I intimated earlier in the series that there is no such thing, broadly speaking, as an unsuccessful Elder Scrolls game. The least you can expect of any main franchise entry is success on its own terms, at its own goals, in its own era. This doesn’t guarantee it’ll still be a success tomorrow or would have been one yesterday.
By the standards of the previous game, Oblivion is a ponderous misshapen clunker that takes every opportunity to shunt the player off the precipice of immersion. And by the standards of the next game, Oblivion is a ponderous misshapen clunker that takes every opportunity to shunt the player off the precipice of immersion. It was a transitional fossil that managed to stand proudly on its own, but it’s somehow more difficult to return to than Daggerfall was.
Part of this is because “the day” was one of the most interesting periods in the franchise's history–not to mention the history of games marketing and development.
It's difficult to explain today the culture of expectations that surrounded Oblivion for a year before release. Morrowind‘s preorder crowd back in the early oughts had been meager and cultish, and while its promises drew positive attention from the gaming press, it had to wait until after release to generate most of its excitement. Not so with Oblivion. For the first time, the studio had fans ready to hang on every blog post and leaked screenshot, and they made magnificent use of that resource.
Every announcement to do with Oblivion was breathtaking. Every new feature leaked or demoed represented a new frontier, an unprecedented degree of perfect simulation. Objects obey realistic physics. Arrows have arcs and lodge in soft materials. NPCs have lives, personalities, habits, schedules. Spells have different physics depending on materials and can produce different effects on subjects depending on what element is being used. Games before took place in static unyielding matte paintings, set dressings made to give a cheap impression of a fantastic world; Oblivion, by every breathless report, was nothing less than virtual reality.
Which hardly makes sense to a modern observer. These days it’s very easy to see features announced for a game and realize that what we see demoed at conventions really is all there is to it–if not more than there is to it. It would be easy today to see Oblivion‘s promised features list and be impressed at the new engine tricks without presuming these skillful and discrete artifices to be, in fact, incidental offshoots of the same ambitious never-before-seen comprehensive world simulation extravaganza. But back then, with so much having changed behind closed doors, it was easy to believe our dream game was somehow being made real. Santa existed and he worked at Bethesda.
I was on the tip of the hype spear back then. Impressionable people like me didn't look at the previews and see a pretty immersive videogame; we saw a world that had a pretty cool videogame inside of it.
I remember how the official forums felt. People began to play the imagined perfect game in their heads long before boxes of the real one hit shelves. Everyone had their characters all planned out, everyone had their backstory written up–people were hatching assassination plots and writing fanfiction about them. I remember the tone of thread titles: “What's the first thing you're going to do when you're out of the dungeon?” “What's your character's motivation?” “What's your build going to be like?” People made a lot of detailed plans. Basically all of them would turn out to be impossible.
This was a time when the internet was really hitting its stride as a flashpoint of hype and speculation and hadn't fully realized its role as a megaphone for bitter cynicism. It helped that that the PR was perfectly handled, sharing just enough details about the game to enkindle feverish fantasies and never enough to ruin them. Previews were less exposition and more narrative. Depictions of gampeplay were vanishingly thin on the ground and usually cloaked in abstract possibilities suggested by the mechanics.
Think about the possibilities. Think about how great this will be. This game will blow your mind. You won't be able to believe it.
It’s not fair to judge Oblivion against the impossible game we all dreamed up. But I do think it’s fair to say that this hype actually enhanced early appreciation of the game as much as it harmed it. I remember how for months of gameplay I was gobsmacked by the idea that we finally had a game where NPCs got hungry, got sleepy, went to work, had friends, had principles and desires, had a routine–how I thought to myself, this is a revolution. This is the future of games. And I remember the moment I realized that The Sims had come out six fucking years ago. Was it harder to implement that kind of Mundane AI in an RPG? Probably. But in retrospect, I felt a bit silly for having been so blown away by it when we’d seen the same shit in a franchise that had already generated its own belated sequel.
Every game in the Elder Scrolls series has something it's built around, something it does better than the rest of the franchise. These strengths aren't just the result of the right team, or the right iterative design, or just plain dumb luck: they're the logical conclusion of everything the game is and is trying to be. Arena was a romp across a vast and ambiguous world of sorcery and monsters, a grand and classical adventure. Daggerfall was a game of dead-drops, conspiracy, and fully-realized political dynasties with a palpable texture of interactive intrigue. Morrowind provided unforgiving objective challenges set against an alien landscape, and transported the player body and soul to a breathtaking world realized to the limit of its technology and not a step further.
Oblivion's goals were more direct. Oblivion isn't about texture or narrative or universe in any sort of discrete sense. It's about energy. Oblivion never wants you to stop running.
You can start by taking that as literally as possible on the most fundamental tactile level. Your stamina stat used to deplete if you ran. In Oblivion, running just makes your energy regenerate more slowly. When you ran low on magicka previous games had you rest in a bed or in the wilderness; Oblivion recharges it in realtime. And that’s just your stats–the world is built even more around efficiency and convenience.
There’s no more wandering the wilderness looking for the right identical mudshack, no more interminable cross-country hikes looking for the right hill and tomb door in an endless sea of brown hills and tomb doors. In fact, you'll never get lost again. No matter how far up a dungeon's drainpipe you get stuck or how far from the road you've roamed, the handy-dandy compass provides a quest arrow to point towards the objective or most convenient exit leading there. Even if the entire rest of your screen was blacked out you could probably beat an Oblivion quest just by following the red and green markers–so long as you didn’t care about looking at environments or trying to follow what’s going on in the story.
