I apologize for not replying to comments on the first post of this series! I’ll remedy that now, and promise to be more vigilant with this post!
Digital RPGs have a wide variety of ways to allow the player-performer to progress their player-character towards greater prowess. The process is universally referred to as leveling up, whether the game-system in question explicitly provides for character level (the vast majority do) or not.
In Bethesda RPGs, as in most such games, a player-character gains new abilities and/or improvements to existing abilities when they reach a new level. The player-performer chooses those improvements to their character with a high degree of flexibility. A magic-user for example might gain the capacity to do extra damage with a certain kind of spell, or instead gain more durability in battle.
In the games of the Elders Scrolls and Fallout series, Bethesda implements a set of leveling mechanics distinctive to those RPGs, which I call here progression by performance. As in most RPGs, the player-character gains levels by gaining experience points (XP). When the number of XP passes a certain threshold, the game notifies the player that their character has reached the next level. The way the Bethesda RPG game-systems award those XP, though, distinguishes them from all others. Though the mechanics differ between the two series, their similarities make very clear what I mean by progression-by-performance.
In The Elder Scrolls, whose leveling system represents the more overtly unusual of the two series’, the PC earns XP by gaining skill points in the skills that comprise their abilities relevant to adventuring, through using those abilities. This mechanic may seem confusing when described that way, but in practice one of its hallmarks is how natural it feels to the player. For one easy-to-grasp example, if a player-character sneaks around a great deal, as the player-performer uses their controller to cause their avatar to adopt the crouched bodily posture that invokes sneak mode, the player-character gains skill points in Sneak, and becomes more difficult for non-player-characters (including animals) to detect. At the same time the PC also gains XP, in direct relation to the gain in skill points. As in other games, when the PC’s XP total rises past the threshold to level up, the player receives the level-up notification and may choose their improvements.
In the Fallout series the leveling system appears more conventional. Among many other things, XP are awarded for completing quests and for killing enemies, just as in nearly every RPG with the exception of The Elder Scrolls series. As in the The Elder Scrolls, however, the PC also gains XP from building, crafting, and exploring. For one very important ramification, this makes it possible to level up without killing. The possibility of approaching the game in a more or less non-violent manner, though it tends to attract a good deal of attention in fan communities, doesn’t present the most interesting feature of Fallout‘s leveling mechanics, at least from the perspective of a thematic description of the games. Rather, the availability of XP for things like crafting items and building shelters, as well as for discovering new areas, mean that a player-performer of both Fallout and The Elder Scrolls feels a crucial consistency between the two series: the PC of Fallout progresses in level and thus also in prowess and narrative potency through performance.
When considered in relation on the one hand to the significant exploration I covered in my last post and on the other to the essential role of community-membership towards which this discussion is building, the player-character’s progression 1) by performance 2) in a significant game-world and 3) in relation to the communities they join in any of a number of ways provides the player-performer with a highly distinctive set of themes. To describe those themes in the aggregate as “the Bethesda style” has value in and of itself, but a more important task lies ahead: because every player-performer recomposes their performance according to skills, attitudes, and desires that form part of their identity and reshape that identity on the fly as the player exercises them in play, a performance in a Bethesda RPG both expresses and develops a version of the self as interconnected with an imaginary history.
Difficulty-scaling as a test-case
The scaling of enemy difficulty, a feature of the current generation of Bethesda RPGs, which began in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, deserves mention in its own right in any description of progression in these games. The debate around this mechanic also serves to illustrate the special nature of thematic recomposition in them.
Briefly put, whereas in in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, enemies remain the same difficulty no matter how far the player-character has progressed, in Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Skyrim Bethesda implemented a scaling system that changes the difficulty of enemies according to the level of the player-character. This change caused something of an uproar in the player-community, demonstrating the investment a player of Morrowind felt in a particular relationship with the game-world as a (metaphorically) real place where their player-character might make their mark. To have that world’s difficulty adjust itself to make things more convenient and survivable for the PC felt like a betrayal of the idea of significant exploration I outlined in my last post: the PC’s part in the history of the game-world loses some of its meaning when that game-world scales to accommodate their current abilities.
The themes available to the player-performer in Morrowind and in the other three games I’m describing as typical of the Bethesda style differ, that is, in a way it will be helpful to describe in strictly thematic terms. When the foes of the game-world don’t adjust themselves to the player-character’s level (that is, in Morrowind) the player-performer’s compositions of themes of combat encounters, and thus perforce also of the larger themes of significant quest and more general adventure (for example the oft-repeated “clearing an area of bandits,” “clearing a dungeon of vampires,” and “surviving a trek through the wild” themes), the player-performer shapes an identity in the possibility-space that claims for itself a transformative role in the game’s metaphorical world. The bandits who inhabited the tower the player-character clears out were level twenty-five. The PC could not have defeated them had the player-performer been foolish enough to attempt to climb that tower soon after arriving in the game at level one. When they do defeat them, whether the under-leveled PC must snatch victory from the jaws of defeat or the over-powered PC can fell them with a wave of their fiery hand, those bandits, that part of the established possibility-space of the game, that theme, have entered into the player-performer’s performance in a unique combination with the other themes they have deployed and will deploy.
When, as in Oblivion, Skyrim, and the Fallout games I’m describing here, the bandits’ level adjusts so that the player-character cannot suffer foolish defeat, nor indeed truly snatch an underleveled victory from defeat’s jaws, nor (under most circumstances) overwhelm the foe with mismatched might, some portion of the available themes is lost, simply put, to the player-performer. These themes characteristic of the Bethesda style as seen in Morrowind cannot be part of a game-performance in the games that level-scale, and an argument might be made that the themes of significant exploration that I discussed in my last post cannot have the same weight of meaning in these games as it has in Morrowind: because the narrative materials of that world shift according to the progression of the PC. The towers full of bandits and dungeons full of vampires the PC comes across in their exploration (full, generally, of the books upon which I focused in my previous post) simply provide a narrower range of themes.
The ferment in the player-community over the shift to level-scaling between Morrowind and Oblivion, whose result Bethesda carried over into their Fallout games (earlier Fallout games were produced by other studios and don’t have the hallmarks of the style I discuss here), tends to focus on the slippery concept of immersion. The game-world feels less real to some player-performers because it revolves around the PC, when enemies accommodatingly scale to their level. When we see this change as a thematic element of the style, however, we can leave such value-judgments aside and appreciate the themes available to the player as they exist in each possibility-space.