No matter how hard I try to put my copies of The Elder Scrolls away, there’s always something that brings me back. I’ll be in the thick of a new game that I’ve waited month for, get bored and somehow end up back in the wilderness of Tamriel again. There’s a strange comfort in the company these games have given me over the years, from the many nights staying up too late to the countless lazy Sunday mornings, and maybe that’s what always brings me back. There’s magic in the friendships we make and the people we become in videogames.
I’ve got a long-standing obsession with RPGs of all types, but The Elder Scrolls is my favorite, not because of the ridiculous amount of time I’ve spent playing the series, but because it truly focuses what RPGs are all about—you. Here’s how I rank the five core games of the Elder Scrolls series.
It’s been 23 years since the very first chapter of The Elder Scrolls was released, and boy, has it come a long way. This debut title introduced the vortex that is the franchise, and while it has a ton of weaknesses that were greatly improved upon in Daggerfall, it still stands on its own as the OG. But, it’s at the bottom of our list because it couldn’t accomplish what the series is known for. The world isn’t alive. The NPCs don’t have any flavor. There aren’t any reasons to care about the people you interact with on quests, and that’s a huge drawback from a game that wants you to be immersed. That’s not entirely its fault, as this was very, very early and ambitious game. Either way, the massive number of things to do and explore in its pixelated depths still make it a solid entry. Bonus: If you really want to give it a try, you can snag it free from Bethesda’s website, but it does require the DOSBox emulator.
Most of Bethesda’s games feel like a cycle of testing new things and improving upon them in the next game. This is very evident in more recent titles—many of Fallout’s mechanics can be seen in Oblivion and Skyrim, and vice versa—Daggerfall is that to Arena, as are most sequel-esque games. It threw the net out way wider than Arena did, with 18 different playable classes, solidifying the game’s RPG identity as an individual story. It was about you, and it was for you. Questlines and NPCS actually felt like they meant something. This iteration was a step in the right direction towards making a living, breathing world. Still not quite there, but it was right on the cusp. And, just like Arena, it can be downloaded from Bethesda’s website if you’re really itching to revisit or give a shot.
There’s a special place in my heart for Oblivion’s clumsy character models, slappy combat and ultra-saturated graphics. I don’t know if it was the meager sprinkling of voice actors, or the “STOP RIGHT THERE, CRIMINAL SCUM,” or that I always somehow had 50 forks on me at any given time, but this was the Elder Scrolls installment that stole my heart. Today, it’s a game that only a mother could love, and I am not old enough to be that mother. The voice acting and controls are clunky, and while that makes sense, it gets in the way of the fun of the game.
But Oblivion has a distinction over the other Elder Scrolls games in that the daedra, the demons of Tamriel, feel as otherworldly as they are, and the threat of their invasion seems imminent, whereas in Skyrim, the dragons feel like they’re a comfortably integrated part of that world, despite their mythic status. In that sense, Oblivion sits in the sweet spot between what Skyrim is and what Morrowind wanted to be.
This entry in the series launched the day after my sixth birthday and I was immediately hooked. The terrifying cliff racers and beastly silt striders were everything to a little, starry-eyed me. Morrowind is easily considered the best iteration of The Elder Scrolls. At that point, technology had advanced enough for games to make the move from floppy discs onto consoles, and as such they were transitioning from hybrid models to full 3D. Add to that an impeccable storyline, one that’s been partially recreated twice in later Elder Scrolls titles, and there’s little to no question. Morrowind is The Elder Scrolls at its absolute best.
Today, sadly, the game is janky as hell. Like Oblivion, it hasn’t aged well. The loading screens take forever and the combat is just rough. Kudos, however, to the visuals, for surviving more or less intact 15 years later.
To absolutely no surprise, Skyrim reigns supreme. It’s consumed nearly 3,000 hours of my life and I’m only five or so achievements away from completing a second time. For the past six years, it’s been one of the few games I return to on a regular basis because it accomplishes what previous installments have tried to do, but haven’t really been able to—the world feels alive and authentic, and it’s absurdly fun to play. The open dual-wielding combat feels just right and the classless approach to character building opened the door to gameplay that evolved around you. The story isn’t as strong as earlier titles, but it’s the most empowering one. It makes the journey about you in this fantastical world of magic and dragons and power writhing at your fingertips. I mean, you literally have a screaming match to the death with a god. If that’s not the apex of RPGs, I don’t know what is.
Aiden Strawhun is the Paste Games intern and gaming freelancer who somehow won an award once. On the off chance she isn’t drowning in words, she’s either stuck on Skyrim again or plotting to rule the world. Her work has also been seen on GameSpot, Extra Life and Naples Herald. Follow her on Twitter @AStraww.