Done with the quest now? Getting home's never been easier. If you want to go anywhere you've been before, you just fast travel. No cost or downside involved. If it's one of the game's many major towns you can fast travel there even if you've never been before. This was possible for a price in every game priorâ€"in Arena this was because there was no intervening territory to travel manually through, in Daggerfall this was because the world was stupidly massive and cumbersome to traverse, and in Morrowind, this was only possible at certain fast-travel vendors. Oblivion offers free and practically unrestricted usage. It wants you to be questing–not wandering towards a quest, not wandering back from a quest, but questing. The only places you can’t fast travel to at a moment’s notice are dungeons you haven’t visited yet.
Another theoretically welcome change: die rolls for combat and spellcraft are deadfiled with all the other old-school tabletop-era abstractions. Now attacks always hit on mark and spells always cast successfully. Character skill speaks to damage, maneuvers, and spell knowledge instead of percent chance of doing fuck all. On paper the effect was probably comparable; I'll reserve a discussion of practice for an in-depth examination of the combat system later. Suffice to say, featuring combat as a key selling point of the game was a sea change for the franchise.
The NPCs in Oblivion are jackrabbits, plain and simple, and they are determined not to waste a second of your time. Everyone you talk to opens by telling you who they are and how they're different from the rest of the herd: I am Balthus and I am obsessed with dogs. I am Remayne and I'm grouchy and tired. I'm hardly exaggerating the blunt, unguarded frankness with which they make their introductions, and once those are cleared they're not interested in chatting much either. For the first time, dialogue menus are constrained only to relevant options. No more wiki-style nexus of universal topics; for every character you've now got a pool of rumors and maybe one or two other relevant subjects handpicked for that actor or actors of that narrow class. Oh, but don't worry: if they've got a quest, they'll tell you all about it. They’ll tell you all about it right away.
NPCs move about everywhere. Everyone's in motion. Everything's voice-acted. Everything's a quest hook, and every quest hook is doable right now. Everything is happening everywhere at once. Players never had to struggle to successfully inhabit the world of Cyrodiil–getting in and getting things done was effortless.
You can see how Morrowind begat Oblivion. You can see how new technology made gripping, immersive fights more desirable than awful frustrating dice games. You can see how the ability to smoothly integrate a compass to make sure players don't get lost greatly improves how many players stick with things and complete a quest or two. You want voice acting, and if you've got it, you better make everything to the point or you're going to be recording dialogue until 2043. You want to make the most immersive and immediate and god-damn futuristic sequel to Morrowind your better-every-sequel earnings can buy. So that's just what you do.
And the result is a game that couldn't feel more different from its parents if it was about a magical girl dentist.
The one new element that stands out the mostâ€"and the one I think is most overlooked in favor of more measurable mechanical changesâ€"was Oblivion’s confident and prolific use of scripted, animated events. Arena and Daggerfall didn't contain anything you could really call a “scene,” unless you're talking about the agonizing cutscenes of the former and FMV/prerendered videos of the latter. Morrowind mostly knew its limits. It could make people hit marks, say lines of dialogue while standing with their arms at their side, and turn hostileâ€"and it could only do those things while the player was otherwise occupied. Generally the dialogue happened during a frozen menu. If it was spoken, the player was rooted to the ground so they couldn't interfere. Its NPCs lacked the grace of finger puppets and problem solving of a stunned ox, so there weren't really grand ambitious scenes, and the story was mostly told through documents, static conversations, and journal entries after fights and acquisitions. Which worked perfectly fine–but probably frustrated a lot of the game’s writers.
Oblivion enacts mini stage plays whenever it’s appropriate and at least a few times it really isn’t. Walk into a room and an NPC calls out to you and impels you to converse. A gate to Oblivion opens, watch the captain gather the men and make a speech. You've stolen the artifact, watch two NPCs exposit to each other what it is before one of them dies unstoppably. While this newfound gift of scripting is a boon to storytelling in some cases, it does reflect poorly on the player's role in the narrative; there's a tangible sense of going from an independent agent to the lead actor of a prewritten drama. Literally the first thing a new player is required to do in Oblivion is hit a mark. Immediately after doing this the player's controls are frozen until they have interacted with four nonplayer characters, none of whom can die unless you count the predetermined and immutable death scenes reserved for three of them.
As I did my five-game TES playthrough I came across two really jarring transitions. The first one was when I went from the wearyingly janky and untouchable 2D engines of the first two games to the sweet, blessed, console-enabled modern engine of the third. The second hard transition was going from a game that had no dramatic events to a game defined by them.
So if Oblivion consistently sacrifices control and agency for storytelling, the question raised is: is it worth it?
Well–yes. And I’ll talk about why next week.
If Star Wars Was Made in 2006?
Imagine if the original Star Wars hadn't appeared in the 1970's, but instead was pitched to studios in 2006. How would that turn out?
The Gameplay is the Story
Some advice to game developers on how to stop ruining good stories with bad cutscenes.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
The Best of 2013
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2013.
Good to be the King?
Which would you rather be: A king in the middle ages, or a lower-income laborer in the 21st century?