Ramble On Rambling: Exploration Games

Certain game experiences seem to suggest other, older games, and leave me longing for them. Age Of Conan, which I’ve been playing a great deal for the PC Gamer review, somehow left me longing for Oblivion. There was something about the way that Age Of Conan tantalises you with elements of single player gaming that left me quite hungry for a proper RPG romp, and so I reinstalled the last Elder Scrolls game and plunged in.

To tell the truth, I’d been meaning to go back and play Oblivion a some point this year after being reminded of it in PC Gamer UK’s Top 100 meeting. Tom Francis had talked about the moment he’d be most fond of in replaying the game: coming out of the underground tutorial into the bright, beautiful gameworld. “You get this incredible feeling of freedom,” he said. “It’s wide open and it feels like anything is possible.” It’s a feeling that, in some ways, is only possible in a game of Oblivion’s calibre. That kind of feeling could be an antidote to the pressures of real life, and definitely an antidote to too many hours in a traditional MMO. I wanted to recapture that, although I had wondered whether Francis’ was simply being hyperbolic. Was Oblivion better than I remembered?

A few weeks ago I wrote about Stalker which, in retrospect, would have been a far greater game if it could have been the “Oblivion With Guns” that some people we anticipating. I do hope Clear Sky can manage something closer to that. The other thing that Francis said at the Top 100 meeting, which left me a little dismayed, was that Stalker wouldn’t make it into his 100 games at all. That seemed odd to me, because I feel as if the Ukrainian shooter shares much with the open-ended games of exploration and personal achievement that Francis (and most of the rest of the PC Gamer team) are so fond of.

Anyway, my return to Oblivion, mixed both nostalgia for the excellent couple of weeks in which I’d originally played it (including an 3am, rather intoxicated, first plunge into the Oblivion realm which was remarkably intense), with a sense that I might not like the game all that much this time. I wasn’t expecting much – my recollections of Oblivion were faded and dulled. I expected it to have aged and recalled my eventual boredom with it the first time around. In some ways, it seems, my memory had been playing tricks on me. Discussion since Oblivion seemed to have dwelt on its failings: dodgy character development mechanisms, the lack of Morrowind’s weird-ass world design, and so on. It was as if this had overwritten what I actually felt about the game.

The truth, of course, was that I love Oblivion far more than I remembered. Even while just running across its wondrous open vistas, stopping to marvel at the sheer scale of its visual accomplishment (vegetation-drenched wooded valleys, walled cities visible from the horizon), it only took moments to spot something that I’ve lauded some other games for: something irrelevant going on in the world. A priestess of some kind was hunting and using magic to kill deer. I could ignore it, or go up to her and talk. The choice was mine. It didn’t matter, but it was still there. It was then that I got the same kind flash of freedom that Tom had done on coming out of the sewers. It’s a game that charms you with its breadth from those earliest minutes in its open world.

In some ways the same is true of having spent time with GTA4, but for some reason it lacked the same sense of exploration. Something about the attitude and environment of GTA4 meant that I didn’t get much joy from wandering off the mission-path. There are wonderful environmental elements, to be sure, and the train and cab rides really did convey the scale and bustle of the city beautifully, but I wonder whether my reduced exploration fun in GTA4 came from the fact that I mostly needed to drive around to get anywhere. Moreover, I wonder whether I simply didn’t want to explore another American city and whether my real-world inhibitions about being a thug in a city somehow dampened my enjoyment. I didn’t get such as kick out of the transgression this time around, even though GTA4’s city is the most impressive videogame world so far.

Even Oblivion’s expectant-looking NPC’s seem to facilitate my need for exploration. They might be awkwardly, bulbously naturalistic, but they’re also superb motors for your adventures with their quest-web of connections and suggestions for action.

At this point you’ll have to excuse me as I rework something I wrote on my personal blog around this time last year. It still stands

Far Cry 2 director Clint Hocking was interviewed by Gamasutra, and he talked about exploration as an activity-in-itself within games:

Spatial exploration isn’t mandatory. It’s not required in any game. It’s a certain play style and a certain type of player who’s interested in playing in that way. There are ways to design to support that well and ways to do it badly. I think it’s pretty clear which games do it well. Grand Theft Auto, Oblivion, they make players who might not even be that kind of player become interested in the act of self-motivated exploration.

