The answer to the question "Where the hell have you been for the last week?" is a funny one. (Unless you've been eagerly awaiting my next Demon's Winter posting, or my next Bard's Tale III posting, or my next any posting that re-establishes some kind of regularity and order to my blog.) Here it is: my CRPG addiction has been threatened...by my CRPG addiction.
Here's how it started. Five or six weeks ago, Irene (my wife) and I were looking for something to do on a Wednesday night, and she suggested that we go buy an X-box 360, having never upgraded our original X-box. She had read that you can get Netflix Instant Play on it, as well as stuff from Zune*, and anyway she likes games. Actually, to clarify: she likes watching me play games while she shouts helpful suggestions and looks up hints online.
Now, you hardcore gamers are thinking that I have the perfect wife, and I admit she can be pretty cool. But she only likes a small subset of games: cinematic, fairly linear, plot-heavy CRPGs with lots of dialog options, like Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. This is great, because I like these games too, but frankly once you get past them there aren't many like them. I tried to show her Morrowind on the old X-box, but she was bored to tears with it.
So. We pop over to Gamestop (yes, I'm that square) and pick up the console and two games she likes the look of: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Lost Odyssey. I try to tell that the Star Wars game isn't going to be like KOTR, but she doesn't listen. We get back, and sure enough she soon gets tired of it when she realizes there are no dialog options. She likes Lost Odyssey a little better, but I don't. So we stop playing games for a few days and watch all the seasons of The Guild (great show; I should do a special topics posting on it later). Then, a few days later, she's reading X-box 360 game reviews online and says, "Have you ever heard of this Oblivion game?"
"I think I played it once a few years ago," I say, teetering on the verge of an outright lie and then finally going over the edge. "I didn't get very far." (She won't want to buy it if she knows I've won it three or four times.)
"It's supposed to be really good," she says. "But I guess it's a sequel, so maybe we should play the others first."
"The first two aren't available on the X-box and you wouldn't like them anyway," I say quickly. "And you don't need to play the first games to understand the fourth. It takes place in an entirely new part of Tamriel and your character is unconnected with the past plots."
"Apparently," I add, as she looks at me suspiciously.
So we go buy it. All the time, a warning is ringing through my ears that she won't like it, but I don't listen to it. If I can get her to enjoy Oblivion, it's like synergy. I can spend quality time with her and play games. Thoughts of what will happen to this blog are there, but not in the forefront.
She's enchanted at first. We spend what seems like forever making the character. A cat lover, she immediately wants to play a Khajit.
"You can't play a Khajit your first time 'round," I explain. "You have to unlock some achievements first."
We finally settle on a Dunmer (female of course) and get started. The game immediately fools her (like it fooled all of us) by pretending like it has dialog options when you first speak to the emperor.
One of about five dialog options in the entire game (and no, choosing what topic to ask about is not a "dialog option").
She spends an eternity deciding on a class, carefully reading the game manual to me while I tell myself, "You can't tell her you already know all this. You can't tell her about custom classes. You can't tell her about the leveling problem. Just go with it." We make the character an agent.
Within a couple of hours, she's seen past the game's facade and has realized that she doesn't like it, especially when I insist on doing side quests (she wants to just follow the main quest). So she's done with it.
But of course I'm not. I'm hooked again. And for the past week, all of my normal CRPG time has gone into Oblivion. When she abandoned me, I created a new character and laughed maniacally as I decided this would be a complete game: all quests solved, all Oblivion gates closed, all skills to 100, all places found! As she headed off to work every morning, I made a show of firing up my laptop and recounting all of the things I had to get done today. Then, the moment her car left the driveway, I kicked on the console and sat on the couch for 8.5 hours. The moment I heard tires crushing ice, I saved, turned off the console, and leaped back to my computer.
"Did you get a lot of work done?" She'd say, as she took off her coat.
"A little," I'd reply. "These clients are killing me, though. I spent most of the day just cleaning data." Yes, I'm a horrible, horrible man.
