The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion feels sparse and strange 12 years on

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REINSTALL

Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting PC gaming days gone by. Today Pip revisits Oblivion and finds a nostalgic, if empty, world.

It was a shock to go back to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I hadn’t been prepared for how dated the world seems now. I remember it as a vibrant, strange landscape which filled the areas between massive cities with wildlife and odd buildings. In 2018 it is a sparse place. There aren’t enough trees, there aren’t enough textures, there is a bit of bad weather that seems rooted in place near Kvatch so you can cause the rain to fall by walking into it. It’s clunky and weird, but it feels so good to be back. 

Actually, before I got to the landscape there was the escape route from the cells. The Emperor joined me for that bit, as fellow players will remember. What you might not recall—because nostalgia is the flattering Instagram filter of the brain—is that Uriel Septim VII looked like he’d spent his royal downtime investigating Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills levels of Botox. I’m also of the opinion that he was wearing a hairpiece. 

Obviously I say this with affection because I would watch Royal House Emperors of Cyrodiil every week without fail. But it was a little distracting until I sank back into the Oblivion experience.

Kvatching up

Also distracting were the DLC quest prompts which popped up on the screen throughout my escape. Sneaking through dank tunnels I received a note about my horse armour entitlement, there was a letter claiming I’d been left a lair by a long-lost relative, and a missive begging for me to give aid to Battlehorn Castle. If I hadn’t been in a fantasy land I’d have assumed I’d just got back into signal range after a trip abroad and my phone was frantically chirping its way through all the accumulated spam. 

I guess the closest in-universe explanation I could come up with was a bunch of ghosts working as flyer distributors for local retailers or as intermediaries for fraudsters. I mean, I’m fairly sure I’ve warned my own parents not to reply to emails from people claiming to have news of lairs inherited from long-lost relatives or demanding aid with the promise of a castle in return.

Exiting the sewers I was wondering what would happen to that ‘wow’ moment from 12 years ago. I felt pretty sure it would no longer be ‘wow’, but if Oblivion could no longer look to graphical swishness (technical term) for that emotional beat, I was curious as to what sensation would take its place. 

What happened instead is that I was struck by how sparse the world seemed. That’s not actually a bad thing because it changes the final note of your escape from one of embracing glorious freedom to a muted exit into a muted world. Less jubilation and more a ‘What now?’ which actually feels appropriate to the sudden weight of responsibility thrust upon you by the narrative. 

The next few hours continued to disintegrate the rosy veneer that memory applies to beloved games. I remember thinking of Cyrodiil as a vibrant world full of strange challenges when I first played. I still got flashes of that—particularly when catching sight of the stainedglass windows in various chapels—but generally the world had a slightly muddy colour palette, the faces looked horrible and the objects were that strange combination of indistinct textures and jagged edges.

Talking in circles

Dialogue was generally entertainingly stilted and I do still have a peculiar soft spot for how unnatural and weird the speechcraft minigame is. In case you haven’t encountered it, you click on different quarters of a rotating circle to apply varying quantities of boasting, joking, admiring and coercion to your conversational partner. You spend about 10% of these encounters feeling successful and the rest trying to minimise the harm you’re doing to your relationship with this person. 

I spent my first trip through an Oblivion gate jogging backwards in circles while flinging fireballs at various villains. That was a failsafe strategy for every single fight—lure the scary person to the circular room with the walkway round the edge and then jog backwards, launching a fireball when my mana was charged enough. I feel like the Imperial guard could really have bested Mehrunes Dagon a lot quicker if they’d spent more of their training learning how to jog backwards in circles. 

Anyway, something which has remained the same over the last decade or so is my desire to hoard. I am currently overencumbered and will continue to be overencumbered at five-minute intervals for the rest of the game. Oblivion, you see, claims to be a game about thwarting a cult, but is secretly an ongoing quest to figure out how many wolf pelts you want to keep hold of at any given time. For me the answer is three. And two skulls. And one tan jug. And a bear pelt. And two ribcages.

