The release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2006 marked a watershed moment in the history of Western role-playing games. The dungeons and dragons and overbearing lore of a genre that had long been seen as nerdy or niche suddenly became cool.
As a result of Bethesda Game Studios and the appeal of Todd Howard, a once overlooked selection of PC exclusive RPGs was transformed into a console powerhouse.
The release of Oblivion on the Xbox 360 coincided with a spike in the number of new console owners eager to play the game. With combat, exploration, and a myriad of systems that anyone could understand, Morrowind was reduced to a more digestible format. However, the opening is the most important part.
Oblivion begins in a prison cell with no means of escape, like many games of its type. All that matters is the story you tell yourself about how you got to where you are now, not who they are or where they came from.
When Emperor Uriel Septim VII marches into your cell, he’s looking for a secret passageway, and you’re about to be executed unless a miracle occurs. Assassins are closing in on the nation’s leader, and the only way to protect yourself is to find a way out through a mysterious underground network.
Because you are a lowly prisoner, the guards have asked you to step aside and not interfere with their work. They don’t bother locking you up, so you can tag along and escape your life of confinement with no consequences.
Before allowing a rogue criminal to accompany the Emperor, I’d probably ask a few more questions, but I’ve done some truly rancid shit in a previous life and wouldn’t hesitate to murder him.
Then again, he is willing to overlook my past transgressions in favour of a better future. Set in motion a chain reaction that will forever alter this world, we set out.
Opening scenes are intentionally claustrophobic because they force us to navigate an endless series of bland catacombs defined by teleporting enemies and mysterious traps that slowly but surely decimate our group. As a result of the only path forward being to fight, soldiers trained to protect their leader from certain death are falling apart. We exchange a few choice words with Uriel Septim before he encourages us to flee when it becomes clear that the battle is lost Minutes later, the Emperor is dead, and we’re all on our own again.
Your only source of guidance is gone, and you’re left to fend for yourself in the dark. On top of all of that, we’re still fighting off giant rats in frigid water. Goblins have long made this place their home, and the caverns soon take on a more natural feel as goblin-made traps litter the coming arenas.
As we move forward, we learn the basics of looting and lockpicking as the ceiling begins to glisten with a glimmer of sunlight. It’s only a matter of time before we finally meet face-to-face for the first time.
The pace is just right, encouraging us to keep exploring and learning new things without ever feeling like we’re being bombarded with information. In each new environment, small systems and mechanics are introduced that work flawlessly, even if the act of actually executing on them is woefully archaic all these years later.
It’s so easy to appreciate how it felt back then and how much of an impact it had on the genre that we know and love today. After killing our final goblins, we come across an unassuming sewer grate and are asked if there is anything about our character that we would like to change before we leave the dungeon. There’s no going back once you’re out in the world on your own.
In a way that doesn’t try to railroad us towards the next objective, but rather gives us a level of understandable freedom where the main quest feels like a distant dream, seeing Cyrodiil for the first time is majestic.
It’s designed to make us feel small, like a pawn on a chess board surrounded by infinite options. Even though we have a predetermined fate, this new chapter in our lives can be shaped however we choose. Guilds to join, arenas to fight in, relationships to form, and adventures to embark on will keep us occupied for hours and hours and hours and hours.
Elder scrolls had never been the same since 2006’s release, and this was the first time we saw what we’d been missing all these years in one place.
Even though it’s clear that Oblivion’s opening was a major influence on other games, none had the same impact as Oblivion.
Even if Oblivion’s accomplishments now seem like common knowledge, there’s nothing like experiencing the game for the first time. Although it doesn’t play well and looks worse on the Xbox Series X, it doesn’t matter because the intent is so clear.
Bethesda games are notorious for being buggy and unfinished, and they’ve been using the same formula since the release of Oblivion nearly 16 years ago.
It may have cemented the open world formula that the entire industry would follow, but now that the smoke has cleared and we are looking to the future, it is easy for me to excuse its lack of innovation.
Oblivion’s opening is a masterful example of how this medium can draw us into a fictional universe with tightly scripted moments before letting us loose into a playground where the potential is almost limitless. As a child, it changed my perspective on games, and I’m grateful to have been a part of it during its heyday.
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