The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion & The Problem With Value

Image via vocal.media

  • Completion Date: December 2020
  • Platform: PC
  • Completed: Main Story
  • Score: 6.5 out of 10

I remember the first time I really, really cared about the characters in a game. The game was Final Fantasy 7 (yes, I know I talk about it a lot). A major character was killed by the bad guy. Afterward, Cloud (the main protagonist) gives a heartfelt speech about how much he cared for his fallen friend. He talked about how he’ll never see her, touch her, or hear her voice again. I was surprised to realize how emotionally attached I had become to these characters. I was surprised to discover that I really did care for them, and for their fate within the game world. I also remember that, upon completing the game, I felt kind of depressed. At the time, I couldn’t really understand why. But now that I’m a little bit older and have had years to reflect, I can offer at least one explanation. After having spent 70 or 80 hours with a specific game and becoming so invested with the characters in that game, watching the ending – knowing that these peoples’ stories are over – is at some level a devastating thing to take in. It’s not all that different from ending a long relationship with a close friend. I’m sure at this point that some of you might be thinking to yourselves, “Steve, my friend, these are virtual bites and bytes – polygons arranged in a way to resemble a person – they are definitively not people”. But I’m convinced that our brains form the same sort of connections to these virtual characters as they do with real people. I would witness this feeling – the feeling of becoming invested in characters and the lasting emotional weight when my experience with them is over – several other times in my life. To give you a short list, I remember this sensation for such games as Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy 8, Lunar: Silvery Star Story, Bioshock: Infinite, and The Last of Us, just to name a few.

This, of course, is partially due to the brilliant game developers who tricked me into believing that these characters were real in some way. This is nothing new, of course. Everyone who tells stories, since stories became a thing, are trying to invent ways to convey that the characters, real or imagined, are worth caring for. To put it another, they are trying to convince us of one thing: that these imaginary people, and the story they are in, have value.

I have been thinking about the concept of value, and I’ve started to come to a conclusion. I think there at least three kinds of value. The first is what I would call objective value. This is a thing or action that most of us would consider valuable. People are objectively valuable. I don’t know many who would consider themselves or humanity non-valuable. Therefore, helping other people better their life is objectively valuable (i.e. It’s not likely that many of us think a charity sending food to the poor is non-valuable). The second kind of value is what I would call subjective value. A whole lot of things and/or actions fall into this category. Hobbies fall into this category. A person who toils away at work all day trying to make a fortune would likely think that anything not directly related to gaining more money has zero value. Art falls into this category. A purely logical, mechanically-inclined person might not consider art all that valuable, rejecting the idea that it can be beneficial to a person. In fact, even if two people agree that such a thing as art is valuable, they could still wildly disagree on what should be considered art, even suggesting that plenty of styles of art provide no value. The third is what I would call non-value. These are things that most of us would consider a waste of time (even the ones doing it), and provide no real amount of discernible value in return. Infinitely scrolling through Facebook, I think, fits squarely in this category.

Please recognize that I’m simplifying the idea of objective and subjective value. In fact, I think the two have many overlapping and grey areas. For instance, if my hobby is reading, I might argue that it does indeed have objective value. Even in a fictitious book, I will probably be learning a bit about the real world. Many books create entire kingdoms with complicated politics. If I can learn about the motivations of man, morality, and politics within a fictitious book, I think I could argue that spending hours locked in your room and flipping through pages is an objectively valuable activity.

I was playing with my dear daughter a few days ago. She loves playing with Calico Critters (not a sponsor). They are very small anthropomorphic animals that are also accompanied with very small buildings, very small food, drinks, furniture, etc. My daughter wanted to set up a bakery. She wanted me to place all of the cupcakes perfectly in their holders, then put the small bread on the shelves, facing what would be the street. Now, for me, I would consider this activity non-valuable, since I can’t really think of a reason why it would benefit me in any way. But I asked her, “Emmy, do you like playing with the Calico Critters bakery?” Of course, she said yes. Then I asked, “Why do you like it?” She thought for a second, and said, “Well, they’re just so little and cute!” For a five-year old, this is a fine answer. To her, the activity held subjective value, maybe even objective value. After all, she is probably learning some fine motor skills trying to maneuver such small pieces (objective value), and she is doing something that she loves, something she considers worthwhile (subjective value).

I think, as we get older, we tend be pressured away from things that we find subjectively valuable, towards things that are objectively valuable. I certainly have felt embarrassed to tell people that, at almost 40 years old, I still play video games. It’s something I’ve never hidden, but I admit it as if I’m admitting a guilty pleasure of mine. I would venture to guess that there is something in your life that you’ve stopped doing (or at least thought about stopping) because you realized that it held only subjective value.

. . .

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, is not a story about you (i.e. the character you control throughout the story). You are, in fact, a nobody who is sentenced to death (or at least to rot in a jail cell for the remainder of your pitiful life). But, as luck would have it, a very important person, Uriel Septim VII, needs to access your cell in order to flee from assassins who are trying to murder him, because in that cell is a secret passage that leads away from the city. You end up following Septim through the small labyrinth, only for him to be slain by his assassins a few minutes later. He tells you that the world is in danger, and only his family line can help. Unfortunately, he is the last of his line, or at least that’s what most people think. He reveals to you that he has an illegitimate heir to his throne, and tasks you with finding his son and assisting him in “sealing the gates of oblivion” (the danger he was talking about), which he has foreseen – if not prevented – will bring about the end of the world. You then proceed to find the savior of mankind (the last of the Septim family line), serving as his escort and gathering the items he needs to defeat the evil that is threatening the world.