Oblivion, you see, claims to be a game about thwarting a cult, but is secretly an ongoing quest to figure out how many wolf pelts you want to keep hold of at any given time. For me the answer is three.

In between overencumberings I helped one of the Blades deal with a cultist who was following him in a suspicious fashion. Well, I say I ‘helped’. What actually happened is I forgot how to get up from my chair and accidentally stole some bar snacks while jabbing the keyboard. I then bumbled into the cellar while trying to divest myself of my stolen property, ran in a circle by some barrels, heard the Blade deal with the spy and then looted the spy’s corpse. Midway through the looting a city guard arrested me for my stolen snacks (studiously ignoring the murdered man at his feet) and made me walk back to the cellar from a different part of the city. I was then congratulated for my ‘effort’. 

Next on the list of quests was collecting all four volumes of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Guide To Hanging Out With Yer Lad Mehrunes Dagon. Volume three was, the book dealer assured me, impossible to find. Except for the copy he had in the store right now on order for someone else. I have worked in a library before, and it really feels like this dude is using ‘impossible to find’ in the, ‘I had to interrupt my tea break to do an advanced search on AbeBooks and order it in—why can’t you leave me in peace?’ sense of the phrase. 

The fourth volume was actually the trickiest because it involved a tedious trip to the sewers and the death of my good friend, Whatshisname. He possibly could have survived if I hadn’t let him whittle his own health bar down by fighting crabs on my behalf because I couldn’t be bothered.

Guild trouble

With the book collection in the bag I waited out some arcane research timer by trying to join the Mage’s Guild. One part of that project involved me watching someone hack someone else to death while I loitered near a horse.

The Mage’s Guild has all the worst problems. That said, it did remind me that Oblivion is capable of rather dark comedy.

That then devolved into a weird street brawl between two battlemages and a woman wearing leather armour, and then segued into a fight between one battlemage, a woman in leather armour, the woman in leather armour’s ghost and an Imperial guard. I tried to steal the horse while everyone was busy fighting but I couldn’t work out how, and thus trundled back off to the town on foot to tell the guild there of my resounding ‘success’. 

There was also some idiot who had stolen a mage’s staff with the excuse that he did it because he fancied her. Mate, that nonsense didn’t work in kindergarten and it certainly doesn’t work now that you’re old enough to be prosecuted for it. Anyway, he explained that the crime hadn’t paid off (duh) and the mage didn’t like him (double duh) and that the only solution was to sell the stolen property (what?). 

The Mage’s Guild has all the worst problems. That said, it did remind me that Oblivion is capable of rather dark comedy. For example, there’s a Mage’s Guild quest involving a Ring of Burden which made me laugh unexpectedly. On the quest front I’m also saving the Dark Brotherhood murder party quest ‘Whodunit?’ as a special treat.

When I returned to the Arcane University with all my mage recommendations I bumped into the Argonian Tar-Meena and remember that the main quest existed. She told me that the Reader’s Digest Condensed Guide to Hanging Out With Yer Lad Mehrunes Dagon was just a plaintext cipher and that the first word of each paragraph explained where I needed to go. 

I will confess that I had a Miss Marple audiobook on for part of this questline and thus I rocked up at the Mythic Dawn cave HQ place with zero sense of the quest at hand. Apparently it was the stealth one. I found that out by absentmindedly killing the first person I saw and blowing my cover in the first minute of the encounter. I also tried to nap on the sacrificial altar and forgot that I had useful potions which would have assisted in the fight. 

All of this has led to me taking a big old book to not-quite-Emperor Martin in his nest on top of a mountain. At this point I really do wish I could give him the benefit of my extra 12 years of wisdom. “Marty,” I’d say. “Marty, the thing is—and forgive me for spoilering the next week of your life—but you’re secretly a god and can transform into a dragon so maybe you can take care of things from this point.” 

Alas, there was no Real Talk DLC for Oblivion and thus I must deal with a little more arcane faffing while Martin figures himself out.