Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, large high fantasy open worlds, with drop-dead gorgeous scenery, tight gameplay, and a staggering amount of free will in how you as the player interact with the stories that stretch past view. And even though I love them both (but Oblivion some ways more), I’ve noticed some things that differentiate the two games on a more spiritual level. The map size of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is around 40 square kilometers, and it’s predecessor The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, clocks in at around 60. However, you wouldn’t be able to tell from playing them, because they use their game worlds to such differing effects, they almost seem like different games in regard.
Skyrim and the Big Picture
Skyrim seems to revel in its world size, showing off just how big and beautiful it is by taking you across from one end to the other constantly. It wants you to bask in the sheer scale of the country of Skyrim and the continent of Tamirel, mouth gaping at the herculean tasks that await you once you engage in the herculean task itself of mapping the whole of the game world.
However, this approach poses some problems. For one, Skyrim gets a little too happy with its sheer scale for me. There are certain points in the main story where it simply becomes tedious. In the quest Diplomatic Immunity, you are told to trek west all the way (this is without using fast travel, mind you) across half of the game world, do a short quest, and then head all the way back home if you want to have all your stuff returned safely to your inventory. In A Cornered Rat (right after, coincidentally) the game has you walk all the way across another half of the world (but this time to the east) to make it to Riften, kill a few Thalmor and then walk all the way back with Esbern in tow. In A Blade in the Dark, you are asked to do basically the same thing, except this time you kill a dragon and immediately walk back.
This is not fun. I like the game Skyrim, and I like the country Skyrim, but it is still not fun. In all of these situations, you are forced, for all intents and purposes, to go along with the quest, whether there’s a companion character you need to follow or lead, or something else, like lording your entire surrendered inventory over your head and making you go on an “epic journey” in the exact same way you came in order to get it back. There’s nothing letting me do this stuff at my own pace, with the exception of fast travel, which I avoid like the plague for the most part, using only in a few special circumstances. I think it’s worth noting that I fast traveled my way out of the return trip from A Cornered Rat because I simply hate this stuff so much.
So, in conclusion? Yeah, Skyrim, I know you’re big. You don’t have to torture me with it.
Oblivion and a Love for the Little Things
Oblivion does quite the opposite. It takes care not to force you into “there and back” sections throughout the game, and even when it gives in and does have one or two, such as in the early quest Separated at Birth, or the one-two-three punch Breaking the Siege of Kvatch, The Battle for Castle Kvatch, (both of which take place in Kvatch) and Weynon Priory (which asks you to return to Chorrol), there’s always something interesting to keep you engaged. Whether it be helping a down-on-his-luck drunk you’ve befriended connect with his long lost brother, or averting the end of the world, I’m never bored on the return trip. It’s never ” do fun stuff on the way there, and then do all of this cool stuff, and… return.” There’s always something in my head telling me, “man, I’ve got to get back!”
There’s a real difference still though in the way Skyrim treats it’s main quest, and even the simplest of things in Oblivion. One of my fondest memories with my original character was my time in the coastal city of Anvil. It’s still, in fact, one of my fondest gaming memories in all. I spent a long time living out of Anvil, working for the Fighter’s Guild and doing odd-jobs to help the townspeople. I saved pet rats from a pack of mountain lions, I retrieved a ceremonial war axe from the depths of a nearby bandit fort, and fought ghosts on a pirate ship. I still remember catching a band of burglars in the act, culminating in an all out brawl on the docks of the Abecean sea, and taking part in a sting operation to expose a group of slick thieves who would lure their prey and then rob them of everything they had. I investigated an attack on the Chapel of Anvil, and bought a suspiciously cheap seaside mansion, only to discover it haunted. I freed trolls from the grasp of a brutal slave master in one of the most intense fights in the game, and picked up a quest that entrusted the fate of the world to my shoulders once again. I still remember gasping in awe at the view from the top of the Anvil lighthouse, and shuddering in fear of the Oblivion gates that peppered the landscape.
And best of all, all of that happened in one, slick experience. Nothing that was more important pulled me away from my adventures, and no “greater cause” interfered with them. Oblivion understood that the most important part was not to set up a massive world or an epic story, it was to create a feeling deep within the heart of the player, to foster a connection between person and world. It’s the kind of feeling that makes me sad to leave Pale Pass, scared to delve deep into the Aylied ruins, or triumphant when I close another Oblivion gate. It’s something that no amount of staggering scale being pushed in your face can fix, it’s a deep spiritual connection between the player and the world.
In short, Oblivion knows what’s truly important to make an experience memorable. You. And it does its best (admittedly stumbling a few times) to not get in the way of your experiences.
The Final Word
Skyrim, even with it’s smaller world, simply tries too hard. It seems to think that it’s leading you on some great adventure, when really all it’s doing is boring me to death if I can’t actually explore the places I’m seeing on my way. I’m trapped in a beeline, not allowed to do what I want when I want, which really is the entire point of these games. That’s when Skyrim’s philosophy especially hurts: when I specifically plan out things to do in areas that I know the main quest will be taking me by. At that point, I’m forced to drearily march past my supposed goals, vowing to uncover their secrets some other time. No, I can’t go and make a slight detour to return the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller to the Greybeards or pick up the Shards of Mehrune’s Razor on the way. Delphine won’t stop running directly at our destination, and don’t you dare deviate, she will turn this car around!
Oblivion’s approach towards world design intersecting with narrative is simply a far better fit for the kind of games that Oblivion and Skyrim are. It feels natural to do what you want when you want, to plan out a strategy and to not have it be interrupted by the game grabbing you by the shoulders and saying “No. Go where I want you to go because this is really important now.” In a game about player freedom and expression in a massive fantasy open world, the game design and narrative should never be grabbing the reigns from the player and railroading them down paths they didn’t want to go on at the time. In the end, Oblivion truly understands what happens when a game uses massive scale, and how it sacrifices intimacy and the player’s ability to interact meaningfully with the game world. And most importantly, Oblivion understands that unless you stop and enjoy the scenery, you’ll never understand why it’s so beautiful.