I sometimes wish it was mandatory. Exploring has has long been one of the most important things for me in gaming. Elite, Midwinter, Armourgeddon, Outcast – there’s been a history of games I’ve wanted to play just to wander around in their landscapes. I often play games just to see the architecture. I was a tourist in Everquest 2, and couldn’t play Dark Age Of Camelot because the buildings were too dull. The main reason I log into Second Life is to fly around looking at peculiar structures and half-finished castles in the sky. I would quite happily have played World Of Warcraft if it had been an empty landscape with nothing to do but wander around exploring. In fact, I would probably have enjoyed that even more. (It would be interesting to take WoW’s landscape and create a ‘living world’ mod, where it is simply a place populated with AI and basic ecosystems, rather than being the backdrop for sets of linear quests. It could be an alternative MMO world based on the same space. Blizzard themselves could do that – WoW as a pure trade sim, complete with cartography, trade routes, travel plans, etc.)

I think the reason I like Oblivion was that I could just poke about in the woods and discover little shacks in the middle of nowhere. So few games offer that – Stalker does, to some extent, yet still I wish Stalker had been larger, emptier, and spookier. The number of baddies was still too high, and the ‘battle’ post-brain scorcher just didn’t interest me at all. I wanted to explore that enormous terrain at my leisure, not be hustled through under constant barrage.

One of the major disappointments of Eve Online, recently, was that “exploration” as an activity didn’t really love up to its name. There was much more genuine exploration when the early galaxy was littered with random asteroids and dust clouds – stuff that was removed in later iterations of the game. I’d like more detail like that to have been burned into the world, whereas exploration actually creates a semi-instanced dungeon that appears, lingers for a few days and then disappears again. If you do manage to find anything in Eve’s exploration sites, then it was never really there, and therefore never really explored. One of the original joys of Eve was finding interesting systems, or obscure things left over by the dev team – an unusual space station built into an asteroid, or two space stations around the same moon, for example. (Eve players will know what I’m blabbing about here, sorry…) That’s been largely lost.

Anyway, I think Hocking is right, that exploration of many different kinds is an important concept for understanding games. But purely spatial exploration, the idea of just exploring for the hell of it, doesn’t seem to be well catered for. Perhaps we explorers are in a minority. But I know we’re out there (so to speak), and I recall vividly flying out to a pointless remote island during the early beta of Planetside, only to find another person stood there on the rock. He’d gone out there because he could, because it was there. There was no gaming, “hi-score” reason to be out there, we had both just happened to want to see it, perhaps because we might have been the only people to do so.

Would anyone pay for a game that was created in the name of aimless wandering tourism? Could anything in a game world be interesting enough just to go and look at? I wonder what the minimum threshold of activity, the minimum amount of danger and challenge a virtual landscape has to offer to be considered a game?

Reports that Fallout 3 will be less about the exploration, less about the wide-open space that Oblivion provided me with does make me feel sad and annoyed. Where is my next installment of wide open virtual world going to come from? I’m kind of hoping that Hocking is going to be backing up his worlds with action. Far Cry 2, will you save the explorers?


  1. Meat Circus says:

    Oblivion. *sigh*. A bore, a disappointment, a huge step backwards from Morrowind. It has virtually nothing to commend it.

    It stands as a lowest common denominator action-RPG that is symptomatic of the death of narrative CRPGs.

    Sometimes the Vault Dwellers are right.

  2. RiptoR says:

    Damn, I know I should have picked up Oblivion this weekend when I was at the store. Gold bundle (game + the 2 expansions) for 20euro is a steal, and I forgot to take it with me :(

  3. born2expire says:

    STALKER > Oblivion, STALKER was perhaps my favorite game since Mafia.

    i could never get into Oblivion, the leveling really bothered me. Conan, on the other hand has been simply amazing.

