(Spoilers for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a ten year old game).
Oblivion is the fourth Elder Scrolls game, a fantasy series best characterized by the fact it has almost nothing to do with elder scrolls (they are only relevant to the main plot in two out of five games, and do not even appear in two of the others). Rather these games are primarily spent slaying dragons, deciding wars and being murdered by guards for accidentally picking up inkwells.
In the case of Oblivion, the main threat that needs quelling are portals to another dimension that keep popping up all over Cyrodiil and spewing monsters into unsuspecting towns. Your task as the designated hero of fate is to close these Oblivion Gates and re-install an ancient family’s final descendant to the throne.
The story is simple, and the writing is a curious mixture of generic and charming. Yet beneath its colorful facade is an ardent streak of conservatism and bone-chilling commitment to maintaining the status quo. It is one thing for a game to send you on morally dubious quests. It is far more frightening when it continually treats you as a hero while you run around torturing, precipitating massacres and committing small scale acts of genocide.
And it is all so much worse because it is unquestionable that the worst implications were all unintentional.
(Note: much of this review is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, not necessarily a serious academic analysis. It’s still a great game, despite some oddly careless world-building details.)
A cult called the Mythic Dawn kick things off by murdering the Emperor of Tamriel’s sons in one fell swoop. The Emperor Uriel Septim VII (Patrick Stewart) is also assassinated, but not before he entrusts you with the Amulet of Kings (I’ll explain that in a moment) and tasks you with finding his illegitimate son Martin (Sean Bean). Together, you and Martin will end the Oblivion crisis and stop the dastardly plot of Mankar Camoran (Terence Stamp), the leader of the Mythic Dawn.
(Quick Side-Note: Has a video game ever had a more star-studded cast than Oblivion?)
All Martin needs to do is re-light the Dragonfires (which only a Septim wearing the Amulet of Kings can accomplish) to stop the otherworldly invasion. This is because the first emperor of Tamriel, Tiber Septim, literally ascended to godhood. So long as his bloodline continues to reign, the world will be safe.
Which means that the salvation of the world depends on a long line of rich white guys maintaining absolute power as dictators of an entire continent. Upholding this status quo is central to defeating evil, and while Uriel and Martin both seem like good men, a quick glance around the state of their Empire calls into question whether the Septim Dynasty is really working out for the people of Cyrodiil.
Empire State of Mind
Say you are a poor person living on the streets of the Imperial City, the empire’s capital. Hungry and distraught, you decide to steal a loaf of bread and are caught by an Imperial Guard. The guard offers you three choices; Pay a Fine (which you cannot afford), Go to Jail, or Resit Arrest. You choose jail. What does the guard say to that?
“That’s too bad. I was hoping you would resist arrest.”
And if you to resist arrest, what does the guard scream?
“Then pay with your blood!”
He and the rest of the guards will then murder you with their swords, regardless of whether or not you fight back, and it is clear they were looking for any excuse to do so. This is to say nothing of the fact that a rich person can basically pay their way out of trouble even if they are caught committing murder. In Cyrodiil, the rich are all powerful and the poor are murdered in the streets.
Yet terrifying class discrepancies are just the tip of the iceberg. Each town is ruled by a Count or Countess, and almost every one of them is seriously morally compromised. The Count of Cheydinhal knows a guild of assassins are operating out of his town and does nothing. The Countess of Leyawiin has a torture chamber specifically for two races she deems inferior. The Count of Skingrad is a vampire, the Count of Anvil a master thief and the Count of Bravil is really rude.
Even worse than all that is the main sport of the empire; Gladiator Combat. There is an arena in the Imperial City were people fight to the death for the chance of earning a living. It has been calculated (by some much smarter people than me) that the smallest possible death toll of the Arena during the events of the game is 4,194,303.
This Empire is worse than Darth Vader’s employers by a country mile.
When Heroes Are Villains
Aside from the main storyline, there are four supplemental questlines. Each revolves around the actions of the four guilds; The Fighter’s Guild, The Mages Guild, The Thieves Guild and The Dark Brotherhood. The latter are a group of assassins who worship the void, so naturally their plotline is entirely amoral.
