Paul Martin

Paul Martin is an Associate Professor in Digital Media and Communications at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. He has degrees in Psychology and English Literature, and his PhD was on space and place as means of expression in digital games. His current research areas focus on educational games for language learning.

Contact information:
paul.martin at

The Pastoral and the Sublime in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

by Paul Martin


The landscape in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is treated here as an expressive aspect of the game whose meaning transforms as it is explored. The landscape, which is made up of the human realm of Tamriel and the demonic realm of Oblivion, reflects a Manichean moral framework that is at the game’s heart. The landscape is encountered in the sublime mode, understood here through Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, in that it emphasizes an incomprehensible largeness and expanse. This lends the game’s moral framework an epic grandeur. But as the landscape becomes more familiar to the player it tends to migrate from the sublime to the picturesque mode, a waning that may be read in relation to the game’s resolution of its narrative conflict.

Keywords: Oblivion, pastoral, landscape, sublime, picturesque

The opening sequence for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Game Studios, 2006; hereafter Oblivion) establishes the importance of landscape in Bethesda’s epic role-playing game (RPG). The sequence opens with a shot of the Emperor of Tamriel - Oblivion’s medievalesque setting - in a darkened space, his face lit by flickering candlelight. His voiceover predicts his own death and the opening of a series of flaming gates to the hellish plains of Oblivion. There is a cut to one such gate, which, under a red and stormy sky, opens to reveal a massive machine of war lumbering toward us, flanked by an army of monsters (Figure 1). Tremulous strings, portentous brass and the steady crash of cymbals escalate menacingly, then break and are replaced by a delicate, celestial chorus. We are now flying through a blue sky above a vast landscape. Wisps of clouds part to reveal snow-capped mountains in the distance and pine trees on each bank of a river that flows toward an island city (Figure 2). The shot circles the city, revealing its several districts. As the circling horizon changes from mountain peak to plain, to ocean, the brass and percussion return. The forbidding music of the Oblivion sequence is now replaced by a brighter, heroic tone complete with swelling strings and epic brass. We are descending, fixed on a barred window at the base of a prison complex outside the city. The strings build to a screeching climax and the shot accelerates toward the window. As we enter the dungeon, the screen darkens. 

Figure 1: Oblivion as represented in the game's opening cut-scene.

Figure 2: The garden city, the pastoral countryside and the sublime landscape in the opening sequence to Oblivion.

Like much high fantasy, Oblivion is set in a world, constructed from a highly wrought set of fictional histories, myths and cultures, which acts as the venue for a simple moral tale of good and evil. Beneath these two central categories a host of less abstract images take their place: light and dark, artisanship and technology, the pastoral and the industrial; binaries that are already evident in these cut-scenes. On the one hand we have the darkness that shrouds the emperor, the mechanical siege engine proceeding out the hell-gate and the fire and brimstone of Oblivion. On the other we have the bucolic repose of Tamriel and its central garden city.

The contrast seen in this cut-scene is reminiscent of the pastoral as theorized by Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden ([1964] 2000). Here, Marx defines the pastoral as a “literary design” that depicts an asylum bordered on one side by wilderness and on the other by civilisation. This idyll is necessarily threatened, though the threat may be only fleetingly treated, from one or both sides by these “counterforces” (Marx, 2000, 26). In Virgil’s Eclogues from the 5th century B.C.E. the counterforce emanates from the Roman state on one side and the “bare rock and marshland” on the other. In 17th century European painting it is the image of death in the idyll that serves as the counterforce, warning “Et in Arcadia Ego” - “I too am in Arcadia.” In the 19th century American pastoral of writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne the counterforce most often takes the form of the steam engine. Marx gives the example of a piece of Hawthorne’s writing in which the writer, composing prose in the bucolic setting of Sleepy Hollow, is disturbed by the whistle of a nearby train; the undeniable reminder of civilisation. For Marx, what is important to the pastoral is the presence of this counterforce, rather than the particular form that it takes, which is a function of the historical, cultural and political context. This basic contrast finds a different form in Oblivion due on the one hand to its fantasy genre and on the other to the specific relationship that an open world videogame sets up between the player and the depicted landscape.

