The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Oblivion

Developed by Bethesda Game Studios
Released in 2006
Played in 2006
Played on Xbox 360
Played to completion*

What it’s about

Set in the central Imperial province of Cyrodiil, Oblivion tells the story of the assassination of Emperor Uriel Septim VII and the resulting chaos as the dragonfires — bear with me here — go out, leaving this plane of existence vulnerable to invasion by demonic forces. You are tasked by the Blades (it’s always the Blades doing the plot’s heavy lifting, isn’t it?) with finding Martin, Uriel’s illegitimate son and last surviving heir. By putting him on the throne, you can close the Oblivion gates opening across the land, which you will certainly want to do because they are extremely repetitive. Naturally, complications arise.

Of course, it’s an Elder Scrolls game, so saying that it is “about” the main plot is practically missing the point. It’s an unfathomably large game.

How it plays

Although I’m going to be kind of hard on Oblivion’s setting and story, it’s important to call out how big an improvement it is over Morrowind in terms of gameplay. Although there are many, many changes large and small, the one I appreciated most is the stealth system, which actually works this time around. I’m not kidding! Trying to play a stealth-focused character in ES3 was an exercise in self-flagellation. It was wretched. I understand that one of the designers who joined Bethesda for Oblivion was Emil Pagliarulo, an alumnus of Looking Glass who worked on Thief II. At the risk of giving too much credit to one guy on what surely must have been a huge project, let me just say: it shows.

Playing a sneaky archer was a joy in this game. The feeling of advancement into a powerful night stalker was wonderful. The inclusion of perks bestowed for reaching skill milestones was a masterstroke. For all the game’s failings — and I’m about to dig into them — the gameplay was leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor.

How it feels

Lifeless. Dry. Boring. There are a few reasons for why this is, but for me I think the biggest offender is the setting. Why in the world did the developers decide to follow Morrowind — wonderful, wild, weird Morrowind — with a visit to some generic medieval European fantasyland? There is not a single square foot of interesting scenery in the entire province of Cyrodiil. Even the plants are named for real world flora. There is no strangeness here, no mystery; it is immediately familiar and therefore immediately boring. The game gets some mileage out of jaunts into the hellish realm of Oblivion, but the heavy recycling of layouts there quickly robs that semi-interesting place of its mystique as well. Morrowind was a joy to explore because you never knew what you were going to find over the next hillcrest. In ES4, I was just hoping it wasn’t going to be another Oblivion gate.

The NPCs deserve special mention for contributing to the game’s atmosphere of sterility. The characters just give you this dead-eyed stare as their actors read from the script without conviction. Patrick Stewart (in his five minutes of screen time) and Sean Bean both deliver their lines like they are wondering how long until the session director will break for lunch. Ultimately I think the game lost a great deal by moving to fully voiced dialogue. It’s not that the NPCs in Morrowind were more involving, exactly — but they were simulated more simply, and as a result the player could project more onto them.

Lastly, the story feels a bit anticlimactic as a follow-up to Morrowind. I was feared by gods in that game; now I’m the right hand man to Sedated Sean Bean. I’m not saying that this kind of story — being the guy behind the scenes, the guy who solves problems — could not work, but it needed to be played up a lot more than it was. It also would have been helpful if Martin had been capable of inspiring anybody to remember his name, much less die for him in battle. The dude is flat, is the point I’m trying to make here. It kills any thrill you could possibly get from a right hand man story.

What worked

As mentioned, the mechanics are a big improvement. On top of the fully-realized stealth system, the melee combat is tense and involving. Generally speaking, if I got into a face-to-face fight, I had screwed something up. But even so, the mechanics made the resulting dustup exciting.

Though I have my complaints about the central plot, some of the side quest chains were very well designed. The thieves and dark brotherhood each provide numerous missions which utilize the souped-up stealth mechanics to their fullest. One especially memorable mission involved something like a murder mystery, with the twist that you are the killer. Isolating and dispatching the cretinous guests without getting caught was delightful.

What didn’t

The setting was bland beyond belief. The NPCs are soulless automatons. Their actors (all dozen of them) could not be bothered to care. The main quest chain did a terrible job of giving the player any motivation to be involved beyond “OH SHIT DEMONS”.

What I’d change

Wasn’t Cyrodiil supposed to be dense jungle prior to Oblivion? It still probably wouldn’t have seemed as otherworldly as Morrowind, but at least it wouldn’t have felt quite so much like I’m following the Fellowship of the Ring around New Zealand.

Also, voicing the NPCs was folly. It only highlighted their artificiality. I hesitate to misuse the term “uncanny valley” but there is a similar principle at work here, where the simulation becomes less convincing the more it tries to approximate human behavior.

Lessons learned

Embrace simplicity. Strangeness breeds curiosity; familiarity, boredom.

Hindsight from 2013

It’s interesting, the trajectory of these Elder Scrolls games. From my vantage point in 2013, having played Skyrim, it seems like the mechanics keep being refined but the stories and environments just get duller. I’d probably be kinder to this game today; at least it wasn’t Skyrim, right?

* Completion note: I finished the game’s central quest chain and two of the guild chains. There’s plenty in the game I haven’t seen, but I feel like I’ve done my time.

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