299 – The Game

Campfire Fury: Agent of Shield

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, half-term’s filled the supermarket with tearaway tots and pumpkins haunt the vegetable aisle. It’s the time of year when the inexorable slide to year’s end begins, and you know what that means, don’t you?

Games. Lots and lots of games.

Games release schedules have been a bit spotty in the run up to the past few Christmases. Back in the early ‘00s December’s schedule became so overcrowded publishers started pushing second-string releases back to the new year, when gamers could spend their Christmas money from Aunt Doreen without the benefit of January sale prices. With December choked to the detriment of the industry as a whole it was an ingenious idea, and one that saw a lease of life for many titles that might otherwise have been ignored.

It was such a great idea in fact all publishers everywhere hastened onto the bandwagon, leaving the Christmases of the last few years sparse in comparison. January was the new December and we saved our cash back in the knowledge the best was still to come.

Now, like an Aeorbie Orbiter Christmas is spinning back. With Arkham City and Gears of War 3, the Christmas landslide has already begun. Pretty soon we’ll have The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword, Uncharted 3, Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 all vying for spots on our Christmas lists. Regardless of how many of us have been naughty or nice, Santa’s going to be stuffing a lot of digital media into stockings this year.

But please, spare a thought for us Tiny Tims and Little Match Girls pressing our noses on the frosty glass, peering in on your festive unwrapping. Not everyone gets to play the latest games, you know.

I, alas, am one of these unfortunates. It’s a yoke I’ve born in silence for many months now, but as Christmas brings robins and Batmen alike, so I’ve become just a little envious of those eating turkey while I’m settling for sparrow.

Most titles don’t bother me in the slightest, but I am a little green when it comes to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the latest game in a series dear to me that, pauper that I am, I shan’t be playing this year. Five long years ago I was a Day One owner of Skyrim’s predecessor Oblivion, which stuttered on my underpowered PC but gave me a window onto another world, where heather meadows undulated in the breeze and everyone looked like a freakish melange of every housemate from Celebrity Big Brother.

The Elder Scrolls games are magical. Yes, they’re set in a fantasy universe with elves and unicorns and dragons and such, but that’s not the kind of magic I’m talking about. I don’t remember the hype building to the release of The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind or what prompted me to buy the game, but I remember sticking it into my Xbox for the first time, answering a series of questions about my race, skills and star sign, and leaving the prison ship for the village of Seyda Neen. I remember jostling plates in the Customs and Excise office and being fined for theft, and the fleeting glances at the misty village I was afforded when moving between buildings. I remember finding a ring in a water butt outside and wondering-since there were no on-lookers–if I could steal this item without being fined again.

I could. And I did.

And the ring came in useful later when I discovered one of Seyda Neen’s inhabitants had lost it–one of the first quests I completed in Morrowind. Elsewhere near Seyda Neen I saw a wizard fall from the sky when his flight spell went awry, went diving for treasures at the bottom of a pond, hid atop a lighthouse in a thunderstorm, watching a guard walk his route, a pinpoint of torchlight in the driving rain.

Fans talk about Morrowind’s vivid, alien world; I just liked that it was another place, a bottle universe that came to life whenever I switched it on.

Years later Oblivion did the same thing–though in admittedly a much more traditional setting. The realm of Cyrodill lacked Morrowind’s alien architecture, flora and fauna; it was pulled from the pages of high fantasy, with green hills and valleys sweeping across most of it while snow dusted the north, bringing to mind picture postcard villages filled with lebkuchen and lederhosen. There weren’t any dragons here–developers Bethesda were saving those back for the next game in the series–but there were unicorns and elves, and dockside taverns and fairytale castles. The first hour of the game in which you escape from cramped sewers into the open glory of outside world is one of those breathtaking moments only video games can deliver.

Oblivion is full of such moments. Early in the game’s storyline you approach a town on top of a hill beset by demons coming through an Oblivion Gate, a portal to a hell dimension that has stained the sky above the colour of blood. Taking the winding path up the hill, walking past a shanty village of refugees, barricades and idling militia waiting for their captain to lead them into battle, the stars above dim, clouds swirl and you catch sight of the foe: imps hefting fireballs that crackle and distort the landscape with their heat. It’s a set piece, but the Elder Scrolls games are erratic and set pieces rarely play out in exactly the same way twice.

