This is part of an ongoing series. If you want to start at the beginning, go here.
It's early 2012 and I'm playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Why? Because I (finally) can. Join me on my path to glory and the stabilization of the status quo in almost-Tolkien-land.
What comes next is the Look-How-Awesome-Our-Game-Is-Moment. The LHAOGIM is an old staple of gaming. Examples that immediately come into my mind are: Fallout 2 – you are forced through that stupid, stupid Temple of Trials like a primitive dungeon-crawl-RPG and then all of a sudden you are set into the world. Where do you go? Your choice. What do you do? Yours too. Then there is the graphical aspect of it all, which has been typical for first-person games. Unreal – you fight your way out of the tight corridors a crashed space-ship and then suddenly you blink at the sky in an open environment, which was something awesome and new back then. Before this moment, the game was like other games of the time, corridors and monsters. Then you were outside. Other games that have done this were Halo and, most impressive to myself: Far Cry – you leave the bunker and suddenly find yourself overlooking a jungle and a beach and there is a helicopter flying in the distance and you realize that this isn't a backdrop – it's this games world and it's yours to explore.
The LHAOGIM in Oblivion comes at the end of a tunnel after a loading-screen. You leave the claustrophobic tunnels and are free to roam the world, looking at a serene hillside beyond a lake but the whole thing wouldn't have impressed me, as I had played said Far Cry and Halo before, if it hadn't been for a butterfly flying around me at the time. I don't know if it was scripted or a random happenstance but Martor reaching freedom and a butterfly greeting him to it seemed rather poignant to me so I enjoyed the moment. At this point the game is strangely honest with me, telling me that I can now go bring the amulet to that guy over in the other city or just roam and explore the world. Nice touch of honesty here, as this world is supposed to be sandboxy and the main quest doesn't need to be followed immediately, no matter how often the NPCs tell you how urgent it all is. At this, Martor turns around and looks at the horribly Tolkien-by-ways-of-Peter-Jackson-esque city out of which's sewers he has just crawled. As far as I'm concerned, I carry the imperial seal and am a free man. Who knows when Martor has last had a warm meal, slept in an actual bed or has bedded a maid? And he doesn't appear to have a family or friends or a home that might be worried about him or that he is missing. I take another look at the countryside. Then I head for the city. Let's see what's going on there. Also, this is an RPG and I suspect that if I follow the main quest right away without straying into helping random strangers and killing specified numbers of rats for them then I might end up totally underpowered at some point. You gotta earn those XP, you know? Celebrating my escape I drink all my beer which results in some symbols appearing on the top-right of the screen that I assume mean I'm drunk. Cool, but not as cool as being drunk in the original Deus Ex was.
I walk around the almost-but-not-quite impossibly huge walls of what I'll later find out is the prison and then find myself to a gate in the cities outer wall. After a brief loading screen I am met with the Imperial Cities market district, as the guard I ask informs me. He also info-dumps some facts about the general layout of the city which, beyond telling me what districts actually exist, only serves to confuse me, as I haven't found out how to call up the map yet. But that doesn't matter, I have this district to explore first. There is a slew of different shops here and, judging by the names on the signs, there is some redundancy here. In most RPGs I have played there were fewer stores and the fact that I have a (very brief) loading screen whenever I enter any building so going to ALL the stores is not an option.
I ignore all stores that sound like they are for mages and alchemists, the nerds of the fantasy-adventure setting and go straight for a store selling weapons. I have all my equipment repaired, sell some stuff I gathered down in the sewers and notice that the only weapon in stock that is better than what I have is a magical item that costs more then 3000 gold pieces. Woah. This doesn't bother me to much though, as I have by now noticed that the quality of equipment in Oblivion is not as important for combat as the stats of your character and your own abilities as a player, which is something I like. It always bothered me when an RPG-character was more defined by their equipment than their skills. I remember wanting to go all stylish with a Desert Eagle in Fallout 2 and then noticing that beyond the mid-part of the game the weapon was a damn pea-shooter. So I stick to my steel short-sword and my leather-shield. Thank you very much. Next stop is selling what the gaming-scene by now calls vendor-trash. I don't have too much of it, as I actually keep eating food I find in semi-regular intervals (roleplaying, you know?) and what I have I sell in a store that I thought sounded general-ish from its sign. The lady who owns the store hits me up with a side quest to check out the suspicious stuff another store-owner is doing to regularly outdo everyone else in the price-department. I agree to do it and then go exploring around the city.
I leave the market-district and jog around the city once. Walking would take forever. I see the stadium, chat with some fighters hanging out, visit all the outer districts and wonder why the place looks so damn deserted. There are people here, don't get me wrong. About a third of them are guards and the entire town population would be around, I'd estimate, 100-200 people. That isn't much for an imperial capital that has walls 15 meters high. And there are no children. Before theorizing that the head-eating-goblins living in the sewers are responsible for this I already know that this is a game-design decision because of legal and morale issues with children populating a violent video-game world. Half Life 2 scrapped child-workers in City 17 in favor of the suppression-field because places like my own country outlaw children being harmed in games. The same thing made some quests in Fallout 2 in the German version impossible to finish because you had to find and rescue a lost child but all children were written out of the game. I don't mind this too much and I agree with those on the internet who ask modders reinstating the option to kill children in Skyrim the simple question of „What the fuck is wrong with you?“ but it does make the city feel even more depopulated than it already is. The overgrowth evident in most districts makes it feel even more like this is a dying civilization living in the relics of a past glory. I have a hard time believing that these people could build something like this city. They just live here, slowly fading away.
Anyway, I suddenly notice that it's getting dark for the first time. I hadn't thought about it but this game has a day-night-cycle. I instantly panic: I HAVE to find a room for the night. Does Martor need to sleep? I don't know, do I? The guard at the gate had told me of a couple of inns in the city and I decide to head back to the market district, where I had seen one of them before. I walk back there, getting insecure about everything. Are there thieves out at night? Robbers? Is there a curfew? No idea but I make it to a tavern and almost piss* myself when the keeper tells me that the room is 20 gold per night. Gold really doesn't seem to be worth too much in this world, what with an apple costing two pieces of it? Deciding that paying 20 gold per night is more than I can afford regularly and that I have to find a better way of passing the night later I begrudgingly pay the fee and go to the appointed room. At least there is food on the table here but I go to bed first. I hit the sleep button without checking its menu first, which could have told me what time it is and how I was going to rest. I don't really look at it and get up after having slept. I eat all the food in the room, drink the wine, wonder why I haven't seen any non-alcoholic beverages yet, realize that this is a medieval setting and alcohol kills germs and then leave the inn.
*speaking of piss: The lack of bathrooms in the game is logical as neither Martor nor anyone else in the world has these bodily functions. It also neatly explains why you can come out of wading through the sewers and no one remarks on your smell – these tunnels are all just for draining rain!