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Analyzing the Elder Scrolls

Education and Psycholinguistics in Oblivion

This critical view of character development in the game Oblivion focuses on both the process by which characters learn new abilities and the use of skill in language. The educational process has three parts relating to transcendence, the cycle of experience, and the transference of attributes. The discussion of language introduces the mini-game of persuasion, features of the speech model and implications of the speech model.

Speaking abstractly, a character is essentially a set of attributes and a set of skills. The attributes represent human potentials such as strength, personality, intelligence and others. They are all low initially, but they develop each time a character transcends a level (i.e., level up). As the goal of the game is to become a champion who saves the world, it is also a journey towards transcendence; people want to become better and better people to an extent approaching omnipotence. The education of a character is a cycle of experience: more experience improves skill, more skill improves level, a higher level improves attributes, and greater attributes improve experience. For instance, if you try to do smart things often, you'll get chances to smarten yourself permanently so that those things come more easily. On the other hand, there can be some degree of transference in the education, but it is discouraged. Generally speaking, studying intellectually doesn't build muscle but it typically makes you smarter. Also, talking to the local merchants doesn't make you a faster runner, but it might improve your personality. Oblivion permits that the merit obtained from one skill may improve an attribute that governs another skill. The transference would be like a man who first studies engineering just to design a better fitness machine, so that he can ultimately train himself as a better athlete.

Speechcraft is the name of the skill that deals with language in the game. Language is the way to gather information from and befriend other characters. Oblivion has a mini-game of conversation that has the goal of improving disposition towards the player character. It is played in rounds, and it gives you the chance to see facial expressions of the interlocutors in order to discern which attitudes they appreciate. It also supposes that you can't in conversation take one attitude with people without quickly following with a different one, and you can't even chose not to do this if you chose to talk. For example, you might start by joking and move into a threat, after which you might resume joking again.

Features of the speech model can be peculiar. The player can't just choose to say whatever he wants to whomever; with every person who will talk to the character, there are only preset choices of things to say. The game disregards a natural degree of xenophobia. People do not pretend to like what they don't like; not to any degree do they do this, not even for the sake of courtesy, and so the game is a little naïve. It's also a naïve in how it seems that everyone else in the game gets to decide how they relate—on whichever terms—except for the player character. I mean that the game is patronizing, and maybe it is supposed to be. The need to become a superhero apparently changes all the rules of interaction. At one point in the game there are even some pirates who are on edge emotionally, and all they will say normally is, “I've got nothing to say to you, fancy-pants.” If you walk too close to their ship then they will try to kill you. Most people in the game, however, won't refuse to talk with you unless they are trying to kill you. Talking to some people won't benefit you at all, but you can still do it, and otherwise, the player can withdraw from a conversation whenever he wants without consequence. Players are lead to believe that their character is just one among many who aren't really expecting them, but rather they are busy with their routines—whether they are selling items in a shop, keeping the watch or whatever it is that they do. The treatment of speechcraft does not explore inventive speech at all.

By implication the speech model of the game seems to presuppose interesting aspects of interpersonal communication. (1) People don't say whatever they want to just anybody even if they could. (2) You can always ask strangers if they have heard any rumors. (3) To know the difference between when people like what you say to them and when they don't is straightforward and intuitive. (4) The mere exchange of information between people doesn't change how they feel about each other, but rather, an attitude or a bribe is necessary to change a disposition. (5) During conversations, a cycle of changes in attitude affects emotional disposition towards the speaker. (6) The world knows how to talk with you no matter who you are.

In conclusion, the intent of the preceding discussion is not to assert that the game of Oblivion proposes a generally enlightening view of pedagogy or rhetoric, but instead it is to observe that parts the game operate on a few simple theories about life which many people should find easy to grasp in spite of any inaccuracy. Couldn't a game like this be improved so to show a more faithful and authentic model of character development and distinction through experience?

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