Heart vs. Stone
I am finally writing about something that I’ve wanted to for a long time. I have played the last two non-MMO Elder Scrolls games more than perhaps any other franchise. Oblivion and Skyrim are two of the best games I have ever played.
I want to explain why which one is my favorite of the two. For those who believe Morrowind is the obvious winner of them all, I apologize ahead of time. I didn’t enter the Elder Scrolls universe until Oblivion. I believe this discussion is only worth having because of the level of commercial success that Oblivion and Skyrim had, which got me playing them in the first place.
Wheels of Industry
A sequel is supposed to imply improvement. Skyrim puts a much greater emphasis on its economy. Seemingly every component of the world was designed to be utilized by the player. Bethesda seemed less focused on building a world where everything and anything couldn’t be used by the player in some way. Player growth is much more streamlined, if not stripping it down a little bit. However, for the sake of building objects to use, Skyrim functions well. This becomes somewhat automatic once you possess enough of everything. It is fun to connect which raw materials you need to convert into the item you want.
Oblivion doesn’t focus on funneling the player in this way – this adds to the exploratory nature that I think Oblivion does better than Skyrim. There is more sense of discovery and less emphasis on producing. Oblivion doesn’t seem to have as much an emphasis on that in my opinion, but to create a much better sense of you simply being in a world, whether or not it had anything to do with you. You could attain the same level of power and ownership in Oblivion as well, but it felt much more natural. Compare this to its successor, which seemed to constantly be considering how it could serve you, the player. Consequentially, Skyrim feels like a much more self-centered game for the user.
Lay of the Land
Despite how much Oblivion has become the butt end of countless character creation jokes, I actually think that Cyrodiil’s citizens were more expressive than the stiff denizens of Skyrim. Oblivion boasted a more diverse and vibrant landscape. Skyrim’s 5 year graphical upgrade certainly helped the textures and resolution of its region, but it never really offered more than freezing tundra to less freezing tundra and overcast fields.
Furthermore, it felt as though if it wasn’t on screen, then it didn’t exist at that moment. I think Oblivion’s atmosphere did a better job of creating this feeling. You were in a living, active world regardless of where you were and what you were doing. It didn’t matter if you could see it on screen, it still seemed to feel like it was happening elsewhere in the world without you there.
These are open world RPGs, they are about allowing you to do anything. But the key reason I liked Oblivion more was because it felt more satisfying doing nothing. I didn’t feel that ease and comfort in Skyrim. It’s as if the game is trying to urge me forward, creating a sense that I am missing out on things to do, instead of allowing me to just exist as my character. You could take it easy in Oblivion and it was still satisfying. I could start my day in a cabin on the hillside, walk down to the near by pond, go fishing, go swimming, harvest vegetables, hunt a deer, go by something in town, and then end the day and be completely satisfied. It was entertaining to just go about a normal day in that game.
Unfortunately, Oblivion has not aged well. Despite my inability now to to go back and play it, it had more of an impact on me than it’s predecessor. I don’t believe I played Skyrim any less, but it wasn’t out of as much a sense of wonder – it felt more out of necessity. It was mechanical – I knew it would want me to stay put for weeks on end. I did that and I loved it. It reminded me that there was still something I hadn’t accomplished. That being said, Skyrim is the one to go back and play today – it will still do nothing less than astound you. It’s vastness and scope is still completely satisfying. But at the heart of Oblivion was soul and charming character seen seldom in today’s releases.
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