Tamriel is a place, not merely a level in a game.
At least, the creators of The Elder Scrolls series, whose entries constitute the invented world of "Tamriel", have spent their careers trying to enforce the idea. Certainly, if you examine how people play the game, the TES team seems to have done their job well. People continue to "play" TES games, to do what there is to be done, because it's there to do. Players do this even though total completion probably isn't going to happen in any of the games. Even if total completion were possible, there's not a secret ending or anything like that. The game doesn't tell you if you've done everything there is to be done. The side stories, while often very good, are rarely ever climactic in a cumulative sense. The gameplay-modifying rewards from the sidequests are usually good but not earth shattering. The game goes on largely as it did before; nothing too significantly different "emerges". The game continues to please and to surprise in much the same way at hour fifty that it did at hour five.
To address those sidequests as a means to examining the world, I find that in Elder Scrolls games they often share narrative pacing with TV police procedurals; the action leading up to the final confrontation is frequently the most engrossing part of the story. The villain or source of conflict is usually limited by the dramatic conventions of its medium and genre, and generally not as interesting as the preceding mystery. TES games have to obey similar conventions: if every crisis were of global scale, the main quest would seem smaller and the game as a whole would become grand melodrama. Moreover, not every quest can be bigger than the last one from a gameplay perspective; there needs to be a "breather" quest or two to give the game more organic pacing.
Instead each quest serves to reveal a world that the player has been seeing but not noticing. Perhaps the height of Bethesda's artistry is that they can take any one of the thousands of hitherto seemingly "filler" NPCs or locations and suddenly reveal that this person or place—it too has a story. This is doubly artful. First, it means that there is a certain amount of verisimilitude even in a fantasy: everyone and every place in our world has some kind of story, and most of the time we never get to see into that story, even though we pass by it all the time. After enough time, the sensation of knowing that everything in a TES game has a story gives the player an uncanny sense of just how big the world is. This leads into the second artistic aspect of the world of Tamriel: almost nothing is wasted. Virtually every person place or thing is more than just an "extra" in the background. Even the countless dishes, paintbrushes, chairs, flowers, etc, exist for a reason. They exist for that fleeting (though occasionally recurring) moment where the player is so immersed that they stop seeing Tamriel as a series of levels and obstacles, and instead as a living breathing, totally persuasive world.
(Lest I be taken for giving too much credit, I will re-stress that the moment is fleeting. That's where the bar stands for Skyrim, I suppose.)
The general point that I make about Oblivion and Morrowind is that the former is a better game, but the latter a better experience. But there's more to my claim than mere preference and confusing terminology.
Short of actually causing someone harm, the biggest crime a game can commit is to be boring. The point of a game is fun, or perhaps more accurately in our current lexicon, the point of a game is diversion. (Thank you to Zaal Tonia for helping define this.) "Fun" has come to mean something a bit too narrow for the purposes of talking about games, and yet we cannot throw the term away. So we might say of a game that it needs to be engaging, engrossing, fascinating, captivating, and entertaining. Maybe "fun" or "diversion" can be compressions of those terms, at least for the purposes of this argument. In any case, games should be anything except boring.
So when I make my claim, I mean that many other reviewers, when comparing Oblivion and Morrowind, are subject to a trick of memory that skews the process of assessing what each title has to offer. For example, many players reported that they liked all the walking in Morrowind, how it made Vvardenfell feel huge; and Vvardenfell did seem very large indeed. I think, however, that most players didn't like the walking as much as they liked having walked. It's an accomplishment, a badge of honor: "I walked across Vvardenfell." But honestly, does anyone really like an often interminable trek through two-dozen cliff racers, at zero stamina, at the time they're doing it? I found myself using my real-life runner skills of zoning out and thinking about something other than what I was doing. Any time a game causes a bored mind to wander, the game has failed.
The trick of memory I mentioned means that a player's mind omits all those boring moments, because they're not paying attention to them. So when players look back on Morrowind, all they see are the exciting high points, not the sometimes-grueling separations between them. Nobody remembers those fifteen-minute Ashland hikes where you can't even enter a dungeon because you're already at weight capacity. A player might remember, "I did that," but they don't remember the experience; they weren't paying attention. So of course Morrowind seems like a better game when looking at it in the past, because the worst part of the game is not in their memory, by design!