The opening scene of Oblivion clearly establishes the 19th century pastoral design as described by Marx. The bucolic, pre-industrial repose of Tamriel is threatened by an industrial Oblivion. What is different here from the pastoral as encountered above is the urgency of this threat. In the Eclogues, the encroachment of civilisation on the one side and wilderness on the other serve to highlight its tranquillity. In the Oblivion version of the pastoral the encroaching forces serve as a call to arms. It is not the idyll that is the focus but rather the threat to it. The abiding energy is not one of repose or admiration but of what is anathema to the pastoral (and fundamental to video games): action. However, it is only through action that the pastoral can be reclaimed. It is as though Hawthorne, disturbed in his Sleepy Hollow reverie, puts aside his notebook to knock the steam engine from its tracks or Virgil’s shepherd abandons his sheep to march on Rome. This mix of the pastoral and action is more reminiscent of Oblivion’s closest literary influence: the fantasy inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The treatment of good and evil is a staple of the modern fantasy genre, a genre that derives much of its stock of themes and imagery from the work of Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1954 to 55) may be primarily figured as an anti-war novel, but war is primarily figured by Tolkien as an industrial intrusion on an idyllic phase. It is the industrial nature of its execution - the mass-production of orcs, the fire and smoke of Mordor - that lends Sauron’s war its nightmarish quality, contrasting, to use William Blake’s words, “Satanic mills” with the “green and pleasant land” of the Shire. Blake’s Jerusalem predated Tolkien’s epic by more than a century, but both are motivated by a rift between an imagined pre- and post-industrial landscape, and both writers make it clear on which side of this rift they stand. Critics have pointed to episodes like the march of the Ents, or the philosophy of the Elves, as well as Tolkien’s own personal crusades and his hatred of the industrial city in which he was born, to argue for what we would now call Tolkien’s green credentials (Dickerson and Evans 2006; Rosebury 2003). This contrast between a pre- and post-industrial world carries over into much of the literature - and games - that Tolkien inspired.

We might expect that these pastoral themes that are signalled in the cut-scenes as a set of striking images to be fleshed out through the characters we encounter in the game. In fact it is not character, which is often under-written, and dialogue, which is often clunky, which most successfully sustain these themes. Rather, it is space and place.

Characters in this kind of RPG are often highly stylised and clichéd. As Henry Jenkins has suggested of “spatial stories” more generally, characters are “stripped down to the bare bones”, taking a back seat to the description or presentation of elaborate worlds (2004, p. 122). In Oblivion it is possible to identify a number of formal reasons for this reduction of character. The hero the player controls is constructed by the player from a broad palette of characteristics, some instrumental to game play, some cosmetic, and many a combination of both. This focuses on the hero as a conglomeration of stats and types rather than the richly complex character that is the stuff of literature. The two possible viewpoints - a trailing camera or a first-person perspective - means we spend little time viewing the face we have so lovingly crafted in the character creation screen. We only really see our hero’s face in the inventory screen. This screen does not demonstrate the hero in action but in a generic pose, a staging that is not conducive to the development of sympathy (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Avatar as object, not character.

This may be a misreading of how character works in the game in that it ignores its status as a fantasy genre game. For fans of this genre each character type, class and skill, resonates in relation to characters developed in other stories and games of the genre. The character is not reducible to its functional characteristics because these characteristics have, especially for fans of the genre, rich histories from which the game character’s personality emerges. The hero in Oblivion is not so much a blank slate as an array of characteristics and histories that can be used in different combinations. Players may draw upon their knowledge of the genre to invent explicit backstories and perhaps publish them online. But the game does not work with the player in the development of character in the way of a game such as Fable (Lionhead Studios, 2004). There is little possibility in the dialogue trees to really inject the hero with a unique personality. While the possibility of the hero becoming a compelling character exists, particularly for the genre fan, the hero can equally stay at the level of a functional object. The avatar's main function is not to develop the character of the hero, but to discover the character of the landscape.

