Enduring Oblivion

When I was a little kid, every trip to the mall was a potential trip to the arcade.  A five-dollar bill clutched tightly in hand, my brother and I would rush into that flashing cavern, fidgeting in anticipation while twenty quarters clattered into the coin-machine dish.  My favorite games were Tekken, Time Crisis, and The Simpsons, but I rarely chose to play those games.  Instead I would thumb my quarters into skee-ball machines and sport simulators, not because I liked these games, but because these games gave me tickets.  The tickets were key.  You could exchange them for prizes.  Maybe my brother had more fun when we were there, blowing all of his quarters on Time Crisis, but I was the one with the brand new Chinese Finger Trap, and wasn’t that the important thing?

I’m on my third character in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  I promised myself that this time I would just have fun, but it was a promise that I couldn’t keep.  As I write these words there is a rubber band strapped to my Xbox controller, forcing my character to swim into a stone wall, endlessly pumping his arms but never going anywhere.  Once an hour a message flashes across the screen: “Your Athletics Skill has increased.”  I’m a hundred hours into the game and I’ve barely played it at all.

When you start out in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind you’re a shadow of what you will one day become.  The path from the poor harbor of Seyda Neen to the bustling city of Balmora is grueling and dangerous; you’re so weak that any battle could end in death.  I remember getting lost in the hills with no idea where I was going – just somewhere, anywhere.  I staggered from fight to fight, growing in confidence and skill.  By the end of the game I was slicing up enemies like loaves of bread.  Morrowind made me feel like a hero, but Oblivion makes me feel like a muscular man who never leaves the gym.

Or a metaphor: Oblivion is a creepy man who wants to hold my hand. The game begins with a tutorial in a cave.  “Here’s how to stab things.  Here’s how to shoot a bow.  Isn’t it cool how when you shoot that bucket it reacts realistically?” asks Oblivion, pulling me along, gripping my hand a little too tightly.  “Now,” he says, bending onto a knee.  “Now it’s time to pick what you want to be good at!  How about sneaking?  We had fun practicing sneaking, didn’t we?”  I fall for his ruse, picking a bunch of useful skills as my majors.  Thirty hours in, I die in the same necromancer-infested cave a dozen times over before I quit the game in confused frustration.


It turns out that the enemies in Oblivion, unlike those in Morrowind, level up with you.  If you don’t carefully pick your major skills and plan out each level efficiently, even relatively weak enemies can quickly overwhelm you, and there is nothing that you can do to fix it short of cranking down the game’s difficulty.  If you select major skills that you actually plan to use, you will accumulate meager attribute bonuses and become weaker relative to all of the enemies in the game.  The Oblivion wiki suggests that you should only pick major skills that you don’t intend to use, and then intentionally grind those skills when you actually decide to level.  In short, Oblivion tricks you into making stupid decisions and then it punishes you for them.

My second character is an exercise in misery.  Grinding is boring and my first character just finished these quests.  I sink hours into endlessly, pointlessly tapping the same button on my keyboard, before finally giving up.  The game just isn’t fun anymore, and other games are calling my name.

Two years later, after buying an Xbox360, I find a copy of Oblivion for ten bucks.  I remember that I never finished it and, on a whim, take it home to start a new character.  “This time,” I tell myself, “this time I’ll just have fun.  I won’t worry about my Endurance level, and if worst comes to worst I can always lower the difficulty.”  As I make my way through the tutorial cave for the third time, though, I remember what it was like to fail.  I hate the private humiliation of being beaten by a game.  I’ve never played on easy, and goddamn it I’m not going to start now.  I skewer a final squealing rat and once more it’s time to choose my major skills.  I sigh as I select Speechcraft, Security, Hand-to-Hand, becoming a master of all things useless.

“Well,” I think, “if I’m going to do this again I might as well go all the way.”  I grab an empty notebook and write “1)” in the top left-hand corner to indicate my character’s level.  I fill it with my skill and attribute values, and I mark each marginal upgrade with a tally.  The skills that I actually plan to use – Blade, Heavy Armor, Block, Destruction, etc. – are pitifully underdeveloped, so I decide to just grind those for a little while before I start the actual game.  Twenty-four levels later my book is filled with scrawled pages of numbers, tallies and skill names.  I’ve used my pen nearly as much as my controller.

