Six Improvements for The Elder Scrolls 6
In the context of Skyrim’s Special Edition being launched recently, I’ve been thinking about my frustrations and experiences with the character AI present in The Elder Scrolls’ series overall, and I’d like to muse a bit about ways the developers could improve the variety and depth of our interactions with non-player characters in these games.
These ideas are not meant to be too idealistic — to the best of my ability, I’m trying to imagine what might be feasible for Bethesda within the broad framework already established by games like Skyrim and Oblivion (though of course, as with all changes, these mean more work). While many people point to Bethesda’s writing or combat as the key flaw in these games, I’d personally be happiest to see more dynamic, self-driven, and reactive AI characters in The Elder Scrolls VI, whenever that comes along.
This is a simple one, at its core. Sometimes, when I’m winning a skirmish against some bandits, one or more of them will kneel down and beg for mercy. I can’t spare their lives, though. If I leave them alone, they just get back up and keep fighting. In TES6, I want the simple ability to grant them mercy — just a “Press E to Spare” would be enough. Send these NPCs running away and despawn them out of sight.
Of course, there’s more Bethesda could do with this system, too. What I’d really love to see would be a pool of spared NPCs that the game can later draw on for the random events Elder Scrolls games already make extensive use of. They wouldn’t even have to be named, just show some awareness of having encountered the player before and referencing what happened.
There’s so much clothing in Skyrim, and so little worth wearing outside the few seconds it takes to take a screenshot. And yet besides its utility as protection, clothing in the real world has incredibly important social utility, signalling all kinds of things to other people. So why not let the Elder Scrolls’ AI reflect that, and take a player’s clothes into account when deciding what to do with them?
For example, if I’m wearing Forsworn clothes, I should be able to approach the Forsworn unharmed and interact with them like other NPCs. Some characters should be able to see through the disguise based on other criteria (an Argonian may not be able to pass as a Forsworn, for instance; or a Forsworn chief might know all their warriors and notice you don’t belong), but the clothes should at least get me the chance to explain myself and not be attacked on sight.
Ditto for professions — merchant clothes could boost my haggling skills, guard or servant clothes should let me explore otherwise off-limits areas, and so on. Ultimately, clothes should all have a faction and a profession tag (like the effect tags on alchemy ingredients in Skyrim) that impact gameplay. Let the AI judge us based on what we’re wearing, and the possibilities for roleplay and gameplay alike will multiply.
Back in the days of Oblivion, there was a lot of talk about Bethesda’s artificial intelligence design, specifically in the form of something called Radiant AI. It was essentially a motivations-based AI for the game’s characters, but was ultimately cut down because of problematic incidents like skooma addicts killing their dealers to get a fix, or otherwise killing their fellows to solve problems.
This is fascinating, and the tragedy here is that the AI only had a very narrow set of available options for dealing with these issues. I’d like to see motivation-based AI for all NPCs, but with more complex interactions allowed than murder. This is a fantasy world where the player is allowed to trade, thieve, persuade, and bribe their way across the land — why not give NPCs the same latitude, and see what happens?
The strength of the Elder Scrolls series has always been in its open-endedness and somewhat whacky freedom, rather than tightly plotted stories, so why not embrace that and let the AI run free? Bethesda’s clearly already done some of the work.
Characters should be at least superficially familiar with their own world and culture. If I’m looking for a specific thing that’s known in local rumors or legends — a place, person, or item — I should be able to ask anybody about it and get a response, even if it’s a canned response identical across multiple characters (with the same three voice actors, even). To me, that would be a far superior option than only being able to ask one or two key quest NPCs anything related to a task I’m trying to accomplish.
Likewise, it would be nice if characters were aware of what was going on in the world beyond their homes. If the player clears out a cave of spiders, maybe the townsfolk would go in and investigate, extracting ores, plants, and loot and boosting the local economy. Any kind of dynamic reaction to what’s happening in the world, beyond changes that occur in relation to specific quests, would be great.
The world in Elder Scrolls games is usually peppered with a variety of points of interest across the world — dungeons, forts, camps, caves — that inevitably end up claimed by hostile forces of various kinds. And even if you do, say, reclaim an iron mine from a group of bandits, a few days later more bandits will have moved back in.
This is fine — it’s just how this world works — but it’s also not very interesting. I think we could have much more interesting experiences if there were an overarching AI that managed trends in which nefarious forces took root in these camps, and triggered events and quests in the world in response.
For example, if the player spends a lot of time chasing off bandits and highwaymen, the AI might decide to preferentially repopulate camps in one part of the map with vampires instead. This would have some cascading effects — reports of vampires preying on sleeping townsfolk in the area, more random vampire encounters at night, maybe an NPC turning into a vampire, and so on. And once the player clears out the cluster of vampire dens that’s sprung up, those cascading effects should resolve, making way for a different trend with a different set of effects (a Forsworn rebellion, a bandit chiefdom, etc). The goal here would be to provide a sense of coherence to the overall state of the world, rather than have all these isolated locations repeatedly being occupied by the same people over and over again.
All NPCs should be able to die one way or another. This is something that Divinity: Original Sin managed to accomplish quite handily, as far as I’m aware, and I do think that TES6 could do the same. This isn’t just so that players can murder their way through the world, but also to account for the unexpected, accidental NPC deaths that occur fairly often in the Elder Scrolls otherwise.
Part of the challenge here would be creating inheritance structures for social and economic functions in the game. If a local noble gets eaten by a dragon, their family members should all be in a position to inherit the title, in some set order — and if they’re all extinguished, random characters could be generated to come fill in the gap, or the estate could go unclaimed and become something the game’s characters comment on. This could also apply to everything from shopkeepers to farmers to captains of the city guard.
Ultimately, what I’d like to see is more interesting ways for players to interact with the characters they meet in these worlds. Other open-world RPGs like The Witcher 3 or Dragon Age Inquisition have cornered the market on well-authored storylines, but I don’t think those have ever been a strength of The Elder Scrolls anyway.
The Elder Scrolls is about a world that doesn’t really care much about you, despite your being the nominal hero. It’s about about leading an angry grizzly bear into an armed bandit camp; about slipping a frenzy poison to a king and watching him attack his court; about being saved from vampires by a grumpy hermit in the woods; about a dragon eating your only lead for solving a murder. I think the best way to focus on the games’ strengths is to add more options and more consequences for dealing with all the weird and dangerous people inhabiting this fantasy world.