The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – A Retrospective

Oblivion’s central environment is abounding in beauty and wonder, characterized by considerable diversity, which communicates a sharp sense of largeness, largeness which is, ultimately, rather illusory – by today’s standards, Cyrodiil could be seen as impossibly small, though Oblivion compensates for this smallness by the crafting of a very compelling, almost inviting and tranquil, atmosphere. Superficially, the visual design neatly draws upon the tropes present within the high fantast genre, though in certain instances this conventionalism is boldly and totally upset, as some displays of imaginative exoticism exist, specifically within the land’s southern regions, visibly humid and steamy, visibly rundown and dilapidated, reflecting a certain sense of poverty, societal imbalances and oppressions – Leyawiin and Bravil are in their own unique way subtle genre distortions, and diversity from cityscape to cityscape exists in great abundance. Consider the Imperial City, which rests in the dead center of Cyrodiil; majestic and beautiful, it explicitly counters the atmospheres of Bravil, Leyawiin, this more refined city defined by a towering construction, visible for a fair distance from the city: White-Gold Tower. Massive in stature and grandeur, it is an illustration of Cyrodiil’s better attributes, the progressivism defining certain aspects of the environment; progress and squalor comingle, even within the Imperial City, whose dock district is peopled by the fiercely impoverished, peopled also by more sordid characters. And, reflecting design ambition, further cityscape departures exist, as is the case with the Western, coastal city of Anvil, which clings towards more Mediterranean stylings for inspiration, with tiled roofs, while an overall sunbaked aesthetic dominates. And just as there is the sunniness of Anvil, there is the bitter, snowy cold of Bruma, situated in the far north, straddling the border of Skyrim, itself abounding in diversity. Geography matters, then, and Cyrodiil is like an amalgamation of various cultures. Bruma, being so close to Skyrim, understandably bears marks of that province. Similarly, the quaint city of Cheydinhal, positioned in the east, is relatively close to the Dunmer province of Morrowind, seizing upon that region’s aesthetics for inspiration, though the exoticism present within Morrowind is dulled somewhat, the inspiration more grounded, conventionally fantastical. Cyrodiil, then, boasts manifold different biomes, manifold different cityscapes, manifold different atmospheres, and accordingly exploration is a consistent, engrossing joy, even while the world is a mostly hollow one, reflecting limitations of the day, older design philosophies.   

Oblivion’s gameplay mechanics, while featuring some robustness and complexities, remain fiercely intuitive – the game is a wonderfully inviting one. Most of this robustness emerges within the first few moments, after the tutorial sequence of sorts is completed and the player is permitted to craft a character build, choosing from a litany of different skills and attributes, while even the choice of race made just a short time earlier exerts lasting influences; great thought as clearly been lavished upon these mechanics, their potential for synergy, though inevitably some gameplay imbalances and blunders remain – it is theoretically possible to craft an outright useless character, primarily by the failure to select a combat ability as a primary skill, while poor allocation of attributes can be similarly detrimental. Still, preset classes do exist, again reflecting this perpetually welcoming nature. While these predefined roles can absolutely lead to enjoyment, greatest enjoyment stems from the creation of an entirely new type of class, which mixes freely the various selectable skills; if knowledge of the core gameplay mechanics has been grasped, any given playthrough can open up tremendously; experimentation is thus encouraged. Attributes like strength and endurance directly influence melee attack power, carrying capacity, or the overall largeness of the health meter, thus being essential attributes for the more bombastic, offensive classes, though such attributes are mostly useless for a stealth build or one which favors magical prowess, in which case intelligence and willpower are prioritized, are necessary, they influencing maximum mana, the speed with which it regenerates. These mechanics and the necessity for player choice are resounding achievements, and it is within them that the game displays its greatest breaks from Skyrim, where this deeper personalization is completely absent, character creation in that game oversimplified; the player need never plan, to think of the future at the game’s very opening. This refusal to lock the player into any given role might be interpreted as an asset, but character creation and class building in Oblivion are, again, immensely effective in engaging the player, in encouraging them to grapple with these systems. The end result, then, is a feeling of major triumph when a build is realized, a triumphantness primarily lacking in the subsequent game, renowned possibly because of its simplicity, its more widespread appeal. But this is Oblivion, with its privileging of player choice, which goes beyond attribute, aesthetical, and racial decisions, the most central character-defining moments stemming from the selection of major skills, which not only increase the fastest, but which are also connected to leveling up; once these skills have been elevated a predetermined number of times, the player can rest in a bed, upon which the level up occurs, wherein the player can select attributes to elevate, and so on. This can be delayed, which can theoretically break much of the game, render it rather unenjoyable, but this progression system is far from bad – it is merely different, and in many ways Oblivion is a game characterized by difference.           

