In discussions held on game design Oblivion has continued to be mentioned long after all of my friends ceased playing it. It maintained an air of such failed potential that it's name almost seemed ironic.
The primary contention in our arguments is that of "open world" vs "plotted storyline" or more precisely "where does the balance lie?" as most agree that elements of each are desirable. Oblivion is held up as an example of an open world taken to extreme, where you can do many things but are driven to do none of them. The player suffers from option paralysis and quits from boredom, all the while in the middle of a feast of things to do.
Recently I finished playing Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age, reigniting the old debate that last flamed high with Fable 2 and Fallout 3 and Bioshock, instead of moving on to something new I thought back to unfinished Oblivion, to the main questline I'd barely touched and the Assassins' Guild questline that I'd been recommended, and I decided to embrace Oblivion once more.
In my original playthrough of Oblivion I remembered two primary things:
1) I had an addiction to alchemy and spent a great deal of time picking flowers.
2) I could never carry enough and was forced to constantly drop things I wanted to keep until that frustration played it's part in killing my enjoyment of the game.
I reasoned that part of the problem with alchemy was simply the huge amount of items you ended up carrying for it and that while I couldn't completely suppress the obsessive compulsive urge to pick up every item I found that I could at least encompass it by focusing my character on Strength based skills and spells such as Feather.
Having unburdened myself of the known problems that I could I went to investigate those problems I knew still remained. The primary complaint amongst my friends was that the main questline was uninteresting and that, overall, the game lacked direction. In this they hold it up as one of the best examples of an open world gone too far, full of unconnected quests and events that are enjoyable on their own but do not convey an extended narrative.
This is not entirely truthful, Oblivion does have extended narratives, many of them, it's ongoing questlines are scattered throughout the world, begun in the Mage and Fighters' guilds found in every city or begun from a random overheard conversation. Some questlines intersect directly and are found because of the quest you are currently on, others intersect subtly due to the locations you visit, once you actually immerse yourself in the world you always have something to do, you always have something drawing you on, but this is the difference, unlike other games you have to immerse yourself, the driving force is your personal curiosity.
So where does Oblivion fall down? What is it's greatest stumbling block? It is solely this, getting you personally invested in the start. The meeting of the emperor in the Prison and your initial escape is a little stereotypical but a fine beginning and mostly a good handling of character creation. After this escape is the first stumbling block, you are meant to go to the Priory to see a monk but you do not have to do this and your journey there on foot provides many diversions that may lead you in other directions. Diversions and options are fine but once you have completed them there is nothing to point you back to the main quest and your interest in it may well have petered out by now,
If you manage to find your way to the Priory and meet the monk you will be pointed towards Kvatch, a city which has been taken over by an ominous Oblivion Gate which leads to a version of hell. You would think that this would be a frightening, stress-filled adventure but instead we are faced with the main questlines second and biggest stumbling block...
The Oblivion Gates are boring. They are large open areas with a few buildings, a few baddies but no direction or focus and no true suspense or fear. They are not Hell, they are dull and repetitive and you lose interest long before you work out how to win your way free. It is this point that I had originally failed on and I believe it to be the biggest likely stumbling block of others too.
This time through I closed the first Oblivion Gate. The plot picked up a bit as I escorted the Heir to a safe location but I never really cared that much about it, I was just glad it was over, that I was past that point. After that I went on with quests I had given myself, to gain entrance to the Arcane University and to finish the Assassins' Guild questline, both of which included wonderful fun quests. I have yet to return to the centre questline that should be demanding my attention.
If you have the foresight to set your own goals and push yourself through the occasional dull area then Oblivion is a wonderful engaging game, but we should not have to do that. We should be grabbed and dragged along.
I do not believe that completely open worlds are the way to go, I believe they are necessary for depth and for the joy of discovery, but I believe there should be a central plot that drags us viciously across the landscape, intersecting all manner of sidequests. I believe we should never have to sit there thinking "Well, what on earth am I meant to do now?".
I am really enjoying Oblivion this time around but I believe it is despite their design, not because of it.