I'm replaying Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion a little bit at a time because...umm...it's research for my webcomic RPG. Yes, that's it! Research! But also, I'm replaying it because why not? It's a pretty astonishing game in terms of scope; it's possible to clock countless hours simply exploring the world, finding towns and picking herbs or whatever. The game can truly be whatever you want it to be, and the main plot is almost an afterthought.
Story in Oblivion takes a backseat to the player simply existing- which was a hard concept to grasp the first time I played it. The end of the tutorial stage finds your character emerging from a sewer into bright sunshine, at which point the game basically says "take the next step in the plot, or don't- whatevs. We don't care!" and there you are, standing in the middle of a vast land with nothing and everything to do. It's rather jarring when you're accustomed to more linear games, be they RPGs or not.
Ultimately, it's that endless exploration that makes Oblivion so great. I tend to spend my time wandering the countryside searching for caves and ruins to explore. I clean out the monsters, discover whatever secrets the place may hold, and go sell the spoils for big bucks. The whole "save the world" idea in the main storyline? Yeah, I'll get to that later. Right now I've got chests full of gold to unlock!
I've approached one thing very differently in this playthrough than I did in my last: books. There are hundreds of books scattered around the country, available for reading (or stealing) in homes, available for purchase (or stealing) in shops, and just plain lying around waiting to be found. Some of them provide a skill boost when opened, while others are simply...books. History, instruction, fiction, poetry, you name it- there are literally thousands of pages to be read. The first time I played, I opened every book I found in the hope of getting that stat boost. This time, however, I'm reading the majority of them (sorry, some instruction manuals are just dry) and it's astonishing how much time and effort has been put in by the developers on what can obviously be completely ignored. Again, that's Oblivion. It's your world to make.
(By the way, right now I'm really into The Mystery of Talara, but I can't find volumes 3 & 4. If anyone knows, please help a nerd out.)
Even the leveling system is strange in Oblivion. I'm used to the standard XP method, wherein you need a certain amount of experience points in order to gain a level. XP is acquired by completing tasks, punching people in the face, etc etc. Not so in the land of the Elder Scrolls! The game employs a sort of "practice makes perfect" approach, wherein you aptitude in skills grows as you use those skills- then when you've advanced all of your major skills enough, you gain a level. It's a more realistic approach, I guess. If you keep blocking with a shield, you'll...you know, get better at blocking. Still, it's a vague system and when you're a number-crunching RPGer, it's a scary new world. Change is frightening!
What's strange, though, is that no matter how much time I spend wandering the landscape and talking to people, I never get much of a grip on who my character is. Sure, it's "role-playing", I suppose, but my personality never shines through and whatever background she may have is completely in my head. The player character has no speaking voice- not that it matters, really; BioWare and Valve have proven that mute characters can still be fleshed out- and there are very few instances where I get to choose from multiple dialogue responses. Sure, I can be good or evil, a thief or a do-gooder, a vampire or a...not vampire, but in the end, I'm just a pair of hands wielding a sword and shield. It's weird to spend those countless hours in someone's skin- scaly skin for me this go-round, as I'm playing an Argonian lizard lady- and com out with no sense of who he or she is.
Maybe it doesn't matter.
If there's one area I hope to see improved for the forthcoming Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it's characterization. Not only in the player character, obviously, but also in the NPCs. Oblivion is greatly hurt by the fact that though there are hundreds of minor characters, there are only a handful of voice actors and but a few more facial models. The result is that no one stands out- everyone blends in and names don't matter. No one is memorable, and conversation with everyone is a bit of a drag.
And they're all so ugly! Good lord, Cyrodiil is home to some truly, truly ugly people. I mentioned that this time I'm playing as a lizard- really, I chose that race because I didn't want my character to be hideous. Not only are the NPCs are heinous, it's also nigh impossible to create a character who isn't equally gross. Yes, in Oblivion, a walking lizard woman is more attractive than a human. (I know there are mods for the PC version that make folks easier to stomach visually, but I'm rocking a 360.)
And goodness, they're a needy people!
"Oh, you tracked down my long-lost twin brother and reunited us, thank you! Umm, now we want to reclaim our long-lost childhood home, but we're not sure where it is. Could you go find it for us? Thank you."
"Oh, you're back, and you've found our home! Thank you. It's overrun with ogres, you say? Hmm. Could you go kill them and then come back here? Thank you."
"Oh, you've killed all the ogres? Thank you. Can you now please escort us to our home? And protect us! Despite this large warhammer on my back, I'm afraid I cannot defend myself. Thank you."
And so on.
In related news, there's really little I hate MORE in videogames than escort missions. I really, really hate them. Really. There's nothing worse than having to protect some jerk who can't defend themselves, who can't run, and who dies after, like, one hit. I hate escort missions. Hate. HATE. HAAAAAATE. I hate them.
Ahem. Anyway, yeah, Oblivion is cool. I think I'll become a vampire lizard. And I'll steal horses. And let the people I escort get eaten by bears or something. That'll show 'em!