Imagine you get a sports car. It’s beautiful. And fast. And safe. Good mileage.
But once you get it home you notice there are things about it that bug you that were not apparent in the showroom. Maybe the leather seats have a strange smell that won’t go away. Imagine the horn makes a clownish Harpo Marx style honking. When you turn on the radio it’s always set to spanish talk radio at full volume. The vanity mirror on the back of the sun visor is convex. To turn on the headlights, you always have to press the on button twice.
None of these issues make the car undriveable. It’s still a great car. But every time one of these annoyances pop up you will wonder why the designers made the car this way. These problems didn’t make the car cheaper or easier to design. They are just oddities that have no purpose other than to keep this from being the perfect car.
This is Oblivion in a nutshell. The game is a wonderful thing, except for the many little issues that mar the experience and make you wonder how things got to be this way.
Oblivion is an open-ended sandbox world. You start out as just some regular person, but fate places you in a position where you can save the world. But you don’t have to. When someone gives me a quest to travel to some city and deliver a message to so-and-so as part of the ongoing campaign against the evil that is threatening the world, I say, “Sure, I’ll do it” and then wander off and start goofing around. I’ve been exploring the endless miles of countryside, diving into all the little dungeons I find. I’ve been collecting armloads of rare plants and herbs growing everywhere so I can work on my alchemy. I’ve been looking for rare or interesting books to add to the collection I’ve started. I kill bandits when I encounter them in the wilderness. I bought a house and furnishings. I joined the theives guild, which lets me fence stolen property. I sneak around at night, breaking into homes and swiping anything that isn’t nailed down. I slay monsters. I go swimming to work out my athletic skills, practice magic spells, or do minor sidequests for random strangers. I play the little mini-games. I play dress-up with my character and try to come up with an outfit that is functional but still looks cool.
Then as I’m wandering around I encounter some guy and I see I have a dialog option, “I have an urgent message for you!” Oh right. I was supposed to give this guy the message. I can go back to the main quest anytime I like. I can wander off again if I feel like doing something else, or if I think it would help to obtain some equipment before proceeding. This causes a bit of a break in realisim, but it makes the game much more fun. There is always something to do, and when you get tired of that there is always something else.
Become a paid assasin. Join the Mage’s Guild, the Fighter’s Guild, the Thieves Guld, or one of the other major factions in the game. All of them have a long and complex series of quests that will (I think) culminate with you becoming the head of that particular guild. Acquire property in all of the major towns in the game. Invest in shops. Hunt animals (deer, wolf, bear, etc) in the wilderness for their meat and pelts, or just for sport. Craft magical weapons and armor. Make up your own spells. Hunt vampires. Hunt rare artifacts for some of the various collectors in the game, or start your own collection. Just explore the land and try to fill in the entire map. (Good luck doing that, it will take forever.) I’m sure there is a lot more than this that I haven’t even heard of yet.
Collecting books is interesting. The game has seemingly hundreds of “books”, which look like books in the world but which contain poems, amusing short stories, history & backstory, or subtle in-game hints. This isn’t any big technological accomplishment, but someone did sit down and write all these things. It really adds a nice touch of authenticity.
The thieving in this game is in some ways better than in the game Thief, because there is a real running day / night cycle. The streets are busy during the day. People get up, leave their homes, go to work (which is usually in a shop). When evening comes, they close up shop, go to the tavern for a bite, and then head home. Everyone has a slightly different schedule, so you can’t count on anyone going to asleep at exactly 10:00pm, or waking up exactly at 6:00am. Like in real life, their schedules vary a bit. So, you need to pay attention to what your mark is doing, and you need to keep your eyes on the clock. Unlike the sunless, ever-night world of Thief, you need to worry about people waking up in the morning. Also, some people have dogs, which complicates things a bit. People have locks on their doors and chests, and unlike in Theif there are locks you cannot open until you have enough skill. However, people tend to lock up things that they value, not things which you might value, or – more importantly – your fence might value. So you never know if that maximum difficulty chest in the corner is full of gold and jewels, or sentimental baubles. You don’t just charge into the house, open the most difficult container, and leave with the best stuff. The best stuff might be sitting on a table. Or in the basement. Or in the bedroom. Or locked up. Or they might not have any single items of value. You don’t know for sure, so you have to search the place. Unlike in Theif, these places are highly, highly detailed. There are a lot of barrels, bags, boxes, chests, desks, bookshelves, cupboards, dressers, tables and cabinets to search. These things are dense with clutter and loose items, and the valuables you’re looking for might be hidden anywhere, or not there at all.
Oh yeah: All that clutter introduces a new problem, which is that lots of stuff can be knocked over. You have to be careful when sifting through objects, because the game has a very nice physics engine. If you bump into loose items or knock things over while searching for loot, you’re going to make noise. Which is bad.
As an aside: I seem to really enjoy games where I can steal stuff. Why is that? I’m quite honest in real life. I never steal, and I’m always careful to honor copyrights even when the holder(s) of those copyrights are complete jerks. However, once I get in a game I cannot resist swiping everything that isn’t nailed down, even when I’m playing an otherwise “good” character.
I’m sure I’ll have more later. I’m making an effort not to enumerate the various flaws I talked about earlier. They are many, but for the most part they have been covered elsewhere.
Do It Again, Stupid
One of the highest-rated games of all time has some of the least interesting gameplay.
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.
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
The Witch Watch
My first REAL published book, about a guy who comes back from the dead due to a misunderstanding.
The Best of 2017
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2017.