Maybe playing the game isn’t just about trudging through dungeons and saving the world; maybe it’s also a process of discovering the rules of the system and outsmarting them.  It has become that way for me, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve opened a door that I wasn’t supposed to know about and now I’m tinkering behind the scenes.  Back here the bandits and minotaurs are just sad cardboard cutouts, and I realize that they aren’t my enemies at all.  I’m playing against the developers.  Isn’t this a step away from being a role-playing game?  Scribbling on stat sheets and keeping track of skill levels hardly makes me feel like a battlemage.

The odd thing is that for some reason I’m still actually enjoying myself.  I didn’t think that trailing rats through the Imperial sewers in order to level my Heavy Armor skill was my idea of fun.  There’s something about the grind that keeps me coming back for more, and game designers know it.  World of Warcraft, one of the most successful video games ever made, is practically nothing but grinding.  Almost every JRPG that I’ve played requires me to perform the same repetitive, mindless tasks for hours, just so that I can move into the next area or kill the next boss.  And yet these are the games that I love.

For whatever reason, Oblivion takes the monotony to a whole new level.  Here’s a glimpse of how I’ve spent my 100+ hours of game time.  For a while I just summoned the same skeleton over and over again, killing him each time with a rusty dagger.  That was leveling my Blade skill.  Before that I literally pressed the right bumper over 3000 times, while jumping up and down.  That was leveling my Restoration and Acrobatics skills simultaneously, because hey, I wouldn’t want to waste time.

One of the biggest accusations thrown at gaming is that it’s a waste of time. We’re taught from a young age (at least I was) that time is our most valuable possession, and how you choose to “spend” your time is one of the most important decisions that you can make.  Time is to actions as money is to merchandise: you can convert it into anything.  Gaming is a double evil because it consumes your money and your time.  At least that’s the common assumption.  As a result, games have to prove to us that they’re worth our time by making us feel productive.  I think that this is one of the key reasons for the success and proliferation of grinding.  Every time a skill level flashes on the screen it reminds us that we’re achieving something.  It makes us feel good about what we’re doing.  Dozens of tiny rewards keep us interested, and the big rewards on the horizon keep us going.

Oblivion is a skee-ball machine.  I don’t play it for the experience of playing it.  I play it for the tickets.

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  1. As Kieron Gillen once said, gaming’s dark secret is that occasionally watching a number slowly increase is enough.

    It’s that slot machine trick, where being rewarded fires off all the dopamine receptors in your brain, until you start to associate the reward response with the activity. If the reward is variable, it makes the association even stronger. Sometimes this scares me (when it’s paired with microtransactions I think the technique can be downright unethical), but a lot of the time a good, enjoyable RPG grind is exactly the kind of mindless fun you need to keep yourself busy and while your brain relaxes.

  2. I know I already said this to you in response, but I want anyone else who sees this to read what I have to say.

    Oblivion is already a good game, but what really pushes it over the edge into a great game is the number of amazing and massive mods that fix a lot of its flaws.

    For example, there is a mod called Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul, which eliminates the level scaling and, in that sense, returns everything to Morrowind. It actually does a lot more than that — it adds a huge amount of new content, and the “we’re going to place enemy X here at this level” is done with scientific rigor. (Note: Oscuro is now a professional game developer.) The end result is something that has eliminated many people’s complaint about Oblivion, all while adding a significant amount to the game at the same time.

    Similarly for leveling up and stats, there’s a lot to choose here. I hated the idea of “okay now I have to raise skill X and Y and…” even when I was playing Morrowind, and just wanted to play the damn game already. There’s a mod for Morrowind that lets me do that; and there’s a *series* of different mods for Oblivion that do that depending on your taste — check out nGCD + Progress.

    I’m aware this doesn’t really address the point of your article, but I don’t want anyone to come away thinking that Oblivion can’t be different.

  3. I’ve seen many people who feel pretty much the same about Oblivion as you do. It seems to be the most common view on the Internet, in fact, to judge by comments on blog posts, and it’s made a lot of people hate the game.

    This is very strange to me.

    I played Oblivion when it came out. It was my father’s copy, on his PC (mine was too old to run it); we both played uncounted hours of it. We – independently, but talking to each-other about our adventures – wandered all across the wild fields of Oblivion, plundering dungeons, completing quests, leveling whenever we got the chance. I’d heard of people who optimized in the way you did; read snippets of strategy guides that advised you on how to get ‘perfect level-ups’; and my father and I both laughed at them. What a ridiculous thing to do! We couldn’t imagine anyone playing that way. Why would you, when the game was so much fun playing it as it was clearly intended to be?

