It’s been years since Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion first graced gaming consoles and PCs everywhere. And I will never stop playing it; there is simply no reason to. After four years of playing what I consider to be a masterpiece of a game, I still have not discovered everything there is to discover, or explored everything there is to explore.
Oblivion may very well be my favorite game of all time. A lot of this has to do with the the things that were done very well, and some of it has to do with the things that weren’t. There are little imperfections in the game that have simply made me love it more.
Take for example that there are hundreds of characters in this game and yet there only seems to be three of four voice actors voicing all of them. Every voice seems to be that of an aging community theater actor. This is of course aside from the big names like Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean, who lend their voices to the world and instantly class up the place. The sometimes terrible voice acting in the game has become something that amuses me. It’s part of Oblivion‘s charm. I enjoy the overly enthusiastic bellowing during what should be a simple hello, the complete and total lack of emotion during what should be a very emotional statement, such as the deadpanned “Oh no. I’m a vampire” from the Grey Prince lamenting the fact that he’s discovered he’s part vampire (skip to 4:14 for acting genius).
Then there is the Havoc engine that the game is built on. These physics are the most spastic physics I have ever seen. Every once in a while, my character will bump into a table and the apple (or potato or whatever) sitting on it will be launched across the room and into the wall as if shot from a cannon. You can forget about decorating whatever house you just bought. If you have bookshelves, you feel compelled to put books on them. This is an impossible task on which I have spent countless hours trying to simply get the book on the bookshelf. If I do get it there it is rare that I can get it to even appear in the right spot. My character usually has a very messy home because at some point I’ve thrown my hands up into the air and said “fuck it” about keeping it believably organized.
All characters, yours, the npcs, everyone is butt fucking ugly. There is no way to create an attractive character in Oblivion. You can get relatively close after a lot of manipulation of those little sliders. You may even get close enough that if you squint really hard your character looks non-disfigured, but that’s tough to achieve. Everyone in Cyrodiil is unfathomably hideous. It’s amazing.
These are all minor flaws to the game. They are so small to me that they only seem to enhance my enjoyment and experience. I haven’t encountered many real bugs and glitches along the way and in a game where there are literally hundreds of hours of content to be explored, that’s saying something (are you paying attention, Dragon Age II?).
If I have a handful of negatives to complain about with Oblivion, I have a truckload of positive things to say. Bethesda created an entire geographical orgasm. An open world, with a huge, seamless map is your playground. It’s beautiful. It’s breathtaking. It’s incredibly immersive. I have not seen all there is to see. Going about the game in a normal manner, doing quests and sidequests and stumbling onto a dungeon or two will not present you with all of the amazing content the world has to offer.
The combat of the game can be clumsy at times. If you’re like me, you may tend to flail with your sword in the general direction of an enemy and hope that you hit it. Somehow, the enemy ends up behind me and now I’m on fire. Great. There’s not a lot of graceful flow in the one on one combat system of Oblivion. What has been immensely satisfying for me though is the use of magic spells and bows and arrows. Sneak attacks for extra damage and the often single shot of an arrow in an unsuspecting enemy’s head makes me feel like a trained assassin, like I’ve been doing this kind of thing like a boss my entire life. And of course with magic, the player will often get the satisfaction of the enemy flying into the air with an electrical jolt before crumpling to the ground in a heap. That’s the kind of gameplay that makes me drool.
Exploration is purely magical. Head deep into a part of the forest that in your 200+ hours of playing you hadn’t seen before and lo and behold you’ll find a new dungeon, a new tiny village, a new mini-quest. The game never stops inspiring that awesome rush of excitement when discovering something new.*
The lore of the game is complex and layered and believable. It’s not difficult to find yourself simply reading for hours on end the books you pick up, the histories of the different cultures and civilizations, the amazingly intricate religious and spiritual tomes. Every single book or note or scroll you find is completely optional content. You don’t have to read any of it. It simply serves to entrench you deeper into this plane of existence, to transport you to this magical land.
The main storyline of the game is well done and only a small fraction of the entire experience. There are other major quest lines like those of the Thieve’s Guild or the Knights of the Nine that feel like entirely new games. All are well written, well thought out singular experiences, all with unique settings and dungeons (still paying attention, Dragon Age II?) and objectives.
Oblivion gives you almost no information about who the character you’re playing is. Every single thing about whatever race, class, and gender you choose to play is open for interpretation. My Nord warrior has a full back story in my head and I’m able to embellish much of the game with my imagination. It’s perfect. He can be whoever I want him to be, do whatever I want him to do. If I decide he’s going to spend a month in the wilderness shooting deer and exploring caves, he can. And he’s got some motivation for that that I can decide in my mind. The true scope of the imagination of Oblivion extends beyond the actual confines of gameplay. It engages your own imagination and storytelling muscles as well.
Some of the most impressive things to me about Oblivion are all the little things. You may find a crumpled note vaguely describing the location of some kind of assumed buried treasure. This kind of thing doesn’t show up in your character journal or quest log. It’s just there so that maybe, if you’re lucky, and if you spend hours and hours trying to figure it out (or 30 seconds on the Elder Scrolls Wiki) you may actually find some kind of buried treasure somewhere next to some random rock. There are all kinds of little things like this, small mysteries to be pondered and possibly figured out. When you do figure it out, it’s that invigorating rush of discovery once again, that addictive feeling of accomplishment. The game doesn’t hold the player’s hand or dumb things down or try to appeal to an audience outside of true RPG fans.
There is a magic, a certain “it” factor to Oblivion. With Skyrim being released later in the year, it is a factor I hope Bethesda can replicate. The reason I’m so excited about Skyrim is because of how much I adore Oblivion. With this game the creators have made me a fan of this series for as long as they will make them. And they can take their time too – it will probably take me four years to play all of Skyrim as well. In the meanwhile, while I wait for Skyrim to arrive I will carry on immersing myself in the world of Oblivion. Let the dungeon diving and wandering and ass kicking and awkward dialogue continue. And let the warm fuzzy feelings continue to flood my brain until November, when I put Oblivion down for the final time…maybe.
*Unless of course you have actually discovered everything there is to discover in this game, in which case I applaud you and your shut-in life.