Skyrim: Radiant Quest System

I already mentioned that Skyrim is probably the least complex Elder Scrolls game to date. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that it is the least complex Bethesda RPG ever. Usually complex character creation process was replaced with a single choice of your characters race. The ability to tag minor/major skills, use classes, gain additional bonuses due to birth signs and etc is out of the equation. Skyrim is very simple and very small. It has a tiny map, and very short quest lines for all the major factions you can join. I remember that in Morrowind each major group had 4-5 quest givers, all of whom had dozen of tasks for you. Rising through their ranks really felt like work, whereas Skyrim makes you the faction leader after about 5 or 6 missions. The game is positively tiny when compared to other Bethesda sanboxes.

But, Skyrim has one unique feature that is supposed to make up for it’s size. It is a feature it shares with no other Bethesda product: procedurally generated quests. Yes, you heard that right – Skyrim will randomly generate new quests for you, creating virtually endless amount of game play.

We briefly touched upon this subject when we discussed Project Frontier few months ago. Back then I wondered why no one was actually doing this sort of thing for creating random quests. After all, the very concept of procedural content generation is about as old as the history of RPG games on the computer. It dates back to the old-school ASCII games such as Rogue and NetHack which featured randomly generated dungeons and magic items. You thought I will mention Diablo, didn’t you? But no, Diablo and it’s many, many clones basically ripped off the Rogue formula, minus perma-death. But that’s a whole other story. Nowadays procedural terrain generation is back in vogue thanks in part to runaway success of titles such as Minecraft. But, no one has really done much in terms of procedural quest generation.

Procedural content generation is as old as NetHack

Why? One possible reason might be voice acting. Most of modern games are fully voiced, and as such, do not lend themselves well to procedural quest generation. The logistics simply don’t make sense.

And yet, here we are…. Skyrim has what they call a “Radiant Quest System” which works in parallel with regular scripted content. It collects information about your progress, and it adds quests appropriate for your level that concern places you have already visited. Bethesda claims that this system can add a potentially infinite amount of original game that will extend the amount of time people spend with their shortest, smallest and least complicated Elder Scrolls title. But is that true? I decided to find out.

When I first read about this technology I had mixed feelings about it. On one hand I was curious to see it in action. On the other hand, I didn’t really believe it could be any good. It sounded like an admission of guilt rather than a genuine innovation.

“Guys, we know our game is tiny but here is some half-assed, randomly generated filler content. Enjoy!”

Here is how I envisioned it: you walk up to an NPC, and you hear “Hey, could you do me a favor and pick up these things for me?”

At this point a note with a list of ingredients appears in your inventory. You know, stuff like ten rat tails, seven wolf pelts, twelve iron cups, eight Nirnroots, etc… The kind of stuff that falls out of animals or bandits when you hit them upside the head with a mace. So you go on your merry way, and collect every wooden cup, fork and linen cloth in sight to cross it off your list. After you have everything, you go hand it in, and get another list of different ingredients. More or less like a daily quest in World of Warcraft – dull, uninspired and boring.

It turns out I was wrong – at least in part. The Radiant Quest System is not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. In fact, I must say I was rather surprised how well it worked. For one, there are no notes. Nearly all radiant quests (at least those I could identify and radiant) were fully voiced. Furthermore, almost none of these were silly, MMO styled fetch quests.

A good example of how the radiant system works is the Dark Brotherhood end game. Once you finish their quest chain you can still go to their sanctuary and pick up contracts by approaching the Night Mother coffin. They are fully voiced assassination quests that are quite similar to the few of your initial contracts. The only thing that tips you off this is a procedurally generated content is that you are now killing no-name NPC’s. For example, my first quest was to a “nervous patron” in a specific drinking hall and discuss a contract. Upon showing up at the designated location, an NPC labeled “nervous patron” asked me kill a “shield maiden” walking the streets of Markarth. He did not have any other dialog lines, and would not elaborate on the nature of the mission. It was brief, and to the point “go to place X, kill person Y”. I did about a dozen of these just to see if the sound-bytes would start repeating but they did not. It seems that these quests work of a large sound bank of recorded lines and use clever sound editing to make each quest briefing seem unique, which is very nice

Do these quests still fill like a filler content? Yes they do. You can’t beat the manually scripted quests with pre-recorded conversation that tell you more about your goals and targets. This is especially evident when they tack them on as faction end-game play. For example, the Brotherhood quest line culminates in an absolutely epic assassination contract that just can’t be topped – the kind of stuff that makes contract killers retire on the spot. But in Skyrim you are asked to go back to petty murder immediately afterwards and it almost feels like a demotion, and a waste of your skill.

It is really hard to follow this contract.