As to the distinction between "game" and "experience," I should make some defense of Oblivion. Very rarely in the course of playing Oblivion did I ever zone out. (The arena announcements are the only occasion that spring to mind.) I cannot say the same is true for everyone, but considering the enormous popularity of Oblivion among people who haven't played another TES game, it seems like Bethesda did something right. Of course I will admit that, for the most part, the heights of engagement in Morrowind are usually higher than most of those in Oblivion, especially the main quest. But at the price of enormous distance, labor, and terribly boring intervening time (and I did use intervention / teleportation / jump often) Morrowind cannot be said to be a better game. Games really shouldn't be disconcertingly boring. As an experience, that is to say as a world and a story and as a thing to think about, Morrowind has more to offer than Oblivion. I'd rather have completed Morrowind, I'd rather think back on it; but I'd rather be playing Oblivion right now.
I think the designers were trying to do this, so that the two games weren't separated only by graphics and story. If the main quest of Oblivion was a bit underwhelming, it was meant to be. Oblivion wants you to stray from the main quest; it almost begs you. Coming out of the sewers, the player has two travel options: travel on foot through a staggering amount of ruins, hamlets, shrines, etc; or fast-travel to Weynon Priory. In the first case, you're going to pass dozens of locations of interest. Their names pop up with soft "alert" sound effects and map icons appear on the very elegant world map. It's hard to resist exploring them. In the case of choosing map travel, is the player really going to go straight for the little, tiny Weynon Priory, or are they going to soar all around the map and visit the various huge cities of Cyrodiil? Either way, it's very likely that the player will stray; it's built into the design.
The player arrives at the same situation again after delivering Martin to Cloud Ruler Temple; the pace slackens. That's close to the point in the game where a first-time player will start to really get comfortable with Oblivion's systems. It's almost as if the designers said, "Okay, go do everything you weren't good enough to do when you first got started. Use your shiny new katana." They even know that most players start with a melee class because it's a 1st-person gladiator-style combat game.
This is not as true forMorrowind, for a variety of reasons. Obviously there's the issue of the main quest being great, but there's also the walking issue. Intervention and mark are great, inventive ideas that are not used as fully as they could be. (Hide-and-seek, racing, and/or courier mechanics in Vvardenfell could be made fun pretty easily against an absolute time scale, already in the game.) Those simple quests, which would be fun, brief, and rewarding, are too tedious to do when they're in the middle of nowhere. Moreover, the gaps that are built in to the main quest of Morrowind are embarrassingly nominal. At one point Caius, your NPC guide, says to you (paraphrased for effect) that "Hey, you're probably the reincarnation of a legendary hero with an incredible destiny and tremendous importance to the world. That said, why don't you go do some odd jobs before starting the next step in your nigh-mythic journey? Your destiny can wait." Does anyone think that's actually going to work the first time through the game? In Oblivion the first time through the game is actually a good cross section of what it has to offer, not just an inevitable chase through the main story. So in that sense Oblivion is more game, sooner.
Don't mistake this for saying that Oblivion is always the superior game, in every way. Dungeons in Morrowind (except for their very generic entrances) are far superior to the later game. The biggest thing, I think, is that Oblivion dungeons (caves in particular) really lack the well-plotted verticality of Morrowind. The randomness of Oblivion dungeons can be annoying too; especially when the dungeons of the former game were fairly elegant and exciting. Those epic, overmatched battles with heavily armed NPCs are gone, although I understand that in the age where every secret in a game is common knowledge on the internet, game-breakers have to be eschewed since the surprise of their discovery is no longer possible. Maybe Morrowind was the last stand of a good game that had those kinds of fight/reward encounters. Sad, perhaps, but hopefully whatever replaces it in Skyrim will be different than what replaced it in Oblivion.
Roger Travis of Living Epic said something about the conversations in Dragon Age as compared with conversations in Oblivion (or Morrowind for that matter) that has had me thinking for months now. He said that conversations in Dragon Age are webs that can be explored in many different directions. That's definitely true; the conversation options in Dragon Age are extensive, well written, and each conversation option intersects with many others. Moreover each conversation can open the door to many future conversation options. Roger was not the only player to report that the camp screen was the best location in the whole game. Bioware is, indeed, well known for the amount of energy they put into their writing, and how they really emphasize non-linear storytelling through dynamic conversations.
