The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is only five months away so while this is still on the cusp of being topical I want to talk a few things about my experiences with the previous title The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
There I said it. No don’t go telling me about your seventy item list of mods absolutely necessary to make Oblivion actually somewhat playable because I’m not interested. Hell half those mods are just the disturbing nightmarish fetish fuel of perverted otakus, crafting terrifying denizens of the uncanny valley deformed with hilariously disproportionate figures, with faces of twelve year old girls, who use their chests to smuggle basketballs that they call “player avatars.”
It doesn’t matter because for me, were Oblivion falls completely flat is its lazy, unoriginal and poorly thought out storyline. And short of a complete total conversion mod that basically writes a whole new campaign for it, no amount of modding is going to fix this game for me. Besides, any time I mod I discover I wasted several hours only for the whole thing to crash and infect my system with sixty squintillion viruses. (That number may be slightly not real).
In order to address my grievances let’s start with the beginning. You start out as prisoner who gets let out by the Emperor Uriel Septim. Fans of Morrowind might find this slightly family considering that’s basically how that game started as well. See, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said the writing was lazy. Anyway this time you find out that the Emperor’s family was killed by a band of mysterious assassins and now he’s being escorted out of the castle by his personal bodyguards, The Blades. You get to go with them for a short while but the Emperor dies and you escape the sewers blinking into the sunlight ready the follow the instructions the Emperor gave you once you feel like it. No rush or anything, it’s not like there’s an extra-planar army of demons ready to invade or that the empire is tearing itself apart in a civil war now that the royal dynasty is wiped out and there’s no heir to the throne.
“But OsirisLord, you exemplar of manliness,” you say “I don’t remember that last bit at all. I think you made that up.” And you’d be right. The royal family is dead, there’s no heir, and for some reason, no one cares. Guards continue to patrol the cities, legionaries patrol the highways, the system continues to function just fine and the most people can muster is a shrug of their shoulders before walking off to get stuck on a piece of geometry somewhere. And it’s not like the Blades have found a way to keep this secret or something, you can overhear NPC’s talking about the Emperor getting killed with the same tone of voice one would use to discuss the status of their turnips.
This is not how this kind of thing goes down.
So here’s how I would have fixed it. First up you start out as a Blade. There’s no reason for us to recycle the same setup as Morrowind and you end up working for the Blades anyway so this just cuts out the middleman. You start out in the palace doing bodyguard stuff, maybe there’s a special gathering, when BAM! Assassins strike, murder the family, and you have to fight them off while the others get the Emperor to safety. Then you descend into the sewers to catch up with them, fight some rats and goblins, and you meet up only to find failure and the Emperor’s dead body. When you exit you discover the empire is in turmoil as all the various nobles are all drawing lines and recruiting soldiers and each declaring themselves the next emperor.
So now they players have to follow the trail of clues, slowly uncovering the Daedra conspiracy while at the same time trying to keep the system under control. Or maybe you don’t and side with one of the houses. Or screw the system, work to undermine everyone and make yourself the emperor. And there’s so much more we can do with this as well. What about a plot were Morrowind tries to secede from the empire and you have to work to keep them in line? Everyone liked all the espionage and interplay between the three houses in Morrowind, so wouldn’t it be awesome if Bethesda had just made the whole thing about that, with the Oblivion plot hanging out of the way but increasingly becoming more and more obvious until the players have to deal with it in some way. Or loose everything they’re worked to achieve as Oblivion itself threatens to engulf Tamriel.
Sadly this didn’t happen, and probably never will. The closest we got to this kind of story was Dragon Age: Origins, and that’s a whole other update for another day. So many fantasy RPGs have to be about some rags to godhood story about a lone hero saving the world and beating up Satan. It’s tired and stale and I lost all motivation to play Oblivion when I saw it was just checking off the list and playing things by the number. And I was disappointed. Disappointed because beneath all the cliche there was the chance to do something new in a video game, but it was completely overlooked. I think a game about a kingdom collapsing into anarchy and the players are the only ones who can keep it together would but far more interesting. Play your cards right, and you might end the game being the king, and how awesome would that be?