The Elder Scrolls VI Should Focus on AI Interactivity Over Visuals
Which direction will Bethesda’s beloved franchise turn toward in harnessing the power of next-generation technology?
With more and more rumours, suggestions, and speculations making the rounds related to the upcoming The Elder Scrolls VI, it is a good time to think about what the game will bring for longtime fans and also newcomers to the genre. Will it be more of the same in terms of offering a massive open-world RPG with many things to do within a sandbox game world? Or will the game be a giant step forward and offer an advanced engine as we have never seen before, revolutionizing the genre? Time will tell, but some things are already coming to light.
On Dec. 31, a tweet was sent out by the official Elder Scrolls Twitter account, which is run by Bethesda itself, celebrating the New Year. However, it also left fans a possible suggestion or a hint on the upcoming Elder Scrolls VI. The tweet showed this picture, with a note saying “Transcribe the past and map the future”.
PC Gamer reported that fans have been speculating on the tweet’s meaning and came to the conclusion that the game will take place in Hammerfell, home of the series’ middle-eastern-like race called Redguards.
However, like many other rumours going around, this is still far from confirmed. What is known is that the game has been in development for years now and may take quite a while longer to see the light of day as it is slated to come out after another Bethesda project that is still just in production, called Starfield.
Here is a recent video I found detailing the wait for The Elder Scrolls VI, the rumours and speculation we have had until now as well as official feedback by the man in charge of the series, Todd Howard:
Technology, new and old
It is going on near 10 years since The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released and fans are clearly eager with anticipation. The technological gap should be quite large going from a game released two generations of consoles ago to a game still in the early phases of pre-production (still not confirmed, but it is suggested it went into this phase recently as the video above mentions).
Apparently, only recently had Todd Howard said that the technology for what he and Bethesda had planned for TES VI has finally caught up to the vision. This is said to be the reason the team has been sitting on Elder Scrolls and focusing on other games. It is interesting to speculate just what this vision entailed.
If Howard is not just trying to hype the game up with fancy PR talk, then the jump from Elder Scrolls V to VI could be even bigger than what it was the last time around. Keep in mind that both of the previous games came out during the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 generation of consoles alongside the PC, although an enhanced version with mod support came out on the newer consoles, which are now last gen.
I am currently playing both Oblivion and Skyrim on my Playstation 3 console and to tell the truth, I did not notice much of a jump between the two games in either visuals or artificial intelligence (AI) of NPCs and enemies of the game world. Skyrim has more immersion in terms of movements and how NPCs react to the game world as well as visual effects such as waterfalls and droplets of water or mist coming at you as the player from the environment.
For a game to truly take advantage of the latest features modern PC graphic cards can produce alongside the latest consoles, it should be developed with the hardware in mind. Thus, the enhanced versions of Skyrim on the last-gen of consoles and PCs cannot really measure up to what the upcoming leap Elder Scrolls VI could offer.
In fact, I do see a big difference in both loading times and game hangups on the newer of the two titles. Skyrim does have enhanced visual fidelity such as the way you see your character use an armoury to fix armour and how you as the player can see your character make potions when using an alchemy table in-game. It also seems to offer more options in terms of having NPCs follow you in the game world.
In terms of AI interactivity, however, I have not noticed much of a difference. In both games, unlike the predecessor Morrowind, which I’ve also played on PC, you can run into conversations between the NPCs and ask them questions later. Skyrim does seem to have slightly more interactivity with sometimes NPCs fighting inside a bar or inn or even challenging you as the player to a fistfight.
Making the world feel alive with AI
My idea and suggestion for Bethesda is to focus much more on AI and interactivity within the game world and creatures as well as NPCs within it, rather than graphics or flair. This is a suggestion I think is plausible as waiting so many years just for visuals to improve does not seem to make as much sense to me as waiting for other game world improvements such as AI.
I understand that Todd Howard could have simply meant that the wait for the tech to catch up to his vision was about the advances in graphical technology we have seen recently. The power of next-generation consoles and the ubiquity of raytracing across consoles and PC video cards has certainly been a game-changer, one that will continue to evolve as developers learn to harness that power with new techniques.
I would like to see AI improvements to the point where NPCs react differently based on which other NPCs or players walk by them, or even be in the same area. For instance, in Skyrim I have recently had a situation where an NPC told me to deliver a letter to a woman and warn her of his rival’s intentions toward her and he said it right as this rival of his walked by in the game world.
Wouldn’t it be awesome to see these NPCs react differently or change their tune in such situations? This would offer much greater immersion and take the player out of the fourth wall so to speak where he or she realizes they are playing a game and not interacting with a virtual world existing inside their screens.