Conversations in the Elder Scrolls games are more like digs than webs. There's a goal, a golden nugget of information, you just have to figure out how to get down to it, using various means of persuasion and coercion. I am probably in the minority when I say that I actually prefer The Elder Scrolls conversation system. Maybe it's because I go to single player games when I want to avoid socialization that I really don't like the conversation system in Dragon Age. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a talker (read: "he never shuts up.") But when I come to a game, most of the time, I want a mechanical system that doesn't tax my social skills, because I've had enough of that, or I'd be in the real world talking to real people. Or I'd be playing an adventure game where talking to people is all you do, because at least then the transition between talking and everything else wouldn't be so jarring. I don't want to keep coming back to the camp screen after every event going worrying, "Did I get everything out of the characters that I could this moment, before the opportunity to collect +1 favorability?" I want to get on a roll with the combat and/or exploration, and ride that for a while without worrying if I'm missing three lines of crucial dialogue.
To be certain, I can see the appeal of the Dragon Age talking mechanics: they allow you to "play" at conversation. You can save, load, and try different options. I have enjoyed a few adventure games (does anyone remember Elroy Goes Bugzerk?) because of this. If this gameplay mechanic is delighting everyone but me, then shame on me and my biases. My limited prediction horizon, however, gets too taxed with wondering constantly if I'm pleasing all my party members. Who knows when their numerical love will convey some benefit?
To be fair to BioWare, I thought that Mass Effect was much better in this regard. You really don't have to mine your crew for reputation at unintuitive moments quite as often. Much of that, I think, owes to the definite "mission" structure in the game. I don't have to spam the camp screen after every two-minute ambush; I just check with relevant people between missions. (Also, there's a secretary, yeoman Chambers, who coordinates everything. If I were a high-powered world/universe- saving hero, why wouldn't I have a secretary? Why doesn't that happen more often?) The "between missions" structure is great because I don't always want to do back-to-back dungeons either. Talking can be a cool-down period, but not if I'm anxiously coming back to the talking screen all the time, throttled by my fear of missing opportunities. Then it's like coming home from a hellish job to a dysfunctional household.
I also don't always want to make myself care about the characters in my party. When conversation is the primary way to discover things about a character, I really have to work for it. I understand that this maintains player agency while still delivering a story. I understand as a game critic that player-controlled story and character development is one of the theoretical "highest goods" in game design and story dissemination. There are, in some cases however, more judicious ways to do it. I hope that I am not the only one willing to sacrifice a bit of agency to have the designers/writers to save my energy, on occasion.
Oblivion is often accused of being a populist cop-out because it is set in a generic medieval European fantasy setting. I can point to two objections. The first is that it isn't just any medieval European fantasy setting; it is the European fantasy setting. Especially at the time of release, there was not a better, more robust example of that admittedly well-worn world type. As far as games go, however, there needs to be no further justification for the best version of something, other than "It's the best one." Bethesda made the most refined and vibrant medieval fantasy ever at the time; kudos to them.
Secondly, it strikes me that in order to say with authority that Oblivion trades the exotic for the common; one would need to have played the other Elder Scrolls games. Players of Morrowind, Daggerfall and Arena should indeed notice something tame about the province of Cyrodiil. The cities are peaceful, orderly, beautiful, and quite large. Indeed, each city is a city, not merely a walled village (although there are plenty of those dotting the landscape too). Prior to the opening of the oblivion gates (and after their closure) life carries on in a fairly peaceful and orderly way. Civil unrest is not a problem; warring factions (excluding the antagonist force) are certainly very limited compared to other games in the series. The populace at large also doesn't hate you for being an outlander, a rival, or a threat.
Life in Cyrodiil is kind of ordinary most of the time, by RPG/adventure fantasy standards. But then again if Bethesda made every single game about a dangerous and exotic frontier of the empire, it wouldn't be credible as a governing force, would it? The fall of the empire depicted in the upcoming Skyrim wouldn't really be meaningful if we never saw the peace and order that the empire once maintained. The civility of Cyrodiil makes Tamriel a much more persuasive world; and if nothing else we know that Bethesda prides themselves on making their worlds as persuasive as possible. Not that it always works.
I think that Oblivion's relatively stable Cyrodiil is going to make a great background for Skyrim's story. The crumbling empire is a much more usable trope when the player was off trying to save that empire 5 years earlier. It's nice to know that TES games aren't merely a series of mythic safaris across totally alien landscapes. Things exist, even though the player might not see them. When the player does look, however, the illusion is not shattered. The world has a story, it has a past; presumably (and with good sales figures) it has a future.
After all, Tamriel is a place, not merely a level in a game.