The Elder Scrolls 6: The Problem With Essential NPCs
Not so essential NPCs.
A friend of mine recently got the Skyrim remaster, and they really got into it. They had played for almost 50 hours, and were on their way to Platinuming the game, with every intent to invest hundreds of hours into the game beyond that. However, it then turned out that an essential NPC, who gives the player character a quest for a Daedric artifact, was dead- that NPC had been killed by a vampire at some point over the game, and owing to the state of permanence in Bethesda RPGs, they stayed dead. My friend couldn’t get that last Daedric artifact, couldn’t Platinum the game, got discouraged at this, since this was no fault of theirs, and gave up on the game.
This highlights an issue in Bethesda’s games- see, the big reason that they are as popular as they are is that they allow you to do anything, at any time, anywhere in the game, and what you do sticks. Nothing is off limits in an Elder Scrolls game, no character that you can’t kill, no place that you can’t go to. This mix of openness and permanence is what makes these games so compelling.
But on the other hand, as the example above demonstrates, there is clearly a downside to this, as even ‘essential’ characters, needed to progress the story, can sometimes die, leaving the player with no way to progress, or get certain quests done. This is one thing that Bethesda need to address in The Elder Scrolls 6– how do they offer the kind of openness that they are known for, while also not potentially stranding players in the game with no ways to progress?
Some ways to implement this might be making certain characters unkillable, as an example, until certain checks are passed (for instance, until the character has given the player the quest or item that they are supposed to). Alternately, Bethesda could implement a backup, where every major or essential quest or item in the world reverts to a dungeon or hidden location in the world that the player must find if the character who was supposed to give it to them otherwise dies prematurely- this would still be frustrating, but at least affected players would have a backup, and it would be in line with the series’ penchant for openness and exploration.
Whatever Bethesda do, they should not ignore the issue. It’s not big enough to affect most players- but those that do can get disenfranchised with the entire series, given enough time.