  4. Meat Circus says:

    Whereas STALKER, on the other hand… STALKER is love.

    Though I think it should be forbidden from being granted Open World status due to its cacky loading zone transitions.

  5. Irish Al says:

    Far Cry, even though it’s free exploration on semi-rails.

  6. Jochen Scheisse says:

    Morrowind was just gigantic. I really, REALLY wanted to love it, but it constantly pissed me off by clipping through the dungeon walls all the time, which often trapped my characters by blocking the dungeon exit.

    I enjoyed exploring in Gothic 1&2. Also, there already is that tourism game you write about. It’s called Noctis, and it’s freeware. But I have to admit, I have never been ready to invest the time necessary to understand the controls of that game.

  7. weegosan says:

    Olivion really had very few positives in it for me. I never felt I had any real freedom in game and everything ended up being repetitive (those bloody demon gates for a start) and futile (all mobs level with you? great, that removed their requirement to actually think about a progression structure).

    I think for me though it was ruined by WoW in a way. Why spend all that time being getting to be a pro thief when I’m the only one in the game world it matters to?

  8. hoohoo says:

    i cant stand oblivion without at least 50 mods to make it bearable. i get more exploration fun browsing for mods than in vanilla oblivion. i hope for the next one bethesda actually takes the time thats needed to flesh out the world that extra bit. i wish todd howard had the balls to say on the day the game goes gold, sorry guys i was only kidding, work on this for another year.

  9. wcaypahwat says:

    Oblivion, I didn’t mind. Though I hadn’t played any other TES games beforehand. Stalker = love. Especially enjoying it with the Oblivion Lost mod.

    The thing is, I enjoy wandering around, looking for stuff…. but I need a better reason to do it than ‘because I can’.

  10. Mike says:

    I loved Oblivion, and I still do. I’ve never got more than halfway through the main quest, because I keep getting distracted and giving myself new goals. The comparison with GTA’s world is spot on. You feel like a different person in Oblivion. There’s an impetus to explore, because it feels like you’re going to miss out unless you start working now. GTA is far sleepier.
    I don’t know whether I’d want to see more, or mandatory, exploration. In fact, mandatory exploration often tends to suck. But I think worlds should be more genuinely liveable, as they are in Oblivion. I’m going to replay it once my new PC comes in.

  11. Thiefsie says:

    Therein lies the catch, I would undoubtedly spend a bazillion hours exploring worlds in games but frankly I have been trained to realise that there is no point, because there IS nothing there… at all. So frankly it is just a futile exercise in getting there. with no great wonder when arriving. (This is of course really pertinent when getting there is just holding down W while watching some telly on the side)

    As for GTAIV, for me it would have to be because first of all, it just feels a bit samey (such as real life) and dagnabbit, it’s real enough that it is boring for most of us city dwellers? Where is the wonder in going down random alleyway 326 just to find some ammo and perhaps a trash can?

  12. Turin Turambar says:

    I am not so sure that Stalker would be better as “Oblivion with guns”. Seems like an attractive idea, but usually shooters needs a bit of structure.

  13. Albides says:

    Oblivion looked gorgeous, and when the AI worked right, it really shone. Seeing guards fighting monsters and watching a tavern brawl break out because of an inept pickpocket are just great, as is exploring the terrain.

    And yet, it’s Morrowind that I enjoyed exploring more. The world felt so much more fleshed out and unique, so when you climbed those ash dunes in the distance, you honestly didn’t know what you could expect to find. Oblivion on the other hand, was too small, making stumbling upon a dungeon or ruin too frequent to be genuinely novel, especially since the compass at the bottom of the screen advertised their presence at every step.

    Morrowind had a similar “wow” moment at the start of the game. Climbing up out of the boat and looking across the pier to Seyda Neen, siltstrider nodding lazily in the background was defintely A Gaming Moment. I can’t find the proper screenshot, but is a similarly stunning sort of spectacle.

