For many years now, RPG fans have been keeping patient vigil over a particularly special project in development. The road’s been long, and the setbacks have been many. But over the last few years, the dedicated fanbase has been treated to a few official announcements. And now, it appears, there’s at least an end in sight to it all.
Whether that end arrives before The Elder Scrolls 6 is released is anyone’s guess.
Skyblivion is not to be confused with Skywind (an amateur modding project aiming to port Morrowind into the Skyrim engine), Morroblivion (Morrowind into Oblivion), nor Unrake (a project porting Unreal Tournament’s guns into Quake 3 Arena that I just made up). It’s the gorgeous, loveably janky world of Cyrodiil, complete with the questlines, armor items, and NPCs that have all etched themselves into your interior life forever, ported over to Skyrim.
Yes, the Skyrim that came out 12 years ago. The proposition’s changed a bit since the project first got underway, in the wake of Bethesda’s juggernaut release. It’s no longer about playing an old classic in the latest bleeding-edge engine. It’s become something more akin to playing one old classic in the engine of another. But that’s absolutely fine.
Agony and SKSE
The thrill of seeing an old, forgotten land, like Oblivion’s Cyrodiil, archived and renovated so artfully is still present, even after all these years. Take a look for yourself at the modders’ recent livestream and tell me you don’t have the urge to go running off into the horizon, to uncover some Skooma smuggling plot, or fall into a watercolor painting.
That livestream demo cannily begins opposite the first Ayelid Ruin you catch sight of in Oblivion. The one just beyond the water from the famous tunnel you walk out of and into the freedom of Cyrodiil’s open-world map. There are few sights that better capture what made Oblivion so special.
And while you might quite convincingly make the argument that if Oblivion was so good you should just go back and play that for the fully authentic and nostalgic experience, the benefits of Skyblivion are obvious.
I played the original Oblivion recently, and it’s certainly untouchable for nostalgia, but there are also a few things our rose-tinted 2006 vision has glossed over. Things that we thought were there from the start, but which, in reality, we added in afterwards in mods, or weren’t actually implemented until Skyrim. It’s a surprisingly long list that covers features like player homes (mods), underwater combat (Skyrim), and a manageable inventory screen (mods for Skyrim). The team behind Skyblivion, TESRenewal Modding Group, wants to subtly add in all that stuff that we now consider central to the fundamental Elder Scrolls experience without losing the essence of Bethesda’s original. Based on everything it’s shown so far, the group seems to be pitching that balance expertly.
The Fall Forest, for example, was a relatively small area along the orange road in the original map of Cyrodiil. Players remember it well because the autumnal leaves created a distinctive biome in what was otherwise a pretty ubiquitously green world. The modders acknowledge the Fall Forest’s popularity, so it’s rebuilding the area completely from scratch.
But the team is not just replicating it, stone for stone, leaf for leaf. It has decided to expand it and employ some artistic license, adhering to the spirit of the original rather than the letter of it. It’s the same for the Gold Coast, which was in fact, like everywhere else in Oblivion, green. Skyblivion’s version is once again completely redesigned and now lives up to its name thanks to a subtle shift in the shades of flora in that region. Nobody’s precious memories are going to be upturned and spat on by creative changes like this – it feels more like a heightened version of what we recall.
And that philosophy has often led to the best regarded of the games industry’s glut of remakes and remasters. Like-for-like texture upscale jobs have their place, but Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s complete reimagining of what was once more or less an isometric turn-based RPG on PS1 has captured the imaginations of a whole new generation of gamers. It still feels completely connected to the original, even though literally everything you’re seeing and doing is completely different.
Sky’s the limit
For the virtual renovator, the real knack is in knowing where the essence of a game lies. Is it the soundtrack, or the character models? Is the control scheme sacrosanct, and would the experience be better if there was a change of camera perspective or a jump button added? I can’t articulate the essence of Oblivion any better than Skyblivion manages in every frame of pre-release footage; the team behind it just seems to telepathically know what each of us in the game’s enormous fanbase holds dear. It knows what to lean into, what to cut back, and what to completely overhaul.
In some cases, that’s informed by Bethesda Game Studios’ original ideas. Skyblivion’s version of Leyawiin, on the south coast, differs from the original and instead uses original concept art and sketches from the dev team to flesh out a new vision of the city. It’s what the creators imagined the city might be like, before harsh realities like time and budget had their say.
Skyblivion’s a modern rarity for its approach. This isn’t an Early Access release that’s been left to languish in functional but unfinished form, though its audience is sufficient for TESRenewal Modding Group to have done so. It’s not gated behind a Kickstarter with an ever-expanding goal. Its small team of amateur developers have been balancing the task of rebuilding a massive open world with their day jobs and many other responsibilities, and these modders are taking their time until it’s completed.
Which, by the way, will be no later than 2025.
That’s according to the latest major update, which explained that the ETA may move forwards depending on how quickly progress is made, but not back. So now there’s a race on, and one that Skyblivion will probably win – which will arrive first, this bedroom coding magnum opus or the next full-blooded Elder Scrolls game?
Bethesda hasn’t given any solid info on The Elder Scrolls 6 beyond an announcement trailer in 2018 which told us precisely nothing. There’ll be land and sea. It’s the sixth Elder Scrolls game. That’s it. Bethesda’s game director, Todd Howard, has gone into a little bit more detail on the studio’s internal timelines, only as far as to clarify that Starfield will be the studio’s focus until it ships. And Starfield, as we know, has been delayed into 2023. In 2018 it left pre-production, where it had been since Fallout 4 shipped in 2015, and entered full development, soon coming together into a playable state that same year. Given those timelines, The Elder Scrolls 6 is extremely unlikely to release a mere two years after Starfield.
Which is just as well for Skyblivion. It’d be a shame for such an incredibly dedicated team to see its work overshadowed by a new mainline game. And besides, they’ll want at least a little break before they start on Skyscrolls 6.