Hardcore gamers, contrary to many opinions, are regular people. They eat, they sleep, they laugh, they love – just like everybody else. It just happens that all these things seem to only ever happen when they’re around their computers.
So, it’s important to realise that when it comes to this certain type of gamer – the Lifer, if you will – it’s actually extremely hard to get them excited about anything game-related because they’ve seen it all. They’ve blown up this, shot down that, invaded here, been him and fucked that. For Lifers, games are less a diversion from life than life is a diversion from games. Games aren’t any more truly exciting for them than cigarettes are for a smoker. Games just become what you do.
But, every once in a while amongst the Lifers there are mutterings about something new, something interesting, something worth looking forward to. Sadly enough, it’s almost always a new computer game, so it’s not like they’re going far. But at least they – and by they I mean I – might actually talk to a real person about it. Maybe.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is one of these games. Amidst the forum buzz and the beautiful screen shots, Bethseda have managed to do what very few have done: to make a single player game set in what feels like an entire fantasy world. Immersive really isn’t the word for it. Oblivion is a bit like a single player MMORPG. Thousands of NPC’s (non player characters to you) hundreds of missions, possibly billions or trillions of game playing hours: this is a game that seems like a fair alternative to the crappy real world, in which where there are no Orcs or Bastard Swords, and where your charisma doesn’t go up at all when you put on your Ring of Speechcraft +5.
Your character has found him or her or itself involved with the transition of power from one Emperor to another, thus the need to go on many different quests, killing many different monsters and quaffing many different potions. It’s a bit like the most hardcore version of the old classic Rogue you can imagine. You can massively customise your character into various character classes, you can join factions that have their own missions and their own agendas, you can pick locks, bribe guards, kill children – you do almost anything. And that’s what’s really different about Oblivion. It’s one of the first games that I’ve ever played that has made a real effort, way past titles like Deus Ex or System Shock 2, to allow you to make up your own storyline, to really do what you want. You don’t like a character? Kill him! He might be important, but you can run from the law! Live by your wits! And then later, you can pay off the guards! Or, simply serve out your time in one of the prisons and then re-enter society, your debt paid! Now, of course there are limitations to this feature, but at least with regards to the lesser NPCs, you can do what you want. And I like that because it seems to be kind of the point of gaming.
Another key difference in Oblivion is that unlike many other big games, it isn’t really the size of the actual game that makes it big. Big games are everywhere now, and if anything it was its previous incarnation Morrowind that established that precedent. No, the key to Oblivion is the fact that the fantastic graphics, the easy-to-use interface and the absorbing incidental details are now so well designed that they make you actually want to spend fifteen hours running or riding a horse real-time through the equivalent of twenty miles of game space. There is enough beautiful stuff in Oblivion to make you curious about what things in different parts of the country look like, like the way regular people are curious about say, what the Eiffel Tower looks like. The countryside is literally littered with spooky dungeons, secret caves, abandoned forts and random NPCs, making a four hour jaunt through unexplored territory to the nearest lost city actually worth considering.
Now, to say that I’ve spent a bit of time playing various games would be a bit like saying a diamond has spent a small amount of time under slight pressure, but the thing that I think is so hardcore about Oblivion is just how much time you’ll want to put into it and how addictive it can be to even the most uninitiated gamer. I have a friend who since I got this game, comes over to my house, sits in my office and plays this game for literally eight hours at a stretch and I swear to God, he doesn’t even really play computer games.
But, like every good thing, it does come to an end. Like many of titles that are trying to do what Oblivion is doing, the game does get a bit samey after a while. Personally, after the obscene amount of time I spent playing I’ve kind of lost interest in it. You have to keep doing vaguely similar missions with vaguely similar characters and the standard of the dialogue isn’t great. They could have made more of an effort to differentiate the characters and it would have been nice if they had made joining the factions a little bit more political. And of course, with any game where you’re able to make up your own approach to certain situations, you inevitably find that because you do something in a way that the game’s designers didn’t foresee, that you can’t finish a critical mission, which is bloody annoying.
Also, it’s slightly buggy. My brother had real problems getting it to work on his insanely high-spec PC without jerky graphics and the tech support people didn’t seem to know how to fix it.
So, although the game is massive, addictive and beautiful at first, it becomes a little bland after a while. It’s mostly interesting because it’s single-player and it has a structure that MMORPGs lack. It’s that someone is trying to make a game like Oblivion that I find exciting. Open ended, self-directed, flexible, innovative, it takes all that’s good from MMORPGs and confines it to being offline so you don’t have to deal with other Nerds.
If the trend continues, soon enough some company will get some fucking great writers, put them in the room with some excellent programmers and, combined with Steve Jobs and the some thirteen year old tech genius in the background, we’ll finally have the Holdeck from Star Trek.
And I say, “Thank God”. The wait is killing me.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006)
Publisher: 2-K Games