Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
During the later half of 2006, I lived in a small, mold-infested house on main street in a tiny, tiny little town in central Indiana with a couple of guys. The housemates and I were in a Christian progressive rock band (think Coheed and Cambria meets the book of Revelation). One of the guys in the band—aside from being the principle songwriter, lead guitarist, singer, and my at-the-time best friend—was an avid gamer. In fact, he and I spent an embarrassing amount of time running instances in World of Warcraft.

That all changed when the Lord spoke to my friend, telling him that it was time to give up any video game that didn't glorify God. And since God hadn't given me a similar message, my friend bequeathed to me every fantasy video game he owned that wasn't Lord of the Rings. Among this short stack of the God-forsaken games was a copy of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Since then, I've spent untold hours over several failed attempts to play through the game, but I've loved nearly every moment of it. With each new effort, I would always find myself becoming slowly overpowered by the world. Every time I leveled up, all of the enemies in Cyrodiil would become stronger. Of course, my inability to come up with a viable character build would eventually result in the game becoming virtually impossible for me to play.

In my most recent 50+ hour playthrough, I was determined to complete the main quest. And with a little luck (and a strict adherence to specialization), I was able to keep my character just above the difficulty curve long enough to see the ending of the game's main quest.

Even 6 years after its initial release, I'm fascinated by this game. Cyrodiil is a massive world, full of people and places that are just barely diverse enough to be interesting. It's a good thing that the world itself is as interesting as it is because the main quest certainly isn't the predominant strength of Oblivion. In fact, much of the later half involves somewhat tedious trips into several consecutive Oblivion Gates, which is the Tamrielic equivalent of hell. I do think that the planes of Oblivion make a nice compliment to the already varied settings in the game, but these zones start to feel less interesting when you spend hours navigating daedra infested towers and lava fields.

I'm sure we've all played games that have grand, sweeping narratives that are far better than what Oblivion has to offer, and I think even fans of the Elder Scrolls games would agree that this is not the strength of their beloved franchise. What the Elder Scrolls series does better than perhaps any other is present a world that seems to live on its own. If one deviates from the seemingly "urgent" quest to guide Martin Septim to the throne, there are surprises hiding in the nooks and crannies of the world. This is what clearly the chief draw of the game. This is why I kept coming back to a game that would inevitably kick my ass.

There's a certain unpredictability that pulls me back into Oblivion again and again over the years. That's not to say that the game is erratic or overly random. Rather, the world finds a subtle state of reasonable variability. You never know who you will run into or how any particular encounter will play out. And so Cyrodiil feels real: vastly simplified, but real nevertheless. The NPCs have their own agendas, and there are interesting tasks that never intersect with the main quest. And in result, a little bit of suspension of disbelief goes a long way within the world of Oblivion. Even now, I'm amazed at the number of moving parts that make possible such an (pardon the buzzword) immersive world.

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