Oblivion: Nostalgia for a New World

Against a plain face of aged and scratched marble, the title of the game is embossed in metallic font. At the center of the frame, in the same style as the title, is an uneven runic trilith with a dot in its middle. Icons representing the developer, publisher, and content rating are placed along the bottom of the frame.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.

Cyrodiil

Every inch of this massive nation actually exists in the game, including the towns. Truly amazing when you stop and think....

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.

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on November 10, 2011, in Brian Melton, Fantasy, Universes, World Creation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. FIRST! (heh :D)

    As I mentioned in my post last week, I’ve been taking a course on the English Novel, which is actually a study on the rise of the Novel as an art form. From this I have seen plenty of parallels to the development of video games as a medium (as well as movies, comic books, etc.), and so I have little doubt that some day most people will consider them more or less equal to other art forms. There’s just as many crap books, movies, theater, oil paintings, etc. as there are video games, after all, so it’s not as if quality is inherent in the form itself. There is an ambiance and level of immersion that can only be achieved in a video game, something you can only appreciate if you experience it first-hand. Some day there’ll be another new-fangled invention that will rise up as that generation’s newest form of creative expression (and us gamers will probably scoff at it, if history and human nature are any indication).

    I have a big ‘ol soft spot for Oblivion myself, although my version’s been so heavily modded that it hardly plays like the original anymore. It was released in 2006, so it feels a little old and clunky to me now, but it’s been a gold standard in the fantasy RPG market ever since it’s release and a classic in its own right. I second Brian’s recommendation if anyone wants to pick it up- you can get it cheap nowadays, and it’ll run swimmingly on most computers now, even though it was a graphical monster requiring $2000 gaming rigs to run at its highest potential back at its release.

    If anyone wants to see the gulf of progress in graphics from 2006 to today, compare trailers from Oblivion and Skyrim- the difference is staggering.

  2. Can you say how robust a system you need to run Oblivion? I’ve a mid-range laptop from 2008 (of the Dell Inspiron class) that runs things like Neverwinter Nights and Rome:Total War fine, but I’m afraid it’d have trouble with Oblivion’s vastness and detail. While mostly a strategy gamer, I do like a good single-player RPG.

    It’s always interesting to read the discussions on whether or not digital games should be viewed as an art equal to movies and books. At this stage, I still think no, although that refers to the game package as a whole, and not to the individual parts, in which great artistry is now often displayed: the graphics and art design, the music, the backstory (when it’s good), the sheer technology. Music in particular is a place where the gaming world has shown for some years, easily equal to the best film music, and much more democratic in the opportunities it offers for new composers (as I would imagine, at least). One of my favorites is “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV.

    I haven’t yet played a game that impressed with its world quite as much as you say here, but perhaps that’s because I’ve never played any of the Elder Scrolls series. The WarCraft games are fun, but for all their mythologies have never moved me like the simplest story from Narnia can, nor seemed to have a fraction of the depth or reality of Middle-Earth. Mass Effect comes closest because of the cinematic nature of the games; they’re all very narrative-driven, which gives them room to people the world with some real characters. But I still think that books will always be intellectually superior, because there is a single author talking to you. It’s that engaging with another mind that’s important. When you play a game, even if you are immersed in a new world, you are not engaging with one other person’s mind. There is a whole team of engineers, programmers, writers, artists, and others who are shaping everything. Still a valuable experience, if they do it well, but lacking the intimacy and relationship that develops between a reader and an author. That’s my take, for now.

  3. Like you, I’ve been playing since I was a small child. I remember a Winter Olympics game on our old Apple II E that I loved, along with the original Load Runner and some WWII Pacific battle game. I remember envying my cousins for having an Atari (and JOUST! I LOVED JOUST!).

    I think games really turned the corner from killing time to actual art (or at least having the potential for it) about the time of Final Fantasy VI. I don’t know that that was THE game to do it, but it’s the one I (and probably most gamers at the time) played that really introduced us to truly epic story lines, in-depth characters and character growth, a musical score (primitive as the tools were) that was worthy of opera (and is still beloved today); in short, all the critical elements for a major piece of art. Even the 8-bit graphics were lovingly executed. In contrast, Final Fantasy V, while a very fun game, was just that, really. There was a decent attempt at a story line, and characters had actual motives and such, but it honestly wasn’t too much more than Sonic or Mario.

    Somewhere in between those two, the game makers really hit on the idea of a game as an art form, like a movie or a book more than Chess or Checkers. Really, it had been going that way for a while, but that’s when if first really got there. People who saw games before then easily developed an opinion of games as childish and a waste of time, like running around in the woods, only without the exercise. People who were growing up at that time or later got to see games as epic stories that the player got to play a part in. They got to see worlds take real shape, with histories, politics, motivations, and all quite real. More than a few games have even drawn direct inspiration from historical periods or classical literature.

  4. I’ll take your word for it–there is no inherent reason why gaming could not become a legitimate art form. But one only has room for so many obsessions in one’s life. When skyrim and oblivion are ready for installation on the holodeck, let me know. Until then, I’ll stay curled up in Ten Forward with my synthale and my book.

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