  14. tom says:

    Ah, jim is making me feel guilty with this one…
    Anyways, I’m required to mention SOTC (i know its not pc), here. It was a careful study of the margins between exploration for its own sake and the enforced ‘mission points’ approach. Tbh I still love exploring in WoW, there are often little areas that ive flown over but never reached that deliberately tease the player to go break in. Im sure stalker would have grabbed me more if my gfx card hadnt made it look like a progamers polyquake. As for eve, I really wanted to find that sense of exploration and wonder, but when the 0 zones dont really look any different from the 1 zones i was a little disappointed. I mean, as already indicated with GTA, too much realism is a bad thing, gimmie floating coral planetoids worlds or molten liquid asteroids.

  15. Larington says:

    One thing they definately got right in that old space MMO that didn’t last long at all (Earth & Beyond?) was that there was a whole experience system which was divided up into three separate branches and one of those was exploration, so there was a built in game reward for going about and trying to find stuff you’ve never seen before. Could’ve done a lot more with that though, and to this day I think its a shame they went for an MMORPG style sit there pressing buttons combat system instead of proper spacey-flying stuff.

    I enjoy just randomly exploring in Oblivion, but up to a point – The point where I realise the developers have just divided things up into a series of Towns, Dungeons, Ayleid Ruins, Castles (Which were glorified dungeons) and caves. Made the experience feel, well, like the world was built from large lego blocks (Which in a sense it is)…

  16. BrokenSymmetry says:

    In Guild Wars I clear a zone completely of all enemies, and then wander around the zone for half an hour, with the HUD completely turned of, just to look at the beautiful environments and architecture. Beautiful, beautiful game.

  17. Ian says:

    I can see that Oblivion is deeply flawed in terms of some of the basic mechanics and that it didn’t live up to the hype. Doesn’t stop me liking it a lot though. I really ought to dig it out again and see how I like it now I know what to expect but I have a nasty feeling I ditched it. I might see if I can get a bargain copy.

  18. Lh'owon says:

    Jim, excellent – you captured my feelings perfectly there. It’s why I wrote in another thread regarding the next Elder Scrolls game:

    I’m not really a big fan of the lore, or the setting, or even the presentation at times, and Bethesda made quite a few serious errors with Oblivion, but I can’t shake the feeling there’s a faint template of my Perfect Game in the series.

    It’s the feeling which Tom talks about that made me say that, the “incredible feeling of freedom” that is, at first, more emotion than experience. It’s delight at simply being in the world which to me is an example of transcendent gaming.

  19. Kommissar Nicko says:

    I’m going to go with the crowd and agree that Morrowind was a better wander. I didn’t play the plotline at all, really–to me, the whole game consisted of creeping through marshes with my bow killing mudcrabs, and exploring the Savage Coast looking for pearls. Eventually, I delved deep into a cave and came out with a magical claymore “Chrysamere” (I still remember the name, I was so impressed with myself). I eventually killed a man in his lonely tower keep to take it over, and slowly but surely built myself a full Dwemer dining set to put on my table, and set the entire building up as a museum featuring exotic armors. This was all done without a single mod, mind you.

    I have an innate desire to do that kind of endless exploring, but few worlds have captured my imagination like Morrowind’s did. I think the strangeness of it was important–things were not always what they seemed, and sometimes you couldn’t know what something was until you really gave it a look-through. But, I’d have to say that areas and things should have a story that you can recognize and slowly unravel. The Dwemer ruins captivated me, but there was never enough information to go out and find.

  20. ExitJudas says:

    You must be an old Table top RPG person. I share your sentiments. Being an old school role playing geek, I really started to play computer games, because I couldn’t play table top role playing all the time. People need to get together, and the DM needs time to prepare, etc. etc.
    But the incredible lust for exploration in games, imo comes from roleplaying experiences, simply because a persons brain and language is so much better at creating an open ended experience than a computer game is. As somebody mentioned above: why explore in a game, there is usually nothing there. Well in table top there usually IS something there, and thats the whole difference. Which is why I’m trying to restart an Ars Magica Saga with my old mates, 15 years after i stopped playing rpgs. I am still waiting for the day where someone creates a computer fantasy world with dynamically generated content a la spore.

