April 11, 2012 by jwildberger
Paul Martin’s essay ‘The Pastoral and Sublime in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’ starts with an examination of the game’s opening cinematic. After the Emperor of Tamriel announces his impending death, we see “a series of flaming gates to the hellish plains of Oblivion,” and a “massive machine of war.” A change in music accompanies a cut to the land of Tamriel, where we see “snow-capped mountains,” “pine trees” and “an island city.” These conflicting landscapes call attention to the main narrative conflict of the game. A metaphysical struggle between good and evil expresses itself within the game space.
Martin links Oblivion’s good versus evil struggle to the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien, the writer of Lord of the Rings, on the fantasy genre. In his stories, Tolkien lumps together good, light, artisanship, and the pastoral on one side and evil, dark, technology, and the industrial on the other. Elves and dwarves, the “good” races, live symbiotically within nature, and craft beautiful buildings and tools (including weapons). Orcs and goblins, the “evil” races, raze forests and replace them with industrial war factories. Oblivion concretizes these same binaries in its game space. The titular Oblivion gates mutate the surrounding pastoral terrain into its own image.
In addition to the influence of Tolkien, videogame role playing games, RPGs, were influenced by the pen and paper game Dungeons and Dragons. In Dungeons and Dragons, players create characters and then act, or roleplay, as those characters within the story world. These characters have certain attributes and abilities, but these facilitate the interaction between the storyteller, or Dungeon Master, and the players. RPG videogames often emphasize the attributes and abilities of the character instead of the storytelling and roleplaying aspects. Players may imagine a backstory for the character, or perform a role in-game, but the game does not direct the player to do these tasks. One can play the game without giving his or her avatar any personal motivations, which is a near impossibility in Dungeons and Dragons.
Most RPGs rely on compelling stories to make players want to play. Oblivion does not. Its story and dialogue are formulaic and rather uninteresting. Unlike Bioware RPGs, like Mass Effect, the main story arc is linear. One cannot choose between different paths within that arc. This prevents any real player character development within the narrative. While Oblivion allows for character creation, all characters have the same basic possibilities in game. Instead of focusing on character development, the game presents the player with options, and frees the player to take advantage of whichever possibilities they want to. As Martin writes, “the avatar’s main function is not to develop the character of the hero, but to discover the character of the landscape.” The landscape, not story or character, drives the player to continue playing.
Oblivion’s game space compels us to explore. It affords us the ability to climb mountains, swim in lakes, to scavenge through forests, and to adventure forth into dungeons and hell portals. Martin even personifies the landscape, calling it an “unconventional” character. Exploration of the landscape creates a ludonarrative, in which the player develops knowledge of the game’s Manichean themes in concrete form. As Martin notes, the game urges you to explore these conflicting worlds through its reward structure. It rewards you with better equipment when you delve into a hell portal. This imprints the allure of Oblivion’s techno-evil into the game space.
Oblivion’s vast expanse of both pastoral beauty and fiery wasteland invoked a feeling of awe in many of its reviewers. From this, Martin suggests that the player first experiences Oblivion’s game space as sublime.
In discussing the sublime, Martin references the philosopher Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. They describe the sublime in similar ways. Both distinguish the sublime from the beautiful. Beauty and the sublime entail an aesthetic enjoyment, but, unlike beauty, the sublime overwhelms the subject. Tall mountains, the starry sky, and severe weather exemplify the sublime. We find them aesthetically pleasing in spite of the fact that they exceed our imagination and remind us of our own finitude. Why do we derive pleasure from these objects when they show us how small we are?
Burke gives two reasons as to why the sublime is pleasurable. The sublime “presents danger without causing harm” and “it leads to… self aggrandizement.” Kant further elaborates on the second reason. While the imagination fails to grasp the vastness of the starry sky, Kant believes reason can. When our reason captures the infinite, we have a sublime aesthetic experience. Because of our reason, we feel equal to the sublime object in spite of its unboundedness.
Although the planes of Oblivion have certain frightening elements, nothing in the game rivals the fear caused by a storm. Danger does not make the game sublime. Also, it is not clear that the vastness of Oblivion’s game space causes the player to experience it as sublime either. It must remain imposing to be sublime. Martin realizes that this vastness cannot “sustain” the sublime, and he argues that as the player achieves a greater understanding of the game world, he or she loses the sublime feeling. The player realizes that the landscape is not as vast as the opening cinematic suggests.
I do not think players ever experience the sublime in Oblivion as Martin says they do. As soon you enter the game space, you have the ability to fast travel, or teleport from city to city, landmark to landmark. From the beginning, Oblivion makes travel as quick and convenient as possible. In so far as navigation is quick and convenient, it cannot be sublime.