THE ELDER SCROLLS IV: OBLIVION

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Xbox 360)
Bethesda Softworks, 2007

I've long maintained that computer games are another form of narcotic. Sure, my Xbox is cheaper than my smack habit, and better for my health, and less likely to get me incarcerated, shunned by polite society, and forced into the company of desperate and violent people — but the goal of both is the same. I play computer games to forget, to lose myself in another world, to seek relief, however temporary, from conscious existence. A good game is a little death, a whole moment of bliss. It offers a glimpse of my final peace, and ushers me gently ever closer.

The Elder Scrolls IV is not such a game. It fails to deliver the oblivion it promises and I so dearly crave. I desperately wanted to lose myself in this game, you've no idea how hard I tried; but despite all my will and my efforts, Oblivion never drowned out the sound of the clock ticking by. One irritation after another kept jarring me back to couchbound reality.

Maybe you think that's no bad thing; I've certainly read enough dire warnings against the sin of video-game immersion. For some people it's the height of irresponsibility to relinquish the self: they see immersion as a gross neglect of their duties as a mature and upstanding citizen of the Empire. And indeed, if you aspire to be one of life's winners, if you identify with the movers and shakers, if your self is one of your proudest possessions and finest achievements, then the thought of giving it up for the duration of a computer game must be quite appalling. But not for me, not now, not anymore. These days I identify with the losers; these days I'm stuck out in the hinterland, contemplating the eternal grind, the empty future, the helpless here and now. These days I want something that knocks me out of it for hours at a time; I want a window into something better.

I want a game world, but Oblivion only gives me a toy world. It dumps a load of widgets on my lap and says "here, have fun with these." With Oblivion, you're personally and individually responsible for your entertainment: if you have a good time, you can pat yourself on the back; if you don't, tough.

Call me uncreative, put it down to my lack of imagination or whatever, but I don't want a game to leave me stranded on the sand with a bucket and spade and my ego for company. I want a game to come at me like a tsunami and wash me away. I want to be tossed, turned, pushed, pulled, pummelled, stretched, pounded.

I want a rollercoaster, but Oblivion gives me a fucking broken tricycle.

THE TOTAL LACK OF PERSPECTIVE VORTEX

The world of Oblivion is built entirely for the player's gratification, and makes no attempt to hide that fact. It aims to satisfy a childish urge to open every door and pick every pocket and raid every fridge and sneak into every bedroom. No area in the game world is off limits: everything and everyone in it exists to be taken or exploited or consumed by the player. It's like a gingerbread house, and it's about as convincing.

The best game worlds pretend not to be for your gratification; they strive to appear bigger than you and fundamentally indifferent to you. Games like Half-Life and Deus Ex and Mass Effect and Dragon Age present you with permanently locked doors, blocked streets, faraway characters, windows into inaccessible rooms, and in so doing they offer glimpses of a world outside your concerns and control. This is a simple device, but it makes these worlds seem much larger and more substantial. These are game worlds that contain you. In spite of its vast geography, the world of Oblivion seems comfortably smaller; you contain it. It fits neatly in a row with the rest of your mental baggage.

The best game worlds shape how you get to experience them: they deploy exciting acts of misdirection to hide the cheap sets and puppet strings which are an inevitable recourse of trying to build a universe with today's inadequate technology. Oblivion keeps misdirection to a minimum, but in purporting to show us everything, it only shows us how fake everything is. The world of Oblivion can't possibly contain a real, functioning society: it's got hardly any farming or industry, no trade, no culture, no plausible power relations, no system for sustaining people's lives and the economy. If what we see is all there is, then I can't believe in it, I can't inhabit it, I can't possibly immerse myself in it. It would be like diving into a puddle.

Of course, as a kid I liked jumping into puddles; a puddle was a little oasis of control, an ocean of my own, in which I could splash around and make a mess without any fear of getting in over my head. This is undoubtedly part of the appeal of Oblivion and similar games. It's escapism, but of a weirdly solipsistic kind. I don't have any problem with escapism in general — at the very least, it betokens a dissatisfaction with present-day political reality — but I do have a problem with the kind of escapism that shrinks and retreats inward. Traditional escapists, whether they looked to God, opium, or Lord of the Rings, sought to sublime into something greater than themselves. But what kind of escapist seeks to lord it over something smaller?

SIMULATION: THE CALL OF THE GENERIC

Oblivion is a simulated world, which naturally means that it has a lot of generic content. The whole point of simulating a system, after all, is to avoid scripting a specific behaviour for each individual element of that system. Simulation is all about abstracting away from specific individuals and situations, and identifying and implementing generic rules that describe a class of behaviours and responses. But this can be toxic to a sense of immersion.