Other characters in the game are more fleshed out than the hero, but rarely to good effect. Next to the hero, the most important character in the main quest is Martin, the heir to the Emperor. He is the reluctant character who struggles with his calling before taking on his responsibilities with great success. The problem here is not only the clichéd nature of his narrative arc but primarily its fitful execution. When we initially meet Martin he is a priest in the town of Kvatch. He refuses to believe that he is in fact the heir to the throne. Yet within a few lines of dialogue he is convinced. Later, he gives a speech to his Imperial guard, the Blades. It is, as he admits, the speech of a timid country priest and not a leader in a time of crisis. Later on, as he leads his men to battle, he gives a stirring “once more unto the breach” address that demonstrates a sudden assurance in his new role. But between these speeches we do not see this development take place and so it is jarring and not at all dramatically convincing. This is not helped by clunky dialogue and a manner of first-person presentation that lacks expressive range. Conversations are conducted with the hero’s interlocutors staring blankly out from the screen, their expressions limited entirely to the eyebrows and mouth, repeating banal chunks of barely disguised exposition and instruction.

It is the landscape, not the characters, that provides the most sustained and striking elaboration of the game’s theme of good versus evil. Space has long been identified as a means of elaborating game themes, whether broadly ludic (Aarseth, 2000) or narrative (Jenkins, 2004). In Oblivion space is effective not only because of the success of its realisation relative to the realisation of the characters but also because of its ubiquity. The landscape, unlike the secondary characters, is always there. Even if the player decides to ignore the main narrative, constant reminders of the threat that Tamriel faces emerge on the landscape in the form of the Oblivion gates, which surface in a semi-random fashion throughout the country. Unlike the hero, whose face we rarely see, the landscape demands our attention throughout the game. We get to know it intimately whether we stick to the quest, pursue the side-quests or wander aimlessly about. The contrast between Tamriel and Oblivion, between good and evil, between the pastoral and that which threatens it is played out with every gate encountered.

Unlike the hero or Martin, the landscape is a compelling, albeit unconventional, character. The hero cannot do anything the player has not already thought of. The hero has nothing to reveal to the player, since all the hero’s attributes and decisions emanate from the player. This is the nature of this kind of videogame. But the player’s relationship with the environment is different. The player discovers the environment’s character over the course of the game. For example, a player can quickly learn that the loot available on the plains of Oblivion is generally superior to what is available in Tamriel. This serves a functional role, certainly; better loot lures the player onto the relatively more challenging plains of Oblivion and rewards the player for attending to the game’s main story. But it also has what might be called a cosmological significance in that it is indicative of the structure of the game’s Manichean world. By giving shape and texture to the contrast between Oblivion and Tamriel - in not only visual and auditory form, as in the opening cut-scene, but also in the more visceral form of risk and reward - the game reiterates its moral theme. Without engaging in direct personification, the separate realms develop characteristics and personalities that are richer than those displayed by the game’s characters.

