A Look Back At The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
“You are a prisoner, you awaken in an anonymous cell without any explanation as to how you got there, or any knowledge of who you are. Your only companion is a rather nasty fellow inmate in the cell opposite who seems to want to pass his time inside by mocking you. Suddenly, the sound of footsteps are heard. You wait inside your cell as they come nearer, wondering if the noise might somehow lead to a means of escape. Abruptly, an armed guard appears in front of you. He demands that you step back from the cell door, while unseen others argue about why your cell is occupied. Your confusion as to why they would require your particular cell to be empty doesn’t last long, as you’re soon joined by more armed guards, and the emperor himself, Uriel Septim VII. He enters your cell, and as he passes, he stops in front of you. A moment of recognition occurs between the both of you. But before you can investigate further, one of his bodyguards opens a concealed entrance to a previously hidden tunnel. The royal party disappears into the darkness beyond. You resolve to follow behind at a distance, only pausing reflect that the disembodied footsteps you’d heard moments ago did indeed lead to an escape opportunity.”
A dungeon crawl punctuated with stops for conversation and plot exposition isn’t the usual method of creating a character in most role-playing games, but it’s the way Bethesda chose to do it with Oblivion. As you make your way through the dark passages and catacombs that lead away from you cell, you not only explore the game’s controls, but just who your character is. Periodic questioning from the Emperor very neatly guides you to making race and class choices by way of replying to him, and before you know it you have a name, a profession, and even a star sign. Your adventure has begun. The conversation moves on, and the narrative switches from introducing your character to learning about the Emperor, why he’s down here with you.
Even though you’re essentially still in the tutorial, you have a choice of what to do. Clearly the Emperor and his guards are having some trouble, you could help them if you wanted, but the game never forces you to lend aid. So you hang back and let events unfold without getting your hands dirty. Then, when you’re ready, you move on towards the exit and freedom. As you leave the darkness and step out into the outside world, the tutorial is concluded. You have the weapons and armour you’ve managed to carry out with you, and a quest way-point far off in the distance. Nothing else.
So here I am, two paragraphs in to this ‘look back’ at The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and all I’ve managed to describe is the opening of the game. But that’s OK, because it’s those first few moments that encapsulate everything I love about this game. The game starts as it means to go on, by leaving you to get on with whatever it is you want to do. You have one quest in your log, and a big empty map to explore. From the first minute, Oblivion is clearly a different type of RPG. It’s one that doesn’t take you by the hand, and lead you on an epic, but linear adventure. It doesn’t corral you into a pre-built character class that’s impossible to break. It’s a game that takes the training wheels off the moment you’re in the outside world. And yes, it’s also a game that gives you the freedom to totally f*** things up.
If I had to sum the game up in two words, it’d be flawed genius. The epic scale of the game has so much ambition, and yet Bethesda never quite pull it off entirely. Oblivion has flaws. To fans of the game though, those flaws are endearing. So what if the skill system is too complex, that just means it has depth. So what if the non-player characters are a little too automaton-like, that just makes them amusing and charming. Once you get out there and explore, you’ll fall in love with the stories that Bethesda have created.
There’s no shortage of things to do in Cyrodiil. The main quest line of saving the world from imminent disaster may be a bit clichéd, but it’s done reasonably well, and both Sir Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean’s voice-work add a little bit of star sparkle to the story. Despite the star turns though, I’ve always seen the main quest line as the starter dish to a far tastier meal. The four guilds in Oblivion all offer their own, substantial series of quests, as it’s here that Bethesda really stretched their creative legs. The Fighters Guild quests are perhaps the most straight forward; nearly all of them involve hitting things with big swords, but they’re fun none the less. As a new recruit, you’re only trusted with simple tasks such as killing rats or protecting shops at night, but as you work your way through the contracts available, you start to prove your worth, eventually rising to guild leader. The slightly snooty Mages Guild is harder to get into, as it has a more of an academical slant than the other guilds, but once you’re in, the knowledge starts to flow. Gradually, your superiors start to recognise your superior capabilities and soon ask you to help them with a little Necromancer problem they’ve been having. The Thieves Guild quest line is almost the best in the game. Obviously, it involves a whole lot of stealing other people’s property. Burglary, pickpocketing, lock breaking and sneaking, you do it all. Steal as much loot as possible, then sell it to a guild fence. Life is simple. Until the slightly sinister guild master takes an interest, that is.
If being a thief isn’t the best profession in the game, then being an assassin is. The Dark Brotherhood quests are the best in the game in my opinion. They’re filled with a delightfully large dose of twisted humour and sadism. Murdering any NPC in Cyrodiil marks you out as a potential recruit to the assassins guild, and soon after, a shadowy figure visits you in the dead of night to canvas your interest. If you accept, you’re sent on a variety of assignments, all of which involve you killing someone in an interesting, and often amusing way. One quest sees you sneaking into a target’s house and sabotaging a stuffed large moose’s head mounted on a wall, high above the victims favourite chair.
As he relaxes for the evening, you give the head a final nudge, and it falls from the wall and crushes him. Another quest plays out like a classic murder mystery tale set in a grand manor house. You pick off your fellow guests, all the while spreading disinformation and paranoia. If you’re clever enough, you can even goad the targets into attacking each other. Perhaps the most satisfying assignment is the one that leads you into breaking back into the jail that held you at the start of the game. Your taunting companion is the target, and he gets a lot less offensive once he knows why you’re there. That sense of delicious irony is why I love the Dark Brotherhood quests.
The content doesn’t stop there either, for those that find a structured quest line too restrictive there’s exploration of the massive world to get stuck into. Cyrodiil is stuffed with dungeons that have no connection to other quest lines, they’re just sitting there, waiting to be found. Or you could complete the fifteen Daedric quests, and snag yourself some pretty sweet weapons and armour. Another alternative is to head to Imperial City and become a gladiator in the Arena. With so many other things to do and see in the game, it’s no wonder the main story feels like such a small part. And just in case all those hundreds of hours worth of content isn’t enough, Bethesda produced a selection of downloadable content to keep you going. The horse armour DLC may be infamous now for its poor value for money, but it’s Bethesda’s only real misstep. Other content like The Knights of the Nine, Mehrunes Razor offer decent chunks of adventuring, while the Shivering Isles expansion added a whole other world of insanity to explore and adventure in.
I love The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, much more than Fallout 3 or Skyrim, and I’ve often tried to work out why. Both of those other two games also offer a huge open world experience, but they’ve never found the place in my gaming heart that Oblivion has. Partly it’s a first-love type thing, you never love another RPG like the first one you fall for, but mostly, and perhaps rather bizarrely, it’s because of how hardcore the game is. It’s an old school role-playing game, one that requires the player to really dig in, and understand how the game works. That level of complexity is missing from most modern role-playing games, and it’s why I look back at Oblivion so fondly.