The generic puts distance between subject and object: you've got to stand back to get a view of the general picture. The specific draws you in; you only see individual details when you get closer. When you're intimately involved in a world, you see specific people with specific problems, specific histories, specific behaviours and specific voices; when you're not involved, you see it all in the abstract. The specific is essential for immersion; the generic is death to it.

If game worlds aspire to be immersive, they should be careful about how much they simulate. Simulating physics is fine; people generally don't have a close personal relationship with Newton's Laws. They don't read volumes into how a rock rolls down a hill. They do, however, read a lot into how a character walks down a hill, and how a character talks and behaves. Simulating characters is usually a bad idea, and it's an idea that Oblivion takes very seriously.

Oblivion's non-player characters are supposed to have deeply simulated lives. They have regular schedules and regular haunts, they sleep and work and eat and have relationships and talk to each other, and the game keeps track of all of them in your presence and absence. This "Radiant Intelligence" might have worked if Bethesda developers had singularity-level AI to call on, but as it is they and we are stuck with a bunch of stupid algorithms. The NPCs glide around the map on their daily routines, falling off bridges, walking into walls; occasionally they'll bump into one another and have the same idiotic conversation about mud crabs.

Above: the vacant stare of an Oblivion NPC fills the screen: all conversations in the game seem to occur at a mutual distance of about four inches. The pie-chart-like thing in the corner is part of the "persuasion" mini-game. The goal is to rotate the slices of pie to boost a character's "disposition" above 70 points, while listening to their canned responses. If you meet anyone who thinks this adequately simulates a conversion, back away. As is usual for games like this, other people are depicted as resources to be mined for information, money, loot, etc. You break into a treasure chest with your lockpicking skills; you break into an NPC with your persuasion skills.
Characters in Oblivion belong to races and factions, which largely determine their mutual behaviour. They can exhibit one of four generic facial expressions, which reflect their "disposition score" relative to their current company. Characters tend to speak with the same voice, quite literally. Apart from the three movie stars in separate cameo roles, all of the voice-work — what must be a few novels' worth of dialogue — is shared between ten different performers. Their work is distributed along the game's racial and gender lines: all the women of a given race are voiced by one actor, and all the men by another. These poor actors sound rather lost and disoriented; having to voice dozens of characters each, and provide generic dialogue for all of them, it's no surprise that their characters utterly fail to come across as individuals.

It's worth comparing the characters in Oblivion with those in the Assassin's Creed series. While the latter is itself no shining example of character writing, all its main characters are individually and extensively scripted, and distinctive in voice, temperament and appearance. And its other characters are not so much simulated as sketchily represented: if you follow a random citizen in Ezio Auditore's Florence or Rome, you'll quickly find that they're walking in circles. In spite of this, the cities in Assassin's Creed are convincing urban spaces, bustling with life and sound and activity. This is in stark contrast to the deathly-quiet cities of Oblivion, which seem to contain about 40 people each.

The irony is that in merely representing its citizens, Assassin's Creed does a much better job of simulating a city; while Oblivion, in trying to simulate everything, ends up only giving an abstract representation. Each person in Oblivion represents about a hundred people, each house a hundred houses, each cabbage a hundred cabbages. Characters don't have dialogue, but representations of dialogue. Oblivion puts several layers of abstraction between me and its game world.

GENERIC FANTASY WRITING IN A GENERIC FANTASY WORLD

Oblivion begins with the following narration, delivered by Patrick Stewart:

"I was born 87 years ago. For 65 years I've ruled as Tamriel's emperor; but for all these years, I've never been the ruler of my own dreams. I have seen the gates of oblivion beyond which no waking eye may see. Behold, in darkness, a doom sweeps the land!
"This is the 27th of Last Seed, the year of Akatosh 433. These are the closing days of the Third Era, and the final hours of my life."

Stewart saved a number of duff Star Trek scripts in his time, but the whole RSC couldn't save this garbage. It's an archetype of bad fantasy writing, trite and pompous and flatulent, a whirlwind of names and dates and cliches, signifying nothing.

It sets the tone for the rest of the game. The stories and plotlines in Oblivion, with few exceptions, are poorly conceived and structured, and lacking in spectacle, excitement and tension. The main quest is particularly bad, a series of samey dungeon crawls leading up to an ultra-lame climactic battle scene. Oblivion eschews the kind of spectacular battle-hordes seen in Dragon Age; no, it has a deep commitment to character simulation, which means that the final battle for Tamriel pits about ten knights against eleven demons, while my framerate looks on and suffers. What's more anticlimactic still, the principal villain of the game shows up for the first time only after this battle, in a dreary coda, spouting cliched bad-guy phrases like the Evil Emperor from Star Wars — who the hell is this guy? (This role, incidentally, is yet another waste of the great Terence Stamp.)

