Game Diary: Oblivion’s Storytelling

By now you know that I am obsessed with story.  Narrative is the grail to which I aspire, the altar at which I bow, the king to which I bend my knee, and the root I trip over when it’s absent.

[How do you trip over what’s not there? –ed.]

Metaphor, my dear editor.  Metaphor.

[Is that some sort of psychosomatic illness? –ed]

Both Megan and I are really enjoying Oblivion, and in a much different way that we enjoyed Hellgate: London, a game which, apparently, many people did not enjoy.  But, you may ask (but not you, dear editor), why are you comparing a ground-breaking RPG with a 3D Diablo clone?

Well, it comes down to story.

Hellgate: London is like any Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game.  Take your Warcraft or your City of Heroes, the gameplay is pretty much the same: you’re given a quest to go defeat a certain number of rats or collect certain number widgets or escort this poor, defenseless person from Point A to Point Az.  In Hellgate there are no escort quests, but, as Megan termed it, the game is an extermination simulator.  Your job is to take care of the demons infesting London.  A dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Well, actually you don’t.

It’s true, I played the game through to the end.  And, it’s true, I enjoyed the game while I was playing it.  But it’s true, also, that I grew annoyed with the way the game fetishized weapons and armor and stuff over story.  In fact, it’s hard to have a coherent story, or a sense of tension, when you’re stopping every few minutes to reorganize the contents of your backpack.

Sure, there’s an overarching story in Hellgate, just as there’s one in Warcraft, The Lord of the Rings, etc.  But the point of playing the game isn’t about that story – the point is developing your character.

Now Oblivion (and pretty much all the games made by Bethesda) isn’t like that.  The story is key.  Sure, you don’t have to follow the main mission straight as an arrow, you can take all manner of side-quests, you can explore the map to your heart’s content, and, of course, you can spend time developing your character, if that’s purely where you get your jolly ranchers.

And I like the story.  There is a lot of thought (and a lot of writing) that goes into each of the quests you find yourself involved in, a lot of effort to make each one seem unique, even if they fall into basic categories: fetch quests, escort quests, puzzle quests, extermination quests.  The people you interact with are given personality, each is given their own story that, if you want to look at it this way, you just play a supporting role in.

So what’s my problem with Oblivion, then?

As far as I understand it, Oblivion was designed to be more accessible than Bethesda’s previous bread-winner Morrowind.  The land you’re exploring is considerably smaller.  The map is considerably more friendly.  The journal that keeps track of your quests is considerably easier to read and keep up with.  All around, this is a game for newbies that is designed rather more for fun than for difficulty.

And my main critique comes in regards to the quests themselves.  The journal – which pretends to be a record of your character’s thoughts and observations – often leads you directly through a quest, making it clear that your responsibility, as the player, is simply to get yourself from Point A to Point Az, the rest will take care of itself.  In one mission where you have to play detective, you must wander around a castle until you find the three clues that provide enough evidence to accuse the thief.  There’s no real thought or deduction involved.

At other times, the game straightjackets you into one course of action when, logically, there should be several.  Oh, okay, yes, there are a few quests that give you a choice between two options.  But those choices are often non-choices, or at least choices without any real moral weight and, hence, uninteresting from a story perspective.  A band of vampire hunters hires you to kill a vampire, but it’s pretty clear, if your observant, that the person that’s hiring you is a vampire.  You can either kill the person that you’ve been hired to kill – an innocent human – or take revenge on the vampire.  Evil or Good, those are your choices.

Compare that with Fallout 3 (another stellar Bethesda game) where your choices have no real moral division.  If you save the ghouls from persecution, later you’ll find they’ve eaten everyone in the hotel.  Not that you can’t still be a Good person, but that your choices, even the good ones, have unintended consequences you’re going to have to live with.

All of which to say is that Oblivion is a wonderful game, but one that falls short of greatness.  Eventually you get tired of being led around by the nose and start wondering why you got a nose ring to begin with.

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