I'm standing dead center of a Greco-Tolkien megalopolis, head tilted up to inspect a statue arching toward a funereal sky. It's raining. Guards are milling about with a few citizens. It feels like the end of a play, the part where everyone slowly jostles out through the lobby like a lava flow, where the susurrus of assessment rises from the crowd like mist.
Put less floridly, I'm at the close of Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, or depending on your vantage, the part where the "beginning" ties off. The game doesn't end when you wind up its "hero's journey." Why should it? You can rattle through all the center-stage sturm und drang in a dozen hours, but only experience a fourth or fifth of the game's entirety. I've been replaying to examine all those cracks and crevices I missed my first time through.
I'm not spoiling anything to say there's a gigantic statue at the end, or that it's not of you. Also: That I'm standing at the hub of Cyrodiil's (the province in which the game takes place) imperial center. Heroic journeys often end where they begin. It's just more riffing on the primordial.
Unfortunately it seems I've had a bit of an accident. Or more accurately, the game has. I was careful this time playing through not to rush things, to make my way through nearly all the guild and secret society quests and downloadable content expansion material. I'd scoured the countryside clearing out lookalike dungeons and dragging my booty back for riches enough to live palatially in every town and city. I'd checked off nearly every remaining quest and was closing in on the elusive "perfect game." But then I killed someone I wasn't supposed to, or supposed to be able to, and--because of a six-hour gap between my two most recent save files--my propensity after seventy-some hours to cinch that perfect game suddenly fizzled.
To be fair, I had a blast my second go at it--three years along and still compelling. That's something. Early going I wasn't so sure. I've played plenty of Fallout 3 (PCW Score: 90%), a game whose existence is contingent on Oblivion's, but which also addressed most of Oblivion's idiosyncrasies. Like: The random creatures that spawn into areas and match your current character level, waving away the illusion of an independent/persistent ecosystem. Or: The madly recycled voice actors and tediously similar dialogue expressions. Or: The clumsy map interface that's like peering at parchment through the visor slit in a helmet. Or: The way the whack-block-whack combat system makes fighting the finale's dazzlingly accoutered malefactors feel roughly analogous, mechanically, to chopping up the game's inaugural nests of rats.
Repetitive spelunking notwithstanding, I was tempted enough by the clever side-stories to keep at it, by the lure to cinch shut every last alien-flame-licked Oblivion gate, by the possibility of finding uncanny narratives sequestered away in backwater haunts I'd simply galloped past the first time. And if I'm being totally honest here, I was probably not a little motivated by that manic compulsion some of us have to finish certain games unconditionally, to tie things off with the same exhaustive checklist-obsessing that's only Not-Entirely-Insane when the purview of airline mechanics or astronauts.
So when I finally snapped the game's spine (and groaned out loud on its behalf) by wrecking a quest path and noting my nearest remedial save was hours in the past, to end further temptation, I pulled out the disc and wiped the game off the hard drive. Saves too. Enough was enough. 99% would simply have to do.
Still. There's something mad about hitting 99% and screeching to a halt. It's like almost acing your SATs, then having the bell ring and truncate the last few questions, or running a marathon only to collapse at exactly the 26-mile mark (385 yards short). Okay, actually it's not like either of those things, but you know what I mean. It sucks. It's a rotten cherry on top of your sundae.
Palliative? Next: An attempted "perfect" run through Fallout 3…
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