elder Scrolls Online has gradually carved out its niche within the series.
What’s more, the feel of playing an Elder Scrolls game translates remarkably well to the MMO format. You still have leeway to make choices in a given quest, commit all sorts of nasty crimes, and build your character as you see fit. There are also additions that add fun wrinkles to questing.
For example, an early quest for Redguard players involves infiltrating a secret wharf lousy with pirates. You can actually disguise yourself as one of the pirates, although an NPC warns you that pirates with torches will see through your disguise (unlike their cohorts, the torchbearers aren’t drunk). This adds a way to approach the area which is a little more flavorful and pulpy than simply hacking your way through. Furthermore, there’s an inherent excitement to exploring the corners of Tamriel that haven’t been rendered since Arena, doubly so with a party of friends.
What’s Next for The Elder Scrolls?
The latest news for The Elder Scrolls is an update for ESO, where the MMO will travel to Skyrim in 2021. The trailer indicating this encourages you to “explore the dark heart of Skyrim.”
Hopefully, that specific notion pays off in a way that justifies returning to Skyrim, the setting of the last numbered entry in the series. Speaking of which, there is, of course, the prospect of The Elder Scrolls VI some years down the line. Currently, we have little to go on except the return of Jeremy Soule’s iconic theme and shots of a rugged, mountainous land by the sea. Still, it’s nice to have the promise of a new single-player Elder Scrolls on the horizon, and not another damn rerelease of Skyrim.