Whatever are the strengths of character creation and customization, the principal gameplay which succeeds these introductory choices is frequently clunky, unenjoyable – yet paradoxically satisfying. While exploration will inevitably constitute a far portion of playtime (at least until many fast travel points have been discovered, many players likely to rely upon this method of speedier navigation), a considerable portion will also be spent in open combat, which can, wonderfully and liberatingly, be approached in manifold different manners – the player can rely upon either blunt weapons or bladed weapons, one handed or two handed weapons, a litany of different bows, or even various magical constructions, though this is somewhat of an oversimplification in that these combat approaches can be fused together, crafting a totally unique gameplay experiences. Still, reflecting simplification, combat can be broken up into three distinct pillars: ranged offense, close-ranged offense, and magical offense. Given the wildly divergent nature of these approaches, a great deal of replayability is fostered, in that the player can simply reroll a character and ultimately have a vastly different experience. Again, though, this depth and flexibility does not directly translate into compelling, profound gameplay. Melee weapons lack weight and any real sense of impact, while the effects accompanying destruction magic are far from dazzling or visually impressive. Ranged combat fares somewhat better, though, in that enemies display some signs of staggering when hit by an arrow, while the animation of bringing arrow to bow is smooth, is perfect in duration. Further failings arise when considering the nature of hostile NPC’s, often poorly programmed. None of them require radically different tactics to best, though certainly one approaches combat with an armored bandit differently than combat with a Daedric adversary, literally ripped from a different realm, with different concerns. While these individuals, with their aesthetical uniqueness, liven up the combat somewhat, they cannot save it from a descent into complete shallowness: swing at an opponent until they drop; pepper the opponent with arrows; rain down spells of fire or ice upon them; it is painfully basic.

And yet, there is the mentioned satisfaction, which logically shouldn’t exist. This satisfaction primary stems from the realization of the grand vision made at the start, when the careful planning come to fruition; the late game is fairly detached from the early game, in that more and more flexibilities are afforded the player; the progression systems are mostly satisfactory, and central to these mechanics are perks, which can oftentimes have dramatic effects on gameplay, whether speaking of combat or otherwise. In somewhat of a failing, these perks are rarely emphasized, almost hidden, marking another radical departure from inviting Skyrim, where an entire section of the UI is dedicated to perks. While they may be hidden from the UI, only appearing whenever they are unlocked – this unlocking is tied to the passing of a predetermined threshold for that specific skill – they greatly elevate the enjoyability of gameplay; rather than dully shooting arrows at an enemy or watching them sidestep those arrows, with one unlockable perk they can suffer temporary paralysis, literally collapsing to the ground, wherein they are highly vulnerable. The sneak skill, when elevated, permits the player’s weapon to ignore the opponent’s armor values if the blow is made undetected, greatly opening up combat opportunities. On and on go the successes here, and while the perk systems are not as prioritized, fleshed out, or emphasized as in Skyrim, they remain great sources of enjoyment; the player character literally grows and develops as the narrative progresses ever onwards.      

Non-combat skills are another source of enjoyment, being highly empowering. Amongst the greatest joys stem from the magic systems, which are far more diverse than simple offensive destruction magic. The alteration skill permits such feats as water walking alongside more useful spells which enable the manipulation of weight, either lightening the player’s load, or increasing that of an opponents, the end result being over-encumbrance, whereupon movement becomes an impossibility. With this precise spell system – the “feathering” spell group – the endurance value becomes mostly useless, this uselessness in turn meaning that that attribute can be neglected, the player instead permitted to invest attribute points in more tangibly useful ones, like willpower or intelligence. Alteration magic, furthermore, can be employed to unlock various locked objects in the gameworld, this having similar effects: if the player has access to elevated alteration magic, then the security spell loses all usefulness. Upon starting Oblivion for the first time, any given player knows none of this information, knows little about the skills and how they interact with one another. This enlightenment, this destruction of gameplay ignorance and its replacement by greater knowledge, is another of the game’s greatest strengths: the sense of wonder and discovery is immense; every moment is like unto a journey, as the player learns more and more of the game’s minutia. Unlike Skyrim, wherein much minutia seems explicitly communicated to the player, the player is left to sort through and make sense of this minutia on their own; radical design philosophies are at work here.

