Sell Your Soul For Certainty?

I mentioned the other day that I’d gotten into Oblivion without particularly caring about the mainline narrative. Thus I found my murdering necromancers without a clear picture of what my reasons were. Hence: psychopath. But I should also say that Oblivion itself doesn’t really help you out on that front. It doesn’t give you a lot in the way of reasons or instructions to follow.

Consider something like GTA IV. In that game you have bite-sized, nuggety missions in which someone tells you to go to place X, whack person Y, and drive away in car Z. You do it, it gets done, and you get the cash and one more step toward city-wise dominance. The pieces all make sense.

Oblivion‘s narrative is, in itself, so laughably terrible to begin with that it actively contributes to the ambiguity of the world. It opens up with the emperor remembering you from a dream and thus trusting you with the most important artifact in the universe (so don’t lose it!). Other people “don’t quite know why”, but also trust you. Guess it’s my blue-tinged face? Because the narrative makes very little attempt to justify much anything that’s happening to you overtly – even the demon king seems to be attacking the world “just because” – you don’t have a lot of certainty to grasp onto. In addition, as with Fallout 3, say, your character is pretty much nobody. Not a fully-formed Nico, but a no-name prisoner who – blah blah blah – turns out to be “the one”.

Without some kind of pre-established character traits or motivations, and without even an overarching narrative that gives you pointers on why you should give a shit about anything, you end up in a world of intensive ambiguity and contingency. Like a teenager you might rage for a little while asking, “why should I do anything?” And then you go and do something, of course, because it’s a game. Thrash around, kill some necromancers, go Goth. Still, the vast majority of the time my experience has constantly been something like: 1) do thing X; 2) ask myself why I’m doing X; 3) shrug and move on.

This might drive me crazy, except that I mostly like it quite a lot. I enjoy not really having strong, externally defined reasons for everything I’m doing. After all, who hasn’t been driven insane by the authoritarian voice of so many mission-based games? What if I don’t want to take out those thugs? Oh, I have to? Fine. In Oblivion I sometimes do things that contribute to the mainline narrative, but I don’t always do it willingly, and I don’t even always mean to. Most importantly, I feel like I’m myself in the game, even if it’s a slightly disgruntled, world-weary, and confused self. It’s me doing stuff, not Nico, not Mario.

I don’t necessarily want it all the time, but this kind of free-floating ambiguity is good for the soul right now. My soul.

23 November 2010
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