With Arena in 1994, The Elder Scrolls games radicalized “freeform, nonlinear” gameplay long before Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III popularized the concept in 2001.
Oblivion, the fourth in the series, was released in 2006 and swept sandbox gaming to new heights. Like other fantasy roleplaying games, it spun a high fantasy yarn replete with demonic invaders and dynastic shenanigans.
But unlike its peers, it let you abandon its central quest and explore optional subplots…or just wander off into the forest, where you might encounter totally unrelated subplots, like a village overrun by Lovecraftian forces, or secret vampire cabals. Citizens in the game kept to daily schedules, performed basic jobs, chatted with each other in town plazas and even made their way from city to city on errands.
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