Oblivion had come to play a somewhat strange place in history I would go as far as to say that it had bad luck. The fourth part of The Elder Scrolls series was a game that was ahead of its time. But when the time finally gained momentum and caught up with Oblivion, the game was already losing steam. And then it had a crisis, got taken over, and, eventually, left very few notable achievements that would deserve a place in video game history... But let's start at the beginning.
I'll never forget my first encounter with Oblivion. Not with the game itself, mind you, but its announcement in the press. The year was 2004 and the publication was an issue of a video-game related spin-off to a local IT magazine. One short paragraph and a single screenshot, not much bigger than a postage stamp that was enough to make my heart go wild and captivate my imagination on the spot. I admit, the fact that I was just 11 at the time and spent every afternoon after school playing Morrowind may have played a role here.
Cyberpunk-levels of hype
But truth be told, it wasn't just my imagination that was awakened at the time. At the time, Bethesda was considered one of the developers which are would you believe this now? driving the technological progress in the industry and setting new standards in graphics. Oblivion has definitely worked to maintain that reputation. The whole world was drooling over the preview screenshots and stared each subsequent new image to death. Never before have we seen such dense forests and equally sharp textures.
Before people started asking "Will it run Crysis?," the question was: "Will it run Oblivion?. And in most cases, it wouldn't. At least not as it should have, though it usually started off promising. As long as we explored the jail during the prologue, performance remained at a decent level. But then came the ascent to the surface... and the whole world almost ground to a halt. If Oblivion appeared during Steam's time, many players would swear profoundly, realizing at that point that they already had more than two hours clocked in and could no longer request a refund.
Of course, in the end The Elder Scrolls IV didn't look as pretty as in the promo materials. This was a time, however, when people could somehow bear with downgrades without threatening to kill somebody. On the contrary, the more common response was a sigh of relief: "Phew, glad I don't have to modernize my PC after all. Maybe I can somehow get it to run at 20 fps. It'll be fine."
Artificial intelligence too intelligent for gamers?
But is graphics the only thing that Oblivion is worth to be remembered for? Definitely not. The first decade of the 21st century was still the beautiful period of time when more programmers were employed to develop video games than animators, and developers used to compete in delivering technological innovations. In 2004, Half-Life 2 brought the world to its knees with physics simulation. Oblivion wanted to do the same with artificial intelligence.
Our eyes were sparkling when Todd Howard still a respected visionary at the time and not a hero of mocking memes talked about the Radiant AI system. About NPCs leading their own lives full-time, guided by individually defined needs or other motivations, and about quest givers who have to be chased around the woods because they are busy and don't have the time to stand like a peg around the clock, waiting for a willing adventurer.
In the end, Bethesda got scared of the monster it had created, and the final build of Radiant AI also came out a little less impressive than predicted (yet still a breakthrough). The developers did not want players to be deterred by the unpredictability of NPCs. For example, so that they wouldn't come across an impossible quest, because the dealer who possessed key information got shanked in a back alley by local junkies a few days earlier. Sounds reasonable, I'll give them that. But a decade and a half later, as the growing computing power of PC and consoles is being pumped into handling things like ray tracing, while the development of physics and AI has been stuck in place, Bethesda would really do us all a big favor by resuming the development of Radiant AI.