It began with a DVD-R my friend passed to me in the busy hallway of my high school. "What's it like?" I inquired. "It's an RPG, with a big open world. I think you'll like it", he said as he passed me the thin jewel case with the Sharpie inscription: "OBLIVION".
In a twist of irony, while that friend and I have grown apart, the fourth entry in the Elder Scrolls series has been more present in my mind than other games several years its junior. There is something in that sense of amazement, when your avatar first steps out of the sewer and you appreciate the enormity of options in this world. Your avatar is a clean slate, a lump of clay to be molded as you see fit. You can go in any direction, pursue any cause, form any alliances, make any enemies, and experience the world of Cyrodiil in the way you desire.
One of my life goals is to travel: to see things not as an array of millions of coloured squares, but instead in a definition that cannot be sold to me on Amazon. I want to learn from different cultures, get different perspectives on life, and experience as much as I can on this Pale Blue Dot.
But you can't travel to the Great Wall for a few hours after work; travel is both prohibitively expensive and consumes a lot of time, which can clash with a nine-to-five. So, while I can plan out a trip for whenever time and funds afford me the luxury, the experience of utter freedom offered by Oblivion is a welcome respite.
I've spoken before on my thoughts concerning the exploration of unknown spaces in games. While Ocarina of Time is dear to me (being the second great game I ever owned), The Elder Scrolls took that to new extremes. Sometimes, I would turn off the HUD and start walking in a random cardinal direction, just to be in the woods, to explore, and to see who I met on the road less travelled. While most games can be mastered and understood, it's a common thing to poke fun at those who claim to have "beaten" an Elder Scrolls game.
Did you find the troll's suicide note under the bridge?
Did you try blasting the Adoring Fan off of the highest cliff in the game?
Did you ever instigate a city-wide brawl between your allied factions and the guards (and then reloaded a previous save)?
Did you rob an entire town blind and then buy a hovel with the explicit intent of making it a hoarder house which instantly crashes the game?
The breadth of experiential options in Oblivion would be mind-numbing even without the engaging faction quest lines. In my opinion, the Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood are some of the most memorable quest lines in any RPG to date. I think one of the reasons for this is that the membership into these groups is not obvious.
In Skyrim, the presence of the Thieves Guild is known; villagers will happily point you to their hideout. The player is also funnelled towards the Dark Brotherhood questline in Skyrim; townsfolk from as far as neighbouring cities will excitedly tell you how they heard about a boy who is perpetually praying to Sithis.
In Oblivion, the player discovers these guilds by committing crimes. The sense that you're one of the chosen few to be let in on this secret is awesome; it's extremely dull when everyone and their dog knows how to get in touch with a murder cult or medieval mafia.
The characters I embodied, the towns I've both rescued and razed, and the stories I created and experienced are all part of my love for Oblivion. My partner and I will still find ourselves discussing these stories over pints, and I can't see that changing any time soon. While there will continue to be Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion will always be the first game that felt unlimited.