Landscape in Oblivion is therefore an element of the game that is capable of doing work in relation to the game’s story in the same way that we conventionally think of characters doing work. However, while characters work in the representational mode of stories and messages, landscape works primarily through embodiment and interaction. The landscape is not only something seen and read but also something inhabited and traversed. These two sides of games - what might be loosely termed representation and interaction - have been important in understanding games for both designers and theorists. The game designer Chris Crawford characterised his career, at least in part, as a battle of “graphics versus gameplay” (2003, p. 202), situating himself firmly on the latter side. Within academia, the so-called narratology-ludology debate (summarised in Frasca, 2003) had a similar distinction at its heart. At its most productive, this debate sought to define appropriate approaches to an interactive or ergodic form that draws much influence from narrative forms. The current analysis tries to account for both of these aspects of games. By attending to landscape both as a representation of a place that can be read and as a place that embodies the player it is possible to engage in a close reading of Oblivion that treats the landscape not as a pretty backdrop but as central to the game’s dramatic elaborations. The fantasy theme of a battle in a pastoral paradise motivated into action by the encroachment of an industrial hell is not merely played out on the landscape. It is played out by the landscape. And this happens by imaginatively embodying the player in the landscape; a process that takes place more in the game as played than in the two cut-scenes that bookend the main plot. When an Oblivion gate appears in Tamriel it transforms its immediate vicinity into an extension of Oblivion. The sky casts over, reddening and filling with thunder. Alien herbs like Bloodgrass and Harrada grow in the shadow of the gate and, of course, monsters pour forth from its opening. When the gate is closed by the hero the remnants of the gate remain, a scorched monument to the victory of good over evil, of the pastoral over the industrial. This battle is mirrored in the hero’s quests and exposited through character dialogues and journal entries. But of these ways of relating the game’s theme of good and evil, the imagination leans toward the spatial. The hero is just a mechanism by which the epic spatial battle may be realized. Landscape, in other words, is not a backdrop but the main attraction. The hero is a necessary means of interpreting the landscape, a means of getting us about it. We might think here of the avatar as an instrument, tool or vehicle, a characterisation that has been suggested in relation to game avatars more generally (e.g. Newman, 2002, p.418; Giddings and Kennedy, 2008, p.24). Other characters explain the landscape’s transformations. But neither the hero nor the secondary characters are ever as eloquent, as dramatic, or as moving as the landscape itself. Indeed, the characters frequently come close to undoing, through a ropey script and stilted delivery, the epic image that the landscape works so hard to establish and sustain.

Primarily through its landscape the game, then, sets up a contrast between Oblivion and Tamriel that is central to its pastoral-fantasy theme. How does this play out over the course of the game? When the hero enters the final great gate to confront the arch-villain, Mankar Camoran, we are placed not in the scorched plains we have met before but in a paradisiacal garden. Lush greenery, carefully arranged groves and vistas, and picturesque rockeries are not what we have come to expect from the landscape of Oblivion. But this sudden mimicry by Oblivion of the visual tropes we have come to associate with Tamriel does not signify a reconciliation between the two. Nor is it simply a trick of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. In order to understand how this transformation works we must attend more closely to the nature of Oblivion’s landscape.

What is it about the landscape in Oblivion that makes it such a compelling dramatic force? A common element in most of the game’s reviews was praise of the landscape. Eurogamer confessed a “sense of awe” at what they saw as “without question, the most beautiful game settings achieved to date” (Reed, 2006, p. 1). GameSpy were similarly enthusiastic, suggesting Tamriel “could be the most impressive digital landscape ever created.” (Speer, 2006, p. 1). IGN commented: “The environments look so good, it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to plunge into the unknown” (Onyett, 2006, p. 4). Throughout the reviews, words like “breath-taking”, “beautiful”, “stunning”, “awe”, “amazing,” and “incredible” attach themselves to the landscape. Oblivion was one of the first games released on the Xbox 360, and much of this gushing may be down to hype attached to a next generation console. But there is also something instructive in these reactions, which require us to shift our focus from the pastoral to the sublime. By thinking about the sublime in relation to the landscape in Oblivion a discussion can be framed about the development of the landscape as an aesthetic object over the course of the game. This object exists at the intersection between the form of the landscape and the activities the player is encouraged to engage in. It will be my argument that to the extent that that landscape serves the game’s explorative and completist imperative it fails to sustain the sublime reaction we see in the game reviews quoted above. However, this waning of the sublime may be read in relation to the game’s story, where the debasement of the landscape in the eyes of the player corresponds to the revelation of Tamriel as not an alternative to Oblivion but a part of it.

While the concept of the sublime has a long and complex history, its relevance to Oblivion hinges on three aspects: firstly, the possibility of its arising from both primary and secondary pleasures, as discussed by Joseph Addison; secondly, its specific features, particularly its fragility and its relation to expansiveness and danger, as discussed by Edmund Burke; and thirdly, its effect on the participant, as discussed by Burke and, later, Immanuel Kant.

