As I put more time into playing Oblivion, I am more and more convinced that it is harder than Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. Their worlds are very similar — mostly empty lands — and they have cities with people who have mostly nothing to say to me. The goals are pretty much the same: save the (local) world. All three games run on the same engine and the perspective is the same. What, for me, is the major and often annoying difference though between the games in how they handle steps within a quest.
In both the Fallout games I’ve invested major time into, you will be told where to go and often who to talk to once you get there. You will be shown which doors to enter or exit out of and then, once the target of your search is found, it will appear on your compass and point you directly toward it. Usually, that is. A few very rare quests, including those that are unmarked, will not always do that. Almost always however, you will be very clear step by step guide with the optional ways to complete the quest written out as well. However, in Oblivion, I am finding more and more of my time is spent in trying to figure out how to do certain goals and complete the quests with the sometimes very little help I am given by the game.
In order that quests be logged and kept track of, the game’s protagonist has a journal that she keeps that records, in first-person, what the player should have the character do next. Something is written in a series of entries for each quest to the effect of “I found the treasure. I should take it back to the smelly pirates” but only after each step is made. In the Fallout games, and the majority of my experiences with the engine that runs all both games, the quest markers will be spelled out. “Go find the treasure in this cave. Right here. This one. Afterwards, take it back to Stinky Pete” it will say, easily pointing out to me the exact place I need to go to and the people I need to interact with, often as part of the quest text directly. I always know I need to have the character talk to Smallfoot in Johnstown, as a made up example. However, Oblivion doesn’t always have that. In fact, it rarely has that. The quest may point me toward a place but then leave me to figure out what I am supposed to do there and who, sometimes, I am to talk to in order that I get done whatever I’ve been sent to the place to do. Even the people it may point out for me to talk to may not be the true way or optional way to complete the quest. Talking to a neighboring person or even in another house next door is the real way, the quest just points me to the person who knew about the problem or reported it, not the answer.
This has led me, more that my experiences with the Fallout games, to explore more often and talk to people in the various towns. After all, I may not know how to get the quest done but someone somewhere in the place I visit must know. So, I ask around. And, eventually, I learn things about the place. I listen to all the rumors and I become, strangely, more engaged in their world. Who is this thief these people keep talking about? There is a haunted house? Really? Where? The bartender is hated, why is that? Also, what is the deal with necromancy? By not giving me the clear cut directions that the other games give me, I am forced to be a part of the world and play around with the rules, make small talk and learn things. I am forced to play the role of the young apprentice sent out with very little supplies or intelligence about the mission just to see if I can accomplish it. I become closer to the role as the character and myself as the player are both ignorant of the true path.
The downside to not knowing where to go and who to talk to is obviously that I am less likely to find the answer quickly. If I don’t know where to go, I don’t know. It’s that simple. While I am learning about the world, I am also wandering around in the towns and cities, getting confused and often become frustrated at the game and its inability to tell me simple things. The game likes to be big on letting the player learn and experience the world as is if they were the character — something I appreciate — yet I am often just left as some odd tourist as I walk up to every guard and civilian asking about the smallest details and directions. Instead of being the at least somewhat traveled person, I am often lost in corridors, tunnels or just simple city blocks as I try to find the place I vaguely remember someone mentioning to me in the last town I visited over an hour ago.
This also means that I just walk off and try something different too. The game may be pointing me to a location, but if I do not have the skills or materials to get it done the way the game thinks I should, I quickly grow bored and walk away for something else, something easier. If I need to be able to use a certain spell yet cannot, how am I to finish the quest? Why not, as is increasing the case, just go find something else to work on for awhile and then consider coming back after I’m done with the new thing. The problem, of course, is that these quests build up quickly. Instead of just spending time on one side-quest over another, I am overflowing with an ever increasing to-do list of things and people to investigate. The game keeps tasking me with new directions yet, in all the growing collection, I am left worrying about where to go next. Which, among all these things, is important? Is any of it? Maybe I should just go explore a cave system for awhile instead. Yeah, that sounds good. I think I saw something worth searching back there, away from this town and its problems.