Sunday, September 1, 2013

Why Oblivion Is Better Than Skyrim

I’ve decided to try to stick to a bi-weekly release schedule, which means I'm late. While there’s a number of things I could review (Divekick, You’re Next, Now You See Me, Stoker, Kick-Ass 2, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Visitor Q), I just don’t feel like it. So I figured I’d try something else and see how it goes.

Before I go into why it is that Oblivion is superior to Skyrim, I think it’s important to establish how I feel about the Elder Scrolls series as a whole. Theoretically, I’d say The Elder Scrolls is the most appealing, ambitious, awe-inspiring idea in games (that's not to say it's the most creative or interesting or anything else that actually deserves acclaim). I’d say we can all agree that what we ultimately want from The Elder Scrolls is a perfect simulation of life in a fantasy realm. I’d say we can also all agree that none of the Elder Scrolls games have come even remotely close to achieving this. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect such a thing with the extremely limited technology of today. We would need computers a hundred thousand times stronger than those we currently use to be able to run such a game. If we ever do get this game, it would be more than just a game, it would be another reality. Because it would be another reality, we wouldn't want it to adhere to game design philosophies because we wouldn't want to notice the fact that it was artificially created. Unfortunately, we don’t have that game, so we'll have to make do with The Elder Scrolls as we currently know it. And while it is a game, it should approach its gameyness cautiously. It should strive for immersion, but not realism. Realism is hard to do. Perhaps it should not try to create an illusory living, breathing world, but instead create a world that functions as a vessel for good gameplay.

I'd also like to say I'm not going to address the many, many flaws with the Elder Scrolls franchise. That's not what I'm writing about.

Let's begin. 

If I were to put my reasons for liking Oblivion more than Skyrim into one word, it would be “smooth”. That’s it, really. Oblivion is damn smooth. It’s really the only smooth Bethesda game.

Let’s start with the visuals. If you were to compare Oblivion’s overall colour palette with Skyrim’s, you’d find that Oblivion’s is far more vibrant and lush. Yes, Skyrim does have its share of greens and blues, but they aren't nearly as rich or frequent as Oblivion. For those of you who don’t have a strong image of both games in your mind, here’s what comes up when you Google image search (as of September 1, 2013) “Oblivion screenshot” and “Skyrim screenshot” respectively (open the images in a new tab for larger versions).

The generally warmer colours in Oblivion make for a far more comfortable gameworld. The reason this makes the game better is that it compliments the overall tone very elegantly. Whenever I play Oblivion, I truly feel like I'm in a specific world. Cyrodiil is a very consistent place. Whether I'm in the plains in the southeast by Anvil or I'm navigating one of the rivers that flows from the Niben Bay, I feel like I'm in a place that's part of a greater whole. The same certainly can't be said for Skyrim.

As the majority of you already know, Skyrim is divided into nine "holds". For those who don't, here's some visual reference:

These holds are the driving force behind the environmental incoherence in Skyrim. I actually quite like the northern holds and think they blend together very nicely, but when it comes to the rest of them, they feel like they're almost from different games. The Reach is basically what it looks like on the map: a river with mountains on either side, Falkreath Hold is half green grass with pretty flowers and half misty foresty stuff, Whiterun is Rohan from LOTR, The Rift is a maple forest and Eastmarch is a bunch of hot springs and ashen dirt. There's no seemless transitions between each environment; you turn a corner and immediately know you're in the next region. It's jarring and awful and it makes Skyrim's gameworld completely devoid of any consistency. This lack of consistency is what makes the paler colour palette ineffective. If we were always surrounded by mountains and snowstorms it would be very apt, but when the southern half of the map is so various, it often feels out of place.

The graphical style of the two games makes a huge difference too. In Oblivion, everything looks and feels like it's been rounded and wrapped in soft fur. There's not a single sharp edge or surface, so to speak, in the entire game. This makes for an incredibly inviting, civilised, atmosphere. Skyrim, on the other hand, looks jagged and spiky; there's a decidedly uninviting, perhaps unfinished feeling about its appearance. Let's compare the hair textures of both games.

There's not much that needs to be said, really. Oblivion's hair, while technically inferior, looks a whole lot better. And smoother. Make note of that: it's smoother. 

Look at the backgrounds of those two screenshots, too. How many clipping issues can you spot in that one screenshot of Skyrim? I can't count them on two hands. Now look at Oblivion. I can see maybe one. And look at how the stone walls compare to each other. The meshing in Skyrim is abysmal, while Oblivion's is fine. What the fuck is up with that? 

