I’m really struggling with the fact that Oblivion came out almost exactly a decade ago. Anxiety about my rapid aging aside, I can still remember the first time I saw it in motion, the feeling that a true next gen experience had finally arrived. It was beautiful, the realization of what Morrowind had promised but was perhaps too janky and ugly to ever fully deliver on. By the time I’d finally walked away, I’d easily spent over 200 hours with the game, never once touching the main story. I was evil, after all; a cold blooded theif that would stick a dagger in your back just for fun, broken quests be damned.
Of course, it would be impossible to spend that much time with a game without a lot of the seams eventually showing through, the world looking decidedly less impressive when surrounded by dead-eyed NPCs. After that much time, the game doesn’t even pretend to offer much of a challenge either, but that’s never been the draw of the Elder Scrolls games to me. It’s a sandbox, specifically, your sandbox; a world to shape or destroy as you see fit, often capturing that feeling better than any game has since, despite numerous attempts. Trying to revisit that now, I couldn’t ever imagine starting over from scratch or even trying to go back to that save game, most of the population sprawled around on floors with arrows in their necks. To scratch that itch, there’s really only one place to go, one very well-timed save for me to load.
I needed to play that one mission again.
The Dark Brotherhood questline in Oblivion is so deliciously executed that it’s likely to be a dark cloud that will hang over the rest of the series, each subsequent installment unable to ever beat it. It’s a hard act to follow, full of twists and a morbid hilarity that I still remember vividly to this day. Nothing quite encapsulates that like Whodunit?, the quest where you are a told to enter Summitmist Manor. The five guests locked inside are under the belief that they are part of a contest to find a chest full of gold. The catch, of course, is that there is no chest, you have the only key to escape, and everyone has to die. How you go about making that happen is up to you. Though you could command everyone simply kiss the sharp side of your mace and be back in the hideout before lunchtime, it’s infinitely more fun to toy with your prey, the game offering a bonus if no one ever catches you. You can form alliances, send victims off into the basement alone to be picked off or even convince them to murder each other for your amusement.
The guests are, admittedly, dumb as a bag of hammers, never once suspecting that the 6 foot tall cat man in the black hood wielding a daedric sword made of scorching fetuses may not be trustworthy, but the amount of choice given in the quest is a reflection of a greater issue we still face with the genre. In this confined space, you’re given more agency than in the rest of Cyrodiil combined. It’s a focused experience that’s scripted in just the right ways to make you feel important. Other NPCs in the world look and sound the same, even live simulated lives on their own schedules, but your actions never mean as much to them. You’ll never murder a random shopkeeper and have his wife or children permanently scarred by the experience, never befriend a stranger in a tavern then stumble upon them in a forest years later to catch up on old times, unless those characters were specifically designed for that purpose.
In a lot of ways, that’s the open world white whale; the need for these games to increase in granularity at the same rate as their scope. It’s the reason Elder Scrolls games have gotten progressively smaller whilst packing more to do within their land mass. In most cases, the solution seems to be one of simply filling a map with icons, but I crave those more intimate character moments, the kind that may be impossible to ever deliver on a grander scale, at least until we create a middleware that can generate human behaviors as easy as we can trees. Maybe it’s for the best that we haven’t reached that point, lest we prompt an AI uprising sparked by the creation of NPCs that suddenly need purpose in their lives.
I’ll pack more arrows just in case.