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11:14am on Tuesday, 12th February, 2008:

Those Karazhan Moments


I've been playing Oblivion.

I tried playing it two years ago, but stopped almost in tears. It's taken me until now to recover.

Things started better this time. My new monitor doesn't have the same contrast as the old one, and I can see things in the dark better (just as well, given what I'll be telling you about shortly). I downloaded a mod to fix the awful, awful interface, and although there doesn't appear to be anything out there to add a minimap, I can cope. I'm stoic. I also reversed the mouse buttons, so when you click on the left one it now raises your shield (which is on the left), with the right one used for your weapon (which is on the right). The default is for the left button to control the (right) weapon, which is not intuitive. Perhaps this is a design decision intended to encourage people to use two-handed weapons.

The monsters-level-as-you-do thing is still annoyingly frustrated. I find a bunch of goblins, I kill some of them, I go away, I go up levels, I come back and now they're armed with all the latest high-tech gear. I don't want the same experience every single fight, thank you very much. That's tedious, not "in the zone" flow. The flow in Oblivion comes from the quest chains, not from having the same fight with every monster you meet. Well, except those fights where you have "allies", in which the monster runs in among your allies so you end up hitting them instead of the monster. Much more of this, and the F9 ("quick reload") button on my keyboard is going to lose its lettering...

Despite all this, though, some of the quests are interesting, the land is lovingly realised, and it does have that Morrowind feel about it. I much prefer Morrowind itself for the barely-noticeable rubber-banding, which at least had some fictional cover (the monsters got tougher because they were catching this spreading plague, not because you were going up levels, oh no, definitely not that). Indeed, I was getting to the point where I was starting to enjoy the game, rather than the game world.

Then, it had a Karazhan moment.

Ah, Karazhan, that immense block on World of Warcraft: the Burning Crusade progress that broke a million hearts. Oblivion got there first.

Here's what happened. I killed the vampire who was head of the vampire-hunting society (gee, who would have figured?) and apparently got bitten. I was aware that this might have been a possibility, but I must have missed the message that probably appeared discreetly in the top left of the screen while I was chasing the vampire around all over the place to hammer him with my sword. Finding out if you've got vampirism isn't easy, and even when I knew I had it I never did discover which information panel told me I had it. Anyway, I took a cure disease potion, just in case, and carried on.

The potion must not have worked, but I got no indication of that. Anyway, I started off with another quest that took me near a village I'd previously ticked off. I was assaulted on all sides by swarms of "bretheren", whom I managed to lay waste to following an epic series of mouse-button mashing. Then, I went to sleep and had some kind of disturbing dream. I figured this was something to do with the people I'd just killed, as they were carrying stuff like bonemeal that is normally found on skellies and the like. No, though, it was step one on my one-way trip to vampirism.

I took another cure disease potion, but that didn't seem to have any effect either. So, next up was something on the main plot line, where I had to go into a shrine and take down a bunch of spell-casting worshipers of, er, I guess I should have read those books I found a little more closely. This was a series of tough fights, and I had to rest to recover. I had learned from previous encounters that if you go up a level and don't sleep in a bed, you can't increment your stats (fair enough) but the monsters treat you as if you were the higher level when it comes to whether they pack machine guns or not (unfair!) so when I did go up a level I found a bed and used it. Along came another dream.

Well, that quest finished, and I did some more, until finally I found myself waiting outside some guy's house for him not to be there so I could break in and discover he's robbing the graves of the newly-dead in order to sell their clothes. While waiting, I get another ominous vision, but I'm all out of cure disease potions anyway so there's little I can do about it. I wait some more, and pzzzt! I drop dead. I reload, wait again, and pzzzt! The same thing happens. It seems I'm now a vampire, and sunlight damages me.


So I have to travel in the dark. People ask me in voice-over if I feel well, but when I talk to them they say nothing about it in text. I use the long-distance travel mechanism to get back to the main quest line, and kill some spies. I get another vision, but as usual it doesn't really tell me much. I go into the nearby town and then speak to the guy I'm supposed to speak to.