I think what it comes down to is that Oblivion recognised its technical limitations and built a simple, even slightly cartoony world that could easily cover up its visual shortcomings. Skyrim, on the other hand, was so overly ambitious that it ended up looking like an incomplete mess, covered in jagged edges that revealed its cracks. As a result, Oblivion is something I would love to cuddle, while Skyrim would likely bruise me if I got too close. 

Moving on, let's get to one of the most crucial things: the UI. Again, here's some screenshots.

These are the inventory menus for the two games. As you can see, Oblivion's is made to look like a journal. It's colourful, visual, pretty and inviting. Skyrim incorporates a sterile list devoid of any character or in-game context.  During your time with an Elder Scrolls game, you will spend a large amount of time looking at the menu. Having one you can enjoy looking at means so much.

And see the lowest row of pictures on Oblivion's menu?  It's actually the HUD that you see when you're not in the menus (which is pretty snazzy, if you ask me), only when your menu's up it allows you to navigate between stats, equipment, magic and quests and the map. Wanna know how you do that in Skyrim? Every time you enter the menu, you're greeted by this monstrosity.

If you're in the menu and you want to go to one of the other sections, you have to exit the menu, enter it again and then choose that section. Smart. 

But going back to the aesthetics of the menu, let's take a look at the maps.

Oblivion's map is both put into context and more helpful. You can look at an area and basically gauge what kind of environment you're going to find there. It's clear, well-drawn, and, again, attractive. And then there's Skyrim's. Now, while Skyrim is set 200 years after Oblivion, I don't think Google Maps was invented in that time. You also can't make out shit when it comes to what you're looking at. You can determine whether there is or isn't snow at a particular area and that's about it.

But Oblivion is smooth in more than just its aesthetics. Let's talk about gameplay. 

First and foremost, there's movement. If you have both games, go start up Oblivion and just walk around for 20 seconds. Then repeatedly jump for 10 seconds while walking. Then do it again, only up a hill this time. Feels good, huh? Now go do the same thing in Skyrim. Walking: eh, it's fine but it certainly isn't as silky as in Oblivion. Jumping: it's probably a lot more realistic but it feels like you're knee-deep in mud. Jumping up a hill: the fuck is going on??? Seriously, if the movement in your game doesn't even feel right, you're clearly doing something wrong.

There's so many examples of kinesthetically horrendous moments in Skyim. One of my least favourite things in the entire game is the fact that there is a period of time, about half a second long, between an enemy dying and that enemy becoming a lootable object. What this means is that every single time I kill somebody or something at close range I press the loot button once and get no response from the game, wait a split second to try it again, and press it a second time. You know what's the most dissatisfying thing in all of games ever? Getting no response from a button input. It is literally the worst feeling. And you know what happens when you do loot a dead body? You hear an unimpressive sound effect and the menu opens after a very short opening animation. It's not comfortable. It feels loose. It feels wrong. 

Conversely, when you kill something at close range in Oblivion, you can immediately press the loot button and will be rewarded not only by an in-game response, but you will also hear a concise, assuring sound effect that subtly resembles searching through a bag and a menu that instantaneously appears without some frustrating little animation. It makes a world of difference. 

In regards to combat, I actually think Skyrim does stealth better than Oblivion. Drawing a bow feels really weighty and real, and I can't think of another game that's done that before. And the sound effect you get when you backstab somebody is fucking fantastic. I'd listen to that thing on a loop for hours. The actual mechanical gameplay itself is almost identical to Oblivion, so there's not really much to be said.

With the magic combat, Skyrim went completely style over substance, and it's a real shame. Magic is the only aspect of the game where you can find solace in primary colours, so I really would have loved it if it were actually good. Unfortunately, even when you're a master wizard you feel like a total delinquent running in zig-zags while spraying flames or electricity or frost all over everything. Most fights consist of you frantically pressing the attack button while looking exclusively at your magicka meter to know how drained it is. There's close to no strategy and all the flashy lights and explosions and sparks are nothing but (admittedly sexy) window dressing.   
Oblivion's magic combat, while far more limited in terms of variety (there were only two kinds of destruction spells: projectiles and touch spells), was far more deliberate and well-paced. Magic battles felt tactical; your success was reliant far more on your skill than your stats. 

