Friday, February 13, 2009


I've been playing video games again a little bit lately. Well, one video game: Oblivion, being the fourth installment in the fantasy role-playing game series, "The Elder Scrolls".

I play video games, as most people do, for a variety of reasons. A less entertaining reason is that it's a stress reliever. A more entertaining reason is that I enjoy being in the role of someone who can accomplish spectacular things in other worlds, living through dramatic stories with no consequences to myself but emotional ones. I want to call lightning with the power of my mind, find ancient supernatural artifacts in underground caves, leap off mountains and survive. This is why I tend to play video games like "Oblivion".

"Oblivion", and the Elder Scrolls series in general, is a roleplaying game, and is somewhat unique in the video game world. The game starts you off as a forgotten prisoner in a dungeon; what you did to be put in the dungeon is never explained. As the game opens, the Emperor of the continent, voiced by Patrick Stewart, comes traipsing through your prison cell. His guards are very annoyed to see you there - apparently your cell houses a secret escape route from the city (if only you'd known!) and the Emperor is being chased by assassins. It looks like a bureaucratic mix-up stuck you in the middle of this - or maybe Destiny, because the Emperor recognizes your face. It seems he's seen you in his dreams. Before the next few hours are out, he'll be dead, and you'll be tasked with the mission of finding his illegitimate surviving heir and delivering to him a supernatural heirloom.

The story continues from there, of course, but if you just follow through that story and nothing else, you're missing the point. The world of "Oblivion" (and its predecessors "Morrowind" and "Daggerfall") is huge and open. It is over 16 square miles wide in 'real' absolute terms, with giant cities, small towns, open tracts of wilderness, rivers, mountains, swamps, forests, and people everywhere; that's not even counting the alien world of Oblivion (a combined metaphor for outer space and hell, believe it or not) which the player can venture to. It's a world to get lost in.

Sure, technology puts limits on the realism; some of the world is randomly generated, the people who populate the world have limited dialogue, and, well... you're playing a video game. It's as unrealistic on the edges as you would ultimately expect.

Still, "Oblivion" is powerful in that, within the loose bounds of the fantasy world provided, you can be anyone. You choose and design your own character, appearance, personality, skills and physical traits. It's easy to design a range of characters who do completely different things in this other world, live in different cities, befriend different people. This is the appeal of the role-playing game; god forbid I play a game like "World of Warcraft", in which the possibilities are truly infinite because you're surrounded by real people. It's this kind of thing that turns people into addicts, who sacrifice their outside social lives on the altar of a fantastic world where they can live lives they never could in the outside world.

Not I. There's an edge of frustration involved, and for me, it makes me want to write. A game like "Oblivion" has an inevitable story problem; it's sharply limited despite the openness of the world. There's only a few conversation options, and an ultimately finite number of unique stories you can experience in the world. Inevitably, most are predictable, and the ones that are surprising still amount to very very short stories once you subtract the amount of fighting and looting and exploring that you do to get from point A to point B. The beautiful world of the game triggers inspiration; walking down a woodland road in the rain holding an enchanted sword gives one a sense of possibility, a sense of wondering, for me, what this character that I have so carefully created might be doing or feeling walking down this road in another world. The game, good as it is, cannot but fall short of these speculations. It's from these frustrations that stories can be born.


Luke said...

Mee too! I've been playing Oblivion like it's my job lately.

Then again I'm rocking a Thief/Assasin right now working for the Dark Brotherhood and the Thieves Guild. Though it's funny how these two factions seem to have quite incompatible views on killing.

I go get a mission from my doyen which requires me to do some thing really elaborate to discredit an annoying captain of the city guard who is coming down hard on the Guild. I can sort of imagine my character smirking and rolling her eyes. After all, she has been working as an assassin all this time so the political machinations seem to be way to much work. :P

I actually found Morrowind to be much more engrossing. Perhaps it's because it had no voice acting. So you would sort of imagine how each of these characters would sound and behave in real life. It left more to the imagination which, for some reason made me more invested in the game. Oblivion looks much better, and it is much more polished but also shallower.

It also had much better main story and much more factions to choose from. For example you could join the imperial legion, the temple of the tribunal or one of the great houses.

It also gave you much more to do when you became a vampire. It actually had several vampire clans, each with it's own quest line which were unlocked only after you became one. In Oblivion vampirism is much more limited.

Also, you did get to "role-play" quite a bit more. For example, my character in Morrowind became the head of House Halalu, and the leader of the Thieves guild virtually without doing any combat missions.

But yeah, these things can inspire you. they are like collections of little stories that are just begging to be fleshed out. Especially Morrowind because you don't have voice actors injecting their interpretation (or bad acting) into your story. :P

Jake Jesson said...

Ha! Hey, Luke - and okay, prepare for random comment time.

Funny, I'm playing a primarily mage character at the moment, and haven't started on the Dark Brotherhood or Thieves Guild quests. I made her an ex-soldier with a buzzcut, mostly because I could imagine interesting things with her interactions with the not-at-all-militarily-efficient Mages' Guild. Too bad Oblivion's dialogue trees are a little too simplistic to accommodate interpretations like this...

I agree with you on Morrowind - one of my favorite games. Oblivion is more entertaining to play (minus the borked level up system which makes obsessives like me miserable), with a much more satisfying skill system, magic system, and even combat system. The world of Oblivion is gorgeous. Morrowind's world, though, felt just as real despite the graphics difference.

And yes, the main story was more compelling in Morrowind; particularly everything involving Vivec. Not to mention a bunch of interesting options mostly absent from Oblivion, like the things you mentioned... though I gotta say, I miss being a werewolf in Bloodmoon.

Plus, the fact that everyone in the world (in Oblivion) levels up with you breaks immersion even as it solves gameplay problems. Less sense of accomplishment, and it's also strange coming from playing Morrowind, getting to a high level in Oblivion, and seeing random highway robbers wearing glass or Daedric armor like it's nothing.

On the other other hand, Oblivion's NPCs are much better what with their daily/monthly schedules and all, even if the voice acting quality varies. Morrowind got a little creepy now and then when people who never leave the room and never sleep...