  21. Pavel says:

    I love exploration in games. Really.
    But what I love even more, is – great story, great characters with real dialogues, choices and consequences, humour, character progression that DOES actually make sense, etc..

    Oblivion provided NONE of these things – the only thing saving it for me (and making me finish it) were a few very good quests (painter, dark brotherhood, camoran paradise) and very nice graphics (yeah, sometimes I am graphic whore).

    But I will take Fallout over Oblivion any day.So I HOPE that bethesda will provide those things mentioned above in FO3..

  22. Frans Coehoorn says:

    Yeah Oblivion is nice, but what about Daggerfall? Now THAT was HUGE (although every town was random generated, but hey, it felt like one gargantuan living world!).

    While we’re at it: why isn’t there a new Thief with one huge town (or more) to explore? I want a new Thief!

  23. BonSequitur says:

    Freelancer. In great part because the world was lovingly hand-crafted – it didn’t have the ginormous expansive vistas that Oblivion delivers, but instead it had secrets. Every dust cloud hid a pirate base, derelicts, or jump gate.

  24. trioptimum says:

    Exploration is a strong motivator in games for me, and I often find myself rushing ahead of the story to new locations where the game allows it, rather than pacing the exploration as I probably should. I loved Oblivion, despite its flaws, because the world was just so damned beautiful.

    Would anyone pay for a game that was created in the name of aimless wandering tourism?

    Absolutely, if it was immersive enough, and especially if the location wasn’t fictional. When someone makes a game that lets you climb in the Himalayas or drive the whole length of an immaculately modelled California Highway 1 I’ll be interested — I’ll likely never be able to do these things in real life so they’re as escapist as the weirdest fantasy worlds and more engaging. Though whether these would count as games at all, or merely some sort of virtual tourism, I’m not sure. But sightseeing in a virtual simulation of the real world is already a selling point for MS Flight Simulator and its ilk. The potential of game technologies today to enable people to travel the world vicariously is incredible, and largely untapped.

    Whether such a product would be commercially viable is a different matter.

  25. Lightbulb says:

    Yes you saw a woman hunting deer with spells and you could go to talk to her. But why would you want to? All she will say is:

    “Are you the Hero of Kvaaaaaaaaaatch?!” and then say something totally pointless like “I hear the sky is blue” just like the other 50 identical characters you meet.

    TESIV has a beautiful world but its almost in the uncanny valley. Its looks so beautiful that I expect, i NEED, the characters to speak to me or at least not just say the one of the 10 lines of dialogue they recorded (exageration i know but you get what i mean).

    Give me Planescape (fugly and good dialogue) over TESIV ( beautiful and no real dialogue) any day.

    Most impressive world GTA4? Dwarf Fortress?

  26. Dug Briderider says:

    I am still exploring Oblivion (on 360 the PC couldn’t cope) I would have liked a little more reward for general rambling.

    This debate reminds me of the grandaddy explore-um-up Toe Jam & Earl, where you leveled up according to how much of the map you uncovered, where every inventory item was a mystery untill you used it, and where the best health potion was a fudge sundae.

  27. Andynonymous says:

    For those wanting some more stuff to explore in Oblivion, and a reason to do so, you need to download the Archaeologists Guild mod. It adds a whole new set of guild missions and an Archaeologists hall outside of the capital. The missions are based around finding and collecting old artifacts and special items, and it really gives you an incentive to go off the beaten trail. Well worth a look.

  28. essell says:

    “I wonder what the minimum threshold of activity, the minimum amount of danger and challenge a virtual landscape has to offer to be considered a game?”

    I think the more important and relevent question is when people are going to get over the misconception that what we know as “games” (i.e. interactive electronic things) actually need to be games at all.

    Viva la Spore, etc.

  29. Shalkis says:

    Recent games have conditioned players to expect that everything is there for a reason, and that there must be a reward for everything. WoW uses quests and exploration experience. GTA uses secret packages, stunt jumps and weapons. Assassin’s Creed uses flags, templars and automap updates via viewpoints.

