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Oblivion (one week later)

Does it continue to hold up? Short answer: yes.

It's interesting to see the discussion on the forums where the true hard-core "I like to play Nethack with one save game because it's PURE, man" nerdpolitik-crowd are busy using the mod functionality to do things like slow down leveling, require 6-8 hours of sleep and/or food during the daily cycles, get rid of the quest markers on the compass & map, and otherwise add back in all of the tedium of hyperrealistic simulation that -- for them -- is a big part of the appeal for this kind of role-player.

This kind of Simulationist approach is interesting, but not my own cup of tea. In fact, we've been going through a fair degree of soul-searching in our pen&paper weekly role playing sessions, figuring out where on that GNS tripod our interests lie. Myself, I find I'm interested in the "Narrativist" stance -- I'm growing more and more interested in finding out how a character will react in a situation, and in how a situation leads to a story. I want a sandbox that inspires me to think about the story and motivations behind the face. I find that I'll make versions of characters in The Sims 2 just to play them through "a day in the life" to find out things about them I never knew before.

What's intriguing to me about Oblivion is that I get the same feel out of it. Now, from a gameplay balance standpoint, the mechanic of "use a skill to get better at it" is rife for exploit. Want to become the best level 30 fireball mage in all the land without ever once leaving your quarters in the Mage's Guild? Easy -- just hit the fireball key over and over again for hours on end. What's interesting, though, is that the game tries to level content to match your own character's level. Enter a dungeon at level 5 and it's substantially easier than the same dungeon at level 20. (Again, a topic of much discussion by the simulationist ur-nerds who demand a fixed & predictable world.)

This has a number of implications. First, there's no actual need to "hit level 10 before you can go fight the Lich King of Pickleville." Leveling for the sake of leveling is an almost pointless endeavor. Leveling remains interesting, since your little killing machine toy gets more and more fancy. But really what's going on is that your character ends up reflecting your idea of how you want to play. I have an idea of how I want to play (fireballs, stealth, clever talk), and my little avatar is growing more and more to reflect the fantasy story I've got going on in my head. And, in return, the simulation is throwing events at me that help prompt the story in my head.

Second, I can explore the world narratively instead of from a level-oriented perspective. World of Warcraft controls my progression through the world's lore by making me incapable of surviving in the harsher mid- and end-game content. Oblivion doesn't bother -- I progress through the world as my own story takes me, and the world gets harder to match me. I want to discount the main plot line and get involved with the politics of the Mage's Guild for a couple of game months? No problem. I want to circle around the province and get to know the folks in all of the major towns, instead of haring off into the countryside or delving into dungeons? No problem.

(Although I have done a little bit of haring off into the countryside and delving into the dungeons, and everytime I do, I keep finding a rich set of options to keep my story going there, too.)

As an aside, the NPC AI, while still not capable of sustaining the illusion, still tries really hard, and tries hard enough to let me suspend my own disbelief. The quasi-random bits of NPC conversation designed to deliver rumors to me actually feel immersive, and leaves me with a feeling of personality for the different towns. I'm actually finding myself seriously considering which town I want to dump a load of gold into to buy a house! The schedules the NPCs maintain also add a feeling of life -- it creates an environment where serendipity can occur. And there's enough quests to make me feel busy, so I actually don't have the urge to break into every house and talk to every NPC to make sure I've gotten everything I can. Instead, I follow the big arcs -- the main plot, and the mages guild (and, presumably, the thieves' guild, fighters' guild, and the assassins' guild) -- and in the course of my explorations, doing "normal things" in the towns, I find no end of other side quests to keep me busy.

And did I mention the graphics are incredibly pretty?

Oblivion is making for a nice distraction from the politics and recreational management aspects of WoW. Like WoW, it's almost impossible to play in small chunks. Still, it's got a limited shelf life for me, and I acknowledge that. I've gone through my obsessive spurt of exploring the landside, and now I'll almost certainly settle down to finishing off the mage's guild & main line quests in smaller spurts of time, and probably set it aside. It's got legs, though -- the next time I'm feeling the yen for a single player dungeon delve, I'll probably fire it back up and pick up one of the other guild lines, or just find a random dungeon to loot. Has it slain WoW for me, though? Nah. This is reading a great interactive adventure novel. WoW is playing in a community orchestra -- ultimately, the gameplay itself retains more depth and stands up better to repetition. Yeah, I'm doomed.

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