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

13 Apr


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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Leave a Reply


  1. Viktor

    April 13, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    I feel like a lot of what Oblivion did was the right direction, just really poorly-executed. Gameplay was far better than Morrowind, even if it had it’s own fundamental flaws. The questlines were much more linear than Morrowind’s multi-threaded approach, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Compare the two Fighter’s Guild questlines, I wouldn’t say either is better, they’re just different approaches for different games. I do hate the decision to have the game fully-voiced, but I don’t think that was an avoidable decision given the culture and tech, unfortunately.

    Oblivion had 2 actual problems IMO. First, the writing mostly sucked. There are gems, like the Dark Brotherhood and the decision to have you be just the dude doing the work while the actual chosen hero saves the world, but mostly, the writing was terrible. Second, they went much more generic for the setting. That’s likely what you’re referring to towards the end, and that’s such a fundamental discussion I’m going to wait until you make your post to add my thoughts.

  2. GregJ

    April 14, 2015 at 12:24 am

    I think the question was actually about making it fully-voiced, as in my opinion that directly led to the most disappointing thing about Oblivion – that so many people were just alike instead of having their own topics of conversation.

    But with every game in the series it was better than the previous game in some ways and worse in others. That’s been true of each game I played since the first – I still miss the Passwall spell from Arena.

  3. Neko

    April 14, 2015 at 2:07 am

    I was hyped for Oblivion too. I’ve still got the septim that came in the box somewhere… although I think we were also promised cloth maps and instead I just got some plain paper one. I can’t remember, there was a lot of hype.

    Then you notice that Todd Howard is only ever demoing it on the ecxsbawks three-sixteh, and huh, that’s kind of a large font to use … well, I’m sure it’s smaller on a monitor … and then you start playing and find that all the menus are crammed into F1-F4 despite there being plenty more keys available, and huh, hotkeys are limited to 8 now despite me having a perfectly functional 9 and 0 key… It was not disappointing from a graphical or technical or narrative point of view, IMHO, it was just disappointing that it was no longer a “PC” game first.

    Also, having voiced dialogue for everything kind of killed the mod scene. Compare the epic yarns you could get from Morrowind mods to the “I added this sword from Final Fantasy XY-2-III” Oblivion mods. It’s still possible to find really good Oblivion mods but the barrier to entry got raised up really high. I would have much preferred a NWN-style system where important characters generally voice the first bits of dialogue but fall back to text.

  4. Cuthalion

    April 16, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Yaaaaay Altered Scrolls posts! I didn’t play Oblivion until quite recently. I remember hearing only good things about it at the time, and only hearing about it occasionally. Now I hear pretty much only bad things about it.

    I liked it fine, from what I’ve actually played of it. But I had to mod the menu system to not get angry at the game. And I’m annoyed that “archer” is apparently an invalid build.

  5. Corpital

    April 16, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    The english version had proper words in it’s inventory, didn’t it? The localisations were abysmal, at least the german version was. How about throwing away your weak potion of healing and instead taking a weak potion of life energy restoration or Schwacher Trank der Lebensenergie-Wiederherstellung? How about shortening it to “we. po. o. li.en. r.” or, indeed, Schw. Tr. d. Le.en.-W. because your font is too big?

  6. Andy_Panthro

    April 17, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    I remember the Radiant AI hype, the tech demo showing a single person doing archery training, eating and sleeping, and the promises. I did get caught up in the hype.

    So I was certainly a bit disappointed when this big world had so few people in it, when the capital city felt so small, and when the Radiant AI ended up being a small step forward from what the Ultima games had been doing previously, rather than a big leap forward as I had imagined.

    I enjoyed various parts of it though, including the Dark Brotherhood. There were several really interesting ideas and quests which hopefully you will mention. There are plenty of genuine reasons for loving the game, but it did sour for me after time playing it.

    It’s the combat I think, which was the biggest part I disliked, and there is so much combat in the game. I just found it dull, and found things like closing oblivion gates a real chore. I much preferred exploring and finding little adventures (although the quest log and compass was a bit too keen on “helping” the player along).

  7. JpvWordSmith

    April 19, 2015 at 8:43 am

    It’s interesting that you bring up the Oblivion hype cycle, because I totally missed out on it. I didn’t pay any attention to it before release (I didn’t have a console or PC at the time) and only got the chance to sit down and play it later, after the general reaction had mellowed out to “Oblivion’s all right, I guess.” I ended up sinking some time into it later, but I was never particularly struck by it, so I’m really interested to read your takeaways on it.

  8. Sydney

    April 21, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    In the spirit of the constructive criticism that you mentioned (on the Diecast) was hard to come by:

    Your last big paragraph, about the looming other question, is really gripping at first. But after the sentence ending “evolution of the franchise goals” it starts to drag on too much, and I wanted to skip to the end and find out what the question was.

    Then, after making myself read through the build-up, the question wasn’t there.

    You know those movie trailers that have a tone in the background that slowly ratchets up and up and up, becoming a screech that makes everyone anxious? Imagine if it just kinda…petered out…instead of slam-cutting to the payoff.

  9. GTRichey

    April 22, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    Man this game sounds awesome! When does it come out?

    In all seriousness everything they hyped really did make the game better. I think it also led to more broken scripting in testing, which is probably why we had unkillable NPCs and extremely linear quests.

  10. Jarenth

    May 1, 2015 at 2:55 am

    Oblivion was my biggest-ever ‘believe the hype’ misstep as well.

    I read your last paragraph, and my mind goes to either ‘fast travel’, or ‘the compass system’.

  11. Ateius

    May 1, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    I remember the Oblivion Hype Train. I was there, man. In the forums, in the front lines. There were vicious battles over adding dwemer as a playable race.

    My character was going to be a steppes-style cavalry archer.

    I could spend a long time talking about the many, many things that were flawed about Oblivion, from major systems to minor aesthetic choices to departures from the lore (Cyrodiil is supposed to be Rome meets Middle Kingdom China, dammit!).

    If I had to choose just one, though, it’s the 1:1 level-scaling, which destroyed any sense of progression and made the game MORE of a slog the higher level you got. I played Oblivion multiple times, but I never completed it, or most of the content, because I always hit that wall.

  12. tmtvl

    May 4, 2015 at 11:03 am

    I couldn’t tell you why, but I love Oblivion. The game feel is great, I really like the aesthetic design (especially compared to the drab, ugly Morrowind), and well, just how alive the world feels. Leaves rustle in the wind, people go around chatting to each other,…

    It’s the game Ultima IX should have been.

  13. Double A

    May 6, 2015 at 8:15 pm

    Oblivion was my gateway into TES, and probably WRPGs as a whole (I had played a ton of Pokemon and Golden Sun when I was young). I was probably 14, and it was the best video game I had ever played. I sank hundreds of hours into it. I got it (after SI came out) for PC but I didn’t even know what a mod was until years after I had grown out of both it and Morrowind – which, I might add, I started playing a few years afterwards on a 360. I actually loved Morrowind even more for all the freedom it gave me. I barely progressed through it and it became my favorite game for years, whereas Oblivion, which I had probably done 90% or so of the sidequests, was something I absolutely abhorred. I’m positively sick of Cyrodill but Vvardenfell is still something of a mystery to me. I guess I’ll just have to wait for Skywind to come out because I just can’t get back into that horrible combat.