    This conditioning creates a double-edged sword for game designers. More people will do exploration, but they’ll do it just for the rewards. Should your rewards be underwhelming they’ll eventually fall back to their usual play style.

    Finally, exploration as it stands now has little or no replay value, and the proliferation of FAQs, guides and database sites mean that only a handful of your players will get the intended experience. In the worst-case scenario, everything in your game will be throughly datamined, catalogued and subjected to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis before your game is out of alpha testing. While this phenomenon might be a invaluable tool from a quality assurance viewpoint, it will devastate any exploration you had planned.

  30. Tunips says:

    Good lord. Somebody else has heard of Outcast.

    The experience of going through that first daoka was very much like Oblivion’s sewer pipe – I was immediately hit with the vast beauty of the world. The most remarkable feat of that game was that its big world didn’t ever get dull, or feel either empty or too full. It was a world worth saving. The only game I can think of approaching that ideal is Beyond Good and Evil (so happy!).

    It’s a real shame that it complains bitterly about working properly on any modern hardware.

  31. Pidesco says:

    The only freedom Oblivion had was the ability to walk right, left, forward and back. Daggerfall did the whole freedom, diverse gameplay thing a lot better and even Daggerfall was a deeply flawed game.

    The fact that repetitiveness in Oblivion and Morrowind is as much a problem as it was in Daggerfall despite them being a lot smaller and having only “unique” quests is the biggest sign of the general incompetence within Bethesda’s design team.

  32. Bursar says:


    That small mention has given me a hankering to play it again. Does anyone know if it’s abandoware now, or if anyone’s updated it?

  33. Dolphan says:

    I remember Outcast was splitting critical opinions right back when I first started reading games magazines. Never played it though.

    Morrowind really was a revelation when it came out. I think people sometimes forget that pretty much the only things that had looked anywhere near that good were linear shooters, and here was this whole world you could just wander off into. I bought it for a pc that could barely run it and had to turn the draw distance way down to make it playable. I was wandering around with giant mushrooms looming out of the mist in front of me. And then I’d go stand on a hill, turn all the settings back up, and just look around at 2 frames per second. I was spellbound.

    EDIT – Oh, and I find I spend quite a bit of time in LOTRO just wandering about to places I haven’t seen yet. Makes for a break from the grind, and it’s a very pretty world.

  34. Nimic says:

    I know this is more of an Oblivion article, but it started off with Age of Conan, so that’s what I’ll comment on.

    For me, part of the attraction to AoC is that it really feels like a genuine world. I very much liked exploring in WoW too, but there’s something about those cartoony graphics that makes it a little less immersing.

  35. pauleyc says:

    Tom Francis had talked about the moment he’d be most fond of in replaying the game: coming out of the underground tutorial into the bright, beautiful gameworld. “You get this incredible feeling of freedom,” he said. “It’s wide open and it feels like anything is possible.”

    That is the exact emotion I felt when I ventured past the walls of Trinsic for the first time. And that’s my personal benchmark; it was (pardon the pompous tone) one of those defining moments in life like seeing Star Wars for the first time. Not many RPGs can can create the same emotions as the 16-years old Ultima 7, the right mixture of story, exploration and RP.

  36. nakke says:

    I loved Oblivion. Sure, I didn’t really play Morrowind (or any of the earlier TES games), so I don’t know what I’m missing, but I loved just wandering around in Oblivion and doing some random quests if I happened to want to “do” something.

    Actually, I’ve thought about beginning to play it again recently, with all the new mods and stuff that’s out now. Seems like many of the game’s shortcomings have been fixed in a plethora of mods.

  37. Ben Abraham says:

    Gosh Jim, are you sure you’re not channelling myself in some way? 0_o I started playing oblivion about two weeks back for a bunch or random reasons and I’ve been absolutely loving the open world.

