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Thinking about Oblivion on Game and Player

Thinking about Oblivion

Michael Ubaldi  //  October 8, 2007

To be dropped into Bethesda Softworks' customer suggestion box.


e used to have diversions, before science brought us the temporary divestment from reality. The favored term for maintaining a suspension of disbelief in an electronic projection is immersion, though the word denotes plunging in so as to be covered; or becoming engrossed. Last March, video game developer Bethesda Softworks released the fourth title of its Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion, a refinement of techniques in fooling the eye and ear and mind — and confounding one's sense of time — with interactions on a TV or computer screen.

I write hereon assuming that the reader either has some understanding of fantasy themes popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien and others; and their application in modern Western literature, drama and games; as well as video games themselves; or else, if some reasoning of what follows isn't tacit, that unfamiliar meanings or concepts can be sought and clarified elsewhere.

Oblivion is at its simplest a normal fantasy role-playing game. A single player creates an identity, a character, whose actions he will control in an anthological mise-en-scene: part Arthurian legend, part European folk tale, part Greek mythology. Characters can be one of three traditional archetypes (warrior, rogue, magician) and one of several races (four breeds of man, three strains of elf, the loutish orc, or an upright and civilized lizard- or cat-man).

Gameplay follows the adventurer's lot. As hinterlands are traversed, haunted or savage ruins and other subterranea entered and conquered, treasures captured, fellow imperial subjects aided or bested; the strength and abilities, and fame and fortune of a character are increased and enlarged. Quests emerge from the environment — conversations, serendipity — and are either vignettes, with one or two accomplishments required for completion, or are segmented and develop into storylines, one of the latter central to Oblivion's plot. There are scores of challenges found across a large and varied countryside.

Until August of last year, that is all I knew of the game or its predecessors: big, open-ended, and fun. Does Bethesda realize how commonplace Oblivion's features appear to the unacquainted because the magnitude of them is, without having been experienced, incredible?

One can see pastoral photographs from the game, but that doesn't impart the encounter of sixteen square miles of navigable, fecund wilderness — mountains, forests, rivers. Nor is the dynamic simulation of natural light, be it morning or noonday or evening or night, appreciable without being able to, say, crane the neck of one's character and lose the crest of a hill in the sun's glare. Matter and objects are rendered so to be convincing on a fine, inch-for-inch scale. Exploring one of Oblivion's ancient temples, fortresses, caverns and mines takes between fifteen and forty-five minutes; and there are over 200 total sites.

Some of the enormity is by implication, though grand in itself. So while Oblivion's capital city is populated by only ten score inhabitants, each citizen has a name, a face, an occupation and a reasonably distinct temperament. Anthropometry must fascinate somebody at Bethesda — players can manipulate their character's facial dimensions before starting out, results weighted by race, dimorphism and one's aesthetic judgment. I spent nearly an hour sculpting the face of my own character, an alabaster, high-cheekboned little enchantress. And that was the primary stage of customization.

Oblivion was promoted and welcomed as a game in which one was lost for hours, each next step of an adventure reported as having a strong dilatory effect on one's sense of closure. I resisted this by playing regularly, for just a few hours at a time. Six months later, if only once or twice a week, I make time for a short session. Most quests have been fulfilled, but there are several dozen forbidden places still undisturbed.

An excellent game, of course, isn't a perfect game. Functionally, Oblivion is very stable. The bugs which persist are not numerous, and they are minor; and some of them are comedic. As a game approaches a tangible and complex constructed reality, however — never reaching verisimilitude, surely not this year — shortcomings and oversights seem more noticeable than in a game borne of less ambition. Oblivion does this and this and this, yes; but what about this? One remedy is administered through the version available on the personal computer. Altering or inserting code, with Bethesda's encouragement, players make available modifications, or "mods," which often add game content, but may also adjust the calculus of Oblivion to match a preference or reflect an opinion.

Myself, I am limited to the original game and whatever Bethesda reserves for owners of the Xbox 360 console. Which is not to say I haven't thought about how Oblivion isn't as strong as it might be; I have, but shall do no more than write about it.

The milieu of Oblivion is complicated; too much so, maybe. It is a melange that, without studying the series' history, is probably from accumulation; multifarious in design but really anachronistic. Now, studies of medieval urbanity, architecture, economics and agriculture will always be buttressed by speculation, on one hand. And on the other, Oblivion isn't a period piece, so modern elements serving the convenience of players aren't unwarranted.

But then you plod down one of the several cities' streets — it's lined with houses closest to an Elizabethan style, behind curbs of what looks like Portland cement — while enclosed in chain mail armor, iron longsword slung from the hip, passing storefronts that retail food, goods and arms of the broader Middle Ages. Miscellany of arcana, magic and alchemy and artifacts, are vended; and vendors talk nearly as they would today.

What about an open market? Barter? What lord of sound mind would allow a blacksmith to work and sell materiel privately? A thaumaturge might offer his knowledge for a price, but then, wouldn't he, as at least prescribed by fairy tale, do it through tutelage, and out of sight — rather than, as in one example from Oblivion, unravel a catalog of sorceries inside a place called Edgar's Discount Spells, like a kind of esoterica a la carte?

Out of practicability and perhaps a bit of deference, Bethesda laid out underground structures a little bit like tabletop Dungeons and Dragons: passageways, rooms filled with monsters. Most of the time this doesn't seem too illogical, and in a few special instances the designers imaginatively set one kind of beast (say, goblins) against another (the angry dead whose presence the troop of goblins fatally overlooked). Wood nymphs, minotaurs, ogres and scorpion-men wandering around a crumbling great hall, not at all consanguine and yet minding the others' presence, inaptly make for a costume party.

The artificial intelligence governing the behavior of allies works to confirm Oblivion as a solitary endeavor. In the course of some quests, men of action join a character. In battle, each one sprints for the nearest enemy. Outnumbered, they are quickly cut down; in numbers, a cohort encircles a target, preventing players from engaging an enemy themselves without risking harm to their brothers. Athwart what seems natural — a swordsman would run and try to kill his opponent as quickly as possible — is what is enjoyable, and the theater suggests that the most interesting melee is one where combatants are paired off, and duels begin and end in turn.

How many weapons, pieces of armor, jewels, adornments, and curios are in Oblivion? Hundreds. After a sufficient number of hours, however, the game's classification is rather easily exposed in terms of rows and columns. A gold ring is a gold ring — is a gold ring, and what remains in monetary value is lost in variation. Is a random, a fractal, generator of the physicality of a thing impossible? Bethesda could take that same gold ring and show the player engravings, inlaid stones, other marks; that vary slightly or considerably from a second gold ring. Two rings, or two swords, or two of whatever might be worth the same coinage; one, through nuance and attendant sentimentality, priceless to a player. And curiosity about what another unique object looked like would inspire adventuring that sameness couldn't.

Inspiration, while playing Oblivion, is yet in ample supply. We have some one hundred-odd visitations for the snitching of antiquities left to go, my enchantress and me.

(This article was first published on Figure Concord in January 2007.)

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