As you read this sentence you’re probably thinking about playing Fallout 4 again aren’t you? Could you take just a brief moment from the wasteland and come pay tribute to one of Bethesda’s greatest achievements? I’m of course talking about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Back in 2006 The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was released, and it came to be one of the most incredible gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Thinking back to it, I can’t describe a game world which has affected me as much as Cyrodiil. Skyrim had a great environment, but it didn’t quite capture the same magic as Oblivion in my opinion; as vague and ambiguous as this “magic” may seem at the moment, I’m going to do my best to explain it.
In an effort to truly recapture memories of Oblivion, I’ve enlisted someone who I would consider to be a true guru of the game. Having achieved 100% completion, my great friend Len has kindly offered to jump into the article to throw his opinions into the mix; hundreds and hundreds of hours per opinion. Bold text is a sign that Len has lent us his wisdom.
Naturally we will be comparing Oblivion with Skyrim at times, as it would seem rude not to. You may have your gripes with this, but as the successor, it would seem odd not to consider them both in parallel with each other in order to tease out the factors that made Oblivion so special.
The sense of “self”
We’re going to start by considering the sense of “self” in both Skyrim and Oblivion. That personal connection you have with your created character/abomination, which underpins the feeling of actually giving a damn about your hero’s well-being. When you play the game you’re connected to your character, but also to the lore surrounding them. Skyrim placed you into the mould of a fabled Dragonborn, but Oblivion didn’t really… do anything.
Len: The great thing about Oblivion for me was that I didn’t feel like I was the “Chosen One”, an unstoppable force of reckoning destined to save the world. That’s the big difference between Oblivion and Skyrim from my perspective. Rather than being this “mighty foretold Dragonborn” I was just some dude in a prison cell who lost his memory from being hit in the face by a stone slab and then let loose on Cyrodiil.
Rather than giving us a sense of untapped power as a Dragonborn – a latent power waiting to be released upon the world – it almost made you feel like you couldn’t truly shape your character. Of course, you could shape your character’s development in the world, but you didn’t start off as a clean slate. You were already “somebody” in effect. In stark contrast, Oblivion really did make you feel like you were imparting a little bit of yourself into Cyrodiil. I’m not saying that everyone who plays is a nobody, but as you progressed through the game you impacted the world, formed relationships and battled for things that you believed in. You weren’t destined to be a superhero, you were just a bewildered, half-naked man who made it. And I really like that.
Awe-inspiring audio and visuals
When I think of Oblivion, I think of rolling hills, vast green expanses, cobbled pathways, rustling trees and azure lakes. Who can forget emerging from the prison and looking out at the world for the first time? I remember being greeted by a beautiful bright sky and the sense that I was involved in a fantasy world that really hit the spot. Sure, Skyrim had a great world, Red Dead Redemption had a sublime open world, even Fallout 3 and New Vegas presented some of the most memorable worlds I’ve ever explored. But they don’t resonate with me as much as Cyrodiil.
Len: Skyrim is beautiful, and I’m a big fan of snowy places in games and in real life, but Cyrodiil felt like it had much more variety as you moved between the different counties: from grassland and beaches, to swamps and dense forests.
By today’s standards the graphics are a little sketchy, but that only serves to give it the sense of a timeless classic and makes you feel like you’re walking through an ever-changing, living kaleidoscope.
Cyrodiil created such a lasting impression because it transported you into its grasp. The landscapes and environments weren’t filled to the brim with intricate colour patterns and exceptional detailing; rather they were very simple, but sometimes simple is the best way to go. There was something strikingly beautiful as you looked upon The Imperial City from a distance, or wandered into Chorrol square for the first time. In a sense, Oblivion had an ideal fantasy world: it wasn’t utterly severed from our experiences in real life, but was entirely relatable. You could picture yourself wandering through the rustling grassland, or taking a moment to yourself in Weynon Priory. Every location felt like an extension of something you may have experienced in your travels in real life, reminding you of memorable places, evoking fond memories and maintaining a sense of believability. It didn’t try too hard to absorb you in an alien setting, but succeeded in immersing you in a perfectly balanced fantasy world.
When you watch a movie, a huge part of the experience is the music that plays in the background. Whether it be a heart-stopping crescendo towards the end of a hugely dramatic moment, or the echo of a piano during an emotional sequence, the soundtrack is key to elevating moments to their true potential. It’s almost impossible to ignore Jeremy Soule’s soundtrack that accompanies you during your adventures in Cyrodiil. The music blends seamlessly with the environment, creating moments of wonder and reflection as you stare at the stars or quietly pay your respects to the gods. If you’re suddenly ambushed in your serenity, the music is quick to impart a sense of threat and urgency.