Yeah, I’m going there.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has not aged well. Hell, many games don’t. For instance, I absolutely love the original Half-Life, but it is not a pretty game. Similarly, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is kinda a mess (Jen: I cannot believe you went there. #sooffended). It’s a technical disaster on consoles, with horrific framerates, muddy textures, and stiff character animations. Still, it’s impossible for me to not love it. It’s the only game that Jennifer has finished completely, and I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into playing it. It isn’t perfect, but it sure is a great game.
It’s hard to pin down what it was that drew me into Oblivion so deeply (Jen: How about all the amazingness it offers? Duh). After all, on the surface, Skyrim and Oblivion are similar in many ways. Both give the player a high level of freedom to choose stories to pursue, feature deep customization options, eschew the traiditional RPG mechanics in favor of allowing players to use equipment and skills as they see fit, and feature massive open worlds to explore. Skyrim is a far more technically impressive game, and the Special Edition makes it look even better. With the right mods, you can achieve near-realism.
Regardless, I have to stand by my opinion that Oblivion is a better game.
Less Is More
It’s difficult to find an adequate comparison for the worlds of Oblivion and Skyrim, but based on what I could find, their maps are roughly the same size. Even so, Skyrim still feels more empty to me. Where Oblivion has side quests that involve unraveling Glarthir’s conspiracy in Skingrad and reuniting long-lost twins (Jen: “I am sick and tired, tired and sick, and perhaps a little drunk”), Skyrim doesn’t seem to have the same equivalents despite having more side quests to complete (Jen: It surprises me that this is true. Oblivion feels like it has so much more to offer).
The key to this problem seems to stem from the quantity vs quality debate. Skyrim has more quests it seems, but the quality of them seem to be lower. The number of fetch/kill quests in Skyrim are significantly higher, especially if you factor in radiant quests (Jen: They didn’t try as hard to create a unique game (and quests) in Skyrim like they did in Oblivion).
I would really like to see Bethesda do away with radiant quests in their open world RPGs. They aren’t fun, they’re filler. There’s a reason why people created mods to disable radiant quests and why Preston Garvey has become a meme in Fallout 4. Radiant quests have a place, and it’s in MMORPGs where story isn’t a major focus, not single player games. In my opinion, they’re lazy as hell; they’re padding. Radiant quests are what you throw into a game when you run out of ideas.
Skyrim doesn’t have a Preston Garvey, but it isn’t free from the endless supply of bounties and pleas from villagers to kill bears and bring back their pelts. The worst example of a lazy quest I can think of in Oblivion is Go Fish, but at least by completing it, you’re given a wonderful ring as a reward (Jen: The slaughterfish are scary! I remember playing through Oblivion for the first time and avoiding that mission, until I was leveled up more, because the fish kicked my buns).
Where’s The Meat?
Skyrim and Oblivion feature many of the same trappings outside of the side quests as well. Both feature guild-based quest lines, as well as an overarching narrative to complete. However, again, while Oblivion features more memorable quest lines (see the Thieves/Fighters/Mages Guilds), Skyrim falters. That isn’t to say that the faction quest in Skyrim are objectively bad, but they definitely lack in creativity in comparison.
Where one would find themselves completing a daring heist to steal an Elder Scroll for the Gray Fox in Oblivion, the Thieves Guild in Skyrim revolves around trying to restore the guild to its former glory (Jen: That Oblivion quest ranks in my top fave quests in a video game, hands down). That’s a matter of taste, for sure, but the overall satisfaction from completing the Thieves Guild quest line is something to behold. The same goes for the Dark Brotherhood I suppose (Oblivion‘s quest line has one of the best twists in a game I think, and a murder mystery!). However, where Skyrim really loses to Oblivion is in the comparison between The College of Winterhold and the Mages Guild. The entire College of Winterhold storyline just feels poorly implemented, and incredibly short. It involves tons of dungeon delving, and instead of working your way up in the guild, you go straight from new recruit to archmage (Jen: Unless you are either a completionisht or a mage, just avoid this questline).
Also, why have the Bard’s College at all? It’s a missed opportunity to not have fleshed out that guild more.
Of course, the same could be said for the civil war between the Stormcloaks and the Empire. The entire civil war questline feels like a limp attempt to ape the strife in Fallout: New Vegas. No right or wrong faction, just shades of grey (Jen: Guys, not fifty shades of grey. Geez). Except, like with most of the quest lines in Skyrim, there’s a lackluster finish to it all that changes nothing in the end.
I think the issues that surround Skyrim are indicative of a larger problem; something that has been plaguing Bethesda’s open-world RPGs for years. They lack soul (Jen: OMG THEY’RE ALL GINGERS??!!!).
Fallout 4 is obviously the pinnacle of cookie cutter game design, but you could see the writing on the wall for this downward spiral from Fallout 3 to the release of Skyrim. As Bethesda’s games have grown in scope, they’ve been adopting more and more aspects of modular game design. A simple example of how this sort of game design methodology is used is with DOOM‘s SnapMap. Using the level creation feature in 2016’s DOOM is as easy as snapping pieces of a game together, allowing players to create their own levels to play around in.
Bethesda has used this sort of game design technique for environments, but I’d say that they began utilizing a form of it in their quest design with Skyrim. I can’t say I blame them necessarily, as game design is no easy task, especially when you’re getting into the scale of Bethesda games. However, when their previous efforts had more unique properties to them, it’s difficult to not draw comparisons to their earlier works, and long for a return to the days when their open-world RPGs felt less like MMORPGs.
Skyrim just doesn’t have the same spirit or soul as Oblivion did. You can hear it in the voice acting, see it in the quests and level design, and experience it in the quests. You can even see it in Bethesda’s never-ending porting of Skyrim to more platforms. It’s the mantra that quantity matters more than quality. That some of something great is not as good as tons of something that’s simply serviceable.
Jen: I love Skyrim, I do, but there is something incredibly special about Oblivion that I will always hold close to my heart. When I think about fantastic games I have played, albeit not that many, Oblivion ranks as number one. Sure, there are flaws, and it doesn’t look that great anymore, but when they released it, it was stepping into a whole new era of gaming. Gamers were taken into a world that was beautiful, captivating, and moving. Or maybe that was just me.
Sadly, I’d say that if Bethesda ever got around to making The Elder Scrolls VI, you’d see a game very similar to Fallout 4. A giant, empty map filled with radiant quests and boring environments. But hey, at least there’d be a ton of random stuff to do!
Thoughts? Comments? Rage? Let me know what you think.
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