An early aesthetic theory that touches on the sublime is found in Joseph Addison’s series of articles in 1712 for the Spectator entitled “Essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination.” In this series, Addison treats of pleasures “such as arise from visible Objects, either when we have them actually in our View, or when we call up their Ideas into our Minds by Paintings, Statues, Descriptions, or any the like Occasion” (Addison, 1712; quoted in Hipple, 1957, p. 14). The former are primary pleasures, the latter secondary. This is not, in spite of the examples given here, a distinction between the pleasures associated with nature on the one hand and art on the other. It is possible for secondary pleasures to derive from the mind’s “own Operations” rather than from works of art (Hipple, p.14). More importantly for the application of the concept to videogames, it is possible for primary pleasures to be associated with those art forms whose pleasure is not primarily referential (Hipple, p. 15). Addison gives the examples of architecture. Here, the object does not cause pleasure by calling to mind that of which it is a copy and allowing for comparison. It is the object itself that is pleasurable.

Oblivion's environment is both primary and secondary in Addison’s conception. Whether its pleasures are mainly secondary, in the way it allows the player to compare it to a real countryside, or primary, in the way it functions as a navigable space, is a moot point, but the fact that it keeps these two distinct (for Addison) pleasures in tension with each other is not to be neglected. This tension between the game environment as a representation of somewhere else and as a place in itself is essential in understanding the way game spaces facilitate two different modes of engagement on the part of the player.

Addison contends that these pleasures of the imagination derive from three sources: the great, the uncommon and the beautiful. The great is most associated with a vastness of prospect: “By Greatness, I do not only mean the Bulk of any single Object, but the Largeness of a whole View, considered as one entire Piece” (Hipple, p. 17). The imagination takes pleasure in things that are “too big for its Capacity” (Hipple, p. 17). Also, the mind enjoys the lack of restraint that wide vistas represent: “The Mind of Man naturally hates every thing that looks like a Restraint upon it” (Hipple, p. 17). Addison suggests that this encounter with “Greatness” is at the heart of the sublime. The emphasis on the role of restraint or boundedness is an important point that will be developed throughout the history of the concept, and is essential to our present analysis.

Edmund Burke takes up the concept of the sublime in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) in which he suggests that the sublime is delightful in two ways. Firstly, it presents danger without causing harm. Secondly, and related to this, it leads to, as Addison had already noted, self-aggrandizement:

Now, whatever, either on good or upon bad grounds, tends to raise man in his own opinion, produces a sort of swelling and triumph that is extremely grateful to the human mind; and this swelling is never more perceived, nor operates with more force, than when without danger we are conversant with terrible objects, the mind always claiming to itself some part of the dignity and importance of the things which it contemplates.’ (quoted in Hipple, p. 89)

For Burke, the sublime is always in danger of becoming customary and losing its power. Here, it becomes merely beautiful (Shaw, 2005, p. 60): “Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little” (quoted in Shaw, p. 59). The sublime, then, is precarious, shattered by familiarity.

In The Sublime, Philip Shaw suggests that Burke’s notion of the sublime as ultimately self-aggrandizing is unconvincing “because it is the essence of sublime, surely, to resist mental appropriation” (Shaw, p. 55). For much of the development of the concept over the next two centuries what was at issue was the manner in which the sublime is, or fails to be, appropriated. It is this aspect of the sublime - the reaction of the participant in the sublime as one of self-aggrandizement or of self-negation - that is necessary to the current argument.

Immanuel Kant discusses the sublime in “Analytic of the Sublime” as part of his aesthetic theory in the 1790 Critique of Judgement. For Kant there is a central paradox to the sublime. It is “to be found in a formless object … while yet we add to this unboundedness the thought of its totality” (Kant [1790], 1987, p. 98). This paradox, where the self both encounters and fails to encounter a totality, is resolved by recourse to a distinction between the imagination and reason. In the sublime moment the imagination fails to adequately grasp the object presented. There is no sensible object to which the infinite or the infinitely mighty - that something the sublime evokes - can be compared. But the mind still is capable of conceiving of the infinite and conceiving of the imagination’s failure. Thus reason is elevated at the expense of imagination. The sublime, which dwarfs our imagination, yet is known by our reason. By virtue of the fact that we can in one sense (the rational) grasp what is so beyond us in another sense (the imagination), we are elevated beyond both nature and our sensible experience of it. The might of the sublime object passes from the object to the spectator who is capable of grasping its might by reason.

