Oblivion: Nostalgia for a New World
Non-gamers, hang in there! This post is primarily aimed at you! 🙂 There are a number of people out there who, for one reason or another, ignore and even disdain the idea of playing computer games. Some of them even reside here at LHP, though they shall remain nameless… People have different reasons for their attitudes, ranging from plain bias to a lack of time to “learn the language” so to speak. Some of these same people, having thus sniffed at gamers with contempt, then sit down with a good book (a worthy pursuit, of course) and proceed to “waste” just as much time reading about a world very similar to the one they mocked in the game.
Not only do I sometimes find this more than a little ironic, I also find it sad. I’ve been playing fantasy and science fiction games as far back as Star Raiders and the original 8-bit Dragon Warrior.* In all that time I’ve learned that there are game worlds that I would place on up there with some of the best products of traditional fiction authors (i.e. Mass Effect, Halo, Elder Scrolls, WarCraft, StarCraft) and frankly I believe that serious lovers of fantasy and science fiction are missing out on a lot when they refuse to pay attention to them.
With the debut of Skyrim coming up tomorrow on 11-11-11 (Is that a date sent down from marketing heaven or what?), I thought I might take a post to praise its predecessor, one of the better games that has been produced for the X-Box–Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I’m not going to attempt a “professional” review of the game. That has been taken care of my many, many others with a more detailed knowledge of the game than me. Instead, I thought I might comment on what I think makes it worth even the time of almost every fantasy fan, gamer or no.
Many people have certain stereotypes of computer games; usually these stereotypes were formed many years ago, when the graphics in even the best game looked like something out of a bad comic book, the music sounded like it was composed by an elementary school student with a synthesizer, and the stories read like a bad “choose your own adventure book.” On the contrary, today’s highest quality games represent the merging of the best of several different strands of creativity. They have visual action and special effects to rival what you see in the movies, their stories are fresh, their music is some of the best in any industry, and their worlds exist on a level that only the best fantasy authors can rival.
Oblivion (click here for the trailer) is an excellent example of how far we’ve come. As authors, we talk of world creation, but in our books we can only show our readers glimpses of it. We are their eyes, and while we may have worked out all the corners of our worlds in our thoughts, people can only experience what we allow them to see. With Oblivion, Bethesda Softworks has literally created a world. The province of Cyrodiil, in Tamriel, was brought into existence down the last leaf and blade of grass (many of which appear to move independently from each other). The province is big enough that you may actually decide to buy a horse rather than walking from place-to-place (if you don’t want to “cheat” by fast-traveling on the map). It’s citizens follow individual routines, spark spontaneous conversations with each other, and pursue various trades. You can even harvest various kinds of plants (if you’re of an alchemical bent) and, over the course of a month or so–game time–they’ll grow back.
You are completely free to roam across Cyrodiil, to poke your nose into all sorts of interesting places, and to create the kind of character and adventure you like. There are no tight boundaries marking paths you must follow. There are all sorts of missions to complete and a plot, but you don’t feel compelled to complete it. You can simply explore the world and live as you choose. More than once I’ve actually caught myself just stopping on some high rock outcropping in the mountains to admire the sunset or the view of the Imperial City. This youtube footage will give you an idea of what I mean.
I cannot neglect to mention the music. Long gone are the days of simple midi files doinking and plinking away from your TV. The music for Oblivion is first rate, by Jeremy Soule, and is prepared for a full orchestra. It’s so good that I rarely just start the game–I almost always let the intro play for a time by itself. A nine-minute version of it by the Czech Philharmonic is available for $0.99 from Amazon.com, or you can buy the entire soundtrack here. You’ll not regret the $0.99 at least, I predict.
Aside from being seriously addicting, I have found it to be useful in my writing. As you play, you are immersed in this fantasy world as much as you are in the average novel. Perhaps just as importantly, it engages more than just your passive imagination. Novels generally involve the authors speaking to you, painting pictures and planting ideas into your mind. In Oblivion, to a large extent, you determine what happens. This forces you to actually think through the implications of what you’re seeing, hearing, reading, and doing as opposed to just absorbing it. It helps to not only put me in the mood to write, it reminds me of all the things I need to be thinking through: What would that mountain look like? What are the unique aspects of that particular race and how they handle their weapons?
One final point: I’ve found that Oblivion also has staying power. I’ve been playing my copy off and on for years, and there are still parts of Cyrodiil I’ve yet to see. I’m actually going to be rushing to finish up the Shivering Isles expansion before Skyrim. That is odd, given that many games (and even consoles) use up their interest value in weeks or months. I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth out of mine. So, if you’ve been putting off trying a game, I think you’ll find Oblivion more than worthwhile. It may be an investment in time, but any good work of fantasy will require that, and, unlike most books, this one will be different each time you pick it up.
Now, to pick up my copy of Skyrim….
*Actually, the commercial for Dragon Warrior (linked here and above) was one of the first important introductions I had to the idea of medieval fantasy. Even today I still remember snippets of the dialogue.