Okay, I am not your average video game reviewer. Mostly because I suck at video games. It's my total lack of hand-eye coordination and my low frustration-threshold that does it. So what I am, is a video game spectator.
But there's only one game that I've ever asked someone to play just so I can watch. It's called "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion." And I want people who don't play video games to know what game designers are capable of, these days.
It was this game that actually made us buy an Xbox. My husband had played "Elder Scrolls III" and described it to me as amazing. In particular, he was impressed with the amount of freedom you had. You could walk anywhere you wanted, talk to anyone you wanted, do whatever you wanted, accept a quest, or not, betray your allies, or not. He spent uncountable hours on it, and was willing to lay out $400 for a new video game system in part to be able play the new game, which is even better than the last.
But how can a video game be so entertaining -- so entrancing -- even for a spectator?
It can tell a thousand different stories, each with unique characters and moral dilemmas and particular settings, within its world. It can be visually breathtaking, down to the smallest architectural and botanical details (in this game, you can pick the flowers, or even the weeds.) It can be broad in scope and yet subtle -- six or seven different races sharing dozens of very different cities and villages, all threatened by one supernatural danger, but all facing more immediate problems.
One's character's daughter has been kidnapped by cultists. Another's pets have been killed by an angry neighbor. One character, adopted, wants to know who his real father is. Another is the son of an important official, and wants nothing more than to escape her well-meant protection. One man is going to lose his farm. A woman can't pay off her dead husband's debts. Members of a guild find themselves out of work, and are stirring up trouble. Another group is running a protection racket. There are corrupt imperial guards to catch, and sticky-fingered servants.
There are hundreds if not thousands of stories like this, people who will tell you their problems. You can help all of these people, or not. You can play through the game as a thief, an assassin, a wizard-scholar, or a fighter-for-hire, or none of the above, or more than one. You may end up a vampire, if you fail to take the proper precautions, but being addicted to blood doesn't automatically make you evil -- one of your main allies turns out to be a vampire. This game is rich in shades of gray.
It was last summer that I watched Ken play through most of this, but I still remember characters' names, and stories. Once you've helped them, they don't go away. You will still see them, especially if they live in the town where you end up buying a house. Helping them makes them like you better, and they may give you better deals, if they're merchants or skilled laborers. They'll remember, and thank you. But if you let them down, you feel so bad... To have to tell someone his sons are both dead? It won't interfere with your ability to "beat the game," but you have to reload, and try harder, just to avoid the guilt. Even so, you can't save everyone. The game won't let you.
The main quest has religious themes. It's a made-up religion, to be sure, but the only man who can save the world (it's not you) from the supernatural threat is a priest. He is fallible, full of self-doubt, a little cynical, a little afraid -- one of the best of the many well-drawn characters. And you, helping him, are made to feel the same doubts. The "evil" characters ask you provocative questions. Are you sure you know what "evil" is? Are you sure you're any better than them? Are you sure there's any point in all of this? They reveal information about the world of the game and the gods of its religion that makes you wonder. But you fight on anyway.
After about 130 hours of play over a few months (the game tracks this, along with the number of murders, of items and horses stolen, of days and nights passed within the game world, of hours slept and hours waited) my husband finally finished the main quest, and put the game aside.
But recently they released an addendum, supposedly 30% as big as the original game, with all new characters (each with their own problems) and a new main quest.
It begins with a strange door, which you are asked to investigate. It leads to another dimension, and everyone who comes out of it is insane.
This new place looks very different than anywhere in the original game. That landscape had mountains, plains, and costal cities (each with their own types of architecture) connifer forests and cramped stone streets, but this new landscape looks like Louisiana or eastern Texas. Mossy trees dangling vines, marshy ground, lots of mushrooms. The sunsets are more colorful, and the weather rainier. (Yes, this game has sunsets, and weather.)
This is the kingdom of madness, the "Shivering Isles" and if the main game was full of hard moral questions, the dilemmas in this new game are impossible. You cannot get through it without doing things that shake your self-image as video-game "hero."
And this is something only a video game can do. A book, a movie, a play, can make you identify with people who may be making mistakes, who may be doing the wrong thing, but they can't set up these difficult situations and then force you to make the decisions, and then to live with yourself.
I want to give examples from the game so far, but they're spoilers, so I'll put them in white text -- highlight the text below only if you don't plan on playing "Shivering Isles."
The people here here will ask you to hurt others. The very first thing you have to do is kill a monster using its "mother's" tears, in order to enter. You will then meet characters who say things like "My neighbor is annoying. Will you kill him for me?" And once you begin the main quest, your first task is to re-open a sort of prison facility, where uninvited explorers in this realm are either driven mad by torture or killed outright. The decision is unexpectedly put in our hands. And these prisoners are real characters. You eavesdrop on their conversations. They are not "bad guys" who deserve to die. Their only crime is entering the door uninvited -- the same crime you committed. But you can't get out of this one with your hands clean. You're locked in, and can't leave until they're dead or mad. At the end, you're rewarded with a very powerful sword.
Next, the "Madgod" who created this place (he tells you that you are helping him save it from another kind of supernatural threat -- an invasion by the god of order) sends you to his Duchess, who is paranoid, and believes that there is a conspiracy to kill her. You are supposed to torture her subjects, apparently at random, until one of them confesses to being involved. After seeing a few characters fall to their knees and beg you to stop, insisting that they know nothing, the experience becomes disturbing enough that you may want to cheat (as we did), looking up the answer on the internet. Otherwise you will become paranoid yourself. Some of these characters are lying -- you just don't know who.
Next, you are sent to help a Duke, who wants you to enter a certain cave full of monsters and retrieve an item for him. But to get through the enchanted door, you must take a drug... And the drug is addictive. Your character will initially become stronger, but as the effects wear off, you become weaker, less able to defend yourself from the monsters, and eventually, start losing health points as withdrawal pain kicks in. Wait long enough and it's game over, so you have to spend a lot of your time in the cave frantically searching for more of the drug. Eventually, you don't care about anything else, the prizes you'd normally collect, the mission, the monsters. You have to find more of the drug, or none of the rest will matter.
According to Ken, it felt like a real need. And that's something that no book or movie or play could have done. They can't make you frantic, can't make you search, can't make you hurry. They are passive forms of story telling. Video games can take you further outside of your comfort zone, potentially, force you to make decisions. Force you to do things you don't want to. Make you empathize with people who are in similar positions.
That is what video game designers can do these days. They can create works of art both massive and intricate, visually beautiful and emotionally moving and full of surprises, which unfold over hundreds of hours and involve the audience in an unpredented, deeply personal way. "Oblivion" is a masterpiece.