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You can be Anything I've Already Decided you can be

The other day I shelled out for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I'd been hearing a lot about how open ended the game was, and I was dying to try it. Sadly, I ended up very disappointed, and the reasons why are, I think, instructive for game design.

In Oblivion you start out as an apparently blank slate. The game does a great job of gently easing you into your character as your own choices and actions define who you are. Which is the whole problem. Because in fact your choices are not open ended. Every choice the designers and content creators make has hidden assumptions about who your character is and can be. Maybe this only matters to someone whose top concern is storyline, but it does matter.

In Oblivion, there are many, but finite, paths you can follow. For starters, you can base your character around magic, stealth, or combat. You can choose to pursue fame or infamy, effectively doubling the styles of play. There are also several important quests that provide branching storylines around the various factions in the game. If your style of play falls nicely into one of these niches, you're set. If it doesn't, you'll either not have as much fun, or you'll have to change.

Compare this to a game like thief or Jedi Knight: Outcast. These games are much more linear, but they also give you an up front characterization to work from. You know just who you are. This gives you a focused, though limited, scope of gameplay. In Oblivion, you have to try to guess who you can be, or assembly a characterization from from clues provided through dialog with other characters.

For example, Oblivion lets you choose which quests to undertake, but there doesn't seem to be much choice in how you undertake them. As an assassin, I don't want to confront the grave robber and try to convince him to change his ways, yet if I just kill him (instead of letting him make a little speech, and then killing him, it breaks the quest; a minor, yet annoying point.

My thought is, what if the game used something like flags in Shadow of Yesterday? Imagine a game where I could choose how I get rewarded. As an assassin, I might get rewarded for killing. A hero might get it for helping others. Someone else might get rewarded for accumulating cash. By choosing how to be rewarded you tell the game what kind of gameplay you want. This changes the relationship between player and content designer. With flags, you essentially tell the content designer what flavor of play you want. The designer, instead of trying to clue you in to how to think about your character, provides you with a set of flags that correspond to the kinds of gameplay they are offering. This has the potential to demystify the relationship between the content designer and the player.

I've restarted Oblivion with a slightly modified character who fits better with the game and the world, and now I'm having a great time. For the record, they have done something really great with this game, and it is well worth playing. I recommend starting out with a throwaway character, playing a few levels, then settling on a new character.

I had the exact same problem with the "Grave Robbing" quest. As a low-level thief wannabe, I couldn't take on both NPCs in a straight-up fight, so I tried taking them out with bow and arrow. I kept getting arrested and was not able to get back into the crypt to complete the quest. I wound up killing the main guy and left his backup alone (he stood around and did nothing so long as I didn't attack him).

I like the crime & punishment system in theory but I don't think the guards should be omnipotent & all-seeing in order to enforce whatever morality the game decides you should have.

I completed the quest and was visited by a member of the Assassin's Guild but I'm not going that route -- luckily you can just ignore them. I'm having much more fun now that I got past that sticking point. Hopefully there won't be too many more like that.

The game offers too much freedom in some areas and not enough in others: a few constraints can be good (though as you say, they should be clear from the start).

Frex, the ability to travel anywhere, and attempt most any quest, at any time, is a huge dose of freedom. But all the quests scale up with you to ensure that. Meaning your level doesn't really affect things much. And in that case, why bother leveling at all? It's mostly an unpleasant side-effect.

I found the whole game a lot more enjoyable after I installed some mods to adjust the skill and monster-scaling systems. (I have a post on my site about all this.)

The mods help the game a lot. There's a great mod that makes guard-detection and sneaking work in a more sensible way. And the one Jasper mentions really helps make leveling matter.

The Assassin's Guild is the best part of the game, IMO. Definitely not to be missed.

And I agree with your basic premise, Tony. It would be nice if the game made it more clear which paths you can follow and enjoy. It's kind of like the old railroady GM: "You can go wherever you want, but places outside my plot are boring and pointless."

For the *feeling* of true freedom and open-endedness, it's really hard to beat GTA3.

Wow, Jasper, thanks for linking to that guide. Do you guys have any suggestions on "must have" mods, particularly on balancing the game or adding new content?

I decided against the complete-overhaul mods in case I don't like some aspect of them. Right now my main ones are Francesco's Levelled Creatures (http://www.tessource.net/files/cache/2518.html) which is simple and ties creature level less exactly to player level, for variety; and Auryn's Levelling Mod (http://www.fuzionmedia.com/oblivion/) which controls player levelling -- it's very solid and has some options to choose between.

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