Weirdly, the most heroic quest of the four is that revolving around the Thieves Guild. Despite the fact that these are a group of people primarily devoted to stealing things, the questline will find the player stealing back the taxes of the city’s poorest residents, rooting out corruption in the Imperial Guard and getting information from beggars by paying them gold (keep that in mind for later).
All of which is far more heroic and worthy than anything you get up to with the Fighter’s or Mage’s Guilds. In fact, those these two guilds are legitimate pillars of Cyrodiil’s society, they are almost staggeringly morally compromised. Under the direction of supposed ‘Good Guys’ you will rack up a higher body count than working for those whose main trade is literally murder.
And I do not think the game realizes this.
The leader of the Mage’s Guild, Archmage Traven, has banned necromancy. Every problem that arises during this plotline is born from this decision.
Necromancy is a branch of magic that basically revolves around reanimating corpses. Not exactly the most pleasant practice, but neither is dissecting corpses and in our world we regard that as medically and scientifically necessary. It would be one thing if Traven had introduced some strict standards and practices, but instead he bans necromancy outright.
He also closes the gates of the Arcane University and limits freedom of research. So basically the guy tasked with being in charge of both scientific progress and the education of a population is pretty much against the advancement of either. He causes a massive rift to form within his guild, ultimately resulting in first a mass banishment of mages, followed by a mass voluntary exodus.
Basically, Traven is a modern day Republican, and a particularly incompetent one at that. Yet Oblivion keeps telling me he’s the good guy.
Secret Wars and Real Laws
All those mages who left the guild are now an immensely powerful force without a leader. To fill that void comes Mannimarco, a thoroughly evil necromancer who recruits the leaderless horde and begins a proxy war against the guild. Now, Mannimarco is definitely a bad guy, but he only gains an army because of Traven’s necromancy ban, so I feel comfortable blaming Traven for all of this.
Traven ignores this growing threat for ages, despite a mounting body count on both sides. It takes the massacre of an entire guild hall to shake him from his complacency. Even then he fails to take any kind of radical action (or inform the Elder Council, who are currently ruling Cyrodiil, about any of this). Then both of his most trusted advisors abandon him, steal important artifacts and taking a chunk of the guild with them. One gets all those members killed. The other joins Mannimarco.
His eventual redemption comes when he sacrifices himself as part of a plot that ends with the death of Mannimarco. While a noble course of action, it is telling the only successful thing Traven achieves involves killing himself. Before he dies, he appoints the player as the new Archmage, despite is being possible to have only wielded magic once to reach this point. The main talent the player has demonstrated is their ruthless ability to kill necromancers, mostly under Traven’s orders.
Here’s the issue with that: Necromancy is not illegal. It is against the rules of the guild, not the laws of the land. Being a necromancer does not make you a criminal. Murdering necromancers, on the other hand, absolutely does. Congratulations hero, you just committed a minor genocide!
And this is not even the most screwed up plotline in Oblivion.
Modryn Oreyn is Satan.
This is the only conclusion I can draw that makes sense of the Fighter’s Guild plotline. Modryn Oreyn is Satan and the good people over at Bethesda Studios may well worship him. I promise you will agree with me by the end of this critique.
The Fighter’s Guild are basically Tamriel’s equivalent of handymen. They go around solving dangerous problems for the locals, whether that means collecting ingredients from monster infested caves, acting as bodyguards or fixing goblin infestations. They are the closest thing to blue collar workers evidenced in the empire.
Their cozy equilibrium is disrupted by the Blackwood Company, a mercenary group who settle in southern Cyrodiil and begin stealing some of their market share. The Blackwood Company are clearly painted as being bad guys, given that they stand in direct opposition to the player’s goals and are called the goddamn Blackwood Company. Soon they are stealing away members of the Fighter’s Guild to work for them. Why do people so eagerly join the company?
Because the Blackwood Company offers better pay and safer working conditions than the Fighter’s Guild.
So the monopoly of a state endorsed company is threatened by an upstart organization that offers better pay and conditions for its workers, and I am supposed to hate the new guys? Just because they represent a threat to the status quo? And I am eventually given carte blanche to start killing them?