    I suppose it’s seeing the numbers, again; except that I saw the numbers, and turned away. Can’t say I regret it, either.

  4. I haven’t played Oblivion and your words make me… not want to.

    I’ll keep it on my list of “One Day…”, because I like explorable environments, which is why I’m hooked on FUEL at the moment.

    Still, this sounds like the twisted, evil brother of Laura’s Expertise piece. And when I mean twisted, I mean the one that tortured caterpillars and dogs for kicks in their youth.

    • lauramichet

       /  May 18, 2010

      it’s weird to me that you see a connection between these pieces, but now that you mention it, I suppose Kent and I do have pretty much opposed views on what makes a game worthwhile or entertaining, even though we like to think that we don’t. I need to think about this a bit…

    • Um, mods? The three I mentioned completely change the way the game is played — entirely eliminating the “expertise” aspects.

      • I’m strangely purist. Even back when games were impossible in the 80s, I was loathe to apply cheats, even when I trawled through the machine code for 3 hours to find the correct LDA #$03 instruction which set the lives to 3.

        Mods are, of course, not cheats, but I have a certain masochistic attitude to want to play the games as released (as “intended” is not appropriate, because that’s a whole sackful of writhing caterpillars waiting to be unleashed). I don’t know why this is.

        I have played mods of course – I played the System Shock 2 with the Rebirth skins, and I’ve dallied with a number of Thief FMs, Thief 1 & 2 being pretty much my awesome forever games of all time.

        It’s probably mainly due to time, these days, and a fascination with the newest shiny on the street. It’s only in the past few years I have forgone playing [unfun] games to completion. Previously, I would not start a new game until I had vanquished the last level – I’d paid for all the textures and code, I wanted to see all of it in action, too.

        Hmm, this is giving me an idea for some wordage.

  5. Oblivion is a good game that is worth checking out. It also made me crazy. If you can play it like PleasingFungus, power to you! If you can’t, mods are a good idea. If you really like pushing the same button over and over again, to each his/her own.

    For the record, I wrote this way before Laura wrote Expertise! And some caterpillars deserve to die.

    But seriously I do enjoy playing the stats game sometimes. I must on some level anyways, ’cause I keep coming back. Also I’m a vegetarian.

    • It was clear your post was not intended to be linked to Laura’s but I couldn’t help but see the connection between them – learning certain methods that game the game, that are progress with numbers, above and beyond what would be taken for “casual” play.

      A rubber band strapped to your 360 controller is just abnormal behaviour. Not as bad as strapping a rubber to the controller, but not far off. And I speak as a vegetarian of nearly 20 years!

    • I don’t have the experience of Morrowind to compare, but my time with Oblivion was nothing like what you’ve described. Everything felt fairly intuitive to me (although the major skills thing was a little stupid). I never saw any need to peruse a wiki, pick apart stats, or—God forbid—scribble in a notebook to figure out a leveling plan. Maybe you had the difficulty cranked up? Maybe the Xbox version is just weird? Or maybe it’s because you weren’t playing a mage…people tell me that life’s hard for a pimp fighter.

      I’m not saying you’re wrong about anything, but you might want to give the game another stab. Don’t bother min-maxing, just go with it; I think you’ll find a very different experience. And seriously—play a mage.

      • lauramichet

         /  May 19, 2010

        Yeah– I just play Oblivion however I please, and I never find it TOO difficult– but I must agree, playing a fighter is tough. I usually go for the sneaky thief route and that can get very wearisome after a short while.

      • After all of that brain-numbing button pushing, my character is essentially invincible. I have 100 Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, and Willpower. My Speed and Agility are at 90 and my Luck is at 65 (Personality is useless). I have most of the useful stats maxed. I’m the head of lots of guilds, but there is still more stuff to do. I haven’t given up on Oblivion! It is a very fun game when I’m actually playing it. I’m particularly enjoying the assassin’s guild quests.

        You should go play Morrowind. It’s awesome.

  6. SirMuffinMan

     /  May 19, 2010

    I like these articles, can’t believe it took me this long to find this place. You guys have gained an avid reader!


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