joe rybicki dot com

Main menu:

search this site



Beyond Good, Beyond Evil

[I’m surprisingly busy with work for this time of year — thankfully — so here’s another reprint: In My Day #106, originally published in The Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine, Issue #106, July 2006]

If you’ve been playing along with the OPM home game (that is, our staggeringly awesome podcast — tune in at today! [Edit: :( ]), you know that a few of us here have been bitten by the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion bug. So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why this game is so compelling. I mean, sure, it’s enormous, and sure, it’s real purty, but we’ve seen other big, beautiful games that haven’t captivated our interest (and that of millions of other players) like Oblivion has. But I think I figured out what that special something is that keeps people talking about the game: freedom.

Now, “freedom” is a buzzword that’s been thrown around since GTA3 made “sandbox” games the Hip New Thing. But consider what that means in the context of GTA: You can be a bad guy…or you can be a really bad guy. I mean, you can follow along the main story and steal cars and carry out hits and whatnot, or you can do all that plus run down pedestrians and beat grandmothers over the heads with baseball bats. What you can’t do is be a hero. (Well, you can be a goody-goody, law-abiding citizen, but that pretty much entails walking down the sidewalk and looking at architecture. Not exactly the most entertaining experience.)

Of course, that is freedom compared to what you normally find in games, where you’re either a hero or an anti-hero, following a narrow path with few significant choices. But Oblivion offers real freedom: Completing the main story does involve being basically a “good guy,” but if that doesn’t float your boat you can play as a thief or an assassin—and get a game’s worth of play time out of either of those choices. You can be a paragon of virtue of the incarnation of pure evil; the game supports both choices, and everything in between.

Of course, choosing to go down either path has legitimate, logical consequences within the game world. If you decide to play as a villain you will be treated like a villain, forced to tread lightly where honest, law-abiding citizens are concerned.

Morality within a game world is something that’s been tried before; the old Ultima RPGs incorporated the idea heavily, for example. But it’s not something you see too much of these days, and that is, to my mind, a damn shame. As we approach the point of diminishing returns with regard to graphics and size and realism, it’s time for game designers to start turning all that technological prowess toward designing games that have real depth to them, depth that can only be achieved by giving the player legitimate choices within the game world.

When it’s done right, the result is a game that offers a different experience to just about anyone playing. It generates lots of discussion, fierce dedication, and a fervent desire for more games that treat players like adults capable of making significant decisions. This is the final frontier of gaming, the real next generation. Designers, are you up to the challenge?



1: Anferny on May 18, 2009 at 7:13 pm

I just wanted to say I miss the old OPM from when this was written. If it hadn’t stopped being published and mailed to my house every month, I would have bought a PS3. But no.

On subject, I agree about the “feeling” Oblivion gives you. It never really gave me that “Woah this game is amazing! Wow that is so cool!” feeling, but after each play session, I felt good. Something about the freedom, the main menu music, the quests, the do-absolutely-anything-ness of it…. Oblivion is special.