Hurry Up and Meander
Posted by Articles [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 May 2013, 10:19 am

"Find him ... and close shut the marble jaws of Oblivion!"

It is with this imperative that Emperor Uriel Septim VII ushers you forth on an Epic Quest of Epicness in Bethesda's 2006 release, Oblivion. It's a nice send-off. It has punch. Pizazz. Energy. And being read by the incomparable Patrick Stewart doesn't hurt. I, for one, wanted to run right out into the world, shut those gates and do … and do … uh, something. Oh, look! Milk thistle!

Oblivion's opening did a good job of instilling a sense of urgency, but it completely and utterly failed to follow through on its threat/promise of DOOOOOM. Like all Elder Scrolls games, you as the player are given a tremendous amount of agency, the ability to go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything whenever you damn well please — which is awesome. But what happens when you pair that with a narrative that instills a tremendous sense of urgency?

Narrative whiplash so bad that your great-grandchildren will be born with bruised necks.

Oblivion's agency/urgency conundrum is a clear case of the narrative not lining up with the gameplay, a problem termed ludonarrative dissonance by Clint Hocking several years back. Ludonarrative dissonance can manifest itself in several ways, but the agency/urgency divide is the one that is perhaps the most classic example of the concept. Agency and urgency are perfect exemplars of the tension between a gamer's preferred mechanics and preferred story.

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