Dumb and Dumber

There is, as I alluded in my first article on the subject, plenty to dislike about Oblivion. If you read various reviews and comments on the game, you’ll discover there are two rough sets of comments on the negatives.

First, there are the opinions of people who actually identify and discuss specific problems in the game. Secondly, there are the opinions of people who make the broad claim that the big problem with Oblivion is that it is “dumbed down.”

This charge of “dumbing down” is – appropriately enough – pure fantasy. In order to understand what “dumbing down” means, we first have to take a brief digression and understand what “Computer Role Playing Game,” or RPG, means. There are plenty of definitions, but the one that is apropos here is “An RPG is the game that I played when I was 13 years old and didn’t have any friends, and any game that isn’t exactly like that I will complain loudly is not really an RPG.” For me, that game is Wizardry, for younger people it might be Final Fantasy, or Fallout, or Baldur’s Gate. The specific game doesn’t matter. The important thing is to realize that the moment someone trots out the tired phrase “dumbed down” what they really mean is “doesn’t suck in the precise way my 13 year-old self wants it to suck.”

My personal definiton of an RPG is that any game with an epic plot redolent of adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies and “progression” of a protagonist qualifies. But if you want an even simpler definition, here goes: any video game that at any time, for any reason, shows you more than three numbers on one screen is a computer RPG. End of story.

There are two specific criticisms the Dumb Brigade frequently throws at Oblivion. The first one is especially hilarious. The claim is that Oblivion is really “just an action game” (and by implication, not an RPG), because of the real-time combat and the smooth animations and the dexterity required to play it. Oblivion, the argument goes, is a heinous betrayal of the deep, interactive role-playing offered by the previous Elder Scrolls games.

This, of course, is a load of crap.


Deep, interactive role-playing == Boobies!

The Elder Scrolls games have always been action games. I recently played Arena, the first game, for a significant amount of time, in preparation for a review. It is a game of mindless, nearly constant real-time combat, right down to having to “swing” the mouse in order to make your character swing his sword. Anyone who claims that Oblivion has more real-time action than the previous games in the series hasn’t actually played them. The main difference between Oblivion and the earlier games is that the real-time combat isn’t quite as boring and stupid and irritating and the terrain isn’t randomly generated (by “randomly generated,” by the way, I mean “boring and stupid and irritating”).

Second, deep interactive roleplaying? Did these people live through the same 1990s as me? Compared to the canned, cookie-cutter, bloodless dialogues in Morrowind, the “Name! Job! Health!” routine from Ultima III seems like freaking Dostoyevsky.

The second complaint of the Dumbfgruppe is that there are fewer skills in Oblivion than in previous games. This, I suppose, is the expression of the belief that more content is always better; presumably these are people who are bitter that various scenes were deleted from the theatrical cut of Lord of the Rings. As for me, I know a good cut when I see one, and the “missing” skills were good cuts. I’m intimately familiar with the skill system from the previous Elder Scrolls games, and frankly I can’t say that I miss any of the disappeared skills. The smaller number of skills makes it easier for me to get a vision of who my character is and how he is developing.

Which brings me to my real complaint about Oblivion. It is not that they cut too much, but that they cut too little. Why not get rid of levels altogether? You have all of these skills and a system for tracking them. Then you go and ruin it by coming up with some formula that determines how my exercising those skills, coupled with the phase of the moon, whether or not Saturn is retrograde in Aquarius, and the derivative of the previous week’s changes in the Nikkei stock index affect my “stats.” Why have non-skill stats at all? Why bother telling me how “strong” I am? Just use my skills to directly determine how well I do, rather than adding unnecessary and wanky complexity.

And make no mistake: the skill and levelling system in Oblivion is unnecessary and wanky. Put simply, you cannot understand it without reading about it on the Internet. That’s really all you need to know to know that it is poorly designed.

But it is “poorly designed” in exactly the opposite way that the most vocal critics claim. And if Oblivion was changed to be the more contemplative, intricate, and baroque game these commenters claim to want, it would be less fun than it is. And, not coincidentally, wouldn’t sell.

Developing software is always a tradeoff between the planned and the possible, between adding features and meeting the schedule. Oblivion demonstrates this. Many, if not most, of the features of the character system are in place not because they are “being true to the Elder Scrolls universe” or because they are “good”. Rather, they were already implemented, were “good enough” and it was more important to get the game they could actually build released, rather than build the perfect game and never ship it. In the meantime, you have to feel sorry for Bethesda as, every day, they have to read complaints from obsessive-compulsives who shout to the rooftops that the game is ruined, ruined, because it won’t let them collect candles.

Most of the problems in Oblivion come not from the innovations it introduced, but from the fact that it is the ultimate expression of what it means to be an Elder Scrolls game. The things that annoy in Oblivion annoyed in the earlier games. I don’t blame Bethesda for not throwing the setting out – given their succeess with Morrowind, I’d probably think them stupid if they did so. The people I blame are those who, through some sort of mass hallucination, have convinced themselves that they once found Utopia in a buggy, crashy game, and who criticize Oblivion for not living down to that standard.

Every Elder Scrolls game has improved on the past by cutting out more and more. I can’t wait to see what they cut out of Elder Scrolls V. It’s going to be great. Lest anyone believe that I am being sarcastic, I assure you I am perfectly serious.

Cut deep, Bethesda. Show no mercy, and cut deep.