I am the type of gamer that would much rather give Bethesda money on day one for such a game, even if it had the same graphics as Oblivion than a game with much-improved graphics, but interactive AI that remained the same as it has been in the last couple of Elder Scrolls titles.
I would also like the NPCs in TES VI to have fights or quarrels that happen live or at random moments, much as you can see with the firefights or skirmishes within the Stalker series of games. This would not include shopkeepers or the main characters needed for the game’s various quests, but an option could have other NPCs step up to fill those roles.
I recently have started watching a playthrough of The Elder Scrolls II Daggerfall with the latest mods, enhancements, and additions to the engine, which has creatures fight one another independently of the player. It seems older games had more immersion in this respect, but there are a scant few NPCs that do fight in the inns and taverns within Skyrim. However, it is nowhere to the same feeling as seeing creatures within dungeons or in the wilderness duke it out or interact more fully with the surroundings.
I would also like to see more variations in schedules of NPCs sleeping in certain times of the night and doing different things in the day. What truly immersed me within Skyrim’s game world would be when I saw a character fighting with another in an inn or another sleeping with next to his wife while during the day they were in separate parts of the city. More variation of scheduling and changes to behavior would be welcomed in my book.
Skyrim’s world is the most lively the series has been so far as you can hire or call NPCs to join you on a journey. Sometimes you will witness them react to their surroundings by saying something like “wow what a sight” to a nice cavern backdrop. You also see them react to one another sometimes. For instance, when you have a bounty on your head or are an unfavored race, you may hear NPCs kick you out of a dwelling and if you have another ally NPCs alongside on your journey, he or she may say “let’s go”, when clicking on their avatar, thus adding an immersive feel to the situation.
However, the world still often feels like it is not alive, instead feeling like it is just filled with props. For instance, south of Solitude, off the docks below the main town, you can see ships in the middle of the river and they never move or reach where they are headed.
Fighting and feuding
One of the high points in Skyrim is the slow-motion kill animations. Sometimes your character will go into slow motion as he kills an enemy and it zooms in to show the weapon penetrate the enemy. It really is a satisfying experience when these slow kills occur and I hope to see them in future entries of the series as well.
Perhaps during battles, we could see enemies not just run away when on low health, but be able to call or yell for backup or change tactics. They could switch between weapons more often, and use hide-and-seek tactics while firing off missile weapons and magical attacks from the shadows. I have also noticed in the older games when one enemy is hit sometimes his allies nearby do not react even if he gives chase. Addressing this would give a real sense that everyone in the game-world is connected.
I would also like to see more inter-guild or inter-house (if we are talking about Morrowind) feuding, with different clan leaders stepping up and more interaction between characters. This would also include guilds having meetings or even battles with one another that you as the player could observe. Again, the Stalker series had things of this nature take place.
If we want to draw a comparison to Morrowind and take all of its strengths into the upcoming game, I would also suggest a return to its magical mechanics. Spells like levitation should make a comeback and allow the player the option to finish quests any way they like or even go further into the game world than their level allows. Sadly, Skyrim seems to have prevented too much exploration through the use of overpowered dragons appearing on certain segments of the map.
Morrowind also allows for many options in terms of spells, like causing enemies blindness or frenzy and even combining various effects. Imagine if the upcoming TES VI had other nearby enemies or characters react differently to a frenzied or blinded ally NPC during a battle or inside a dungeon.
It would simply be awesome if the core of the next game went back to Morrowind’s exploration and open-ended options of discovery rather than focusing on scripted events and the main storyline to complete. Morrowind’s main quest actually felt like another quest of many in the game, rather than the main focus. The game was as much of an exploration and adventure game as it was an RPG in the traditional sense, something I would love to see again in the upcoming title.
The lure of immersion
The last game within the Stalker series, Call of Pripyat, provides players with an excellent sense of immersion. The Elder Scrolls games could implement similar functions in their future outings as well when it comes to dead enemies. Stalker has other NPCs loot a corpse, for instance, after the player takes an enemy out or even as they are right amongst each other in faction wars. I would like TES VI to even take it a step further and instead of dead bodies just being left in the streets after say a dragon raid, to have other NPCs gather around or react more strongly to such situations and even have guards take the dead NPCs away.
As an aside, I have seen a kid in a town grab a dragon bone I threw to the ground in Skyrim and return it to me saying I dropped something, so Bethesda’s classic does have this sort of immersion from time to time.
