Time Ex­tend

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


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

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