But the magic isn't where the real problems lie. I mean, at least the magic looks cool. The melee combat, however, is straight-up atrocious. When you hit something with your sword in Skyrim it feels like you just slammed a stick onto a block of wood with a piece of worn leather wrapped around it while the sound effect desperately tries to convince you that you just cut into something. Slamming a Warhammer into something feels about as rewarding as missing a nail with a hammer. In fact, the only action in melee combat that feels good at all is the shield bash, and it feels too over-the-top. Again, tactics don't really exist outside of running up to the enemy and furiously hitting the attack button until your health is low, upon which time you'll consume a health potion, cast a healing spell or just run and wait for your health to regenerate.

Oblivion's melee combat fits its generally less realistic tone perfectly. Slicing an enemy feels like carving a knife through hot butter, and the shield bash is about the same as the one in Skyrim, only it doesn't feel out of place.Strategically, the game isn't exactly nuanced, but it at least has a little more to it than Skyrim. Ultimately, having combat that feels good is the most important thing in a game that does all things but none of them well.

In the end, the big difference between Skyrim and Oblivion is that Oblivion is actually a decent game. You can enjoy it's mechanics and systems while you explore the world and take in its overall consistent and whole beauty. When I play Skyrim, I find myself staying in one hold per sitting, and rarely entering a city or dungeon because sometimes, when there's no dumb-as-a-brick A.I., jarring, uncomfortable gameplay or incoherent environmental transitions poking up their ugly heads, you can truly appreciate the atmosphere and exquisite sense of exploration. But then some stupid fucking wolf jumps out and attacks you and you're immediately reminded that you're not just playing a game, you're playing a really bad game. 

EDIT: A friend of mine, who can be found under the persona Foxeaf here, replied to this article via Facebook. I'd like to leave our discussion here to provide readers with an alternate opinion.

Foxeaf: The jagged nature of Skyrim really suits the mood and style of the story, it helps immerse the player into the nature of the game. Skyrim had style that was consistent throughout the game, just like Oblivion's "old book" feel, such as the menu log and HUD. However, the way they had modeled Oblivion is completely amateurish. Hair does not look like that in real life, it's like there is a makeup artist constantly following your character and keeping their hair in perfect form. Skyrim's messy hair style and sharp edges shows that the world they are in is rough, and realistic. The grass in Oblivion is way too bright. The toning is Skyrim is better produced, especially considering it has a colder climate. But like Zachary said, each to their own.

Me: While Skyrim's general atmosphere is undoubtedly harsh and "jagged", as you put it, its technical issues are not present to compliment that. The technical problems should all be observed together. While you could argue that the graphical ugliness of the game (hair, clipping, etc) somewhat compliments the tone, I highly doubt you could argue the same for, say, the physics glitches. You argue that the jagged nature immerses the player, but you'd be hard-pressed to argue that these technical issues don't constantly remind you that you're playing a game, which in turn breaks immersion.
You argue that Oblivion has an "amateurish" look, saying that it appears unrealistic. However, I'd argue this was a conscious decision, unlike Skyrim's ugliness. The province you inhabit in Oblivion, Cyrodiil, is well-recognised as the most civilised and wealthy province in Tamriel, and thus it is portrayed accordingly. 
In addition, as I stated in my article, Oblivion's tone is intentionally cartoony (you say: "Oblivion's grass is way too bright"). Its soft tone, expressed visually, kinesthetically and atmospherically, serves not only to make the gameworld more comfortable but also to hide the technical imperfections. Skyrim makes no attempt to hide its vast and numerous imperfections. 
If Skyrim's technical ugliness were intentional, I would argue it would be more constant. As my folder of several hundred screenshots proves, Skyrim can be exceptionally beautiful if it isn't being interrupted by some glitch, buggy A.I., or poorly designed model or animation. Its beauty can be found in its harsh environments just as much as in its serene ones (perhaps even more so), and "jagged" technical inconsistencies would not serve to improve these scenes. 
I'd like to point out that while I honestly don't think Skyrim is a good game, I still played it for 180 hours, and that says a lot about it. When the game isn't being really awful, its being absolutely stellar. These rare moments of quality were enough to drive me to play the game for far longer than I play most games of its type. I played Oblivion for many more hours than I did Skyrim (I cannot give a concrete number as I played it on three different platforms, two of which do not count playtime). The reason I did so is not because it is a better game - in terms of their merit as gameplay experiences they are largely the same - but because it was able to convince me I was playing a decent game, while Skyrim constantly reminded me I wasn't.

Also, would you be okay with me adding your comment and my remark (along with anything you or I might say in response) to the blogpost? I like the idea of including discussion from multiple viewpoints.

