Working in games media, I find myself struggling to backtrack and tackle previously released games. I often find myself saying “I don’t have time to go back and play game X, Y, or Z right now, because game A, B, or C just came out and I need to review it or make content on it”. Embargo and deadline dates need to be hit, and with how fast the gaming industry is evolving, being up to date on the latest news and storylines is key. Yet, like many, I still eventually make time for those games that hold a special place in my heart.
Games like the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Kingdom Hearts, and the original Halo trilogy all helped shape my gaming interest and passion for the medium. One game in particular that I adore though seems to get quite the amount of flack from current gamers: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. While I’m sure nostalgia helps with my admiration towards the game, it took me off guard when I noticed the current amount of negativity surrounding a game that I feel I could boot up at any point and enjoy it just as much today as I did almost a decade and a half ago.
Considered by many as the black sheep of the series, the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion launched on 20 March, 2006 on PC and Xbox 360. Originally slated for a November 2005 release, to align with the launch of Microsoft’s Xbox 360, the game was pushed into the following year, giving the extra time Bethesda certainly needed for a project of this scope. Oblivion released to universal acclaim from both fans and critics, with both praising the game’s jaw-dropping graphics for the time, level of immersion unseen before, and unique interaction with the world the player was thrust into. Selling over 1.7 million copies in its first month, Oblivion has gone on to sell more than 9.5 million copies (as last recorded in 2015).
Yet, for all of the accolades the title has received over the last 12+ years, it is rarely brought up in general discussion around the series. Fans regularly touch on Skyrim‘s ‘infinite’ replayability, along with Morrowind‘s ability to adapt a PC-driven RPG experience to console, but rarely do fans touch on all of the groundwork Oblivion laid. Not only would it craft what would be the basis for Bethesda’s open world games to come, but modern action-adventure/RPG experiences in general.
Compared to previous titles in the series, Oblivion was the first to push a stronger emphasis on its main narrative. While it isn’t as forceful as its successor Skyrim, Bethesda provides the player with many quality of life fixes that do highlight questing more so than in previous adventures. At the same time, the heavy emphasis on theatrical level storytelling does reward the player for taking part in the story. With Bethesda opting out of the ‘chosen hero’ plot point and the player becoming more a bystander to the central plot line, is a turn off to some players. Yet, I find the passenger seat you are placed in to be an incentive to scour the province to see all of the beauty it offers.
The character creation found within the game is something that was solely unique to the series as well. While gone are the deep layers of class customization found within the series’ second entry Daggerfall, Oblivion does improve upon the quite brief and peeled back character customization found in Morrowind. By letting players use a range of mechanics such as magic, ranged weapons, a spell of different hand-to-hand weapons before completing the tutorial dungeon, Oblivion helps players find the skill set that would fit their playstyle best before committing. Oblivion was also the first in the series to let the player completely customize their in game character in terms of their looks. Before, a simplistic designation of presets was available for players to choose from, due to the technical limitations at the time of Morrowind’s release. Sliders ranging from nose dimensions, body build, age, and more let the player expose their creativity and let them truly design an avatar of their own.
To this day, I believe Bethesda crafted one of the best introductions to a gaming world in Oblivion. Forget the Imperial Sewers and the notoriously annoying rats . I’m talking of course about that first big step leaving the sewers, into the beautiful, lush and sprawling 22 square-mile province of Cyrodiil. The gleaming pale blue sky drapes the horizon, as rolling emerald hills go as far as you can see, only broken by the bank of a glistening river. In the distance, the player can see ornate buildings and cities that are filled with hundreds of interactive NPCs. Just across the small river in front of you lies the entrance to a dungeon in ruins, with bandits setting up camp and plotting their next move. Even in 2019, I find this moment to be breathtaking, let alone in 2006. You may be given the task of heading to Weynon Priory to deliver the Amulet of Kings to Jauffre, but you are never pushed to do so. Many of Bethesda’s games let the player loose after the small tutorial portion, but as the company releases more modern iterations of their open world formula, it seems to become more directive.
In Skyrim, after escaping the initial tutorial cave with Ralof, the player is put into a similar scenario as Oblivion (given a basic objective of where to go, but not verbally forced). Yet, the player feels more funneled to going to the first objective in Skyrim. Landing right on a main road, along with the bleaker aesthetic and color tones, take the focus off of exploration and applies to linearity. The draw distance that Oblivion vastly improved on over the series’ third entry Morrowind truly helps emphasize the idea of exploration and the idea of ‘if you can see it, you can go there’.