A week later, I'm a bit Oblivioned-out. I certainly haven't finished. And this isn't my official posting on the game, of course, which will come for real some time in 2023, probably. But here are some notes from my fifth or sixth playthrough:
- I decided to do something fun this time. First, I picked up Martin immediately on arrival in Kvatch, and I took him on my quest through the city to kill all the Daedra. I decided we were fire-forged friends at that point, and rather than return him immediately to Weynon Priory, I enlisted him to follow me all over the province, exploring dungeons and solving quests. He fights well and can't die. Sometimes I lose him in a dungeon, but he always shows up at the exit when I leave.
- The game is most fun, in my opinion, between Levels 2 and 10. After that, it gets a little ridiculous, with every roadside bandit sporting Elven or ebony armor. Fortunately, if you play it right you can decide when you level up. I wait until I have at least 50 skill level advances since the last level.
- The disadvantage to playing on the X-box is that you can't install Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul, which I found delightful, correcting the very problem mentioned above and making the game both harder and better-balanced.
- The NPCs are, in my opinion, the weakest part of the game. Unlike some reviewers, I'm not enthralled by the fact that all of the dialog is spoken. I'd rather they'd spent their time offering actual dialog choices to the PC. The voice acting isn't even all that good. It seems like the same five voice actors did all the voices except the Emperor and Martin, and sometimes an NPC (often a beggar) changes voices in the middle of a chat.
- Related to this, there's essentially only one way to solve any quest you get in the game. And the game gives you quests without so much as a by-your-leave. Yes, you could ignore them in the quest list, unless you have CRPG OCD like me.
- I don't see how you play this game "evil." It's hard to reconcile becoming a member of the Dark Brotherhood with caring about the main quest line and serving the Blades. If you play "good," it's hard to reconcile doing anything but the main quest line. With Oblivion gates popping up all over Cyrodil, what possible justification do I have finding Ayleid artifacts for some rich dude, or bottles of wine for a publican? And the simultaneous existence of the main quest, the Shivering Isles quest, and the Knights of the Nine quest makes little sense. The only logical way to play the game is to solve the main quest as soon as possible, and then do everything else, unless you do what I do and come up with some kind of external role-playing reason to take a long break in between stages of the main quest.
- Thus, it isn't the plot that I like but the game play itself. Things that I find absurdly enjoyable: lighting up a torch for the first time as I enter an unexplored ruin; using a Nighteye potion to spot enemies at long range, then sniping him with an arrow soaked in a Damage Health poison from a hidden alcove; loading up on everything I find when I first enter a dungeon and then slowly discarding things that aren't worth their weight in gold, then aren't worth twice their weight in gold, then three times, and so on, as I get more overburdened; saving up incredible loads of reagents and then mixing up a huge batch of potions all at once; luring enemies into booby traps; throwing the bodies of each slain enemy all the way down the Oblivion fortress spire; saving up low-level damage scrolls that I find and then using them all at once against a single enemy; whacking a bandit with a dagger poisoned repeatedly with Damage Fatigue, waiting until he collapses in exhaustion, then beating him to death with my fists; pickpocketing enemies before I backstab them.
I can't show images of any of this, of course, since it's on my TV. (Cue six people telling me how I could, in fact, show images.) But it doesn't matter, because I'm done with Oblivion for now. It's taking too much of my time, and I don't just mean CRPG time. The benefit of playing CRPGs on my computer is that I'm at my computer and thus not liable to forget my "to do" list.
Although I still prefer a PC to a console, there is something enjoyably lazy about playing CRPGs from the couch on a big screen. I keep meaning to look up how to connect my computer to the television, but I don't suppose it makes much sense until I get out of the era in which I still need DOSBox.
For the next two weeks, I'm back on track and will have a posting at least every other day. I promise.
*Addendum: trying to purchase Microsoft Points through X-box Live failed with every one of four credit cards I tried, and it also led to every one of those credit cards being frozen for potential fraud. I had to call them all and explain the purchase attempts were legitimate, but even after doing so, the charges still wouldn't go through. I had to buy the points through Amazon via gift card and then "redeem" them. Message boards were full of people with similar stories. I'm mystified.