Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

A few years ago, I tried to play Oblivion on the PC. I never quite got the hang of the game, really, and then I got stuck in a magical painting and couldn't get out. Or something. I don't quite recall what it was, but it was frustrating enough, coupled with the weird UI, that I wasn't interested in trying any more.

About two weeks ago, I tried it on the XBox. The difference is incredible. The controls and UI work very well, and the whole game seems to make more sense. I've been playing it in bits and pieces since, and I'm well and truly hooked.

So what's keeping me in this game, when more recent games like Dragon Age: Origins and DA2 leave me uninterested? Well, as per usual, it's the sandbox. Oblivion not only allows you to wander off and take the scenic route, it rewards you for it. There are bits where the plot of the game stops dead for a few days in-game, as someone does research, the council deliberates, or the like, and you have to go off and explore a bit. There are houses in each city you can buy. At higher levels of the mercantile skill, you can invest in businesses. You might become a vampire; you can also seek a cure for it. Or you can avoid it massively, because the twin problems of not being able to go out in daylight and having townsfolk shrink away from you are annoying.

You can play an awful lot of Oblivion without advancing the main plot at all. I'm currently working my way up the ranks of the Mage's Guild, for example, following a fairly detailed line of events about necromancers and the Guild's efforts to root them out. And even within the plot lines, there are interesting ways to deal with each problem - in one recent one, for instance, I dealt with very tough monsters by pulling them out into a city street where the guards could help me kill them off. When I do eventually make it through the main plot (and become Archmage, if I have anything to do with it), then I'll turn around and play it again, this time with a sneaky, stabby type character with lots of invisibility spells, and I'll go looking for the Thieves' Guild I hear exists. I think it's pretty likely they have an interesting quest-line as well.

In short, I feel like I'm playing through MY story, not the story of some character invented by the game designer, and guided through a pre-determined plot with fight scenes between them. It is, of course, an illusion, but it's a pretty convincing one, and works better even than most MMOs I've played.

I've been thinking about this, and it comes down to one simple point: my idea of how games should work has been shaped, from a very early age, by running tabletop games. The notion that there are a few pre-set possibilities for the next thing I can do, rather than a whole raft of ways to get around the problem, offends me at some basic level. My whole way of thinking about games, and fantasy worlds, is around the infinite possibilities; having that cut down to three or four approaches, well, it stings.

Posted by Drew Shiel at August 22, 2011 1:34 PM

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