10 years ago, Oblivion was on top of the world. Widely seen as the 2006 Game of the Year, it was the first RPG to really Make It Big on consoles. It was sprawling, epic and atmospheric - Jeremy Soule’s twinkling score still accompanies me for many a writing session. Crucially, its popularity and accessibility changed the popular perception of RPGs, proving they didn’t have to be esoteric number-crunching machines, but blissful, immersive experiences that anyone can enjoy. Of all the Elder Scrolls games, my fondest memories are with Oblivion - watching the sun set over the glimmering sea in sleepy Anvil, slumming it with the skooma-heads in Bravil, that Dark Brotherhood quest, Oblivion gates… okay, not Oblivion gates, but still, we’ve had some eye-wateringly great times together.
But the passage of time has had a strange effect on Oblivion. The game has aged, sure, but not in that graceful way where it takes its proud place in the annals of video-game history and occasionally gets celebrated in reverent retrospectives and hagiographies (see: Morrowind). Instead, it’s grown into a new role - as an infinite pinata for YouTubers, Redditors and meme-makers to beat on. The internet has turned Oblivion into a kind of court jester, guffawing at its half-baked systems and AI as they do their ungainly dance, and dissecting its flaws into thousands of videos. One of the greatest games of its generation has become an idiotic internet sensation, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with The Room or Deadly Premonition.
Every few weeks, when I need an injection of amusement, I watch a video released a couple of months ago by the YouTube channel LaFave Bros, and laugh alongside 3 million others at this in-joke which perfectly captures the absurdity of Oblivion’s dialogue, AI and animations; the jarring zoom into the face, the abrupt comic-book grimace when combat is about to occur, that bobbing upper body and, of course, the nonsense AI decisions and dialogue.
Such Oblivion videos can be found scattered throughout YouTube’s history, with parodies and piss-takes dating all the way to the early days of the video platform (which is just under a year older than Oblivion). The earliest notable one is Poison Apple in Oblivion from 2006, a simple gameplay video highlighting the now-legendary AI behaviour upon eating poisoned apples; they chat away inanely while the poison depletes their health bar to zero, then scream like they’ve been shot and die suddenly, their corpse rumpling down the chair like a deflating sex doll (again, this was brilliantly riffed by LaFave Bros years later). There was also ‘Real Oblivion’ in 2007, a live-action parody mocking the stealth system. In 2010 there was Oblivion Weedcraft, ripping into the bizarre radial dialogue system, and in 2011 Machinima did Oblivion in Real Life. These are, of course, just the more popular examples among thousands of other videos laying bare Oblivion’s brokenness.
Since 2016, we’ve had the wonderful, sporadic work of the LaFave Bros, pulling in millions of hits per poorly-shot 20-second clip (if you two need an agent, call me) as well as an endless tidal wave of ‘Oblivion dialogue in a nutshell’ videos that started in 2014 with this clip featuring the kids’ cartoon, Arthur and continues to this day. The rule for these ‘nutshell’ videos is simple: take any scene from a movie or TV show featuring shitty or stilted dialogue, put Oblivion’s ambient music in the background, and watch the hits roll in. EFL learning videos with uncannily Oblivion-like dubbing are a guaranteed hit for this, and B-movies do nicely.
At this point, you don’t even need to have played Oblivion to be aware of its idiocies.
Its newly-minted reputation as Stupidest Game on Earth is self-perpetuating, and it’s so ubiquitous in the current YouTube zeitgeist that it even popped up on the radar of PewDiePie, who duly cashed in on it with a reaction video (on the evidence of the video, PewDiePie hasn’t played it himself, but him and at least 5 million of his followers are now in on the joke too).
So how has this game, a champion of the last generation, become the YouTube village idiot, recognised for its silliness rather than the qualities that made millions of people pour hundreds of hours into it?
