McMillan’s Codex 30 By Charles McMillan
Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion
Trends come and go. People start to like a thing for a time before something new takes its place. The same principle applies to videogames where one title will become a paragon of design until the next paradigm-defining release. The cultural effect of Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim was immense before Fallout 4. The first game I played in the ES series was Oblivion, and when I played Skyrim, I noticed a distinct lapse in quality. If that is the case, why did Skyrim have such an impact and not its predecessor? Is the popularity a question of timing or have people forgotten how good Oblivion truly is?
Nobody does roleplaying better than Bethesda. Despite the rampant streamlining of Fallout 4, back in the day, Bethesda’s designers knew what they were doing in Oblivion with the Skill and Attribute systems. When you level up, you choose what Attributes to increase while your Skills increase as you play. The more you get attacked wearing heavy armor, the better your Heavy Armor. The more you sneak, the better your Sneak. Skyrim did away with Attributes and combined them with Skills, which worked until you consider how your Skills affected gameplay in Oblivion.
When leveling in Oblivion, you feel the changes in the Speed Attribute and Acrobatics Skill, which are not in Skyrim. If you level them to their peak, you gain the ability to jump higher and run incredibly fast. Since I play a ranged stealth character, I became a literal ninja leaping onto rooftops and sniping city guards before creeping into with shadows. Having those effects created a sense of gratification that all the jumping and falling you did mattered. It was also more fun as you ascended to superhuman heights and the world of Cyrodiil was at your mercy. It epitomized what it means to role-play, to become greater than we are and conquer the challenges that lay before us.
The story and one quest line in particular is arguably better than Skyrim. Instead of a messianic figure, you are an average Joe that falls into a grand scheme about a cult trying to bring their deity into the world. You get involved with royal politics and conspiracy while strange gates to the accursed realm of Oblivion appear all over the land. You are a small part in whole, something fantasy does not explore too often. You are not the knight in shining armor or lost heir to the throne: you are a guy who took up a cause greater than his or herself.
One of the secondary quest lines centers on the Dark Brotherhood, a guild of assassins. When you join them you get contracts with certain requirements that must be honored in order to attain the full reward and bonus. Each is different and more imaginative as you play. One includes killing houseguests without being seen and another where you have to switch a warlord’s medicine with poison without killing anyone else. The quests were diverse and challenging, but the Skyrim version of the Brotherhood is ordinary with quests like “go to a place and kill a guy” without the nuance that made the previous game enjoyable.
So, why was Oblivion not as impactful as Skyrim? My best guess is timing with its release in spring of 2006, predating meme culture and what YouTube eventually became, two factors that contributed factors to Skyrim’s popularity.
First there were videos that took the audio of a dragon shout over other footage. Then you had the “I used to _____, then I took an arrow in the knee” memes that were funny for about a week. Bethesda as a company also changed from a humble studio to a larger entity that can afford to sell merchandise and branch out with other games like Dishonored and Evil Within.
Unfortunately, such circumstances were not around in Oblivion’s time because Oblivion is much better on a roleplaying level. I do concede that aesthetically ES4 does not hold up to Skyrim.Oblivion was the first Elder Scrolls on a console different from the previous generation and I imagine there was pressure to look realistic. As a result, the style is muddled and awkward with detailed weapons, armor, and environments around characters that look as though they are made of Play-Doh. Skyrim redressed those issues with its consistent Norse style and it worked flawlessly.
Hipsters are defined by their anachronistic tastes and sardonic irony. Some see such qualities as a reason to make fun of them, but when you embrace the old because the new fails to impress, I do not blame them. Skyrim may be fun with a better-realized world, but I find myself returning to Oblivion and the freedom of its roleplaying systems. We may never see another game match its quality.