Ever since I delved into the misty world of Oblivion (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), I could not help but admire the game and its design as a whole. Now I feel my initial comments and observations (except on the technical aspects) were somewhat misplaced. I had seriously miscalculated the depth of the gameplay for a game like Oblivion. Though Oblivion looks like a first person hand-to-had combat game, something like the Riddick game in a medieval backdrop, it is nothing of that sort. It is very much an open ended game. Let me come clean, this is my first true experience with a game that has an open-ended or sandbox gameplay. I am a FPS-RTS fan and my initial experiences with Oblivion were frustrating. I was like, “Why the hell do I have to talk to some many people, give me something to slash and hack”. But that is where an open ended game differs from a normal run-of-the mill game. An open ended game often makes you build a true unique identity for yourself as you play the game. Meaning, in the world of Oblivion you could end up being a hero, a thief, a vampire, a magician or a complete nobody if you so choose.
I really started to enjoy the game when I began to forgo preconceived notions on how a game should be played. While most FPS-RTS game allow the player to make micro level decisions, ie. where to hide, how to attack, which weapon to use, an open-ended game will demand the player to make decisions that will affect the progress of the entire game. Based on your decisions, the game will play differently. The game is modeled on a decision-consequence behavior, which is perhaps why I initially found it difficult to adapt to. It is very difficult to explain exactly what I am trying to convey, maybe you can’t make head or tail out of what I am trying to say. It’s basically the experience and you have to play the game to understand it. The game is radically different from a pure goal scripted type game. It is not something totally like a MMO, say for example like Second Life, or for that matter nothing like Sims, Oblivion is very different. The only game that I have played and could say was somewhat close, is Heretic II. For one, you could play Oblivion for almost like “forever”. I have heard people compare it to WoW and Everquest, but I have never played WoW or Everquest so I don’t know.
The game has had a profound impact on me. That’s rare. As I said before it is not the very best of the games I have played, but it’s not the game as such but the whole concept that has made me look back and wonder. It is very different from the regular “Hey! Here is a monster we have seem so many times before, pump his guts full of lead! Oh OK, we know there is nothing new to that, we have like done that 10000000 times before, but look look, he has shining eyes, and see the bump mapping and the parallax mapping and did you notice the shadows and look at the his tail and the x y zee graphics that we have put in,,, and then there is next monster behind the next bend,, and and the next,,, woooh!…” bah! boring! Done that, been there, not once, but again and again. I am tired of games that follow a stereotypical gamplay. Give me something more. Give me more experience. Let me explore regions where I have never been before. Let me experience something new. OK the FPS game genre was great 10 years ago, but move on guys! Putting new graphics on top of old gameplay is just like having remixes of old songs with dancing half nude women; phooey, maybe even worse. I find Oblivion interesting because it allows me to experience something like I have never experienced before. Not some mundane redundant crap dished out on a graphically attractive platter.
I find open-ended gameplay both fascinating and challenging from a designer’s point of view. To give a open ended experience, the game design needs to have far more scalability. The designer needs to plan out far greater sets of unknowns than are possible in a scripted style game. In a scripted game you generally have a single unfaltering goal. You have to complete the goal before you proceed to a new one. Conversely in an open ended gameplay you are allowed to approach your goal in infinite possible ways. You can have smaller goals or smaller sub-goals which too can be as non-monotonous as your ultimate goal. While this may be easier said than done, it really got me thinking as to how one could approach designing such as game from a game designer’s point of view. Interesting, since every unknown you place in a game will increase design complexity substantially. In Oblivion the entire game is divided into Quests, where the quests can be thought of as goals. While there is a main quest, there are an almost infinite series of sub quests that branch off the main quest. You have a choice of doing the quests at your discretion. But the game does play very very differently depending on the choices you make and the quests (goals) you complete. The game doesn’t force you to do anything particular, it’s just one giant simulation, which plays on you just as much as you play on it!
Having played Oblivion (, there are still 100s of quests left), I can tell you I have become a fan of the open ended style of gameplay. Don’t be surprised if you find more ramblings on similar topics on this blog. I can now see why people hijack their lives to play something like WoW incessantly. These games are truly a new experience and if you have played them before you will understand what I mean. If you haven’t, you should!