Archive for June, 2015

The Altered Scrolls: Oblivion (Part 2: Energy)

17 Jun

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Every game in the Elder Scrolls series has something it’s built around, something it does better than the rest of the franchise. These strengths aren’t just the result of the right team, or the right iterative design, or just plain dumb luck: they’re the logical conclusion of everything the game is and is trying to be. Arena was a romp across a vast and ambiguous world of sorcery and monsters, a grand and classical adventure. Daggerfall was a game of dead-drops, conspiracy, and fully-realized political dynasties with a palpable texture of interactive intrigue. Morrowind provided unforgiving objective challenges set against an alien landscape, and transported the player body and soul to a breathtaking world realized to the limit of its technology and not a step further.

Oblivion’s goals were more direct. Oblivion isn’t about texture or narrative or universe in any sort of discrete sense. It’s about energy. Oblivion never wants you to stop running.

You can start by taking that as literally as possible. Stamina used to deplete if you ran; in Oblivion running just makes your energy regenerate more slowly. Previous games had you regain low magicka by resting properly, Oblivion recharges it before your eyes.

No more wandering the wilderness looking for the right identical mudshack, either. In fact, you’ll never get lost again, and that’s a money-back guarantee. No matter how far up a dungeon’s drainpipe you get stuck or how far from the road you’ve roamed, a quest arrow will always point your way, whether that’s to the lost ruby you’re being paid to recover or just the most convenient exit. Even if the entire rest of your screen was blacked out you could probably beat an Oblivion quest just by following the red and green markers, so long as concerns like challenge and environment design and narrative don’t apply to you–if all you want is to beat a quest, you won’t find yourself taxed unduly. Anywhere you can wander randomly to and any quest you can physically accept are going to be scaled comprehensively to your level; not only will you’ll never get lost, you might have a hard time losing.

Done with the quest now? Getting home’s never been easier. If you want to go anywhere you’ve been before, you just fast travel. No cost or downside involved. If it’s one of the game’s many major towns you can fast travel there even if you’ve never been before. This was possible for a price in every game prior—in Arena this was because there was no intervening territory, in Daggerfall this was because the world was stupidly massive and cumbersome to traverse, and in Morrowind, this was only possible at certain fast-travel vendors. Oblivion offers free and practically unrestricted usage because anything else jeopardized the flow; anything else put an obstacle between what you want to do and what you’re doing now. Nothing is more antithetical to the questing design philosophy.

Free fast travel wasn’t the only unprecedented change; die rolls for combat had been deadfiled with all the other old-school tabletop-era abstractions. Now attacks always hit on mark and spells always cast successfully. Character skill spoke to damage, manuevers, and spell knowledge instead of percent chance of doing fuck all. On paper the effect was probably comparable; I’ll reserve a discussion of practice for an in-depth examination of the combat system later. Suffice to say, featuring combat as a key selling point of the game was a sea change for the franchise.

At a core level Bethesda games are defined by their NPCs. The ones in Oblivion are jackrabbits, plain and simple, and they are determined not to waste a second of your time. Everyone you talk to opens by telling you who they are and how they’re different from the rest of the herd: I am Balthus and I am obsessed with dogs. I am Remayne and I’m grouchy and tired. I’m hardly exaggerating the blunt, unguarded frankness with which they make their introductions, and once those are cleared they’re not interested in chatting much either. For the first time, dialogue menus are constrained only to relevant options. No more wiki-style nexus of universal topics; for every character you’ve now got a pool of rumors and maybe one or two other relevant topics. Oh, but don’t worry: if they’ve got a quest, they’ll tell you all about it.

NPCs move about everywhere. Everyone’s in motion. Everything’s voice-acted. Everything’s a quest hook, and every quest hook was doable right now. Everything was happening everywhere at once. Players never had to struggle to successfully inhabit the world of Cyrodiil, and often, they didn’t even need to think very hard. Getting in and getting things done was effortless.

You can see how Morrowind begat Oblivion. You can see how new technology made gripping, immersive fights more desirable than awful frustrating dice games. You can see how the ability to smoothly integrate a compass to make sure players don’t get lost greatly improves how many players stick with things and complete a quest or two. You want voice acting, and if you’ve got it, you better make everything to the point or you’re going to be recording dialogue until 2043. You want to make the most immersive and immediate and god-damn futuristic sequel to Morrowind your better-every-sequel earnings can buy. So that’s just what you do.

And the result is a game that couldn’t feel more different from its parents if it was about a magical girl dentist.

There’s one overarching change I’m neglecting, and it’s probably the most important. Everything else adds up to create a new and unique feeling, but the one element that stands on its own most—and the one I think is most overlooked in favor of more measurable mechanical changes—was its confident and prolific use of scripted, animated events. For better or for worse, this was the one line Bethesda would never cross back over.

Arena and Daggerfall didn’t contain anything you could really call a “scene,” unless you’re talking about the agonizing cutscenes of the former and FMV/prerendered videos of the latter. Morrowind mostly knew its limits. It could make people hit marks, say lines of dialogue while standing with their arms at their side, and turn hostile—and it could only do those things while the player was otherwise occupied. Generally the dialogue happened during a frozen menu. If it was spoken, the player was generally rooted to the ground so they couldn’t interfere. Its NPCs lacked the grace of finger puppets and problem solving of a stunned ox, so there weren’t really grand ambitious scenes, and the story was mostly told through documents, static conversations, and journal entries after fights and acquisitions.

Not Oblivion. Oblivion enacted mini stage plays whenever it was appropriate and at least a few times it really wasn’t. Walk into a room and an NPC calls out to you and forces you to converse. A gate to Oblivion opens, watch the captain gather the men and make a speech. You’ve stolen the artifact, watch two NPCs exposit to each other what it is before one of them dies unstoppably. While this is a boon to storytelling in some cases, it does reflect poorly on the player’s role in the narrative; there’s a tangible sense of going from an independent agent to the lead actor of a prewritten drama. Literally the first thing a new player is required to do is hit a mark. Immediately after doing this the player’s controls are frozen until they have interacted with four nonplayer characters, none of whom can die unless you count the predetermined and immutable death scenes reserved for three of them.

So if control and agency are routinely sacrificed for storytelling, the question raised is: is it worth it? My answer may surprise you.