He doesn't answer. Nobody answers. They tell me to go away, that I won't get any blood from them, and a whole bunch of other things. No matter which NPC I try to speak to, it would seem I've reached some level of vampirism that stops them from talking to me. I try the temples, the mages' guild, my old friends the vampire hunters, but absolutely nobody will speak to me. How am I supposed to find out how to get a cure? It's bad enough having to cast heal spells every two seconds when I walk between buildings, but when the people in the buildings won't talk to me it's even worse. NPCs are quest-dispensers: if I can't speak to them, I can't get quests. In particular, I can't get the quest that cures me of vampirism. This is a beast of a block to the game — it pretty well closed it down.

Earlier, when doing a join-the-thieves'-guild quest, I'd had to speak to someone who was asleep. When I clicked on them, I'd been given the option to talk or "feed". Naturally, I'd declined to feed — I'm playing a good character here. However, as there was not a lot else I could do, I found a beggar and fed on them. It was not pleasant. Whatever, it seemed to reduce the appearance of being a vampire such that I could get people to talk to me again. I tried the vampire hunters and the mages' guild and the temples, and finally, in the temples, someone tells me I need to speak to someone at the mages' guild (the very person whom, by coincidence, I had already spoken to but who didn't offer the option of talking about vampirism; he only does it if you get told to visit him by a priest). He sent me to some nobleman, who sent me to a witch.

The witch, Melisande (not to be confused with Melissan out of Throne of Bhaal), lives out in the sticks. She's so far away from anywhere I've been to before that I have a walk of several hours to get to her place — not great when dawn breaks and I start to fry. When I finally arrive, I go in through the door, look around, and she attacks me. Reload. I go through the door, zoom up to her and speak, and then she doesn't attack me. She asks for five "grand soul gems". Previously in the game I have seen two of these: one I found, and one in the possession of the merchant to whom I sold it. I end the conversation, make myself some heal potions to survive outside, and she attacks me. Reload. I end the conversation, go outside and melt. Reload. I end the conversation, go outside, immediately begin potion-making, and manage to create some things that will keep me from melting until I can get to somewhere inside.

The rest of this quest was torture. I spent hours breaking into the display cabinets in mages' guilds, using the one lockpick I had repeatedly and reloading on failure. I counted how often I did it on one particular case: 73 times. 73 times in a row, I pressed space, clicked auto-attempt (gawd knows how you're supposed to control the lockpicks in the mini-game otherwise), clicked the OK on the "you have run out of lockpicks" window, and pressed F9 to reload. I kept having to feed on sleeping people, which was extremely distasteful, but fortunately they didn't seem to get vampirism from it (you get it from being hit by a vampire, not being bitten by one, it seems). Eventually, by combining thievery and a lucky purchase, I got the gems I needed. I was then despatched on a set of do-them-in-any-order quests to get obscure ingredients. One of these was the dust of a "powerful vampire" (huh, not as powerful at the goblins who jumped me near the Oblivion gate I visited to get the bloodgrass from) and another was the blood of whatever they call the lizard people, Argonians or something. I had a quest involving one of these creatures, which I managed to do in the dark, and at the end I attacked her with the dagger I'd been given for the purpose. Again, this wasn't something I wanted to do — my character isn't supposed to be evil. I dare say there's some accommodating Argonian somewhere who will give you blood if you ask, but if so I don't know where they are.

Finally, the witch gave me two potions of cure vampirism: one for me, one for the wife of the nobleman. I took the one for me. The witch attacked. Reload. I went outside and took the one for me. Then I went to the nobleman. The witch was suddenly there too (so ... why send me?). They gave the potion to the nobleman's wife. She died. If there's an explanation as to why she died, I have yet to be told it.

This whole vampire business was one of the worst game-stopping incidents I've ever found. I'd probably put it ahead of Karazhan, in fact; the only game I've found that beats it in terms of monumental obstacles is Seal of Evil, which makes you play through cut scenes. Just look at the spelling and typing errors I made writing it up in QBlogto see how mad it made me.

Why, why did Bethesda do that vampire thing with Oblivion? Why? It's not clear what's going on, it's not clear what to do about it, when you do find out it's very unpleasant, it's extremely tedious to be rid of it, and the plot doesn't end satisfactorily anyway. At one point I was wondering if it was deliberate, maybe to make you prove your loyalty to the game or to make some point about the nature of evil, but on reflection it occured to me that the most likely explanation was that the designer simply thought people would find it fun. Vampires are popular, so why not let people be vampires in the game?

Well yes, except there's a difference between "let" and "make". I found the whole experience an unnecessary and distasteful chore. If anything remotely similar crops up again in the game, that's it for me...

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).