A look back at Bethesda’s sprawling The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Tamriel, the continent in which Elder Scrolls quests take place, is a diverse and improbable land: tales tell of migratory tree cities in dark Valenwood, impenetrable swamps and assassins in Black Marsh, and supremacist uprisings on the Summerset Isles. Released between Morrowind, a volcanic land of warring elf houses, and Skyrim, an untamed Nordic wilderness, The Elder Scrolls IV:
Oblivion seems positively mundane. The Imperial heartland of Cyrodiil in which it’s set could be confused for Yorkshire.
You’re spat out of a sewer pipe onto the Imperial Isle at the start of the game. Ahead of you is a crumbled old castle – replete with bandits, naturally. Above are birches and elms, and across a placid river lie miles of rolling farmland. At its most exotic, far to the northwest, Cyrodiil begins to resemble the New Forest: a little sandier than the rest, with the occasional rock of note.
This was Bethesda’s first experiment with procedural generation, which producer Gavin Carter would promote with the unflattering statement that the studio could “churn out realistic environments much more quickly and efficiently than we could in Morrowind.” Cyrodiil’s enormous landmass was the product of 50 people and an algorithm ten years before the likes of No
Man’s Sky were creating worlds of impossible variation at the press of a button. Vegetation got the procedural treatment, too – new plants and rough forests could be spawned within minutes.
It’s hard to say what came first: the choice of setting or Bethesda’s new tech. Hills and plains were more forgiving to early procedural algorithms than crags, ravines and volcanoes. Modders would step in to give the landscape some spice, introducing gorges and redwood forests to break up the unsullied rural views, but the bulk of Cyrodiil would always be reserved, safe and respectable. It was in stark contrast to the demon-slaying action Bethesda liked to focus on in its trailers.
This quintessential Britishness – the unassuming familiarity of creeks and pastures – is the basis for Oblivion’s strength as an RPG. By immersing you in the everyday, the extraordinary had more
impact than in Skyrim’s land of dragons or
Morrowind’s alien landscape. It’s a hallmark of British fiction to take a mundane scene and appal, surprise or amuse us (often when we ought not to be amused), and your misadventures in this placid world had the loud ring of MR James or Neil Gaiman. By accident or design, Bethesda’s Maryland team created an exquisitely British game.
Walking along the quaint country road to Cheydinhal, you’re struck by the peace of it all: heather swaying gently, woodland rolling off into morning mist. To the left, you might notice a short flight of wooden steps mantling a hill, upon which sits a small grotto. There’s even a veranda of sorts, sporting a pair of barrels and nothing else. It’s the kind of place to while away time just sitting on a Sunday afternoon. Pop inside the cave, however, and odds are good on you contracting porphyric haemophilia. You will soon become a vampire.
Or perhaps, wandering the deep forests south of Chorrol, you might come across Hackdirt. It’s a self-contained settlement reminiscent of Cotswold hamlets, with chapel, town square and a few dwellings. The people are rude, but that’s country folk for you. Or maybe not – spend more than a day or so in town and rudeness will escalate to aggression. Investigate the source of their hostility, and you’ll find yourself plunged into a Lovecraftian nightmare.
This isn’t to give unbridled praise to a procedural landscape, though. Sometimes the countryside became samey and empty – it was often monotony that made finding an unexpected quest a delight by contrast, and many of Bethesda’s grander ambitions never made the final cut. Take the much-lauded Radiant AI, the star of Oblivion’s E3 in 2005. This was the system that was supposed to give life to Cyrodiil unlike any seen in an RPG. To an extent it worked: NPCs had a daily routine that they would follow until something else took precedence. They would meet and talk to each other, even if those conversations seemed to concern nothing but mud crabs. By comparison,
Morrowind’s NPCs would stand in the same spot waiting to dispense a quest or some vital dialogue. But the complex behaviours touted in pre-release presentations, such as an NPC realising its inadequacy at target
THE EMPEROR IS SLAIN AND A BORED-SOUNDING SEAN BEAN RESCUED AS PORTALS TO HELL BEGIN SPRINGING UP
practice and heading off to buy a marksman potion, never materialised. The official ‘making of’ documentary features an anecdote about the early days of Radiant in which one NPC bought every piece of armour in the city, driven by some crazed concern for his safety. In another example, by the time players encountered the local skooma dealer he would always be dead – NPC demand for the good stuff was so high that they were willing to kill him to get their hit. These behaviours weren’t so much fixed as sanitised.
Elsewhere, Oblivion was rougher. The skill system was a hodgepodge of stats, major skills and minor skills that were so minor as to include Athletics and Acrobatics – or running and jumping. You could become a master acrobat by standing on a table and spamming jump (the ceiling curtailed the jump animation but not the XP gain; Cirque du Soleil would weep). Perks, awarded at milestones within each skill, were similarly flawed: a master in the Heavy Armour skill, for example, suffers no encumbrance from all the Daedric steel they lug about, making light armour redundant.
However rickety the skill system was, its unwieldy sprawl spoke to a game secure in its identity as an RPG – something Bethesda has wrestled with since. During the introduction, you could design your own class from scratch, if you chose, and the useful options extended to five separate schools of magic, bladed and blunt weapons, hand-to-hand combat and more. Playing a stealthy marksman with a splash of Illusion magic on the side was a wildly different experience to a stealthy marksman who could conjure familiars. Choosing your major skills meant letting something vital lag behind for many hours. Here, it was much harder to become a Swiss army knife than it was with Skyrim’s perk-centric levelling pathways or Fallout 4’ s wholly perk-based experience, which feels like it would frankly rather not be there at all.
It’s hard to give Bethesda full credit for the understated, disruptive tone that resulted from Oblivion’s familiar world and nods to RPG tradition when the main story conflicts so keenly with the self-restraint elsewhere. Morrowind threw you into the middle of a near-incomprehensible political tangle. You were predestined to resolve it, obviously, but that didn’t make events easy or even especially important. Its main quest often sent you on sabbatical to get more levels and adventure under your belt – kicking back with perennial distractions such as the Fighters Guild was sanctioned by the story. Oblivion was dozy and idyllic, but your main objective – imparted by none other than bombast king Sir Patrick Stewart as Emperor Uriel Septim VII – insisted that you save the world quick smart.
From the off, the Emperor is slain, a city destroyed and a bored-sounding Sean Bean rescued as portals to Hell begin springing up across the country. However, this was
Among Cyrodiil’s top distractions is the arena in which you fight gladiators for cash while ignoring the apocalypse that will come to pass should you slip up
A whiff of Radiant AI’s idiosyncrasies remained in the final build: psychic guards. Should a lockpick be drawn three streets over, they’d know, and the same goes for unseen murders