Seriously, this is basically anti-worker propaganda and poorly written propaganda at that.
Evil Wears a Green Mask
Modryn Oreyn is the second in command of the Fighter’s Guild. When he is dismissed from service, he dedicates his retirement to rooting out the Blackwood Company. This resolve is firmed when he discovers that rather than eliminate a local bandit, the Blackwood Company cut a deal with him instead (which is shady behavior to be sure, but 95% of the company had nothing to do with it).
Oreyn tasks you with helping him. Here is a list of the things he makes you do.
- Invade a base and murder a bunch of Blackwood members so that you can kidnap one of the officers.
- Torture the officer for information while Oreyn watches (you can choose to talk to the officers instead, but the result is the officer committing suicide either way. By the way, remember that the Thieves Guild paid for their information while the Fighter’s Guild uses torture? Who are supposed to be the good guys Bethesda?)
- Join the Blackwood Company to destroy them from within.
- Which results in you ingesting a dangerous drug whose affects you do not know.
- Which results in you precipitating the massacre of a small village (which the Blackwood Company has definitely never done before you got involved).
- Destroy the Blackwood Company once and for all (by invading their office and killing everyone inside).
The drug mentioned above is called Hist Sap, and all Blackwood members are being fed it before battle. It gives the drinker tremendous strength, but can also cause hallucinations. A mercenary company feeding its members this before going to work is absolutely a reckless and dangerous thing to do. The leaders of the Blackwood Company deserve punishment for doing this.
But the ordinary members of the Blackwood Company are not aware of any of this. They had no idea they were ingesting dangerous chemicals. They just wanted better pay and safer conditions, were taken advantage of by their bosses and then promptly murdered by the player.
And Modryn Oreyn congratulates you for doing so. He even gets his job back. Then he paints a terrible painting of you torturing the Blackwood officer, whether or not you actually did so. He has suffered no consequences, learned no lessons and succeeded in his goal of re-establishing his company’s monopoly through the merciless murder of the competition. All of which he forced the player to do while keeping his hands clean.
Modryn Oreyn is the devil.
A Heroes Reward
You can usually tell a writer’s priorities by examining how a character is rewarded for their actions. Samwise Gamgee is rewarded for his courage and loyalty with a comfortable life with his family, while Saruman is rewarded for his cruelty and arrogance with death. These rewards tell you a lot about what JRR Tolkien thought important.
How are the ‘heroes’ of Oblivion rewarded? As mentioned above, Oreyn gets everything he wanted and suffers no consequences. While Traven does die, he also succeeds in eliminating the practice of necromancy and never pays for his crimes. I can only conclude from this that the writers of Oblivion considered Oreyn and Traven to be heroes deserving of great rewards.
This is further emphasized by the conclusion to the main plot. The Oblivion Crisis is ended and the world is saved, but Martin Septim must sacrifice himself to do so. With no Septim remaining to assume the throne, the Empire begins to collapse. Provinces secede, civil war is rampant, and by the events of Skyrim a group of elves committed to destroying humanity are ruling in all but name.
Without a very particular bunch of rich white guys who have literally been appointed by the Gods ruling a vast empire, the world collapsed. Remember what I said earlier about badly written propaganda? It is without question that Oblivion is the most conservative game ever devised.
It should be noted that a lot of this critique was tongue-in-cheek. I adore Oblivion, enjoying it far more than Skyrim (despite Skyrim being mechanically superior in almost every way). There is a wonderful sense of charm running through the game that is hard to describe. My intention here was not to ruin the experience of playing the game for anyone.
Neither do I think it was the intention of Bethesda to construct such a conservative narrative. The Arena death toll was something they clearly never thought through, and it is likely they did not plan on the Empire’s collapse until they started developing Skyrim. I do not honestly believe they created this game as a celebration of the status quo.
Which only makes things weirder, because the game constantly celebrates the status quo. All change is looked upon suspiciously. The supposed heroes murder and torture their way to success. Modryn Oreyn is definitely the devil. Oblivion may not have intentionally been designed to be so morally weird, but when a plotline ends with the devil being appointed as your second in command, it is impossible for me not to start drawing some outlandish conclusions.
All images courtesy of Bethesda Studios