Within the world is a bit more of a rollercoaster for Bethesda’s fourth epic fantasy installment though. The Radiant A.I. NPC system was truly revolutionary for its time, and added a new layer of immersion for the player. Characters weren’t necessarily designed to complete scripted routines to an extent, but to make choices to successfully achieve their goals. This could include eating, sleeping, reading, and speaking to other characters, and they all were dependent based on their ability to adapt to their environment, choices of other NPCs and the verbal skill of the player. For 2006, a character system of this complexity was truly unheard of. While it led to a few laughable reactions by NPCs, it laid the base for many aspects found in both modern Bethesda games and current open world experiences in general.
While the characters inhabiting them had depth, the game’s dungeons themselves were a nuisance, even when the game first released. The implementation of the game’s Oblivion Gates were quite unique at first. Stepping through your first Gate outside of Kvatch, into the Plains of Oblivion rivalled any experience in gaming to that date. The haunting image of hellfire and brimstone surrounding the player, paired with the depth of enemies and environments found were truly special. Well, at least for the first one. After that, it felt quite cookie-cutter. Not to mention, if players wanted to complete the main storyline, it required closing several more, with each sometimes requiring over half an hour to do so. Dungeons also suffered the same fate. While they were much more abundant than Oblivion Gates and some did change up their formulaic approach, many still felt almost identical to each other.
Hailed by some as the “first next-generation game” of its time, Oblivion made vast improvements on the groundwork laid by its older brother Morrowind. Morrowind, the third mainline entry in the Elder Scrolls series, made tremendous strides towards bringing traditional PC RPG style games to more mainstream notoriety. The biggest stride was bringing the series to the home console market, releasing on Microsoft’s first generation Xbox in 2002. For all that Morrowind succeeded in with its cast of characters, its technological limitations of the time caused environmental issues within the game. The view distance, being the most glaring issue, was limited to only several feet in front of the player (especially when playing the Xbox port of the game). Bethesda put this point of concern at the forefront of Oblivion‘s development, and with the vastly superior advancement in technology moving to the Xbox 360 helped remedy this.
While many ‘open world’ games leading up to the sixth console generation suffered from a myriad of tradeoffs, Oblivion truly felt like the first to find success in each area of the genre. Games like the early 2000s Grand Theft Auto entries showed exceptional environment development, but lacked in character design, where as Morrowind had exceptional characters, but the world was cramped and a struggle to explore. Bethesda took the opportunity it had with Oblivion‘s development and tried to successfully hinder as many tradeoffs as possible. NPC uniqueness was found within the game, draw distances stretched to extensive rates, all while running at a playable frame rate that wouldn’t hinder the player’s experience. Now, this isn’t to say Oblivion completely masters all of the elements it succeeds in, because it certainly does not. Yet, what made it truly big leap for the RPG genre was its ability to not compromise features and aspects.
What might be the most underrated aspect of the game though, would be its soundtrack and audio. The advancement to all dialogue being voiced helped add a cinematic feel to the experience being offered. Voices of master class actors such as Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean and Terence Stamp gave credence to the theatrical level presentation Bethesda aimed for with the game. While the voices present shined, the variety of actors was a swing and a miss for the development team. Many NPCs shared similar voice actors, resulting in a bit of repetitiveness. However, the game’s soundtrack stands so tall, to this day it is quite possibly still unrivaled. Composed by longtime series mainstay Jeremy Soule, the beautiful 26 tracks felt so natural across the 58 minutes it spanned. The grand orchestral score perfectly encapsulates the feeling of exploration, along with the grandeur of the high fantasy aesthetic found in the province of Cyrodiil. Soule focused on the soundtrack’s ability to comment on the human condition and the beauty of life, comparative to focusing on one specific character’s traits (something that changed moving to Skyrim’s extreme focus on the Dovahkiin legend).
While the game’s shortcomings are quite evident, Oblivion seems to fall victim to being the forgotten child, or the metaphoric middle sibling. It was released in somewhat of a limbo period in gaming, with the industry getting its first taste of high definition gaming. Launching during the initial year of a console’s life usually proves to be a learning period for many developers, with many trying to become acquainted to the hardware their product is being formed to play on. Yet, for the handful of issues the game displayed, it still proves to be a beautiful and enjoyable experience in 2019.
Contrary to its flaws, Oblivion laid the foundation for what the modern console RPG could be, by finding a sweet spot that fed the needs of both hardcore RPG fans and casual gamers. While it failed in some regards it attempted, many of the mechanics and gameplay aspects that succeeded helped lay the foundation for the current generation of modern RPGs. It may not be considered the strongest entry in the Elder Scrolls series by a minority of fans, but it deserves more recognition for what it has done for not only for the series, but open world experiences found in modern games today.