    Try climbing the mountains behind Cloud Ruler Temple and heading NW – you can get on top of one peak of the mountain range, and I dare say it’s the highest point in the game. Purely stunning view – but so frustrating that you can’t. quite. get. to the other side of the mountains. ^_^


  38. Swan. says:

    Massive open worlds scare me.
    I feel like i HAVE to to EVERYTHING.

    Even in Bioshock, i couldn’t move on until i’d hacked every stall-thingy, searched every box, looked in every room.

    Although, in Hellgate London i explored almost every nook and cranny of every level…

    Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 better be good enough for me to do that.

  39. Taximan says:

    +1 for the ones who would rather have large-environment single player games than MMORPGS. I would have loved a singleplayer Anarchy Online or Age of Conan. If there’s something that Funcom know how to do, its create fascinating environments and architecture. Just look at some of the city environments in Dreamfall.

    The world doesn’t need to be realistic, it just needs to be convincing, logical or wholeheartedly authentic. It needs to make sense, I want to wholeheartedly accept the fiction of the world.

    A good example is The Elder Scroll Adventures: Redguard. A lovely little swash & buckle 3rd person action adventure with fiddly keyboard controls. It’s set on one island, off of the coast of the Hammerfall. It came packaged with this Guide to the Empire in the manual which was fascinating reading. It had similarly detailed chapters for all of the lands, with handwritten editorialised commentary by some elf.

    So if you want something to do, try to access the concept-artist Michael Kirkbride’s former website at http://www.mightypowerful.com through the way-back machine. He’s the one who designed the trippy mushroom architecture and organic-foldy buildings as well as some of the more evil-morrowindized-mutated creatures and fauna like the bull-netches etc.

  40. Kareem says:

    Someone really needs to write an Oblivion backlash rebuke in the same vein as Kieron’s Bioshock post-mortem. Because Oblivion is, to a greater extent than Bioshock, one of those great games that it quickly became trendy to hate on and garnered its own weird backlash.

  41. Colthor says:

    I loved just wandering, exploring and pillaging the landscape in Oblivion. They needn’t have bothered with the main quest for me; I wouldn’t have noticed its omission. Only got halfway through it, after a very long time of playing, and it was dull. I don’t think I actually finished a single quest-line in the 130 hours I played, and I wasn’t trying to.

  42. Malagate says:

    I must confess, I too adore the exploration aspect of videogames, albeit my favourite game for exploration was not initially on PC.

    Soul Reaver, I have never enjoyed exploration in a game as much as I have in this one. It’s the combination of how well realised the different areas are, the platforming aspect of getting there (i.e. jump, climb, glide rather than just walk up this hill and around a wood), the fact that many areas are not even necessary to the story but just add a bit of extra background and that those areas contain secrets/powerups that are not necessary to completing the game. By comparison I found Oblivion to be quite lacking, whilst Oblivion is certainly the larger world everywhere felt very similar, from the enemies to the lego dungeons to the leveled equipment. There was the rare gem of a special cave with a unique feature, but these were few and far between the multiudes of goblin mine/cave A-AB.
    It was also very frustrating that I’d have to pretty much walk/ride through every area, at best jumping over or up an obstacle or swim through a watery passage. It’d frustrate because there’d be a steep slope or slightly too tall rocks that would be between me and my destination, forcing me to search around for a walkable route rather than just scramble over the rock. Why is there no way to climb? To crawl through small spaces? To vault fences? To slide down a rope? The more options to explore places with, the better.
    I would absolutely adore Oblivion if it had a Rope Bow ala Dark Messiah, exploring by firing ropes into wooden beams and swinging along them is pure bliss. In Dark Messiah I took it to the extent that I climbed all the way up a cliff to explore a small wooden cabin hanging over the abyss, there was nothing in there naturally but I was happy just to reach it! It’s this kind of unusual or difficult exploration that really makes my day, exploring in Oblivion felt more like inevitability where you could easily find all places just by walking close to them.

  43. The Hammer says:

    Nice article, Jim. I too recently returned to Oblivion for a few days, to sample its graphical quality on my new PC. And I set myself a task. Don’t use fast-travel.