Kant focuses on the sublime as it manifests in that which is vast beyond sensible comparison, what he calls the “mathematical sublime.” But he also describes the “dynamical sublime.” This is fear in the face of a force of nature “compared to the might of […which] our power to resist becomes a significant trifle” (Kant, p. 120). In his gloss of Kant’s two versions of the sublime Shaw suggests that, while the mathematical sublime reasserts reason’s dominance over both the imagination and nature by conceiving of a totality that horrifies the imagination, so the dynamical sublime elevates the faculty of reason, demonstrating its own power in being able to countenance the power of nature. Thus reason, Kant argues, overpowers, in a certain sense, those “thunderclouds piling up in the sky” at which the imagination quails.

It should be noted that these pre-Romantic theories of the sublime differ from the theory as embraced by nineteenth century poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for whom the melancholy precipitated by the imagination’s failure in the face of the sublime outweighs the triumph of reason as understood by Kant. It is this earlier version of the sublime that is of more relevance to the current argument.

The centrality of action to games means that while the landscape may be initially presented to the player as sublime, especially in the opening cut-scene, the player is also equipped with the means of encountering the landscape in such a way as to make it familiar and banal. One way in which the seemingly infinite expanse of Tamriel is undermined is through the game environment’s borders. The moments when we come up against the limits of the world are jarring, running counter to the prevailing spatial aesthetic of games that strive for the illusion of boundlessness. While many games set up a sense of scale that, for Addison, ought to bring the imagination pleasure, they always contain - in a more or less obvious form - these liminal spaces where the idea of limits and restraint is brought home to the player. In Oblivion this tension between the illusion of boundlessness and the reality of a restraining game space gives rise to a form that works in relation to the game’s story of worlds in conflict.

Oblivion’s opening cut-scene, as described in the opening paragraph of this article, presents the player with an image of the sublime. The swooping view not only takes in Tamriel, but stretches over the mountains and out to the ocean’s horizon. The shot is designed to whet the player’s exploring spirit, but it is also designed to overwhelm the player with the possibilities for exploration that it implies. The rotation of the view is important in this regard. What begins as a conventional city view breaks through the rectangular frame that the screen provides (Figure 2). A similar convention is employed in Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft Montreal, 2007), where a 360 degree view of the landscape is significant of infinite expanse (Figure 4).

Figure 4: A viewpoint from Assassin's creed in which a 360 degree turn represents the game space as potentially infinite.

The fact that the expanse in neither game is infinite does not interfere with these shots if they are taken in isolation. But, as we shall see, the revelation of the Oblivion game environment as finite is fundamental to how the sublime works over the course of the game. Taken as a whole, there is no outside to the shot. The world stretches as far as the eye can see - and further - in all directions. The prospect, in both senses of the word, is exciting but at the same time unnerving. This unnerving feeling is not only based on the shot’s ability to point to an infinite vastness at which our imagination balks. It is also a far more prosaic feeling familiar to gamers: just how much time does this game think I have? This conflicting reaction to Tamriel’s landscape is present in the above quoted IGN review: “it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to plunge into the unknown.” The urge to plunge into the unknown encounters resistance to the extent that the landscape operates in the sublime mode.

Compared with the rolling hills of Tamriel, the plains of Oblivion as represented in the opening shot involves a far more conventional version of the sublime, coming from Dante and Milton by way of Mordor. Most of Burke’s characteristics of the sublime are encountered here. It is dark, sombre, filled with danger - even the plants attack. We are, for the most part, alone apart from the monsters that pursue us. The towers we must climb stretch high into a stormy sky. There are lakes of fire and barren plains (Figure 1).

