I hadn’t thought there was something really wrong with the way I play games until I played Oblivion. The game dumps you in a fantasy world and forces you to make something of yourself; tasks you with saving a fantasy world from some unfathomable evil.
For those who haven’t played Oblivion yet, I feel I should probably explain a little. It takes place in a stereotypical fantasy setting. The game begins in a dungeon, where (King) Captain Picard decides to escape through your cell, in the process freeing you and (not to spoil it or anything) basically telling you that you’ll have to roam the extravagantly wide world, closing numerous gates to a blasted hellscape.
If you would like to replicate my journey, you can do so by following the river, getting lost often, panicking whenever you encounter an animal and habitually using the heal skill to level it up.
The problem here is that it’s written with a sense of immediacy, and delivered by Patrick Stuart. With boundless enthusiasm, I charted a course for the first of the Oblivion Gates to appear on my map as I exited the creepy Picard sex-dungeon, determined to slay great evils.
There is a “fast travel” option, but I’m not an instruction book kind of guy. You’re going to want to take that. Instead, I just walked the whole way there… I think I was probably playing Oblivion at around the same pace as I read The Lord of the Rings. An hour and a bit of walking later, I come to the town of Kvatch, collapsed and eaten away by the swirling maelstrom of energy that comprises the oblivion gate.
All brash confidence and certain of my hero status, I informed the local guards that they could step back, leave it to me. I had the situation under control. Captain Picard had hand picked me in his strange S&M palace. I was ready for this.
About six frustrating and confusing deaths later, it had become painfully apparent that I was not cut out for the business of closing oblivion gates. I was seared by magma, confused and eventually lost in the hellish netherworld twice, killed by skeletons and, once, killed by a Kvatchian guard who seemed lost and confused.
I loaded my game and, as I approached the glimmering redness of the gate, like a wound in the world, streams of energy fluttering from it, I noticed that off in the distance, the sun was setting over a seemingly peaceful landscape, shoreline and all. I turned back to the oblivion gate, beneath the swirling maelstrom. Evil positively oozed from it as town guards fought to contain lesser demons… then I looked back to the sunset and thought, “There, that’s where I need to be. I’m not good enough for this yet. I’m not the hero of Kvatch. Patrick Stuart was wrong. I’ll come back later.”
I plotted a course, having not yet learned to fast travel, for the tiny seaside town of Anvil, which many of you who played Oblivion likely won’t even remember. Anvil has a tiny lighthouse, a blacksmith, and some small shops that have the feel of shops in a seasonal town. There’s a haunted house and all manner of charming individuals and interpersonal intrigue.
The problem was that after a while of seaside sunsets and soft sands strands, I kind of forgot that the oblivion gate was open, and whenever I thought about it, it was in the back of my mind as a distant worry,
“Probably the land is being overrun by evil as I go about this tiny sidequest for the hunter in town to kill a mountain lion. Still, when the demons get to Anvil, that’s when I know I’m ready to start fighting. They’ll never take Anvil, not while I yet draw breath.”
The problem is… the evil never really leaves the oblivion gates. It never comes to Anvil. Instead, I befriended the lighthouse keeper, whose name I still feel a little guilty about having forgotten. I would stand with him at the top of the lighthouse at the end of the day and watch the sun set across the crystal clear and glass calm waters of the Anvil bay. I was a well-liked neighbour, and I gazed over all I knew to be my own and I saw that it was good.
I loved Anvil for the little things and I defended it from any threats I found. When mountain lions threatened the town’s hunter, I was there, bow in hand (because let’s face it, I wasn’t going to risk getting too close). When a dark elf writer worried about the rats she kept as pets, I was there, to solve the intrigue. When a robbery at the jewellery shop down by the docks turned into a gang fight, I was there to help… though sadly not hero enough to save the life of the man who used to live in the lighthouse.
When a gang of women came to town and seduced some of the village men, stealing their valuables, I stopped them, looked through their basement and found the possessions of the better-known men from town. When things turned sour, I panicked and stabbed someone. In the dead of night, I carried the key to their house down to the docks and flung it into the sea, that the townsfolk might never discover my crime.
I did attempt to give the men their back heir treasures, but they denied all knowledge, one accused me of theft.
It was then that I was thrown in Anvil’s jail. I had thought I was the King of Town, but it turned out they had a duchess, a wealthy widow, who I would later attempt to court, with varying degrees of success. She seemed to dislike my criminal history, my having been in jail, though honestly, I wasn’t to blame.
In truth, I did learn a lot from my time playing Oblivion… I learned that, given an appropriately complex high-fantasy setting, I don’t default to king, thief, assassin, cut-throat brigand or battle-mage.
I’m an odd jobs man. A roustabout. A man about town and dandy.
I watch the sunset, with my friend the lighthouse keeper. We talk about the way the fish have been biting, the bad harvest and how things haven’t been the same since archmage Traven outlawed Necromancy. After his death, I would sleep there from time to time, but it wasn’t the same.
I never met archmage Traven, but I figured he was probably a necromancer. I had that small-town, backwoods kind of gossipmonger’s knowledge of these things. So when the mages’ guild asked if I were interesting in doing some odd jobs, I politely declined.
In a high fantasy setting, I default to being a kind of backwater man-about-town. I schmooze as much as I quest and get myself into trouble with the locals for my various inappropriate comments. I was in jail, but as the town drunk once told me… who hasn’t spent a night in the cells from time to time?
I had played more than forty hours of Oblivion, and after the first three hours all of it was within a two mile radius of Anvil.
It happened eventually that I received a letter that called me away, far away. I was to travel to Cheydinhal or Leyawiin. I walked cross country, it being my way. I expected to find some tiny town, a village. Once I was within its gates, I saw the milling crowd, the characters, the people I had never known.
This place was not meant for me. This game was not meant for me. I never went back to Oblivion.