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AI thrives in total Oblivion

Quietly and without fanfare players are vanishing from their favorite virtual worlds. Rapture-like, they are abandoning their bodies and ascending to another realm.

Last weekend, perceptibly fewer adventurers wandered the roads of Tyria (Guild Wars), Azeroth (World of Warcraft), and Norrath (Everquest II). In Paragon City (City of Heroes), there were not as many superheroes fighting the tide of villainy. Even the planets of Tatooine, Endor, and Naboo (Star Wars Galaxies) as well as the Minmatar Republic (Eve Online) were affected.

Now, this was not a mass migration in the traditional sense. Players were not defecting from their homelands forever. They were just spending time in an alternate universe that is characterized by different rules.

After all, in gaming — as in the so-called real world — everyone needs a vacation.

In a related development, thousands of players recently descended on the land of Tamriel. One might think that this massive influx of residents could be very confusing for the nation’s residents. Where would they sleep? Would there be enough food? What would happen to the game economy?

Surprisingly, the kingdom’s citizens have barely noticed. Unlike the virtual worlds that characterize multiplayer games, Tamriel is populated by thousands of artificially intelligent, computer-controlled characters and one human player.

Tamriel is the adventuring grounds for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a groundbreaking example of the computer-based role-playing game. An evolution of pen-and-paper systems such as Dungeons and Dragons, computer-based role-playing games have existed since the mid-’70s. Though similar to traditional adventure games, CRPGs tend to place more emphasis on the creation of highly personalized game characters. In contrast to the linear “solve A to get to B to get to C” structure of most adventure games, CRPGs are extremely open-ended.

Oblivion — which was released simultaneously for the Xbox 360 and high-end PCs — perfectly illustrates this “sandbox approach” to game design. While there is technically a “main quest,” it is possible to spend hundreds of hours in the game following other storylines.

These well-conceived quests go far beyond the mind-numbing “bring me the gizzards of 12 frenzied plague turkeys” missions that dominate most MMOs. For example, when a stealthy cat burglar arrived recently in the capital city, the Society of Concerned Merchants recruited me to investigate an unsavory businessman named Thoronir. Staking out the merchant and sneaking into his home, I discovered that he had unknowingly purchased his entire inventory from a grave robber. After fighting a pitched battle in a mausoleum, I collected enough evidence to convict the villains and restore municipal harmony.

Oblivion uses sophisticated artificial-intelligence routines to guide the actions of more than a thousand computer-controlled characters. Each of these non-player characters is motivated by basic objectives (e.g. “Go to work” or “Eat dinner”), but they can select from a range of strategies for achieving those goals. The result is an unpredictable game world that feels completely alive, even though you’re the only human player.

In addition to breathtaking visuals, the game incorporates a highly realistic physics engine and a stirring soundtrack by game composer Jeremy Soule. Voice acting is also strong, with contributions from Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Terence Stamp (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings) and Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman).

Bethesda Software’s freely downloadable Elder Scrolls Construction Set makes it possible for anyone to modify all aspects of game data. Amateur developers can use the kit to design new buildings, dungeons, character models, monsters, and objects. This paves the way for completely new player-created games built on the same underlying framework.

Already, less than three weeks after the game’s release, a vibrant fan community has published more than 100 chunks of free software that modify the game interface and mechanics. One modification (“mod”) transforms all of the game’s horses into unicorns, while another alters the behavior of the built-in camera. One of the most popular add-ons makes it possible for players to create bald characters.

Oblivion lives up to the hype that preceded its release, but there are a few shortcomings. Those who are used to PC gaming may find it difficult to adjust to the new system, since designers optimized the interface for console gamepads.

The hardware requirements are also extremely demanding. When news about Oblivion’s release was posted to the message board of my Everquest II guild, many realized that their computers weren’t able to play the game. “I’ll be using that $40 to buy lottery tickets in the hope that I’ll win enough to buy a new computer,” sniffed one of my guild mates.

Interested readers with older computers can explore the CRPG genre by investigating some of Oblivion’s immediate predecessors. Neverwinter Nights (PC) nurtures a similar modding subculture, and is considered a classic of the genre. Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC/Xbox) continues to delight gamers around the world, and some fans suggest that Gothic II (PC) rivals Oblivion in its depth and complexity. All three titles are available for less than $20 on Amazon, and used editions can be snatched up for significantly less.


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