A while ago I wrote about The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind and me; how I remember it as one of the formative artistic experiences of my teenage years, as evocative as any other book, film or piece of music. I also wrote that I couldn’t bear to play it again, because on my second, brief, playthrough several years ago, it felt like I was trespassing on the adventures that my first character had already completed.
The province of Cyrodiil, though, is another story. I’ve just got started on my fourth character in The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, and it remains as irritating, flawed and compelling as it ever was. To me at least it’s nowhere near being the game that Morrowind is, but that’s what blinkered, nostalgic hindsight tells me. A quick rummage in any general gaming forum will likely bring up a thread from someone complaining that Morrowind isn’t all they thought it would be, along with a mass of replies expounding one view or the other, so I’m not going to get involved in that.
Instead, I’m wondering what it is about Oblivion that grates with me after a certain amount of time playing it. The ubiquitous Oblivion gates are for me the most visible problem, portals to the daedric realm of hellfire, smoke and over-lengthy dungeon crawls. They crop up all over Cyrodiil, cluttering up the landscape and forcing you to divert around them unless you fancy a pointless little battle against the few daedra that lurk around them. If you decide to venture in and close the gate, then prepare for a lengthy trip through some fairly repetitive environments. The plane of Oblivion is meant to be the stuff of nightmares, but it quickly becomes dull.
This hints, however, to a deeper problem – and guess what? It’s to do with story and narrative (my favourite!). It’s very easy to argue that each type of dungeon in the game – ruined forts, ancient elven catacombs, cave networks – is just as repetitive as those on the Oblivion plane. This is true; the same art assets are reused over and over again, placed in a different layout with perhaps a few traps thrown in for good measure. So why don’t those annoy me nearly as much?
Various quests, both one-offs and those in longer quest chains given by the guilds you join, task you with venturing into this dungeon or that to kill so and so or obtain this or that macguffin. The main quest line and the entire story of the game, however, revolves around the Oblivion gates and the threat of demonic invasion. The gates should symbolic of total crisis, spewing out horror and mortal danger upon the whole world – but such a story proves incompatible with the guiding Elder Scrolls mantra of ‘do anything, go anywhere’.
In an open world game where the player can put aside saving the world for as long as they like in favour of, say, running errands for the Thieves Guild, the world-destroying threat of demonspawn is entirely negated. Instead of scattering Oblivion gates all over the place, Bethesda, the developers, should have made them a lot rarer and a lot more dangerous, tying them into the quest lines instead of making them a dungeon like any other, to be tackled when the player feels like it.
This does happen with some of them: the very first Oblivion gate you come across has to be entered for the storyline to progress and has a real sense of threat and danger about it because of this. But most of the others? I couldn’t care less. The other types of dungeon in the game are more fun because you enter them in search of random adventure, in a blasé heroic fashion, whereas the whole tone of the game makes it feel like you must go to Oblivion to save the world – a tone which is openly contradicted by the core gameplay rules of the Elder Scrolls series.
There are plenty of other things criticise about the game (as well as plenty to praise – I am enjoying playing it, honest), but this uncomfortable compromise between plot and gameplay is what ends up getting on my nerves. The hero should stand tall against this threat to the world, but I just wish the daedra would go away and let me get on with something else.