There’s a reason for this. Though most games revolve around the player few give you the opportunity to do whatever you want. They hem you in with invisible walls and missions in which failure means having to start the level again. They follow a very traditional gaming framework and though they play to that framework’s strengths, they’re lesser games for it.

The only thing Oblivion demands of players is that they reach the end of that introductory dungeon. Once free of the sewers you can do anything you want–and I mean anything. At this point many players are paralysed by indecision, confused by what’s expected from them and turn off the game in favour of safer, more predictable entertainment. Oblivion’s buggy physics, though unintentional, lend the world a wild and dangerous air in which even set pieces can go haywire. As in real life you never know quite what will happen next.

Upon leaving the sewers you’re given a mission: head to Weynon Priory and talk to Brother Jauffre. This is the first step in the plot arc that forms the backbone of the game–but if you so choose, you can ignore it completely.

This doesn’t happen in other games. In Space Invaders you can’t sneak around the aliens and see what else is going on in outer space; in Pong you can’t choose to miss the ball–not if you don’t want your game to end shortly. Other open world games usually impose limits on the player: Grand Theft Auto 4 demands you complete missions to unlock both the rest of the game world and the various buildings and items within. While there are certain parts of Oblivion you might never see if don’t participate in its plot, everything’s unlocked and open to you from the off–it’s a game as open as life itself.

It’s easy to get sidetracked. I’ve spent umpteen hours picking herbs to sell in marketplaces and use in alchemical spells. I’ve spent just as much time lurking in shadows, becoming increasingly adept at sneaking around. That’s another beautiful thing about the Elder Scrolls series other games have failed to capitalise upon: as in real life, the more you do something, the better you become at it. This can lead to you jumping everywhere in order to raise your athletics skill, but it otherwise makes more sense than accumulating experience points to spend on random skill sets. If you play the game as an archer, a mage, a warrior in heavy armour, your skills will reflect that. It’s a far cry from games where you determine the skills you want ahead of time, before you know even how to play the game.

At it’s heart Oblivion is a sandbox game. That isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of content designed to engage players. The game is riddled with quests and dungeons that see you hiding in shops after hours to catch thieves, jumping into a painted world to rid the painter of a curse, and becoming a gladiatorial champion complete with his own annoying super-fan. One popular series of quests–the Dark Brotherhood–is only triggered if you kill an innocent character. A member of the Brotherhood visits you in your sleep and has you perform ever nastier duties in the name of their wicked gods. The developers have filled the game with quite enough stories to tide over even the most fervent player but there are just as many stories that come out of the quests you set for yourself, whether it’s to map the entire country, collect valuable sets of armour, slaughter an entire village for the hell of it or jump from the highest mountain. Cyrodill could easily have been an empty playground for players to mess about in; that it’s full of quests and secret places is an incredible bonus.

I always find it difficult deciding which are my favourite games of all time, but when I make an concentrated effort to draw up a top ten list the games usually fall into one of two categories. On one side are psychedelic arcade blasters like Tempest 2K and Frequency; on the other are RPGs rich in stories, characters, atmosphere and exploration: Planescape: Torment and Shenmue.

Oblivion and Morrowind are exemplary of this second genre of game. They’re games to lose yourself in and games I keep coming back to many years after their release. I remember them not as games I’ve played but as places I’ve visited. There’s little distinction in my mind between standing on a hilltop in Oblivion watching lightning crackle in the middle of a storm and doing the same on Dartmoor, a few miles from my home. The memories become muddled; I know I couldn’t have smelt peat bogs, felt the soft ground underfoot, scraped grass and mud from my boots when I reached dry refuge but I remember doing it all the same. The digital cairns built stone by stone by programmers have as much meaning to me as those built by bronze age peoples thousands of years ago.

It’s something every anti-video game campaigner has always warned us about: gamers can’t tell fact from fantasy. I can, but in this case I choose not to. Ico–another one of my favourite games–puts it best: you were there. These games, these places mightn’t exist but I’ve visited them all the same. Whether it’s the Castle in the Mists, Nightopia, The City of Doors, Dobuita, Three Seven Speedway or Tamriel, I was there. All it takes is a few notes of a certain theme and I’m there again.

It’s not a bad thing. Growing older I find myself not looking forward to Christmas as much as I once did. Instead I look back to times when I believed magic and fantasy worlds might exist instead of humdrum reality and its associated stresses. I might be older now and less easily impressed, but The Elder Scrolls still offers a window onto another world where magic is very much real.

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