Since the turn of the millennium, Bethesda Softworks and their development branch Bethesda Game Studios have gone from an eccentric yet ambitious company, with their own unique visions and goals, to a massive player in the western video game industry, whose name is recognized on the same level as the best of them; everyone invested in the scene knows what they’re about, and especially as a developer they’ve achieved huge popularity and renown. Their development résumé consists essentially of two franchises: The Elder Scrolls, created by Bethesda themselves, and Fallout, acquired from Interplay. Both of these franchises are among the most popular video game series in existence, generating quite a bit of buzz with every new title that’s launched or announced.
Bethesda’s name is synonymous with something less positive as well, though. They have gained some notoriety from the level of stability and polish in their games, or more specifically, the lack thereof. Every new game developed by Bethesda Game Studios is expected to be packed with bugs and performance issues, ranging from cosmetic texture glitches to physics malfunctions to severe technical hiccups. Gamers have learned to anticipate these things as a “part of the deal” when it comes to Bethesda’s games; after all, their worlds are huge and filled with variables, and it’s therefore unreasonable to expect them to be able to playtest every single possibility.
This mentality is often referred to as the “free pass” Bethesda possesses regarding the state of their games. It essentially means that the audience widely excuses many issues with their games that would be considerable problems in most cases, based on the fact that they deliver something more complex and immense than most developers. It does not, however, mean that players turn a blind eye to these issues; the gaming community is quick to point out things that don’t quite work as they’re supposed to, but they tend to allow these things to slide and don’t let them affect their overall opinion on the game as much as they would with many other games. Therefore, Bethesda is still infamous for the amount of bugs in their games, but they remain popular among gamers who like their games nonetheless.
The legitimacy and justification of this “free pass” has been widely discussed in online communities, as well as among industry experts. The general understanding appears to be that the vastness and overall quality of Bethesda’s games does indeed compensate for the technical inconveniences; in a game of this scope, of course there will be issues. It’s completely acceptable.
But is it, though? I personally always found that consensus questionable. Shouldn’t the end result be judged by how it actually turns out, instead of what they tried to do? If I try to make a gigantic open world game unlike any that anyone has ever seen, and it turns out to be a pile of garbage, do I get showered with praise because I tried to do something fantastic? The issues Bethesda’s games suffer from shouldn’t diminish the positive aspects of those games, but they certainly shouldn’t be overlooked entirely, just like they wouldn’t be in a game made by BioWare or Naughty Dog, no matter how much more contained those games likely are. The problems are still there.
I find this odd in the light of the fact that Bethesda hasn’t gotten it right even once; at least ever since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, every single one of their games have suffered from the same problems. In other words, they keep making games they haven’t ever been able to perfect in the first place. They keep gunning for something that appears to be out of their reach; while I do appreciate their ambition, constantly falling short of that ambition – or more specifically, reaching their goal at the expense of something else in the game – is not what I call a success.
The “free pass” concept exists even despite the fact that the “scope of the games” excuse has been essentially proven false; CD Projekt made The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt bigger and more packed with content than likely any game Bethesda has ever made, and from what I’ve heard about that game, its stability and condition is beyond comparison to Bethesda’s games. How is it that they managed to make a game that functions properly, at least to the general industry standards, even though it’s bigger than Fallout 3 or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim? Doesn’t seem to make any sense, does it?
Zooming in on my personal opinions a bit, I used to put a lot of trust in Bethesda myself, based on the fact that they did create one of my favorite games of all time. I suppose I was guilty of letting problems slide a bit myself – Morrowind is notorious for its crash rate, yet it didn’t stop me from loving that game. But that was basically all there was – later games had a load of other issues in addition to the occasional crashing. Besides, there was no prejudice involved – that was the first time I remember even noticing Bethesda’s name, so they had no reputation or precedent to skew my judgement. For years after that game, I was exceptionally hard on Bethesda at every turn, because I was frustrated with how they made a game that I fell so deeply in love with, and then failed to live up to that over and over again.
After years of waiting for Bethesda to put out a game that wouldn’t disappoint me and would at least be a worthy successor to Morrowind, I finally realized I had no more faith left in them. They’re talented and professional people for sure, and I’m not saying their games are bad – Skyrim and Fallout 4 are certainly fun games to play – but I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps they never had that extreme ability to make something as good as Morrowind in the first place – at least not inherently. It was the result of a specific group of people that developed it, employees and freelancers, each of them in a specific creative and professional state, and the game’s influences in that particular moment in time. I believe Bethesda exceeded their natural potential because of a situation where everything was just right – much like how Koji Igarashi has said the unique development conditions allowed for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to be the exceptional game that it turned out to be.
That realization changed my view on Bethesda entirely, liberating me from waiting for their new announcements and releases like I used to. I’m convinced they will not make another game that will be as satisfying to me personally as Morrowind was. Therefore it’s easy for me to deny them any leniency when it comes to unstable or broken games, because those games just aren’t good enough to justify it. I don’t take pleasure in attacking them specifically, but I’m also not interested in sugar-coating any of my issues with them based on the fact that they tried – even if that was a good enough reason, I’d still expect their games to be something more exceptional than they are.
I still respect Bethesda as a group of developers and professionals, and I wish all the best to them, but unfortunately my honest opinion is that they don’t have what it takes; perhaps they never did, although they still deserve the recognition for pushing the envelope back when practically no one else was doing it. The truth is that while Bethesda once reigned supreme in the sphere of Open World role-playing games, and even though they still hold some of that reputation, many others have since come and exceeded what they do – The Witcher 3 being just one example. Open World games aren’t an exceptionally ambitious venture anymore, but the trend, and Bethesda was left to eat the dust quite a while ago.