Immersion and AI can even be expressed in terms of the way domesticated animals and wildlife act in the game world. Skyrim had some dogs, for instance, or domesticated animals in villages running around, but none of the games seemed to have much of a presence of cats or dogs within city walls. This could open the game up to other NPCs reacting to these animals in different ways and having their own schedules and interactivity within the game world.
I also recall some Morrowind mods, including a greater bird variety mod, showing the need for greater diversity in birds or creatures. I would like to see more diverse behavior from birds or critters, different flight patterns, and reactions to enemies or other creatures within the game world, even flying out of the way of a carriage or you as the player. Skyrim’s wildlife ran away somewhat but then would pause and just sit there waiting for the player to approach.
Finally, hit detection as well as a more realistic and balanced damage system should be implemented in the upcoming game. Hit detection seems much improved in Skyrim than what it was in Oblivion and Morrowind, so the arrow is pointing up for that aspect of the game. In Oblivion you can see two characters fighting or sparring with one another, for instance, within the imperial city and they are not even connecting their strikes, although a sound effect suggests a hit took place. I think even Skyrim’s system had issues with this on occasion, and I would like to see it improved in TES VI with a wider variance of strikes.
Although Morrowind is still my favorite in the series I have to acknowledge the jump from Oblivion to Skyrim was not as large as from Morrowind to Oblivion in terms of AI interactivity. In Morrowind, there were text boxes and multiple selections you had to go through to get information out of NPCs. In the latter two games, everything was voiced and you got to pick from an easy-to-follow list of questions to ask NPCs rather than have the same standard options to weed through for all NPCs.
The latter two games were also toned down for console gamers or made more accessible as quest markers appeared and there was a directional arrow to guide the player to current goals. In Morrowind, you had to know where each town was and either remember or constantly check in your journal for information. I remember this being a slight drag when I would take breaks from the game and come back to my save without remembering exactly what I was supposed to do or where to go in the game.
This is obviously a balancing issue where some players prefer accessibility and ease of play over fidelity and not being taken out of the game’s immersion or reminded it is just a game. After all, there are no virtual arrows guiding us to our daily tasks or objectives are there? Maybe someday, augmented reality will render this point moot, but that is another discussion.
There are actually some things about Oblivion I prefer overall, such as how the game zooms in on characters' when you interact with them. This is particularly nice and immersive when you wake an NPC up and they walk around the bed to talk to you, compared with how generic it seems to be in Skyrim. Both games however have characters repeating dialog even when talking to different NPCs, which should be fixed for the next title.
I remember talks about a super-advanced AI engine called Radiant A.I. being developed for Oblivion as it was being hyped before release. Let us hope or just imagine this engine now being a reality, that the technology has caught up with the vision, and hope this is what Howard was alluding to.
One thing that I hope will not be altered too much or revised is the staple music and soothing sound effects the last three games of the series have been known for. I actually hope for a return to the main tune closer to that of Morrowind, the main score of the game that plays at the intro screen. All of the Elder Scrolls games have possessed great music and we can only hope this will remain the case in the upcoming title.
If Radiant A.I was a serious thing that Todd Howard was truly working on alongside his team at Bethesda, I can only hope they will make it a reality with TES VI. I would much rather have an Elder Scrolls game with half as much landmass space and things to do as Skyrim allows for (which is still massive for most games up to this day open world or not) with an amazing AI capable of interaction and reaction to events around the player automatically, than one focused on length or space.
Sometimes in gaming, the best stories are told in small doses or anecdotes, the small stories within games that stick with you as the player for the long term. I just played Skyrim and ran into a funny situation that really put me into the game, away from the proverbial fourth wall.
I was at Dawnstar, a town I fast-traveled to in order to return an amulet to a Khajiit on the outskirts of the town. After I completed the quest and returned the amulet I went to the main part of the town where a dragon had attacked it.
The scene escalated to the outskirts where the Khajiit camp was located, thus bringing my former ally into the battle. After the dragon was slain I saw him running at me and had to kill him in order to save my game progress after the dragon battle.
However, the crazy thing was that he basically treated me like a brother and offered to join me on my quest as a companion, but I already had someone along with me. To see him just attack me like that due to a dragon was a bit offputting but at the same time made sense. He was a thief or criminal after all, and my bringing the dragon to his camp disrespected him and brought attention to his trade.
The game has many nuances and anecdotes like this, which is what makes it so special. Let us hope the next Elder Scrolls takes this to the next level and focuses on these AI interactions and anecdotes over bread-and-butter storyline gameplay.
Make no mistake about it, TES VI will be huge and should offer a wide range of changes including both graphics and interactivity. However, the question remains as to what will be the game’s main focus. Will it be the former or the latter? We still have quite a ways to see.