The opening sequence of Oblivion trades on a textbook presentation of the sublime, both in its presentation of Tamriel and of the plains of Oblivion. But this is revised when we enter the world in the form of the hero; that is when we stop viewing Tamriel as in an animated film, and start interacting with it as a game. As we have seen, an important element of the sublime is the distance between the feeling subject and the terrifying object. If the object is a real threat, the sublime no longer holds sway. In Oblivion we are moved away from the sublime as we are set down in the world and tasked with its exploration. The landscape that was terrifying and distant now becomes a threat. This setting down is not, of course, a complete immersion in the world. The player remains aloof. The game, after all, is not exactly dangerous. But the player is expected to perform in, and not solely contemplate, the vast and treacherous landscapes of Tamriel and Oblivion. It has already been suggested that action is antithetical to the pastoral, but it is also antithetical to the sublime.

The importance of action in structuring the tone and atmosphere of a game has been explored by Tanya Krzywinska (2009) with respect to Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth (Headfirst Productions, 2005), a videogame adaptation of a number of H.P. Lovecraft stories. Krzywinska argues that while the central trait of Lovecraft’s characters is terror-induced paralysis, the “‘act and prevail rhetorics’ of popular participatory entertainment” (Krzywinska, 2009, p. 279) transform these characters as they become game characters. In the process, the particular brand of horror found in Lovecraft’s stories disappears. Just as action shapes character, so it can shape landscape, particularly its ability to present in the sublime mode.

The translation of the player from spectator of the landscape to a limited kind of actor that is, in a limited sense, in the world does not entirely strip the landscape of its potential for the sublime. But it is the first step in a transformation that is effected in the landscape of Tamriel over the course of the game. Before looking at this transformation in detail, let us first examine its result, as depicted in the other cut-scene of the game. This is triggered at the end of the main quest once the hero has delivered Tamriel from the Oblivion threat. This cut-scene constitutes a different tribute to the game’s landscape. This time there are no notes of anxiety in the musical accompaniment as we glide over mountains, hills and lakes of Tamriel. Remnants of the Oblivion gates we have closed over the course of the game survive as testament to the threat faced and overcome (Figure 5). We cut from these shots of a reclaimed country to the map that has been our companion throughout the game. As we slowly zoom into the island city, the map brightens as the sun rises above it (Figure 6).

Figure 5: The reclaimed countryside in the game’s closing cut-scene.

Figure 6: The map as symbol of conquest in the game's closing sequence.

Here, the once sublime landscape is reframed in the picturesque mode. Gone is the turning, accelerating view. Gone is the obscuring mist. Instead, we get slow pans over picturesque scenes. No dramatic changes in music, just the soothing sounds of the choir. Finally, we get an image of the map neatly framing and bounding the landscape, the antithesis of the 360 degree shot of the opening scene.

Between these two shots the landscape of Tamriel has changed for the player from something that is vast and overwhelming to something manageable, comprehensible and perhaps even pedestrian. This transformation is signalled in this final cut-scene not only in the movement from a sublime to picturesque landscape but also in a refiguring of the ruins. Ruins signify throughout the game the world’s forgotten history. They speak of a past golden age and so establish Tamriel as an ancient land that diminishes the player/hero’s role as existing for a mere moment in the world’s long history. The ruins establish a temporal sublime in the same way that the landscape establishes a spatial sublime. But in the final cut-scene the ruins we see do not belong to the pre-existing and half-forgotten lore of Tamriel. They have been created by the actions of the player. Now, at the game’s end, the hero is not dwarfed by Tamriel’s history but is its architect.

This change is signalled in the game’s cut-scenes but it is accomplished in the player’s encounter with Oblivion as a game. We are not content to be merely astonished by videogames, as they do not disguise their status as designed objects. They draw attention to it not out of an artistic or political motivation to reveal the constructed nature of reality but as a necessity of their own nature as games. A videogame prompts us to look further into the limits of its representations rather than sit back and wonder at the seeming infiniteness of its landscape (Friedman, 1999). I know the game wants me to go here, but what if I go there? When I see the ocean in Oblivion I jump in and swim as far as I can to see how the game will stop me. On my map I see I am at the border of Tamriel and a mountain rises up before me. The fact that I cannot scale this mountain is not sublime, it is a more or less cheap way of limiting my progress, and it is easily recognized as such. It does not fill me with wonder at what lies beyond but is the sign of the game’s finitude. I know when I hit an invisible wall that beyond that mountain is - nothing. The world I am in is signalled by these mountains as a thing encompassed and finite. The restraint that this involves is, following Addison, “hateful.”

