Skyrim is brilliant – it wouldn’t be coming to next-gen microwaves and calculators if it wasn’t. People have also modded it to be playable on everything from smart fridges to pregnancy tests. Games don’t pick up communities this devoted if they’re anything less than excellent – but that doesn’t mean they can’t be less excellent than something else, which is the case when it comes to Skyrim and Oblivion.
I’ve pumped hundreds of hours into the most recent Elder Scrolls game – released ten years ago this November, brb crumbling to dust – and will likely spend hundreds more traversing its wonderful world in the lead-up to The Elder Scrolls 6 in 2050. I’ve also got Oblivion installed via Game Pass, though, which could throw a real spanner in the works here – I mean, why would I consciously choose not to play the best Elder Scrolls game?
I first played Oblivion on the Xbox 360 – a console with UI that has yet to be matched – and have only played through once in the last five or six years. I own it on PC, but the prospect of playing it there was never properly appealing to me. While I know the mods on PC are brilliant, I like playing Bethesda RPGs with a controller on a big telly with ten ginormous cans of beer in front of me. I’m also aware of the fact that you can stream it via PlayStation Now, but could you be arsed? My internet dips like a hairy old man on the beach in summer.
So, because of the limitations I set myself, I’ve had no Oblivion machine for a pretty long time. That all changed with the advent of my Xbox Series X, my new pride and joy. As someone who’s been a Sony fanboy for longer than The Elder Scrolls 6 has been in development, it still feels a bit weird to say that the Series X is a titanically impressive console, but with Game Pass on offer, it’s just undeniably brilliant.
I’ve already written about how I reckon Game Pass is the best thing to ever happen to video games, and have published loads of stories about the stuff I’ve been playing there, from Yakuza Kiwami to Modern Warfare 2 – yes, the one from 2009. Ultimately, though, I’ve been trying my very best to abstain from becoming the Hero of Kvatch in the year of our lord 2021. “I don’t need you in my life anymore!” I yell at Oblivion with the sheer chaotic frenzy of a dril tweet. “Just leave me be!”
So anyway, I’ve installed Oblivion as a fond farewell to productivity for the foreseeable future.
The first time I saw Oblivion was in my friend’s house. My first impression of it was, “Looks a bit rubbish, doesn’t it?” because of the fact I simply did not like first-person fantasy. I binned it from my memory and left it in a pile of scrap until about two months before Skyrim came out. I was 15 at that stage and reckoned it was high time I stopped messing with time magic to play Halo 3 for 1,000 hours a day.
I get it – that first mission is super janky. At the same time, Oblivion’s sewers are a bit iconic, eh? Patrick Stewart telling you that you’re the person from his dreams? Now you’ve got to help his illegitimate son Sean Bean stop a gigantic demon god from entering the world via weird fire portals with the intent of wreaking infernal havoc on life as we know it? Pfffft, high stakes – let’s juxtapose those high stakes with you running through some stinky sewers half-naked. It’s brilliant, really. A stroke of genius.
I’m not writing about the story here, though. I’m not going to talk about combat, or quests, or characters, or factions – you likely already know plenty about all of those things. What I’m interested in is the actual world of Oblivion, the invisible magic glue that binds this plane of sheer absurdity together. The reason I prefer Oblivion to Skyrim is because of the performance Wes Johnson gives as Sheogorath in The Shivering Isles DLC. It’s because of the fact that medieval police officers will have a scrap with one another in the Imperial City, at which point a shopkeeper will decide it’s time to go full vigilante and break it up. It’s because even in a world this buckwild, The Dark Brotherhood questline is still far stronger than the most recent iteration of that faction. I also don’t reckon Skyrim ever managed to carve out a portion of its world and imbue with the necessary narrative significance for a conclusion to not seem like deus ex machina. Nicking an Elder Scroll from the Imperial Palace at the end of Oblivion is thrilling not just because of the heist, but because of the gravity of the task in a world where the Adoring Fan is waiting for you around the corner, ready to shout about how he’ll kiss your feet or something. “Shut up!” the Hero of Kvatch whispers venomously, a literal Elder Scroll all bungled up beneath their tunic. “Go away! You’ll get me busted!”
I mentioned the jank of Oblivion’s opening earlier, but that’s the beauty of it. Skyrim has all the bugs without loads of the inherent fun that comes with them. I recently made a case for why games should leave beloved bugs in as opposed to patching them out, or, in an ideal world, work bugs into actual mechanics in the way that Digital Extremes transformed coptering in Warframe into the now illustrious Bullet Jump. Oblivion didn’t necessarily do that, but all of its bugs are actually intertwined with the state of play. Sure, you can jump up a mountain in Skyrim, but that’s a voluntary exploit. There are no all-out brawls that last for seven seconds before all of the participants simply turn around and walk away, completely docile, saying, “I’m not saying Colovians are dumb. They’re just hard-headed.”
Simply put, Oblivion is far more entertaining than Skyrim. I love exploring the glaciers north of Winterhold, and hanging out in Falkreath’s ethereal Ancestor Glade. I enjoy the dungeoneering, too, and there are some great side quests. But I couldn’t care less about Alduin or Sovngarde, or a deus-ex-mechanized ancient shout designed to bind dragons with some kind of weird blue lightning. I’d much rather fight demons from a parallel universe in said parallel universe before nicking a scroll from a bunch of monks to help me fight a giant fiery demon king in the capital of Cyrodiil. And have loads of innocent bystanders throwing punches at each other and doing a robotic breaststroke while I’m at it. Honestly, Oblivion is just beautifully absurd – I wouldn’t change a single thing about it.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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