I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a more ambitious early-generation title than The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. By that time, especially following up on the critical and commercial hit Morrowind, the whole Elder Scrolls series was known for two thing; giant, expansive open worlds absolutely full of stuff to do, and not actually having any elder scrolls in the game. Oblivion carried out all expectations of the former with aplomb, but shockingly, broke drastically with series tradition on the latter. The gall of these folks. But, when you’re leading a new generation, sometimes you have to move past your limits.
Perhaps as a result of being perhaps the most ambitious early-generation title in history, I don’t know of a game that’s aged so drastically and instantly as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Although a multi-console release, it was developed around the Xbox 360 architecture from it’s nascent days, releasing a mere four months after the system did. It’s scenery looked lovely, but its characters, looked……..
Yeah. Visually, even the best parts of it, most of the launch titles available at the time well outpaced it. They were new at incorporating voice acting into a game this size, which led to a lot of awkwardness both as it meant the characters had a lot less to say than they used to, and oddly, everyone sounded so much the same as all characters of the same race and gender were played by the same actor. DLC was a new thing, and this game was obviously experimenting with the market for that, mixing both the instant-joke expensive but useless horse armor with the could-absolutely-be-it’s-own-game bargain Shivering Isles expansion. And they had tried to correct some problems of the old games that didn’t really need to be corrected, leading to a lot of clumsily-implemented features, such as the counter-intuitive leveling system that quickly became infamous.
Thing is, the presentation may not be much, but the foundation of the game is very solid. The Elder Scrolls have always been at their best making you buy into the world, at feeling like it was a living, breathing thing that you were truly a part of. At its best, the Elder Scrolls would make you forget about this dumb meaty world where all your problems are and get you believing in this place where adventuring rules the day and people will regularly hire warriors to collect the laundry they lost at the end of a monster infested cave. It really excelled at that. The engine may have been hopelessly glitchy and the quest streams may be endless, yet they did serve the immersive experience this game really drove.
What’s really strange to me, though, is just how much my perceptions of this game have been driving by the video games environment I played it during. Usually I’m well able to isolate things, and just enjoy them on their own merit, but not so much this game. I remember playing it shortly after Morrowind. Back then, I experienced the game as a definite step forward in terms of engine, a game that was more directly interactive and less reliant on behind-the-scenes dice rolls and bore a lot more quality of life features that really enhanced the experience, even as it did simplify a significant amount of the gameplay. It was lacking character compared to its predecessor, having followed up a very alien realm by turning what was supposed to be a very Roman-inspired jungle nation into the standard fantasy thing you’ve seen over and over again, and the advent of voice acting significantly cut down on what people had to say, but it was still a really full and solid experience. Coming back to it after Skyrim, I found the game somewhat obtuse, somewhat inelegant, and again lacking in character and depth of world in comparison, and clearly outshone in different ways by both games on either side of it, but still a very solid experience.
And now? Well, I enjoyed it enough to give 70 hours of my life to it, but even so, once again, I’m getting a very different perspective on it. It’s builds its worth on the whole open world thing, of making you feel a part of this whole experience beyond just your screen, and it has a giant world of its own, so it definitely should be able to stand on its own, but I still find myself constantly and incessantly comparing it to other games. The Elder Scrolls has become the standard in open-world design, and open world has become so in vogue right now. Zelda does open world. Mario does open world. Monster Hunter does open world. From the 2D Platformer to the 3D Platformer to the 3rd Person Shooter to the Open World game, that now seems the default for basically everything released. And so many other games have taken and absorbed everything that once made Oblivion unique, to the point that I now have the same experience I do with so many other historically important games, the developmental milestones in the form that were once unique to this game but have proven so influential that all the ground they broke has been paved into a superhighway. It’s interesting to see where it comes from, things have gone far beyond it now.
I think every time I’ve played this game, I’ve had a different take on it. And when I come back some years down the road, when, at the rate things are going, everything is a Battle Royale game, I wonder if I’ll have a different take on the game then.
As impressive as these open worlds are, I think I still prefer the more linear style that JRPGs still follow for the most part. It seems like creators haven’t figured out how to tell a really good story in these massive sandboxes they build for their games. Oblivion and Skyrim are still hugely important games, though, and I had a good time with both.