The addition of other highly useful skills – like the conjuration discipline which permits the summoning of otherworldly creatures and weapons, or the mysticism discipline which permits soul-trapping or the useful ability to track enemies through walls and other structures – only adds to the gameplay complexity. Again, though, a perfect balance has been struck, in that the game always eschews the overwhelming; the mechanics, with all their depth, are rarely intimidating, though this inviting nature must not be interpreted as reflecting an appeal towards more casual audiences; Bethesda assumed and respected their audiences’ intelligence, certain they would grapple with and discover these depths. In 2006, the year of the game’s launch, the Internet was lacking of the dominance it possesses today, and this lack of dominance is of great importance, in that it preserves and enhances those same opportunities for self-discovery, limiting exterior influences.

Opportunities for role-playing and self-expression are immense – the player character is like a canvas for the player’s creativity. An intuitive U.I. is in place, being divided into many distinct tabs, one of which permits the changing of weapons and armor, this screen also permitting a full 360-degree view of the player character, while even a basic zooming feature is present: the developers, then, likely sought to endear player and player character together. Consider more fully opportunities for role-playing. While never mandated outright, inevitably the player will go dungeon diving, venturing into one of Cyrodiil’s many internal environments in search of treasure, chances to enhance major and minor skills. These efforts are oftentimes richly rewarded, in that armor and weapon sets can be looted from fallen foes, which can in turn be sold to vendors for an oftentimes hefty sum, or which can, in sometimes rare scenarios, even be equipped on the instant, being an improvement over currently equipped armor. In this fashion, a cycle of sorts is in place: the player will depart from a city center, well stocked in weapons and potions, whereupon they will travel to any of these given dungeons. After the raiding process has commenced, the town is swiftly returned to, in this wonderful, repeating process, almost communicating the player character’s vulnerability, in that they are not superhuman and must rely upon the securities and supplies present within these city centers. If the player has developed their character into a ranged combatant, then alongside the selling of spoils is the purchasing of arrows, they not being craftable. Additionally, the player character may rely upon these individuals to repair their weapon and armor sets, provided the player has not invested in the armorer skill. A great deal of compelling believability exists here, and dungeon diving is richly rewarding, not solely in the realm of tangibility (gold) but also on a deeper level; role-playing is characterized by repeated success, though never necessarily forced upon the player – no “survival” mode exists here; there is no dependency upon food and sleep for continued progression. But the player absolutely can embrace those mechanics if desired. These statements could be directed upon most role-playing games, absolutely. Similar mechanics exist even within Skyrim, but here they seem seamless and organic; it feels right to role-play, and the easiness with which the developers achieved this sensation of rightness is a monumental achievement.      

The narrative, while not particularly profound, establishes player engagement and player agency from the first, in that the in the opening moments the emperor of all Tamriel is slaughtered, right before the eyes of the newly-created character and certain of the emperor’s closet companions and bodyguards, members of the Blades organization, dedicated to the empire broadly and to the emperor specifically. While Uriel Septim – the emperor – was never given time to grow or develop as character – the player really never gets the chance to know him – his death remains impactful, plays upon pathos, in that it is easy to discern the respect and reverence projected upon him; the Blades present at his death are understandably disconcerted, while the thought exists that here was a man universally revered, a champion of the empire’s people, who has had a long reign, which has brought with it great prosperity – and, perhaps, relative stability. It is this gifted old man who is slaughtered, who in his dying breath tasks the player with saving Tamriel, having great faith in who was essentially a stranger, having that faith owing to visions received: the player character has great responsibility resting upon their shoulders. The Mythic Dawn, the instigators of the murder, have been swelling in strength and influence, directing their attentions and affections towards Mehrunes Dagon, a Daedric lord of darkness, a frightful figure with his immense power. Martin, the emperor’s obscure, seemingly vanished son, is central to the stopping of the Cult and its efforts at Dagon’s resurrection. The player, after discovering Martin, works alongside him for a protracted span of time, the pair making progress always – though sometimes the pace of that progress is slackened, the game’s narrative sometimes meandering. Some of this meandering is enjoyable, however, as when Cyrodiil’s forces are rallied together, those of Anvil, Bruma, Cheydinhal, Bravil, and all the central cities gathering outside of Bruma to launch into towering Oblivion Gates, central to the Cult’s endeavors.