The main quest isn't the only plotline to suffer an anticlimactic ending. In the finale of the thieves' guild quest, we battle through the sewers of the Imperial city to reach its central tower, the tower that's visible from almost every point of the map, the hub and axle of the game world. We sneak up the tower, steal the heavily guarded magic macguffin, and then use our magic boots to jump off the tower to safety. It's a scene that's crying out for spectacle and action: at the very least, an Assassin's Creed-style leap of faith, followed by an exciting chase through the city and then freedom. But instead, just as we begin the jump, the game cuts to a loading screen which informs us that the jump has taken place. When the loading screen disappears, we're forced into a lengthy and anticlimactic trek back through the sewers — during which my character literally died of boredom, several times.

In its appearance, history and conception, the world of Oblivion is painfully generic, with little to distinguish it from countless other Tolkien clones. It suffers at every point of comparison with the world of Dragon Age, a world of surprising detail, presence and vibrancy. And don't tell me that Oblivion's richly detailed history is to be found in all those copies of the multi-volume History of Tamriel lying around — why would I read any of that junk? The history of a world is embodied not in its books, but in its people. The history of Dragon Age lives in its characters; you see it in the sorrow of the city elves, the resentment of the mages, the righteousness of the templars; you see it in Duncan's anxiety, in Morrigan's haughty contempt, in Alistair's hesitance, in Sten's pride. Since the characters of Oblivion are blanks, the world they live in is shallow and sterile. No stories can grow or survive there.

Above: The City of Light by Thomas Kinkade, who worked uncredited on Oblivion as lead kitsch consultant.
In my review of Dragon Age I mentioned the game's racist undertones, so I should say that Oblivion is a thousand times more racist, remarkably so, even for a fantasy game. In Oblivion, black and white people are depicted as species as distinct from each other as lizards and cat-people. Redguards (black people) are inherently better warriors and athletes, but less intelligent. Imperials (white people) have no such intelligence penalty, and are inherently more charismatic, and indeed natural rulers. What the fuck is this doing in a game in the 21st century? If you ask a load of entitled nerds on the Penny Arcade forum, they'll say it doesn't matter and has no bearing on the outside world. But to prove them wrong you only have to note that "Redguard" has already entered nerd language as an "ironic" racial slur. Thanks for doing your bit to keep race hate alive, Bethesda!

You might say that Oblivion, as a third sequel to a game from 1994, is lumbered with a half-assed piece of world-building from the bad old days of computer gaming, and indeed that's partly true. But it's no excuse to keep serving up this trash and not to reimagine the world from scratch. Only a handful of nerds could possibly care if they ditched it wholesale.

SOMETHING LESS THAN A GENERIC RPG

It's widely acknowledged that the RPG elements of Oblivion are a flop. The game faithfully delivers all the most boring features of RPGs — the inventory micromanagement, the lugging stuff to the nearest shop, the recharging, reloading and repairing — while failing to deliver any of the fun. The experience system is bizarrely broken, to the extent that levelling up is really bad news. There's no real reward for exploring any of Oblivion's identikit dungeons: the loot is mostly junk, and even the one-off special artefacts are no match for the generic ones you can make yourself. The fights — mostly one-on-one encounters — are boring; no tactical interest, just whack it again and again. Oblivion is one of long line of titles trying to verify the hypothesis that first-person melee combat doesn't work, a hypothesis which has now surely been established as one of the laws of gaming.

Like Burger King, Oblivion gives the customer plenty of options to create a personalised experience — you can play as a sneak, a fighter, a wizard, a vampire, or any combination of the above — and like Burger King, the experience ends up being pretty much the same, no matter what you choose. This is what happens when you construct your gameplay from such bland, low-quality, generic ingredients. In providing this variety of options, the designers of Oblivion were no doubt hoping to summon the holy spectre of "emergent gameplay"; but as always, the spectre fails to grace us with an appearance, and only makes its presence felt indirectly, though a large number of bugs and exploits.

The flower-picking bit is good though! More of that in games, please.

(Comments)


[1] Note to present and future employers: I don't have a smack habit.

[2] If you cast Patrick Stewart to do your opening narration, don't give him a line beginning "These are the...". Whatever he says afterwards, all I'll hear is "voyages of the Starship Enterprise."

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