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Mocking Success / Killing The Grind

Following up on my discussing restarting a character in Oblivion, I fell off the suspension of disbelief train and straight into realizing that even a 94/100 game has something worth mocking.

The worst failing of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is that, on the most basic level, it's a role playing game.

Now, I probably know what you're thinking: Hey, I've enjoyed RPGs before. Sure, there's something uber kewl about a game where you can play somebody else and have more fun than you do in real life. However, somewhere along the line it became all about the power. The ph4t l00tz and m4d st4tz, comparing your e-peen to the rest of humanity's because, lets face it, you need that kind reassurance when you're being subconsciously reminded that you didn't achieve much in real life while you were filling your leveling bar with pixels.

This is an old story because the smart game developers realized this problem and started to design away from it. World of Warcraft's accelerated grind, zero to sixty in 500 hours is a whole lot less than EverQuest demands.

Oblivion did a pretty good job of keeping the grind to a minimum, so much so that players came out with mods that slowed down the leveling process. Yet, the grind still exists, even in Oblivion. Where does the beast live? How do we slay it for good?

Well, I had waxed reflective about this extensively on a certain discontinued think tank, and came to realize exactly where the grind exists. It exists when you stop having fun and the developers are dangling something that you believe should make the game fun just out of reach. So, you mentally injure yourself trying to get that foozle and, just like that, grind city includes population you.

So, anyway, what does this have to do with Oblivion? Just this: I've been trying to play Shivering Isles for over several weeks now. It's a well acclaimed new expansion with uber graphical effects and content, maybe a little buggy, but unfortunately a strange kind of grind has been getting in the way. It's not the character progression that's been the problem: Oblivion scales; you can wander wherever you want. It's the content.

It makes for a weird grind - usually the problem is that the grind is keeping the content away, but Oblivion gluts you with content. It drops you in the game with a main quest line that consumes maybe 20+ hours. If you want to benefit fully from cooperation with the Mage's guild (perhaps to flesh out those needed spells) there's another 20ish hours. If you have Knights of the Nine installed, there's another 15+ hours. Those are small potatoes: the side quests and temptation to explore every ruin can take up hundreds of hours. Basically, what we have here is a story grind, a non-linear game that hits you with linear-feeling obligations.

Now, I realize this is partly having to do with my competionist attitude, but that's really nothing new. Which sounds more arbitrary to you: [Spoilers:]
  1. "I want my character to act like he believes Daedra invasions and rampaging long-dead Alyeid murders are higher prioritizes than becoming a disciple to a mad god."
  2. "I want my character to act like he believes he needs the vorpal axe of slaying badly enough to spend 72 hours camping mobs that aren't worth experience to him for that added +5% damage boost."
They're both pretty ridiculous, and reflect the overall limitations of many RPGs to spin a compellingly realistic tale.

Oblivion is not a perfect game, despite its acclaim. Still, I look forward to seeing Bethsoft's next efforts, including Fallout 3 (now that they've bought the rights). They may not be perfect gamesmiths, but they've improved a lot since Redguard and Terminator: Future Shock.

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