Regarding The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

Whoops. Never write drafts early in the morning :P One might hit ‘Send’ by mistake…

So what was it that struck my eye about UGO.com’s mention of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion?

Oblivion, the latest in the series, takes that freedom to ridiculous extremes. Accidentally freed from a jail cell by Emperor Septim, the player is saddled with a quest to close the Oblivion Gates opened by the Emperor’s untimely death. But the magic of this game is in the journey – the player has dozens of ways to tackle the main quest, and can also choose to ignore it and explore the living, breathing AI world, taking on hundreds of other jobs and tasks. Of course, when it is time to confront the Daedric Lord and close the gates forever, the resultant kick-ass battle is a climax for the ages, but the genius of Oblivion is that you’re never in any rush to get there. More than a story with a beginning and an end, Oblivion is a whole world laid out for you to explore.

Emphasis mine. Oblivion is one of two games I own for the Xbox 360. Although I have now become renowned among some people for being very… unforgiving with games (a topic for another post), I played Oblivion beyond my first negative impressions.

And those first negative impressions came early. Just like KOTOR my initial excitement was crushed by the character creation screen. With all due respect to the talented team that made a hugely successful game, but sweet zombie jesus. The sliders for making faces are named after actual facial muscles? And they mutually influence each other so you can’t lock one part in and then tune others? It took me 10 minutes to make a face that wasn’t a medical curiosity but merely ugly. Luckily this game uses a first-person perspective.

The second negative impression came later. I played through the initial dungeon and then got outside, ready to save the world! And then, after traveling to a village to talk to the next NPC who could give me vital information, I just plain lost interest due to a basic paradox about this game: Total freedom to explore while saving the world. Hello? I had read about the things one could do in this and earlier games in the Elder Scrolls series, and in principle I find that exciting. But for me it has to be coherent. If this is a game about me exploring anything I want, the story has to be about me exploring anything I want (and a very interesting story that could be). If the story is about me saving the world, the game’s structure has to be about me saving the world. How can you spend hours gathering herbs, killing deer and learning to become a werewolf if the Fate of Civilization rests on Your Shoulders? I mean, it doesn’t have to be an episode of 24, but please.

I realize many people don’t care about this, but this is not a game that has a thin layer of story spread out over gameplay – obviously Bethesda went through a lot of trouble to craft and present their story. It is too bad the structure of the story and the structure of the gameplay don’t fit together. Or did I not play it long enough? Tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.

Comments 3

  1. Stephane wrote:

    You’re wrong because you messed up my RSS reader.

    Posted 19 Aug 2007 at 3:05
  2. Jurie wrote:

    What has your RSS reader done for me lately?

    Posted 19 Aug 2007 at 5:54
  3. Ben Sizer wrote:

    I don’t see how Oblivion could have handled this much better. What are the options?

    – they shepherd you through the game linearly, which is not what most fans of Western RPGs enjoy.
    – they put a time limit on it to make it seem more urgent, but they’re not aiming for the “I expect to complete each game within 10 hours” crowd. Also, it would make it almost impossible to balance well.
    – they provide a more plausible and less pressing story, which would render it even less influential, and take away some of the seriousness which helps anchor the game.
    – they make it a free-roaming sandbox type of game, but risk people getting bored when they find they’re making no progress towards anything in particular and that their advancement means little.

    I think that the tradition of periodically switching between undirected character improvement and directed plot completion is a staple of this sort of game and something many gamers actively look for – a symbiosis of two play styles that support each other while providing more variety.

    Posted 20 Aug 2007 at 3:41