As far as character customization is concerned, it’s pretty straightforward. You can choose from three basic classes – sword and shield, bow and arrow, spell-caster – or a hybrid of any. There are three main categories of skills – combat, stealth, and magic – and you can allocate your skill points any way you like. Obviously, you should probably focus on one category. For example, if you wanted to be mainly a Sword & Shield fighter, you would pick skills from the Combat category. If you wanted to be a stealthy archer, you would pick skills from the Stealth category. But if you wanted to be a Paladin, with a little bit of melee damage and some back-up restoration spells, you can mainly focus on Combat, but also dip into restoration magic in the magic category. These options seem to reveal a promising start to the way you can customize your character, but I found that after the initial character creation, the game doesn’t offer any other significant options for the continual development of your character. For instance, if you are a sword & shield type class, you will probably take the Blade skill, the Block skill, and and Heavy Armor skill. As you use your main skills, they will improve (if you level up your blade skill, you will do more damage with blade weapons). However, new abilities related to these skills only unlock when you hit levels 25, 50, 75, and 100 in that skill, and, in my opinion, the skills you gain at these levels are not all that useful. For instance, you learn a disarm ability if you level your blade skill, but I found that it is a less effective maneuver than just swatting away at the enemy until they fall. To sum it up, there really aren’t enough options in the way your character levels up to make the development system interesting.

When talking about Bethesda (the company responsible for Oblivion), I have to point out the ridiculous amount of bugs they apparently have no trouble shipping with their games. The Oblivion gaming community actually had to create an Unofficial Oblivion Patch just to make the game playable. The patch boasts of fixing “over 2,500 bugs and 70,000 object placement errors”. This is ridiculous and something that I can’t forgive. Bethesda is one of the biggest gaming companies that exists, and this game is fifteen years old. It would take a handful of developers a few months to fix these bugs. I can only assume that they just don’t care about shipping a bug-filled game (I’m looking at you, Cyberpunk 2077), or fixing those bugs at any point after the release of the game.

However, Bethesda, clowns they may be, also have a knack for bringing its worlds to life. With Oblivion, they did something that was pretty revolutionary in its time. In most games at the time, NPCs (non-playable characters) in games would be programmed based on various triggers. By trigger, I mean that the character would behave in a very systematic, predictable way. It would be something like this: “If the player comes within 10 feet of NPC X, NPC X starts dialogue”. With Oblivion, they did not use this approach, opting instead for something akin to AI-driven NPCs (AI is probably a stretch – or at least it was definitely a rudimentary version of it). What I mean is, every NPC would be given certain degrees of freedom, and each NPC would choose what to do in a given scenario. I think the freedom of choice was probably left to some type of RNG (random-number generation), but this method was still pretty revolutionary for its time.

Now, to say it was revolutionary doesn’t mean that it was good. In fact, Oblivion dialogue has become a massive inside joke in the gaming community. Dialogue can be so goofy and non-sensical that it becomes comical.

Here’s a snippet from a YouTube video that shows some of the more comical interactions between NPCs. The text is pretty humorous, but honestly, it doesn’t do the interaction any justice, so I suggest you watch the video.

“How are you?”

“Been better. How about you?”

“Not Bad.”

“I’ve heard that the Kvatch guard is driving back the Daedra! Maybe there’s hope after all!”

“Fantastic!”

“Good to hear.”

“Good day.”

“Goodbye.”

In fact, Oblivion dialogue has become such a joke, it has often been made into parody. I actually found a YouTube channel that does a series called “Oblivion Dialogue”. They take a video of a person talking in some slightly awkward English, then add Oblivion music and an Oblivion interface. It turns out, it’s actually a pretty popular English-teaching video series for those who want to start learning the language. But I think you might find that it fits a little too well when given an Oblivion overlay. I have spent too many minutes watching these videos (as a quick aside – yes, I understand that this is an example of a non-valuable activity).

Now, even though this AI-driven system was goofy and awkward at times, the intention was clear. By making the characters in this game less predictable and more organic, they were attempting to bring the characters, and the world, to life. And, I have to admit, even as goofy and buggy as Oblivion is, the size of the world, the beautiful landscapes, and the organic(-ish) characters did a decent job of accomplishing this. I was convinced that the characters in this world had value, subjective though it may be. And if I could be convinced that these characters were in some way real, virtual though they may be, I would inevitably be interested in hearing their stories, and to help them with their needs. In short, I would become invested in the game, because I was able to buy in to the idea that the game had perceived value.

. . .

It is a fact of life that, as we get older, we will begin to take a harder look at the value of the things we do in our lives. This is not a bad thing. But let’s not make decisions too hastily when we evaluate what should be considered valuable. It’s possible that the next game I play will cause me to question something I had never thought about seriously before. After all, these games were created by people who had a passion to tell a particular story, and to convey a certain message. And who am I to say that their message has no value, to me or anyone else?

Let’s continue to do things that provide objective value to the world. Let’s continue to evaluate what we consider subjective value, and not give them up just because we feel the pressures of adulthood. And let’s stop doing things that are non-valuable. In other words, do your best to fight against the infinite scroll.

p.s. When talking about objective value, I can’t help but wonder whether someone reading this may wonder about their own value. I want to tell you one very important thing: you are valuable beyond measure, and it has nothing with your status, your popularity, how much money you make, how many friends you have on social media, or what you can offer to this world. It’s because of who you are. You a human being, and just by that fact alone, you are immensely valuable. This is not my opinion. I believe the creator of the universe says that you are valuable. He was willing to pay the price of his very own son just for the chance at having a deep relationship with you. You are treasured beyond compare, my dear friend. Please message me if you have questions. I would be very happy to talk with you. Even though I may not know you, I promise you that I care about you deeply.

Game On.

By Steve Bongiorno

I write about gaming, books, faith, and family.

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