Oblivion hit me in all the right spots. Despite coming out way back in March 2006, it does not feel dated. Its vast visual appeal and genuine high-fantasy setting remain incredibly captivating. I spent many hundreds of hours within the game, creating at least six characters and completing the main quest line with four of them. Despite all of this time commitment, I am yet to feel anything resembling boredom when returning to this experience.
A decade has elapsed since the release of this masterpiece. Why does it still teleport me to some of my fondest adolescent memories? Why does it persistently bring me such a potent jolt of joy?
Serious credit is due to the masterful work of multi-award-winning soundtrack composer, Jeremy Soule. His atmospheric pieces are so relaxing and spiritual, I would often ignore the fast travel mechanism in order to fully immerse myself in the intoxicating mountain vistas and reflective lakes.
The music perfectly complemented every encounter, be it a peaceful expedition into the countryside, or a pulse-pounding encounter with an enraged Daedric warrior. Most terrifying and gripping by far was the dungeon delving ambiance, its sinister wails and groans a strong incentive to stay in the surface world. My lungs would instantly contract whenever I reached that creaky wooden cave entrance and was met by the sound of birds. The term "creeping up your spine" does not do these tracks justice.
The ferocious and intense battle drums and percussive beats slash into the ambient music without any transition whatsoever. But this abruptness is what makes for some crazy moments. Of course, at times, the sudden threat of danger would turn out to be a mud crab, but that uncertainty makes it all seem so much more believable.
The score in general immediately floods my mind with blissful memories of my first hundred hours of playing. Few games offer me a soundtrack that gives me this heartwarming and hair raising experience all in one place.
Cyrodiil is teeming with vibrant and beautiful colours, a stark contrast to the overcast grays of Skyrim, with its Scandinavian thematic trappings. Butterflies and shimmering Will-o-the-Wisps dance merrily through the fields, trees creak gently in the breeze, deer prance through the woods, and glowing green Nirnroot beg you to pick them. Everything that makes for a gorgeous medieval fantasy world is packed in. It emanates a mystical and numinous quality which is not quite as present in the game's successor (a quality that the modding community for Skyrim addressed in abundance — thank the Nine Divines!)
But no landscape, however beautiful, is complete without civilization, with each town boasting a unique personality. Skingrad, home of the rich and snooty. Bruma, the capital of mead consumption and drunken Nords. The swampy Leyawiin, a beggar ridden cesspit. And Cheydinhal — with its neatly trimmed gardens and quaint masonry. Oh, and The Dark Brotherhood live under it — something prospective home-owners are not informed of. That is a shame.
The attention to detail and the love that was so clearly poured into this world, are unmistakable. You could take a seat and read through detailed books about fables and lore, the history of nations and other, more specific pieces of writing (Google "The Lusty Argonian Maid" at your peril). Architecture across the land is tailored specifically for the aesthetic of each community and the homes you could purchase were completely different, in both feel and appearance.
What most impressed me when I first played Oblivion was the NPC scheduling system. It was groundbreaking at the time that each character had their own daily routine (which was great news for the assassins lurking within us). If I had to speak to a particular shopkeeper or merchant in the Imperial City, did I simply wait until morning on the spot? Gracious no! That's what pubs are for. Buying wine and sitting awkwardly on a bar stool, watching bottles fly off into the corner of the room, was an absolute hoot.
The persuasion mini-game was incredibly addictive, a simple but appreciated break from lonely adventuring. Many players hated this feature and/or had no idea how it worked. I just read the manual myself, but each to their own. Sure it was a little clumsy and the timer usually prevented you from listening to a full sentence uninterrupted, but I appreciate original ideas, even without a full polish.
Who knew four wedges and a rapidly changing set of facial expression would be so gratifying!
I also loved the fact that opponents mocked you when they had the edge in a sword fight, and fled crying for help when brought to the brink of death. Chatter in the streets caused you to pick up miscellaneous quests and overhear rumours. Completing quests was immensely satisfying, and indulging the praise of the quest giver would always swell my heroic pride.
Gossip across Cyrodiil has become infamous of course. It was awkward, but it struck an excellent balance, since it did not take itself too seriously and nonetheless provided boundless entertainment.
Anyone who has spent any time with this game will remember it predominantly for its factions and side-quests. The Dark Brotherhood and the Thieves Guild offered some of the most memorable and rewarding missions I have ever completed, certainly in the Elder Scrolls series. For the former especially, I relished climbing the progression ladder — from my status as the FNG to the Brotherhood executioner who purged the Cheydinhal sanctuary. A twisted tale of trust building and bloody betrayal. The first time I was tasked with murdering my colleagues, I struggled to carry it out since I was very fond of my murdering brethren and their helpful contract advice. Well, a job is a job...
How about the sneaky trip to the prison? Shoving a knife into the rib cage of the Dark Elf Valen Dreth (yes, the very one who hurled insolent slander your way at the very beginning of the game) was immensely fun. In fact, I would venture to say that the Dark Brotherhood levels alone are more pleasing than some entire AAA games out there today. The Murder House, where you set the guests against one another and sow the seeds of distrust, is yet another example of an original and enjoyable quest, which I would be hard put to find another example of.
Call it bias brought on by ten years of nurtured nostalgia, but this — the fourth entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise — is easily in my top three games. There is something there that I can't quite grab hold of. Is it the storytelling? The massive variety of characters, quests and items? The incredible soundtrack?
Oblivion has its bugs and its issues, nobody can deny that. But if I had the option to wipe my memory and play it again for the first time — I would decline. Why? Because time is precious, and the first time I encountered this world left an indelible mark on my life. It takes me back to a simpler and more innocent era. It was released the same year I started secondary school, and visiting Cyrodiil for weeks on end in my free time was my great escape. For this glorious escape, I will forever be indebted.