Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Hero No One Recognizes

There's a design question that's been nagging at me for a few years now that I recalled today. Maybe this is a good time to drag it out into the light for a good review.

Although generally an enjoyable game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion had a few quirks. (Not unexpectedly for such a large gameworld with so many non-player characters and quests for the player to follow.) One of these quirks had to do with the various factions that your character could join.

In Oblivion as it originally shipped, there were two public factions -- the Fighters Guild (physical combat) and the Mages Guild (magical combat), two secret factions -- the Thieves Guild (stealing stuff) and the Dark Brotherhood (assassination), and the Imperial Arena (gladiatorial-style combat). Your character was able to join each of these organizations and, by successfully completing various quests for the members and leader of each organization, rise in rank within each organization.

What I found exceedingly peculiar when I stopped to think about it was that the separate plotlines for rising in rank in these organizations allowed your character to take over as leader or undisputed champion in each one.

In other words, your one character could, by completing every factional plotline, be simultaneously the Archmage of the Mages Guild, the Master of the Fighters Guild, the Gray Fox of the Thieves Guild, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood of assassins, and the Grand Champion of the Imperial Arena.

I didn't play Morrowind, the predecessor game to Oblivion, but I understand that there were some restrictions in the prior game on what you could do in one faction based on your relationship with some other faction. I assume those restrictions were excluded in Oblivion simply to allow the player to experience all the factional content, and I understand that from a business perspective... but it just doesn't make any sense from a world-y perspective that a single person (your character or anyone else) would be permitted to control all the resources and personnel of these incredibly powerful organizations.

And this becomes even more problematic if you completed the main questline in the Shivering Isles expansion. Not only do you retain all your factional leadership roles, you become the incarnation of the Daedric god Sheogorath!

This is just too much to swallow. I understand it wouldn't have been much fun to make the reward for mastering a faction to become smothered by bureaucracy, constant second-guessing by underlings, and a never-ending stream of tedious management decisions to make. Even so, why didn't anyone even seem to notice my remarkable public accomplishments? It remains terribly strange to me that no NPC of any station ever expressed a single word of concern, wonder, admiration, fear, or anything else while speaking to someone (my character) who controlled so many of the threads of power in the Empire. How could one person be allowed to be head of all those groups, rivaling or even exceeding the Emperor of Cyrodiil in power, without anyone caring or even noticing?

I should add this didn't "ruin" the game for me. It was just a bit of dialogue programming that Bethesda didn't have time to do.

Even so, it did make the otherwise well-defined gameworld of Oblivion feel less like a plausible world.

Addressing this objection takes us into two related subjects: (NPC) knowledge representation and knowledge application. In other words, how can we define what characters in the gameworld know, and how can we enable them to act in plausible ways on that knowledge?

I'll take that up in a future blog post.