“The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” and the Notorious Radiant Artificial Intelligence

Thanasis Papadopoulos
3 min readNov 1, 2019


Bethesda’s 2006 video game “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” has been praised by fans and critics because of its fun gameplay, interesting plot, and its detail in character development, among others.

But probably one of the reasons that Oblivion has regained its popularity in recent years, is its chaotic “Radiant” Artificial Intelligence. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an excellent preview:

But why did Bethesda decide to focus on Artificial Intelligence on their NPCs, and why is it called Radiant? According to Bethesda’s developers, they tried to create an environment where NPCs would not just stand and wait for the player to interact with them.

On the contrary, every NPC would have a different personality, but also a daily routine, and goals to fulfill. They could interact with other NPCs and do daily tasks, according to their class (citizens, enemies, guards, merchants, main story characters).

However, that wasn’t exactly the case, because apart from sleeping, eating, and doing their jobs at a specific hour, there was something important that went unnoticed.

Radiant AI allows NPCs to make choices, and this means they can do anything they want. And when you give a non-playable character the chance to do anything he wants, it is quite certain that they will kill anyone they interact with.

NPCs have an internal game attribute called responsibility, which dictates their lawfulness. This means that characters with low responsibility, such as a bandit or a thief, will do random thefts and will attack other characters.

If forest bandits are hungry, they will hunt a wolf, a bear, or even a lion, and you’re going to find them dead.

Characters with high responsibility, such as the guards, will not let crime be unpunished. Guards will start killing people who might attack someone, or even better, steal an apple.

When you do crimes, you will have to pay a bounty, and that’s the same for NPC’s. However, Bethesda has not added an option where they can pay their bounty, therefore if they steal and get noticed by the guards, they’re going to die.

Bethesda developers had to tone down these NPC actions because, during their demo, NPCs caused chaos everywhere.

The most popular example is the Dark Brotherhood skooma mission (the best drug in Cyradil), a quest that you could not complete, simply because skooma addicts would get all the skooma, and when the dealer didn’t have any more to sell they would attack him.

So you would find him dead and the whole mission would be ruined. Moreover, Oblivion game developer, Emil Pagliarulo described the Radiant AI problem with the following statement:

The majestic Shady Sam, at his natural habitat.

In some cases, we the developers have had to consciously tone down the types of behavior they carry out. Again, why? Because sometimes, the AI is so goddamned smart and determined it screws up our quests! Seriously, sometimes it’s gotten so weird it’s like dealing with a holodeck that’s gone sentient.

Imagine playing The Sims, and your Sims have a penchant for murder and theft. So a lot of the time this stuff is funny, and amazing, and emergent, and it’s awesome when it happens. Other times, it’s so unexpected, it breaks stuff. Designers need a certain amount of control over the scenarios they create, and things can go haywire when NPCs have a mind of their own,

The game was downgraded, but it’s still chaotic, in a good way. The dialogues, voice-overs, the sudden zooms while the NPC is talking to you, all make the game way more hilarious than it had any right to be. It’s an unintentional disaster, but it sure is enjoyable.

If you’re honestly curious about how the game would be if Radiant AI was in its full potential, chances are that there will be a mod available for you to download.



Thanasis Papadopoulos

MSc in Cultural Management, Communication, and Media. Real human bean, and a real hero.