Espen Aarseth has pointed out the “unworldliness” of World of Warcraft’s Azeroth, suggesting a necessary trade-off in creating a believable world that is also a “functional gamescape” (Aarseth, pp.117 to 118). While Aarseth suggests that World of Warcraft players generally accept this unworldliness, I want to suggest that, in Oblivion at least, there is a trajectory to this acceptance, where the reductions necessary in the creation of Tamriel as a game space are discovered over the course of the game in a way that undermines the sublime mode in which the landscape is initially presented.

Once we have put in enough hours to have reached the game’s final cut-scene we have encountered the invisible walls of the oceans and mountains - Tamriel is bounded and we have seen the boundaries. We have noted the repetitions involved in the design of dungeons. The minor cities have been comprehended as uniform content - guilds, shops, residences, cathedral and castle - with variations in arrangement and architecture. The plains of Oblivion have been understood as a set of half a dozen repeating worlds. In short, the awesome breadth of Tamriel has been transformed over the course of the game to a set of discrete, manageable spaces. Unlike in comparable epic films, in which each landscape shot presents as the sublime, once the player is allowed to walk the fields - and outside the sublimely framed shot - the sense of grandeur can no longer be sustained, or at least it can only be sustained fitfully. The final Oblivion gate, for example, opens at the mountainside city of Bruma, affording a spectacular backdrop to an important battle near the game’s climax. But even this careful staging cannot resurrect the sublime spirit. A vista of whatever breadth cannot perform in this way if the landscape has already been domesticated through exploration and interaction.

The inability of the imagination to comprehend the sublime was, for the German idealists and Romantics who followed Kant, a shadow that eclipsed reason’s victory in the sublime moment (Shaw, 2005). The game’s ability to bring the sublime to heel is perhaps a way of having one’s cake and eating it. We get the delightful horror of the sublime, and our battered imagination gets the compensation of reducing that which caused the sublime to a comprehensible object. Everyone’s a winner. Paul Hamilton summarizes the disappointment of the sublime for the idealists and Romantics, suggesting that, we are no longer at home in the world constituted by our experience when we are enjoying the feeling of being able to think beyond it. This joyful feeling of self-aggrandizement defines itself in relation to the unhappy consciousness of no longer belonging to the phenomenal world (Hamilton, 1983, p. 55; quoted in Shaw, pp. 90 to 91).

Yet in Oblivion we can enjoy self-aggrandizement but yet be assured of our insertion back into the world, not through an elevation of experience to the beyond of thought but through an exposure of the fiction of infinity that the game’s opening shot presents.

We are now in a position to return to Mankar Camoran’s paradisiacal garden. This paradise is not an attempt to seduce us into taking Oblivion for Tamriel; rather it mimics Tamriel to reveal its true nature. Tamriel, as a game environment, is not, as we have come to realize, the terrifyingly vast landscape promised in the game’s opening. It is, like Camoran’s paradise, merely a garden. It does not extend beyond the horizon but is bounded on all sides. It is not as you find it, but carefully arranged and ordered. It is not, like the wilderness, a sublime chaos, but, like the garden, a picturesque design. As we move through the garden we hear the voice of Camoran telling us this, describing Tamriel as “just one more Daedric realm of Oblivion.” (Bethesda Game Studios, 2006). Camoran’s claim is dubious if we consult the game’s lore, but it is never addressed in the game. The possibility that Tamriel does not stand in contrast to Oblivion as good to evil, light to dark, pastoral to industrial, but is in fact simply an extension of it has been explicitly stated. Both the Miltonesque sublime of Oblivion and the pastoral sublime of Tamriel are revealed as mere gardens in Camoran’s paradise.


I would like to thank Tanya Krzywinska and Geoff King for feedback on early drafts and to the game studies reviewers for their helpful comments.


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