When looking at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Fallout 4, both of Bethesda’s sprawling, open-world RPGs are a delight to play; they offer practically endless worlds of adventure, heroism, and regularly getting pissed off that your character’s maximum carry weight isn’t higher. But the key difference is how each game deals with the epic.
We’re not talking about a watered-down, Internet speak ‘that’s so epic, man!’ here, but epic in the sense of the grandiose, the extravagant, and the sublime; these are individuals and feats that don’t just surpass our own in terms of their challenge and power, but things that are so superior that they become an entirely different state of being.
Skyrim has this in spades. The obvious example are the dragons, quasi-mythical creatures whose very return to the world of Tamriel immediately establishes the game as a crossroads between the tangible and the mythical, forcing players to confront beasts of such awesome power one minute, while being told they are legends, or long-extinct, the next. The climax of the game’s main quest – spoiler warning for those who have not yet reached this point – reinforces this balance between worlds, as the game’s primary antagonist, the Dragon Alduin, is defeated not in the mortal realm, but in the Nord afterlife that is Sovngarde. Right at the end of the game, the player is flung into a three-way melting pot of Nord belief, Dov mythology and their own, relatively grounded and reasonable, spells and swords.
Consider too the wider lore of the Elder Scrolls games, that deal with human interactions with the divine and the near-omnipotent, ranging from the existence-shattering events of Oblivion to the more mundane, but no less epic, dragging of souls from that ethereal plane to fight as temporary allies in Skyrim.
Bethesda’s fantasy epics constantly balance the plausible with the outlandish, and make the player feel like a god-like hero themselves, one who begins life as a sword-swinging mortal, but who eventually ascends to the power of near-godhood.
Fallout 4, however, fails to capture this lofty feeling. While the gameplay is tighter, more diverse and no less enjoyable, the moments of wonder in the game are too rooted in human technology and real-life events to feel truly epic. This may be a failing of the modern sci-fi genre, rather than Fallout 4 individually, where everything must be over–explained away with reference to some obscure bit of physics, or every action must be a metaphorical allusion to some political event (looking specifically at 21st century Doctor Who episodes and all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica respectively).
Think of it this way: when walking through Fallout‘s wasteland, the most impressive creature one can find is a Deathclaw, a monstrous beast, yet one whose origins and lore are rooted in human experimentation and political aims. Meanwhile, the Dragons of Skyrim are significantly less grounded, their histories and lives etched in a tongue humans cannot even read, let alone comprehend.
Ultimately, technology feels less epic than mythology as the former is, and must always be, rooted at least in part in our current lives; Fallout is such a striking game, in part, because its themes of nuclear destruction and its cobbled-together lives from the remnants of industrial cities and capitalist daydreams feel so close to home. We can see the echoes of our society in the Capital Wasteland in a way that we cannot in Skyrim. The lore of the latter game draws is power from the reverse, from the unrealistic, the outlandish and the deeply inhuman. Both games wield immense narrative power, but only the fantastic setting of Skyrim allows for the epic to be realised.
A Deathclaw strikes fear into mortal hearts, while a Dragon strikes fear, wonder and the image of the epic.
Featured image credit: Mike Prosser (via Flickr)
Alduin image credit: Eric Kilby (via Flickr)
Deathclaw image credit: The Black Knight (via YouTube)