In the trinity of modern Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion is the weird middle child. While the trumpets heralding its theme song felt triumphant upon its release, today they splutter next to the bombast of Skyrim's theme, and the dreamy melancholy of Morrowind's. Its dialogue lacks the sparing elegance of Morrowind's soundbites mixed with written dialogue, or the gruff refinement of Skyrim's more fleshed-out tete-a-tetes. Then there’s the Radiant AI system, vaunted so much in the build-up to release, which facilitates so much of what we see in these videos.
Oblivion was a rudimentary, 3D, fully-voiced systems game at a time when few others dared to be (honourable mention to the Gothic series). Until Oblivion, RPG NPCs either wandered around aimlessly - walk to a point, stand for a moment, then bimble off in another direction - or were rooted in one spot, staring ahead and awaiting interaction from the player (maybe scratching their face or their ass once a minute for a bit of variety). In Oblivion, NPCs actually try to have impromptu conversations with each other, they try to convince us that they’re real people with routines and needs like sleep and food, they try to react rationally to your actions. Oblivion tried to take the leap from video-game world to organic world, yet on almost all counts it failed, and the resulting simulacrum of real-life interactions in this high-fantasy Twilight Zone is hilarious.
It’s no secret that the Radiant AI, which dictates so much of NPC behaviour in Oblivion, was chopped up and pared down from what it was originally meant to be. Radiant AI, as it was presented by Todd Howard at an E3 demo in 2005, was to create a world not unlike Warren Spector’s ‘One City Block’ idea, where NPCs had their own goals and needs that they’d strive to complete, independent of whatever the player was doing. In the aforementioned video, we see surprisingly flowing (ostensibly unscripted) conversations between NPCs, then we witness a woman practicing archery and drinking potions to improve her skill, before blasting her yapping dog with spells because it was pissing her off. During all this, Howard talks about how NPCs procure food by heading out into the world to go hunting, farming or shopping.
During development, the Radiant AI exhibited logical but game-breaking behaviours like skooma addicts killing skooma dealers to get their fix, NPCs buying out all the stock from shops, and crazy domino effects where, for example, guards would hunt for food, other guards would head out to arrest them for skiving off work, then townsfolk would rob all the shops blind while the guards were away.
Of course, what we see in the final game are shadows of this kind of behaviour. Bethesda designer Emil Pagliarulo said at the time that the Radiant AI system needed significant dumbing-down in the buildup to Oblivion’s release because it was “so goddamned smart” that it broke the game, undercutting quests and the playing experience (like going to the shop to find there’s no stock left). We don’t know whether what we got in the final game was a case of someone pulling the Radiant AI ‘smartness’ slider on the screen a little too far to the left, or, more likely, whether Oblivion’s engine framework just didn’t have the capacity to accommodate such a system across the board, but the result was stuff like this...
Several things combine to Oblivion the comical oddity that it is. The infamous potato faces seem to get more bulbous and disfigured with each passing year, as ever-improving graphics give us a better perspective on what a human face in a video-game should actually look like, and the fact that about 10 actors with about 100 lines voice all the NPCs in the game makes it feel like some kind of medieval play troupe where actors keep changing into different costumes when the player’s not looking. The artifice is as palpable as the green screens in the background of a Tommy Wiseau movie.
But the biggest laughs come from an AI system that was meant to do so much more. Whereas the web of emergent possibilities seemed virtually endless with Radiant AI in its purest form, it was cut back, leaving us with scattered Radiant remnants like the apple-poisonings, disjointed conversations, and confused AI that’s not sure whether it’s to be berate a criminal, kill them, or make polite chit-chat with them. Having had its most complex functions cut from Radiant AI, Oblivion is afflicted by a kind of digital dementia, spouting silly scenarios that can only allude to its former greatness, and that now feed an online community relishing a good bit of crappiness.
The lustre of the verdant land of Cyrodiil has long since faded, but the possibilities remain plentiful, the variations of uncanny conversations endless. As video games continue to improve apace on a technical level, leaving behind potato faces and untamed, confused AI systems, it’s unlikely that another game will supplant Oblivion as the King of Fools any time soon.