Oblivion and Depression: Escapism in Video Games

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Oblivion - But Why Tho

I have struggled with depression for as long as I can remember. It has taken many forms over the years, like not being interested in anything, not being able to get out of bed for days at a time, or whipping back and forth between not having any appetite and eating everything within reach. There have been times of it being worse or better. A week or two of feeling normal followed by months of feeling entirely numb. And some times where I’ve poured countless hours into video game worlds, including The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

One thing that has always helped me through the bad times, however, was escaping to the worlds and stories within video games. And I did it a lot. I saved Albion in Fable 2 at least a dozen times. I maxed out every character slot in Brink. In middle school, I could draw the map of Castle Crashers by memory, and I don’t even want to guess how much time I spent mining in Runescape or navigating diplomacy in Civilization IV.

Recently, I found myself slipping into that same desire for escape, and also found myself returning to one video game that I had used to do so all those years ago. It started when I was discussing The Elder Scrolls VI moving to a new engine with a friend of mine. The conversation turned into us talking about Bethesda’s open-world design, which ultimately inspired me to start something I had planned to do for quite a while. I decided to replay Oblivion and Skyrim since it had been many years since I had touched either one and wasn’t sure how I felt about them, and then play Morrowind for the very first time. 

Now, Oblivion was the first real open-world RPG I ever played. It was the very first game I got on my new Christmas-money Xbox 360. I easily sunk hundreds of hours into it at the time, but until now I’d never gone back. I remembered some elements, like the Fighter’s Guild questline as well as the opening and some random bits of lore or secrets that I just never fully forgot. But most of the game was long forgotten, allowing me to experience what felt like an entirely new playthrough.

Starting Oblivion also coincided with another rough patch in my ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety. Over the past two years, I’ve gotten more serious about trying to improve my mental health. I left a toxic relationship after five years, despite having to live in an apartment with her for a few months afterward, started working out and losing weight, got a therapist, and left behind a series of managerial retail jobs to pursue my dream of being a fulltime writer. Things are going pretty well for me, but there are still plenty of bad days.

At the time that I started Oblivion again, it was a particularly stressful time. I was nervous about starting to go on anxiety medication, felt like my freelance career was stalling, the world seemed to be culturally and politically burning around me, my cousin and best friend was moving out after only living with me for a few months, and I was having a hard time maintaining familial relationships as I felt that I didn’t truly belong anywhere. I began sinking into bad habits. I ignored daily calorie goals, skipped going to the gym, slept past alarms constantly, and hoped any plans I had would get canceled so that I could stay home. I went numb just as I had during plenty of periods throughout my life. All I wanted to do was stay home and play Oblivion

In essence, Oblivion was comforting in how tangible its systems and reward loops were. Leveling up was a clear indicator of progression whereas in real life there was no clear way to build towards the next step in my career or improving my mental health. Completing quests offered manageable challenges that could be overcome with a definite reward awaiting me on the other side. Perhaps most of all, my character had a place in the world. Not only did they help people in meaningful ways, but they found others like themself and communities to join in places like the Mage Guild or the Blades. 

Another thing that was so comforting about stepping into the world of Oblivion, however, was that there were no wrong answers. I had tons of options for how to build my character or approach quests and objectives in the game, but I knew that whatever I chose I could make work. There was no possibility of failing, of going broke and having to move out of my new apartment. Instead of being paralyzed by the thought of making the wrong choice, I could make choices knowing it would work out.

There was no possibility of doing something wrong and being ridiculed or judged by others for it. I didn’t have to worry about not killing demons well enough as I worry about my reviews not coming off well or making me look like I don’t know what I’m talking about. I was the hero of Kvatch. I could do anything I wanted and it was the right thing to do and people would thank me for it.

There was also solace in the moral binaries of Oblivion’s world. The Oblivion Gates were a clear enemy and threat to all of Cyrodiil and greater Thedas beyond that. Every character in the game knows this. There are no NPCs complaining about closing a gate being an infringement on the citizens of Anvil’s personal freedom to look at an Oblivion Gate while they eat their sweet rolls. There was no corruption on an unprecedented scale in the throne room of the Emperor or a myriad of looming issues that seem invisible to the only people with any power to actually do something about them.

The problems of Oblivion are clear: Daedra are bad and angry and living in weird towers with the word Lust popping up way too much in their names. The people of Cyrodiil are a mix of good and bad, but they definitely don’t deserve to have their dimension overrun by bloodthirsty demons that will butcher them all like livestock. There is a clear bad side to conflicts, clear solutions to them, and, perhaps most importantly, I had the power to fix them.

Oblivion - But Why Tho (1)

On a more personal note, my goals in Oblivion also seemed achievable with clear paths to get there. I’m still trying to figure out how to successfully work as a freelancer as well as what creative projects to pursue and how to make them successful. I won’t lie, it is terrifying a lot of the time and often feels overwhelming. What I do know, however, is how to get 10,000 gold to buy an enchanted claymore from Slash ‘N Smash in the market district of the Imperial City. 

I know how to buy that weapon, equip it, and use it to kill enemies more effectively. I know that the investment in the weapon will reward me with more damage, and I know that if I buy it the enemies I face won’t be able to deny me that extra damage. Using that sword would always be better than using the sword I had before. What I don’t know is whether to invest time in trying to write another book without knowing whether a literary agent will be interested in it, or whether to finally try making a podcast I’ve been thinking about for months, or developing an indie game. I don’t know if investing in those pursuits would be worthwhile the way Oblivion’s rewards are always clear, or if they would just end up being time sinks that lead me back to being a manager at a movie theater.

But now I’m almost done with Oblivion. I’ve finished just about all of the guild quest lines and just have one or two main quests left, and then I’ll be ready to put it down and move on to Skyrim. And escaping into Oblivion gave me a chance to escape from the weight of my depression and anxiety for a while. While I know that it definitely will not be my last battle with depression, playing through Oblivion definitely helped me get through it. But I also think that I took it a bit too far. I wanted to let the game replace my life again, which is a much more costly action when I’m 25 and have bills to pay than it was when I was a middle schooler living in a bad household.

Regardless, I’m thankful for what Oblivion and other games allow me and many other players to do. Escaping to a different world is just what people need sometimes, even if it is just for a short respite or break from the real world. However, we all just have to make sure that we focus on finding ways to get similar feelings in the real world as well. Whether it be leveling up to a new weight for your bench press or questing to join an online Dungeons & Dragons game to meet some new people. There are things out there that we can do with concrete rewards like in Oblivion. I won’t lie, it’s scary. But I’m the Hero of Kvatch, and I can do whatever I want.