When Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion first burst onto the scene in 2006 it felt like a turning point for Western role-playing games. A genre that had long been seen as nerdy or niche with its love of dungeons, dragons, and overbearing lore was suddenly cool.
Bethesda Game Studios and the allure of Todd Howard turned the tide, morphing a once underappreciated selection of PC exclusive RPGs into a console juggernaut. Oblivion also launched at the right place at the right time, acting as an early blockbuster for the Xbox 360 in a landscape where new owners needed something to play. It fit the bill, streamlining Morrowind down to a more digestible format with combat, exploration, and myriad systems that were easy for anyone to understand. But above all that, the opening matters most.
Oblivion opens like many games of its kind, with our curated hero awakening in a prison cell with no means of escape. It doesn’t matter who they are, how they got there, or where they came from – all that matters is the narrative you create for yourself from this point onwards. You’re poised to be executed unless a miracle comes along, and as luck would have it, Emperor Uriel Septim VII is about to march into your cell with his homies in search of a secret passageway. Assassins are after this nation’s leader, and the only way to avoid them is by navigating a cryptic underground network in search of escape.
You are just a lowly prisoner, so the guards ask you to stand aside and not get in the way. But your worth is minimal enough that they don’t even bother to lock you up, allowing you to tag along and escape your life of confinement with no consequences. I’d maybe ask a few more questions before letting a wayward criminal tag along with the Emperor, I could have done some truly rancid shit in a past life and might not hesitate to murder him. Yet he sees something in me, and is willing to forgive previous transgressions in favour of destiny. So off we trot, setting in motion a chain of events that will change this realm forever.
The opening moments are deliberately claustrophobic, having us navigate a sequence of bland catacombs defined by teleporting enemies and mysterious traps that slowly but surely pick apart at our entourage. The situation is dire, with soldiers trained to protect their leader from certain death falling apart at the seams because there is only one way forward – to fight. When it becomes clear the battle is lost, Uriel Septim exchanges a few choice words with us before encouraging us to flee. Minutes later the Emperor is dead and we’re all alone.
Oblivion takes away your one guiding light and asks you to press on into the unknown. This alone feels overwhelming, and we’re still deep in tepid waters fighting off giant rats. Soon we progress into underground caverns with a more natural vibe, with goblins having long called with place home as makeshift traps and fading fires litter the coming arenas. They are dispatched with ease as we push forward, learning the basics of looting and lockpicking as small pockets of sunlight begin flickering through the ceiling. The outside world is calling to us, and it’s only a matter of moments until we meet for the very first time.
The pacing here is perfect, encouraging our curiosity to explore and learn new things without ever piling on too much. Small systems and mechanics are introduced that work perfectly in the context of each new environment, even if all these years later the act of actually executing upon them is woefully archaic. Back in the day it was unlike anything we’d seen before, and it’s so easy to appreciate how that felt at the time and how much of an impact it had on the genre we know and love. After murdering our final goblins we stumble upon an unassuming sewer grate and are asked if there’s anything about our character we want to change before stepping outside. Once in the open world there is no turning back.
Seeing Cyrodiil for the first time is majestic, and introduces us to Oblivion’s world in a way that doesn’t seek to railroad us towards the next objective, but provides a level of understandable freedom where the main quest feels like a distant dream. It’s meant to make us feel small, like a single pawn navigating a sprawling board of possibilities. We have a destiny to fulfil, but outside that we can carve out this new life in whatever way we see fit. There are guilds to join, arenas to fight in, relationships to form, and adventures to embark upon that will keep us entertained for hours upon hours. Back in 2006 this was unlike anything console players had experienced before, both showing us what we’d been missing for all these years while making it clear that Elder Scrolls would never be the same again.
Its influence is clear because Fallout 3, New Vegas, Skyrim, Fallout 4, and likely Starfield all have their own takes on the Oblivion opening, but none had the same impact. There is nothing like your first time after all, even if in retrospect everything Oblivion managed to achieve feels like old hat today. Even on the Xbox Series X it doesn’t play brilliantly and looks even worse, but that doesn’t matter when the intent is so clear.
We love to harp on Bethesda titles for being buggy and unfinished, burdened by a formula that hasn’t changed in the slightest since the release of Oblivion almost 16 years ago. Yet it arguably cemented the open world formula an entire industry would follow, so for me, it’s easy to excuse its lack of innovation now the smoke has cleared as we look to the future.
Oblivion’s opening is a masterful example of how this medium can draw us into a fictional universe with tight, scripted moments before letting us loose into a playground where the potential is almost limitless. As a child it changed my outlook on games forever, and I’m so glad I was around during its heyday to appreciate everything it managed to accomplish.
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