Archive for April, 2015

The Altered Scrolls: Oblivion (Part 1: The Hype Era)

13 Apr

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I intimated earlier in the series that there is no such thing, broadly speaking, as an unsuccessful Elder Scrolls game. The least you can expect of the franchise is success on a game’s own terms. Success on the last game’s terms, you can never count on. Successful in hindsight? Not guaranteed at all.

By the standards of the previous game, Oblivion is a ponderous misshapen clunker that takes every opportunity to shunt the player off the precipice of immersion. And by the standards of the next game, Oblivion is a ponderous misshapen clunker that takes every opportunity to shunt the player off the precipice of immersion.

By the standards of the day? A difficult question. “The day” was one of the most interesting periods in the franchise’s history, and one of the most tumultuous in the history of videogames.

It’s difficult to explain today the culture of expectations that surrounded Oblivion during its late development. I’m trying to be analytical in this series, and that often means stepping outside pure sentiment and trying to look at a thing for what it is. But if I’m really going to get into what people expected from Oblivion, what it represented, I’m going to have to get a little bit more personal. I was there. I saw the game’s PR cycle from the same ground floor as everyone else, and I can only relate it how I saw it.

Oblivion debuted in the Age of Miracles.

Every announcement to do with Oblivion was breathtaking. Bethesda was at the cutting edge of a major technical revolution; in the time since Morrowind, the studio’s tech had made drastic leaps and strides behind closed doors. Every new feature leaked or demoed represented a new frontier, an unprecedented degree of perfect simulation. Games before took place in static unyielding matte paintings, set dressings made to give a cheap impression of a fantastic world; Oblivion, by every breathless report, was nothing less than virtual reality.

Objects obey realistic physics. Arrows have arcs and lodge in soft materials. NPCs have lives, personalities, habits, schedules. Spells have different physics depending on materials and can produce different effects on subjects depending on what element is being used.

 Simpler times, right–that we’d find such little things exciting? That these steps forward, now taken for granted, were mindblowing enough to drive a firestorm of hype that didn’t die down until well after the game’s release?

Well, no, it’s not quite as straightforward as that. I put it to you that people weren’t really excited by these individual steps forward. It’s just that each of these steps, taken together in that credulous era, promised something far greater than the sum of its parts.

Somehow, the possibility that the new physics engine and visceral combat and NPC behaviors and spell systems were all just individual bullet points, discrete little systems nominally and even a little shakily implemented, didn’t seem to occur to a lot of people. It was easier than ever to believe that they were just the outward face of a comprehensive, lifelike simulation.

We didn’t look at the previews and see a pretty immersive videogame, we saw a world that had a pretty cool videogame inside of it.

I remember how the official forums felt. Belief was the atmosphere, thick and intoxicating as wine. People began to play the imagined perfect game in their heads long before boxes hit shelves. Everyone had their characters all planned out. Everyone had their backstory written up. People were hatching assassination plots and writing fanfiction about them. I remember the tone of thread titles: “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you’re out of the dungeon?” “What’s your character’s motivation?” “What’s your build going to be like?” I remember a lot of what people planned for. Most of it would turn out to be impossible.

Did everyone believe quite so hard as they did? No, certainly not, but more did than you’d think. This was a time when the internet was really hitting its stride as a flashpoint of hype and speculation and hadn’t fully realized its role as a megaphone for cynicism and bitterness. On top of all that, Oblivion’s devs did a masterful job of sharing just enough details about the game to enkindle feverish fantasies, never enough to ruin them. Previews were less exposition and more narrative. Depictions of gampeplay were vanishingly thin on the ground.

Think about the possibilities. Think about how great this will be. This game will blow your mind. You won’t be able to believe it.

 Oblivion was the last time I ever really believed all of that. I suppose everyone in this hobby has a first big disillusionment; I don’t think I could have had a bigger one.

So now that I’ve told you all of that, forget it. Forget the idea that Oblivion broke a promise it possibly never intended to give. Forget the now long-forgotten notion that it would be the first convincing virtual reality ever created. Forget the idea that this game existed to be anything but another Elder Scrolls game, and consider instead: what did this great leap forward of tech and gimmicks do for the franchise?

That’s the first question I’ll examine in the posts to come.

But another question looms. Before launch it was a murmur drowned out by excitement and speculation; after launch, it was lost in the general positive reception. Even now it is a lonely, cantankerous question, not always welcomed even by those who sympathize because of how ugly and divisive and possibly meaningless it is. It has nothing to do with the evolution of technology and everything to do with the evolution of the franchise goals. It’s ugly because the change means a lot to some veteran players. It’s divisive because the nature of the change split the fanbase in two. It’s possibly meaningless because the developers, quite understandably, don’t seem keen to acknowledge it anyway. I wonder how visible the change even was to those inside the development process—whether the paradigm shift Oblivion brought with it was seen as a natural progression or a willful departure from Morrowind’s values.

Because this, more than any technological advancement, was what would change the face of the franchise forever.

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