The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s AI is a Beautiful Thing

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
No arrows in the knee, this time.

Okay, we’re way behind the rest of the gaming world on this. But after our Skyrim bugs special recently, Oblivion’s warped world of spectacularly weird artificial intelligence also deserves credit.

Oblivion and AI

A landmark title from Bethesda in 2006, its launch was across the PC, PlayStation 3, and the Xbox 360.

We’ve not played this one, but by all accounts it was a great title—many gamers still have a lot of positive things to say about Oblivion.

It was a big achievement for its day, although it’s showing its age now. Particularly with the Radiant AI system.

Developed by Bethesda, the point was to allow NPCs (that’s non-player characters) proper decision making choices. As if they’re very much alive!

So as with Skyrim, NPCs can go about daily duties in a more complex and lifelike manner than in other titles of the day.

In many titles, AI is down to conditional programming (AI planning—or “machine intelligence”). That realises strategies and action sequences for the likes of NPCs, vehicles, baddies etc.

If you’ve ever looked at a game and wondered how non-gaming characters function, a lot of it is down to AI.

The problem for Bethesda is the radical Radiant AI concept didn’t go perfectly. A mighty innovative effort all the same, but the results remain weird. And amusing.

Along with some bugs, you get some very odd behaviour from NPCs.

Many of them are primed by the AI to arrest you if as, the gamer, you misbehave in some way. Such as attacking a guard or stealing some food.

YouTuber Bacon is still documenting the most amusing developments from Skyrim and Oblivion, but it’s the fantastically crazy AI that makes the latter different from its successor.

The NPC’s reactions to theft, for example, is astonishing. You can acidentally nab an apple and it can end in a mass brawl.

NPCs become stuck behind objects in rooms, accidentally hit someone else, and before you know it everyone is in a fight to the death over some fruit you inadvertently stole.

One of Bethesda’s errors with Radiant AI was this unscripted form of machine intelligence led to many non-player characters just stealing and killing things.

From the many clips we’ve watched of Oblivion, it’s common to see NPCs crouching down in “theft mode”.

They’ll then steal something, but other AI prompts will create utterly surreal exchanges between one NPC and the other.

Anyway, the results faced a lot of mockery back in 2006. Along with everyone enjoying the game a great deal.

Skyrim did advance the AI rather well five years later, but still had new issues to face as a result. It’s a bloody tough thing to get right—even now, the technology just isn’t advanced enough for anything really lifelike. A lot of it is just masquerading.

But such is the adoration for this excellent series, the glaring oddness is celebrated for what it is. With gamechanging titles, you’ll have a bit of teething problems along the way.

For us, it also means an enormous amount of amusement as we watch these bizarre incidents play out.

For the next Elder Scrolls title, the sixth in the series, we’re sure it’ll be thoroughly polished and likely as free of issues as possible.

That’s on the way in the early 2020s. But in many respects, it’ll be a sad day when there’s no more arrows in the knee, weirdo AI theft exchanges, and reality-defying glitches.


  1. This AI thing is definitely tricky to get right, even down to path-finding in some of the RTS’s. I haven’t played any of the Elder Scrolls franchise – am still working my way through Borderlands, in which the AI appears to work fairly well. Also tackled Doom (2016), though I am less impressed with that – glorious graphics, but the game play seems to miss a beat and the AI appears to have less intellect than the Bugblatter Beast of Traal. (‘Can I see the player? No. Then the player can’t see me.’)

    Liked by 3 people

      • I’ll be frank, the Skyrim quests are blasé and superficial. Morrowind, probably because of the heavy text emphasis, was incredibly detailed and required considerably more thought.

        A cool facet was how your allegiances impact you. I just did a pro-Imperial build. When you do any Imperial related quest, Imperial sympathisers automatically like you more.

        The game was all very tied together. Not without fault, but much more ambitious creatively.

        Liked by 1 person

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