    I discovered so many things, found so many locations I wouldn’t have otherwise, and best of all, saw so many breath-taking vistas. Ignoring the horrific (but hilarious) NPC dialogue and the multitude of other problems with the game… just to walk around the countryside and explore…just to find a forest and think “hell yeah, I’mma gonna have a look inside there,” it is liberating, it is epic, and it makes me yearn for a fantasy RPG that can pull that off, and the things that Oblivion criminally missed.

  44. Meat Circus says:

    I’m glad to see Oblivion getting the thorough hating it roundly deserves in these comments.

    It seems that even the normally reasonable denizens of RPS-land weren’t entirely immune from the debilitating delusion that Oblivion wasn’t a broken, festering turd which swept through the games journo hive mind.

    Fortunately, we readers seemed to be mostly immune to the disease.

    “10/10!!!” screams Eurogamer.

    “Fuck right off”, mutter I, sadly.

  45. Ian says:

    @ Kareem: The problem with Oblivion’s reception is that it became one of the games where the hype was such that people viewed it for what it isn’t and for what it doesn’t do right rather than for what it does well. Which is sad.

  46. Janto says:

    In many ways, I’d consider Thief to be a game for explorers. The dodgy, inaccurate maps meant you had to use your head a bit more to figure out where you were and where you should go next – I know I’ve gotten completely lost in several levels on the first play, and the reward of a wee bit extra gold was a solid enough incentive. To be honest, that was the huge failing of the City hub – it was so small and there were so few routes that travelling through it quickly became a repetitive chore, and because the guards knew your face, ‘exploring’ some of the tempting upper balconies could result in a sudden alarm and panicked flight.

    I think it’s a balance between consequence and curiosity. Being a virtual ghost isn’t the most appealing thing in the world, a game that focuses on exploring should also deal with how exploring affects the world around the explorer – I’ve heard the first colonists to America carried English earthworms in their bilges that rapidly colonised the east coast and changed the environment – and how the world challenges the explorer. If everything’s easy, then nothing’s worth very much.

    And that leads to curiosity. It looks like that’s a place I could get to if I just bounced off that rock… wonder if there’s anything up there? I think curiosity is best helped through motivators that aren’t compulsory, hard to achieve but have a strong, tangible reward associated with them. And, you know, good art design.

  47. The Hammer says:

    I don’t suppose those utterly unbelieveable (and for a reason) preview videos of the radiant AI helped much, Ian.

    I mean, when it eventually came out… it had very few features of what it promised.

    (sorta like the beta videos for Half Life 2, in places like Traptown, and the fact that the Combine couldn’t absorb SMG bullets like they were mere beanbags. It was still a brilliant, brilliant game, but I keep returning to those videos every so often and thinking “Yeah. I’d have wanted that.”)

  48. fluffy bunny says:

    I completely adored Oblivion when it was released, but I never completed it. In the period that followed, I became more and more aware of the flaws the game had – somehow, I forgot the good stuff and remembered the weaknesses.

    I went back to it a year later, after upgrading my hardware. I really just wanted to check it, to see how it would run, but ended up completing it (as well as playing though Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles). In other words, despite all the flaws which I remembered so well, I fell in love with the game all over again.

    Every time I hear someone from the anti-Bethesda-brigade complaining about how reviewers didn’t mention the flaws in their reviews and only “noticed” them later on (in previews of FO3, for instance), I remember this.

  49. Jaxtrasi says:

    “Recent games have conditioned players to expect that everything is there for a reason, and that there must be a reward for everything.”

    That’s not games conditioning people. That’s games responding to the conditioning that people have already developed in their lives.

    It doesn’t matter how beautiful, interesting and explorable your world is. Not that many people really are going to explore it purely for the sake of exploring it. It’s something people do, but it’s relatively rare (by comparison to, for example, people “playing to win”).

  50. Alec Meer says:

    I’ve been replaying Oblivion recently too, and having a grand old time for similar reasons. I can entirely understand why a lot of people felt let down by it, but to claim it’s a bad game is knee-jerk spitefulness.