It’s kind of amazing, given that they’re both in the RPG genre, just how different the typical JRPG and these open world WRPGs are. I love them both, but for very different reasons. The open world games do a very good job of exploring the setting and making it seem a lot deeper, but if you’re looking for a good plot or in-depth characterizations, JRPGs have the wins on those all over. I’m sure it’s quite possible to get a good story or strong characters in an open world game. I just can’t think of a time that they’ve pulled it off. I appreciate the efforts, but it seems that it requires too different a style of story than what we’ve usually seen in game, and so far, nobody’s figured out how to take it in this format any higher than ‘alright, for a game plot.’
Oblivion was my introduction to the Elder Scrolls series, and it was probably the most polished game in the series up until that point. That said, if it’s one thing I didn’t like about it, it’s that the dungeons got very repetitive very quickly. From what I heard, they only had one person designing dungeons, and it really shows. Skyrim had more people assigned that job, and I felt it was a better effort for it. Also, thanks to the traps that are often set throughout these dungeons, I eventually fell into the habit of never going down a hallway dead center and began opening chests from the side.
Yeah, one person, and he used a lot of procedural generation too. I know there’s a lot of more technically oriented people that love seeing what procedural generation comes up with, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a procedurally generated dungeon I’ve enjoyed.
i have no idea why they’d assign just a single person to such a huge task that so much of the game centered around. Feels like it’s just a recipe for trouble. Or in this case, really unengaging caves all over.
There is something to be said for the human touch. If a procedurally generated dungeon can turn out well, that’s great, but it tends to lack the subtle nuances I like. I’ve often found myself pondering why the designers actively chose to add a superfluous detail such as a piece of land you can never reach playing these games. With a randomly generated game, I know the answer to that question: because that’s how the dice landed. This means if the level design is good (or bad), it’s just because you got a good RNG roll – it’s kind of a “million monkeys” thing.
Considering how many dungeons there are, it’s kind of a miracle it didn’t end up being a total disaster, but you’re right – one person shouldn’t have had the sole responsibility of such a monumental part of the experience.
I came to this after Morrowind, and so had the ability to play them in order. As such the improved combat was a significant change as Morrowinds was so inept. The control mechanisms were immensely clunky, and unresponsive. However I sorely missed spells like levitation and the narrative failed to grip me. Maybe because the strength of Elder Scrolls games has always been reliant upon the hero’s journey, whether overthrowing Jagar Tharn or defeating Dagoth Ur, Oblivion felt like a step back, after all it was Martin who fulfilled the ultimate role, and tied into this was both those villains were of Tamriel/Nirn, but Mehrunes Dagon is a daedric Prince, whose nature is utterly alien. He’s too removed to be an effective antagonist, even in a gaming power fantasy. The game attempts to resolve this with Mankar Camoran but he can’t quite live up to a daedric Lord after all, oddly they did hit the right story beats with Jyggalag but he wasn’t an antagonist to the player, he was an antagonist to Sheogorath. From the start of Shivering Isles you’re put in your place, an outsider and witness rather than a hero. This witness role didn’t work with Dagon vs Akatosh, maybe because your achievement of defeating Camoran, was overturned and your agency as a player lost. Also i imagined Cyrodiil to be far more grandiose, at first view the imperial city and white tower were gorgeous but the population was too low and it didn’t feel like a mercantile hub. Though that is more constraints of the tech at the time, so I understand they had to make it less expansive.
I feel like more than just the main quest, throughout much of the main game, it feels like you’re more an observer of the central conflict than anything else. None of the villains are really threatening. Mannimarco comes the closest, but he still goes down like a chump, the infiltrator in the Dark Brotherhood feels more like just a series of random events, and the fighters guild has you up against a whole other organization that don’t really seem to amount to much in all. I found the thieve’s guild questline more engaging, but that didn’t have a villain. Probably part of the reason why.
But yeah, they brought it back with the Shivering Isles. Jyggalag felt more a force of nature than a character, and he was all the more effective for it. It even made the fact that you were still an observer to that conflict work out, because there wasn’t really any personality involved. You could still play a part.