Foxeaf:  I guess you're just completely disregarding every point I just made. Skyrim is obviously not intended to be ugly, it is intended to be a harsh land that has been ravaged by war and dragons, yet the original beauty of the place is hidden away deep in caves and forests. Skyrim, aesthetically and environmentally, was one of the most breathtaking games I have ever played just because the way they created the landscape. Skyrim had no need to hide its "imperfections" in the environment design, as for its flaws made it much more realistic and down to earth. It wasn't created to be the best, but it had a consistent motive, which I found it hard to find when playing Oblivion. Granted, I have not played Oblivion as much as you have, but that's because (I don't have time lol) but also because I could not enjoy it as much. The modelling had improved vastly from Oblivion to Skyrim, obviously due to better technology and experience, but there was no excuse for the fish people in Oblivion. There are always glitches in every TES game, I think that's something that must be addressed as a whole. (The glitches are pretty hilarious, though.)
Oblivion's "cartoony" aesthetic style is something I find un-enjoyable. Why model a game so close to life when it is intended to be cartoony? If they intended to create something fantastical, then a different approach to modelling would've been better. 

Perhaps this just proves that you prefer the more wealthy, posh life while I enjoy the rugged farm life. c:

And yeah, you can do that if you want. That'll make your blogpost more unique than most.

 I completely understand that Skyrim is supposed to be rugged and harsh and other adjectives that evoke such ideas, and I think that, artistically, it succeeded in achieving that (except for Whiterun Hold, The Rift, Eastmarch and the greener half of Falkreath Hold). However, I don't agree that its graphical problems enforced that mood at all. They simply reminded me that I was playing an unpolished game, and constantly took me out of the experience.
As for your dislike of the cartoony style of Oblivion, I never felt it was so cartoony that it didn't feel real (or at least believable). It was just cartoony enough to cover everything with a smooth veneer that vaselined the game to hide its clunks and edges and dirt.
In the end, it is a matter of taste, and perhaps one's preferred lifestyle in real life would affect their preference of TES game.

Like I stated before, the graphical errors are found in every TES game, so it would be unfair to criticize Skyrim for having it when the others do as well. I always thought it was a thing that people could just laugh about with TES games. : )

I'd argue that Oblivion doesn't have any more graphical errors than any other polished game does. I made this point in my article when I compared the backgrounds of the character creation screenshots.

EDIT: Alex, Another friend of mine, commented via Facebook and made some strong points about the writing and story in the game. He allowed me to put it up here too. His points aren't necessarily an argument to prove Skyrim's inferiority to Oblivion, but I still felt that he wrote something worth reading. I didn't comment with a substantial reply because I agreed with more or less everything he said. 

 I'm going to take a stab on an issue with the game that I find the most problematic. Skyrim's greatest flaw is not its ability to aesthetically evoke a world torn by war and threatened by an "end times" prophecy. Its failure lies in its inability to effectively create the unstable world which was reiterated to us through NPC dialogue and the preceding novels. Michael Kirkbride's departure from Bethesda dealt a debilitating blow to the writing and quest design on future games, with Skyrim providing us the example of rushed plot execution, underdeveloped characters, and a great deal of neglected opportunities. What we received in the final product was a compilation of cheap, shallow and near haphazard narratives.

Now, I'm not stating that I want a narrative that would contest The Count of Monte Cristo, but neither do we deserve a narrative with as much appeal as a spitting alpaca. Skyrim turned the dial up to 11 by extending the tedium over the faction story lines as well as the main quest line. For instance, Skyrim failed to deliver us a well developed antagonist, be it Alduin, Ancano, or the god damned Mercer Frey. The main plot's downfall lay not in its poor execution and shoddy climax, but in the antagonist Alduin. Here, Bethesda gives us an antagonist with little thought or emotion. None of Alduin's attributes compel the player to either like or hate him as an antagonist, as he merely displays the "stock villain" persona. We are not provided a rationale for his objectives, his very character being shoehorned into the already established lore, including the somehow forgotten-yet-now-remembered (retcon) Dragon War. It seems Bethesda discarded the focus on story to implement the dragon gimmick first, then drawing up the plot around the novelty, ending up with an unimaginative Ragnarok-esque "I shall destroy the world" stock villain. Compared to Dagoth-Ur of Morrowind and (to a lesser extent, I must admit) Mehrunes Dagon of Oblivion, Alduin comes across a Saturday Morning cartoon villain, only with less than half of the demeaning dialogue.

To create a believable world in which discord is sown by the developers themselves, creating the visual world is not even half the battle.

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