Tuesday, November 19

A Retrospective On My Elder Scrolls Experience: Oblivion

It wasn't long ago that Bethesda's, The Elder Scrolls series existed in relative obscurity. Morrowind was certainly popular with PC gamers, but then PC gaming didn't represent mainstream gaming culture, let alone mainstream culture. It was the release of the The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, on consoles, that the series started to gather some main stream recognition. It was finally with Skyrim that Bethesda entered the big leagues. My experience with The Elder Scrolls was slightly usual. I started with Oblivion around 2007, then played Morrowind in around 2009 and played Skyrim on release. I've never touched the other games such as Arena and Daggerfall and do not have any motivation to play them now. To my eyes they simply look awful. So in this series of posts I'll be recounted my experience of The Elder Scrolls, not chronologically, but in the order I played them.

As mentioned Oblivion as the first Elder Scrolls game I played and with it I developed a real love/hate relationship. In my first play through I was blown away. Cyrodil was larger than I could comprehend, there were hundreds of NPCs with their own little lives, you could improve countless skills and most important was the level of freedom you had over your progression. Up until Oblivion I'd mainly been playing Japanese role playing games (e.g. Tales of Symphonia and Golden Sun); games in which the narrative, questing, item progression etc. is extremely linear. You went where the story told you and you could rarely go anywhere else. You bought items at stores along this narrative path, you could rarely get gear beyond the structured acquisition from dungeons and shops. Playing Oblivion opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. Almost from the start of the game you could go anywhere you wanted to. You could go after powerful loot or encounter dangerous creatures. All of this blew me away. In fact even the start of the game was a totally unique experience for me; I was able to decide upon the physical aesthetics of my character, as well as choosing what skills to focus on.

I made Bosmer male and focused on sneak, bows and 1 handed swords. I can't say for sure when I fell in love with thief/rogue archetype, but I think Oblivion contributed to it significantly. I spent lots of time stealing from peoples housing, fencing goods and sneaking around. Stealing was perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Oblivion, I loved the feeling of being somewhere I shouldn't be, the potential to find great valuables, with the risk of being caught at any time. I dungeon crawled using swords and bows, never magic. The freedom to pursue the main story at your own pace while gobbling up the rest of the game's content was great. I mainly focused on the side quests while sparingly completing the main story. The combat system was serviceable though I never fully enjoyed it. One thing I came to recognise as one of my gaming staples was my love of being outdoors and exploring the harsh wilderness. In this regard Oblivion was unparalleled for me at the time. Explore of the beaten path and you could find villages, people and quests that you never would have otherwise. The most stand out examples of these were the Daedric shines which would start some of the most memorable quests in the game and offer unique and powerful rewards. One such quest sees you freeing slave trolls and killing their owners, or mad quest involving naked party guests. The game had many such brilliant quests, whether in the Thief's Guild or The Dark Brotherhood. To sum up my first experience of Oblivion; it opened my eyes to a totally new type of RPG. Unfortunately over time, my love for Oblivion didn't increase, it decreased.

At the time Oblivion's vistas were breathtaking
After playing over 100 hours of Oblivion I found my enthusiasm waning. Flaws I didn't notice before, slowly came into view. For instance sneak was a poor tool for exploring the wilderness or dungeon crawling. If one enemy detected you, that enemy would alert others in an extremely large radius. Sneak didn't empower you with any powerful assassination tools, so combat was always a chore. The levelling system was awful due to enemies scaling. This meant you could become relatively weaker as the game progressed, if you choose to level the wrong skills. It also diminished any sense of progression as generic bandits could attack you in Daedric armour! Realising these flaws I looked to mods to reinvigorate my interest in the game.

FCOM was the first mod I turned to, a behemoth which overhauled levelling, skills, items and more. It took several frustrating hours to install but once completed, I enjoyed Oblivion almost as much as the first time. With enemy and item scaling removed it means you could discover and explore deadly dungeons and be richly rewarded, or you might find a cave of lower level goblins and slaughter them gleefully. Simpler mods improved the graphics, or lock picking. Unfortunately modding couldn't fix one of my biggest complaints; the atrocious NPC faces. Not only did these fail on a technical level, but they also failed in an artistic one, Oblivion's NPCs look like deformed humans. I finished my modded experience of Oblivion extremely satisfied. Despite the arduous modding process, it was entirely worth it. I played Oblivion once more, once the expansion The Shivering Isles came out.

The Shivering Isles took players into the realm of Sheogorath, one of the Daedric princes. What really made Shivering Isles special is that the artists were free to create a twist and fantastical realm. It addressed the minor complaint that Oblivion was generic fantasy with nothing setting it apart. Shivering Isle's was colourful and imaginative and the quest designers were able to create very memorable experiences. Playing Shivering Isle's marked my 3rd major playthrough into Oblivion, and the 2nd time modded. Unfortunately my playthrough came up short when one of the final quests broke and no matter how much tinkering I did, I couldn't fix it. Alas that it was an incomplete experience because up until that point I had been enjoying it immensely.

After putting in hundreds of hours into Oblivion over the years, I came away with mixed feelings. My first playthrough without mods was great. My 2nd playthrough with mods was great. My 3rd playthrough with mods was great. But I came to realise that Oblivion without mods is pretty bad primarily due to the item and enemy scaling. At the same time installing mods is an arduous process that can leave your game crash prone. After my 3rd playthrough I decided I'd seen enough of Oblivion, modded or not. Beyond that I also knew that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was on the horizon...