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Are We There Yet? New Game, New Promises
As a game-series with a large fan-base and one of the most awaited releases of the year – the date being in eerie yet meaningless 11/11/11 – “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" is bound to stir-up emotions, cause discontent towards developer-choices, or outright blind-anticipation as news is released.
With a new game ineluctably come new promises; in most genres players would settle on better-graphics employing new technology, more content and improved AI – the latter almost always a broken promise (cue the “Black-Ops AI sucks" raging argument). However, the CRPG crowd (Computer Role-playing game) can be, and generally is, more demanding not only in terms of how the game should look but in almost every detail of its playing aspects.
Bethesda’s design team, including game-director Todd Howard, do read and, at times, actively participate in forum discussions. Mr Howard even keeps a fan-made prop of a “Fallout 3" laser-rifle displayed in the main halls of Bethesda HQ, as a tribute to devotees. All this essentially means the “Elder Scrolls" improve not solely based on design-decisions but with regards to what players want: making them happy is another matter.
This article focuses on two new aspects of the Elder Scrolls V, both as dissected by nerds and lore-geeks as other additions: the improved Radiant AI and the Radiant Story system.
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Radiant AI in Oblivion
The Radiant AI concept was introduced in Oblivion and it mainly refers to how NPC’s act in, and react to, the world. Actors are now somewhat closer to living beings and follow simple schedules, such as “work-eat-sleep," or react to the environment in a way that was never possible to implement in Morrowind.
Upon playing the game the player will notice that an archer isn’t just another “cardboard cutout" but actively prowls the forest to hunt a deer; similarly, a citizen stops after work-hours and retires to a favourite inn. In principle this should go some way towards the creation of a more immersive and more believable environment; however, in practice its execution really seems nothing more than regurgitated heuristic-algorithms with a polished marketing name.
The Radiant AI system was rarely commended mostly due to the fact that actors behaved the exact opposite way intended. Rather than give each NPC a distinct personality, the new AI system effectively created a world of clones following the same schedules and actions. It should also be mentioned that, initially, Radiant AI was designed as much more complex but only a leaner, simpler version made it into the final game.
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Radiant AI Linked to Radiant Story
The new Radiant AI system in the Elder Scrolls V promises as much as it did back in the day. Bethesda vouch for more dynamicity and interaction, directly linked to the Radiant Story system; a single design-concept with larger scope than the previous title. Then, the AI system should expand upon previously undertaken work, by greater actor-awareness, sketchy outlines of a personality and behaviour inherent to character-traits instead of script-forced tedium. This more robust AI system, if "robust" is an adequate adjective for game-AI, should provide the ability for more interaction between each NPC and the player: the player's wrong-doings may not go unnoticed and result in grudges and long-term consequences.
Radiant Story is designed to keep track of the player, whether the way of playing is that of a relentless villain or morally-flawless hero. According to official press-releases, this system allows for the generation of conditional quests based on the player’s experience and actions during the game. The designers have specified that important quests are still born out of craft; Radiant Story may just provide that interesting narrative-branching which would subsequently add further re-playability. As Todd Howard puts it:
‘The other thing it does is give the game a more organic feel than scripting could. NPC’s won’t always be standing there doing the exact same thing at the same time. The fact that your experience and what’s going on in the world around you in your game is a bit different than other people is pretty cool. The conversations you’ll overhear and subsequent quests you’ll be able to get as a result will vary. It makes the world feel much more realistic and alive.’
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Ultimately, will Bethesda deliver? Game-design has certainly advanced at an incredible pace since “SpaceWar!" but AI and narrative still remain touchy subjects. With other design aspects in mind, it is really no wonder that more complex AI isn’t implemented in games, like a creature or actor capable of real learning and real decision-making as a result.
The more sceptical, or outright cynical, may see a pattern somewhere among all the hype: flashes of Peter Molyneux’s grand-promises, shades of “Left for Dead’s" dynamic-AI system, something akin to the prior release of Oblivion. But, in fairness, Todd knows more than we do and Skyrim may just deliver what everyone expect.
We’ll have to play mum on this one, for the time being.