A Menace To Society.
Was this the moment where games hacked the human psyche?
Game FAQs Ranking: #13
A subtle reason I like reviewing older games is for the cultural and historical aspect. If you look hard enough, you can see the societal changes being reflected in the medium itself — no different than art or music. As technology has gone on to completely integrate with our lives (we just installed smart outlets that only require talking out loud to illuminate the house) you see this same theme ramping up over the years in video games.
Oblivion is a watershed moment in that story. To me, it feels like a tipping point where video games were able to be more than just a hobby and could actually take over your life. The in game counter for Final Fantasy usually clocked in at 40 hours with each entry and elicited self-moral shaming. I always considered what I could have accomplished with that chunk of time directed at some other task.
Oblivion made that look like child’s play.
Hijacking our sensibilities, it was easy to now play this game for 100+ hours. There was actually that much to do. Stranger yet, these hundreds of hours weren’t spread out over a year but were concentrated blasts starting in the afternoon and not ending and until 2am.
Replaying Oblivion made me go down that road one last time, albeit for just a quick 25 hour play through. It was hard to put down the controller, always wanting to do “just one more thing.” It’s still addicting and engrossing, but I kept thinking: at what cost?
Oblivion is actually game four in the Elder Scrolls series, but for most it was their first. It works a little like the Final Fantasy series where the only thing that connects the games are motifs, reoccurring scenarios, and structure of gameplay. It is very unlike Final Fantasy because everything happens in the same universe/world/continent.
Oblivion is set in Cyrodiil starting with the player in jail. Through a twist of events, they witness the murder of the Emperor but not before receiving an important directive from the now deceased leader: get this amulet to my son. Leaving the sewers, the player is free to make their choices and decide exactly how they want to be remembered.
Oblivion is simply immersive.
One of my favorite moments in gaming is when you leave the sewers and realize there is an entire world for exploration, and it’s completely up to you. There were suggestions, sure, but all of that could be ignored in the name of self-directed development. I couldn’t recall another game that allowed this breadth of choice so early.
On this play through, I promised myself I would only play the main plot, but to still get a taste of the zeal of adventure, I would walk to some of the early locations. Halfway between Chorrol and Kvatch, I was already being hijacked.
I discovered some Daedra shrines, powerful other-worldly beings that offer you powerful items in return for completing their quests. My levels were far too low for the required threshold, so I kept exploring. I entered nearby caves and temples gathering equipment and loot. I began to flesh my character out as a fighting dark mage, but I needed to fix my equipment.
Heading to Anvil, a southern port town, ended any chance of my original focus of completing just the main story.
And there went two weeks of my life. It seemed like every spare moment was spent playing Oblivion, and I only scratched the surface of what was available.
What makes this game so dastardly addicting is a combination of random permutation and achieving god-like status. In the beginning, there are so many choices to make that no playthrough will ever quite be the same — random events and binary options make unique experiences. As you explore, you go from an absolutely unknown weakling to a Illiad war her. It’s intoxicating as you get rewarded with your effort being able to exert your will on more and more things in the game.
So, how did we end up here?
I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about social media. Tristian Harris, a former Google product manager, has been a crusader with the idea of making our moments “time well spent.” On various podcasts, he describes how tech companies have taken advantage of human psychology to make their platforms as addicting as possible. With user data at their disposal, they know exactly how to turn the dials up and down.
I can’t help but notice that maybe Elder Scrolls was a bit a head of its time. Take this excerpt:
According to an article by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes, when you get a social media notification, your brain sends a chemical messenger called dopamine along a reward pathway, which makes you feel good. Dopamine is associated with food, exercise, love, sex, gambling, drugs … and now, social media. Variable reward schedules up the ante; psychologist B.F. Skinner first described this in the 1930s. When rewards are delivered randomly (as with a slot machine or a positive interaction on social media), and checking for the reward is easy, the dopamine-triggering behavior becomes a habit.
While facebook does it with likes and notifications, Oblivion does it with treasure chests and levels.
The inexorable loop of Oblivion is this: you work hard to gain a level that then makes you slightly stronger, so you return to the world to test out how stronger you are which leads to more exploration and levels, so you return to the world to test out how much stronger you are. It’s an infinite loop that only falls a part at the end of the game when you become too strong to care about future levels.
And it’s not only the variable reward system that’s similar to facebook (opening up Twitter and looting a chest are not that different), it’s the amount of content. Endless. It was never possible to listen to, read, or play everything in a pre-internet age, but there used to exist dedicated hobbiest that made it seem at least possible.
As the Netflix CEO said, their biggest competition is sleep. There are youtube videos on just how to tackle your gaming backlog, with many people acknowledging it as an impossible task. This is due to games being more like Oblivion where 100 hours might not be enough. How do you ever play the year’s biggest games when they take more than a year to play? There is no way to keep up.
Using Harris’ words, at least Oblivion is time well spent.
Other People’s Takes:
- UIC Radio: “Many fans of the game will make fun of the NPCs of Oblivion. The human races look like potatoes, the elves look like sweet potatoes, and the beast races (specifically the orcs) look like Shrek.”
- Cindersaan: “Oblivion remains one of the best games I’ve ever played, and that I will continue to play. It’s better than Skyrim, and apparently worse than Morrowind, but that’s because Bethesda slowly becomes worse at making games as they release them. In fact, every time you say that Fallout 4 was bad, the portrait of Todd Howard in his basement becomes a little more grotesque.
- Adam Lacoste: “Of course, it’s an Elder Scrolls game, so saying that it is “about” the main plot is practically missing the point. It’s an unfathomably large game.”