While set-piece moments like this do existence, sometimes in abundance, this central narrative is mostly a predictable one, and that predictability is absolutely a failing – though far from an insurmountable one, given the fact that this one narrative thread, while seemingly the one of greatest importance and emphasis, is but one amongst many: countless side stories are dispersed throughout Cyrodiil, and it is within these secondary threads that the game shows its greatest narrative strengths. Consider the various guild questlines, each of them wholly distinct, well-developed and intriguing, while something similar could be said of the litany of Daedric quests, oftentimes concluding with the bestowal of an especially valuable, significant weapon or armor piece, enhancing player strength and flexibility. Poignant observations must be made here, when considering Oblivion’s relationship with other open-world games, particularly in the quest construction, the level of freedom afforded the player. As with so many other games of the genre, the title eventually suffers from the displacement and destruction of player agency, urgency; it is quite possible to leave the starting sewers – a monumental, arresting moment wherein Cyrodiil’s openness is directly communicated to the player – and reject Martin and the Mythic Dawn indefinitely. The world is seemingly on the brink of destruction, horrific Oblivion Gates opening with great regularity all throughout Cyrodiil. But the player character, for better or worse, can shun all of this. Earlier open-world games had similar aspirations, but here the openness is somehow more impactful, though damaging and splintering to the overall narrative; the intersection of gameplay and narrative here is profound, and a fair balance is struck.

Oblivion is characterized by a certain indefinable charm, which has only contributed to its lasting longevity, permitting the title to transcend its various failings, its rather antiquated design decisions, many of them springing from the technological limitations of the day. And, undeniably, these failings are immense, are readily discernible. Dungeon diving, while bringing with it tangible rewards and more abstract rewards like player satisfaction, is crippled somewhat by the copy/paste nature of the dungeon construction. Essentially, there are four or five distinct dungeon types, ranging from dilapidated, abandoned forts, through towards antiquated Ayleid ruins and smallish caves peopled by animals – bears and wolves, for instance. Inevitably, repetition sets in, compromising the joys of exploration, in that the dungeon construction seems procedurally generated, rather than being driven by the immense influence of level designer, asset creators. Still, this is but a small blemish, and is again easily explained away. For all its failings, on this front Skyrim is superior here, each individual dungeon seemingly crafted with considerable care and deliberateness, the end result being, of course, heightened joy in exploration. Similar failings are attached to the NPC’s, meanwhile, the overall character models being slight numerically, many NPC’s being mostly duplicates of others with only slight variation, while the scarcity of voice actors further destroys of immersion, a destruction which could be extended even towards the world-building: Cyrodiil can be impossibly beautiful and creative, with its abundance of environmental diversity, though ultimately pop-in is abysmal, jarring, while the overall texture quality is laughable when placed alongside the textures of today. But Oblivion was released sixteen years ago now, and that vast temporal gap must absolutely be considered when assessing Oblivion as experience. Just a year or two prior, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas released on the Playstation 2 and Xbox home consoles, and the game was justly lauded for its massiveness, its instilling of player freedom – here is an entire state, with three vast, explorable cities and a sprawling countryside situated in the map’s western regions. Oblivion, empowered by new consoles and the new opportunities they necessarily evoke, was primed for success in world-design and gameplay mechanics. Being so close to the 360’s launch, however, it follows that Bethesda was still grappling with these new technological possibilities: total mastery of new game engines and consoles was then unobtainable, would not be obtained until countless years later.

But this inexperience with the technology does not prevent the game from realizing its immense ambitions of world-building – Cyrodiil was and remains a place of beauty and grandeur. Hollowness abounds, certainly, though something enjoyable characterizes strolls through the countryside, no matter their vacancy, wherein the player can observe the various biomes, practicing magic and raising other skills while trekking throughout the countryside, hunting and vanquishing the animals or beasts that occasionally spawn, while even the gathering of alchemic resources incentivizes exploration. Notably – and further reflecting the drive for player freedom – a highly intuitive, innovative fast-travel system is in place, the player capable of travelling on the instant to a previously visited location; even some modern games lack this feature, showing its progressivism. In many ways, Oblivion was and is pioneering, its freedom remarkable, while it boasts a clever fusion of profound, complex mechanics and more straightforward mechanics, mechanics which are only deceptively simple. Inevitable comparisons must be made between Oblivion and Skyrim, this feud especially fierce on message boards and other such places. Skyrim, with its emphasis on the streamlined, refined and simplified many of its predecessor’s mechanics, outright discarding others, and thus in this act of refining much is lost – depth is lost. This departure is not necessarily some insurmountable failing, but an observation is easily made: Oblivion, again, released in 2006, when the video game landscape was vastly detached from the landscape of today – open-world games were certainly swelling in popularity, but they had not yet achieved the dominance which exists within the industry today. Given this climate, Oblivion was far more innovative and influential than Skyrim, that latter game released in an oversaturated moment. Oblivion, in many ways, was a template not only for its series successor but for the open-world genre broadly, while the role-playing mechanics are perfectly implemented. Here is a highly special title, then, one with lasting appeal, offering to the dedicated player hundreds of hours of compelling experiences, a compellingness only slightly tarnished by its relatively advanced age.

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