The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
5th Jul 2006 | 11:00
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was an epoch-making development in not only RPG- but all gaming. One of the most impressive titles of this or indeed any other year and a serious contender for our Ultimate Game of the Year at this year's Golden Joysticks.
High time then to have a retrospective on the title and Zone's very own reviews editor and long-standing Oblivion addict Suzy Wallace sat down with Bethesda's executive producer Todd Howard over a flagon of mead to talk swords, bows and painted trolls and the making of a classic. Be aware though, if you're a Bark Brotherhood afficianado this is YOUR SPOILER ALERT.
How did you go about fitting Oblivion into the overall Elder Scrolls story?
Todd Howard: The story keeps progressing each game, so as we move from Morrowind to Oblivion, each game stands on its own. With Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, we decided we wanted it to be set in the Imperial Province, which is the centre of our universe of Tamriel. We wanted to tell the story of Uriel Septim, the emperor, and start the game with his demise. He's been getting older and weaker as the games have gone on.
Was there any reason that you decided to kill off old Uriel?
Todd Howard: Dramatic purpose, pure and simple. We'd built up in Morrowind that he was on his last legs, so it followed that he should die. We also always planned on him dying in this game to give real energy to the beginning of it, when he utters his last words to you: "Close shut the jaws of Oblivion." We thought that was a good hook for the player to follow.
Is it hard avoiding contradictions with stuff from previous adventures?
Todd Howard: We have to be careful about that, as there's so much of it in previous games. We have people here who research Elder Scrolls lore, 'Lore Masters', just to make sure we're not saying anything that isn't true. One of the things we're very careful about is that we always write the lore from the standpoint of the world - the lore comes from someone within the world. So if we ever need to say 'well, that person was wrong', then we can do it.
We intentionally put repeating messages about stuff we want to remain mysterious too, such as 'where are the dwarves'? and 'what happened to this land in this ancient time'? We write them as history in the world.
In Oblivion, a lot of the story revolves around the amulet of kings, so we put a lot of research into how the amulet has been mentioned in previous games - some of them attribute certain powers to the amulet, for example. We have three or four people who check all this full-time, plus we have ways of searching the text we've put in our games too - but it does take some time...
Would you say Oblivion is a return to more traditional fantasy? It certainly has more traditional fantasy creatures - Morrowind was quite fanciful...
Todd Howard: Elder Scrolls has a lot of traditional stuff, if you look at Arena and Daggerfall. So we go for what's appropriate for that part of the world - the capital area Cyrodiil is a little more traditional, whereas Morrowind is a province on the outskirts. In that game we had to go to extremes to work in the more trad stuff, we wanted things to be more fantastical, to stick out more. With Oblivion, we wanted the forests and towns to feel familiar, so that when Oblivion comes in with these otherworldly creatures and danger, it feels fantastical - but it's not fantastical all the time.
What's your favourite quest in the game?
Todd Howard: I probably have a few favourites. I love the Painter quest from an imaginative standpoint, that you're sucked into this magical painting and you get that five seconds of, 'You gotta be kidding me!' We had a lot of fun with that, re-doing all the textures to make them look as though they were painted.
The other two - I like the quest in the Dark Brotherhood where you get invited to a dare party - kind of an Agatha Christie, kill-everybody type of thing. There are so many ways to do that quest and it isn't a 'run through a dungeon with armour' kind of quest - it feels like something really different. I also like the Dark Brotherhood quest where you have to go back into the prison and kill the guy who's an arse to you when the game starts - we thought of that early in the game.
In the main quest, I like the one where you're in the Imperial City where you're going to get some books - real adventure gaming. I also like the last few quests in the main game where you get these huge battles - they're really cool too.
We love the Painter quest ourselves. How did you come up with that idea?
Todd Howard: We had a big brainstorming meeting, where we put up a bunch of ideas on a board. But it was just a summary - 'player sucked into magic painting' - and a short description of the quest. The guy who thought of that quest, Alan Nanes, did a great job on that, and some of the miscellaneous quests, really fleshing them out to become believable experiences. It could be goofy if it's done wrong, but you feel like you're inside a painting. It's actually quite a simple quest - go kill this guy and bring this thing back - but wrapped up with a great setting and characters, the trolls. We loved the effect on the edge of that map, where you see the canvas where the guy hasn't finished painting it yet. Also, I loved the quest reward, the special magical apron you get - my character runs around in that, because it looks so different...
So was it a lot of extra effort to get that painting effect?
Todd Howard: Yes - absolutely. You look at all the objects and items and we had to do different versions of them - but it was a highlight for us. The people involved showed a lot of initiative and really wanted that quest to pay off.
What's your favourite guild in the game?
Todd Howard: Definitely the Dark Brotherhood. Even from very early on, we'd do pitches and have the designer write it up. Fortunately, I had the privilege of working with all the guilds, but Emil Pagliarulo, a guy we'd hired who'd worked on Thief 2 & 3, worked on the Dark Brotherhood. He's a brilliant designer and had a really good idea of what the DB needed to be, what flavour it needed to have.
We had one designer per guild, and they did a pitch to the whole team - 50 or so people - and did a presentation given as though the player is experiencing the quest. We walk into a quest and see pictures and everything before we start making it, and then everyone makes their comments. Then we tweak on paper and everything goes through that process again. That gave us a very good breadth of each guild, but even in the early stages, the Dark Brotherhood was looking really, really cool.
What's the most evil thing you get to do in the Dark Brotherhood?
Todd Howard: I think it's easily - and there's a plot spoiler here - in the Dark Brotherhood twist, when you have to go back to the hideout and kill everybody. We hope that's really dark - we wanted to have the player say: 'Is that right? How much of an evil assassin am I?'
We actually went and beefed up the characters so they're friendly and give tips, have distinct personalities and talk to each other. We put a lot of effort into them and we want you to get attached to them, so when you have to go and murder them, you feel a dilemma there. However, almost everybody just accepts that and says: "Well, I'll just kill them and see where this goes!" To kill all your friends is pretty evil though..."