On the other hand, there was obviously a lot of work done to make the radiant missions blend in with all the other content. You can’t blame Bethesda for not trying. The result is much, much better than the “kill ten rats” stuff I was expecting. So I guess my impression is generally positive, but reserved. I just don’t see myself getting a lot of millage out of radiant quests. They tend to be on the bland side – not nearly as colorful and interesting as the regular assignments. Not to mention that they never, ever end. This means that upon starting a radiant quest you will have a permanent entry in your journal, and a mark on the map that you can hide, but never remove. It is about as bad as that DLC quest guy in your camp in first Dragon Age Orgins. It wrecks havoc with your completionist OCD.

What is your take on the radiant quest system? Which of endless radiant quests have you unlocked so far? Would you have noticed it at all if I didn’t mention it? Let me know in the comments.

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12 Responses to Skyrim: Radiant Quest System

  1. axebeer Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Wow. At times I wondered “I wonder when I’ll run out of scripted quests and start getting those random Radiant Quests…” After reading all this I realize I may have just completed a dozen of them already and never knew it. But what does that mean?

    It reinforces my perception that Skyrim is boring as fuck. They managed to dumb down the scripted quests down to the level of procedurally generated quests, just so that they’d be harder to tell apart. I played Skyrim maybe 5 days, 1-8 hours per day. It lost its flavor fast like a cheap chewing gum. I’m also inclined to think that Beth designed it that way on purpose, to get future DLC sold. I’ve given up. I’m not expecting to see another fulfilling Elder Scrolls game in my lifetime. Not anymore. Skyrim’s beauty was superficial, skin-deep and it was all just… unfun. Quests, writing, combat… it was all like leftovers, or like lukewarm coffee, while I was expecting to get an exquisite meal. Was there ever a hot blonde in your class, but every time she started to talk you could hear the sound of a window shattering in your head?

    The road to hell is paved with high expectations. My expectations, however, arose some years ago. When I saw Morrowind the first time my jaw dropped. It seemed bit bland then but I didn’t mind. All I saw was the potential. I couldn’t wait for 5-10 years. In my mind, in that time, games would become -awesome-, if they’re like this now (2003). Then came Oblivion, or the stale piece of toast, as I like to think it. But I got used to that taste somehow. And Oblivion could be spiced up with mods.

    But now, I was sold Skyrim, the empty house on a small property with no furniture, some of the windows missing, faulty wiring and no heating. The metaphorical house looks great otherwise though, and it’s on a great location. That is, if you like to live in a boring neighborhood. But there’s nothing to do anymore. I’ve done what I could as the tenant. By the time contractor comes back to do the renovations (or the stuff they should’ve done in the first place), and possibly offer to install a new fireplace as compensation, I will have moved out. I, for one, will not buy another house–, err, game, from Bethesda again.

    Anyone wanna buy my copy of Skyrim?
    (just kidding… I’ve sold it already)

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ axebeer:

    I too long for that long lost time when games were long, complex and did not cuddle the player so much. I never really expected Skyrim to live up to Morrowind. All I hoped for was that it would be only slightly worse than Oblivion. I set my expectations low, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

    This dumbing down, and shrinkage is plaguing the entire industry. It’s not just Bethesda – it’s everyone. The only people still interested in making games the way they used to be are indy developers. I wish we could reverse this, but I don’t know if we can.

    In a way we got our own wish. We wanted gaming to become more mainstream. We wanted video games to become more respected, and treated as a medium that can be used not only for entertainment but also for artistic expression. We wanted it to become more like film and television – something that most people get and can relate to rather than a niche hobby for nerds. And it is happening.

    But as gaming is becoming more mainstream, the big selling blockbusters are going to get diluted to cater to the lowest common denominator. Elder Scrolls series is a victim of it’s own success in a way. :(

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  3. Albert W. UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    It was pretty easy to tell the difference between scripted quests and this Radiant Story content, but I never looked to use them as a replacement for the former. But I don’t understand why all the previous commentators and the original poster are so blatantly negative towards Skryim.
    Long? I have put in about [150?] hours among 3 different saves. Try doing a bit more than the two main questlines.
    Boring? Well, unfortunately, I tried Morrowind AFTER first buying Oblivion. I couldn’t believe people would say Morrowind was somehow better than Oblivion. It played the game for about 4 hours, then simply gave it to a cousin of mine for his birthday.

    And don’t even get me started on your “issue” of combat being “lukewarm coffee…”

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Albert W.:

    I too have sunk close to 100 hours into Skyrim so far, and I’m not done with it yet. It is a good game. I would say it is probably the best game I have played this year. I spent more time, and had more fun with it than with Deus Ex or Arkham Asylum for example. I is very entertaining, and I am having a blast.

    Morrowind looks and feels very dated by todays standards. Graphics suck, there is almost no voice acting, the mechanics are a bit clunky until you get used to them.

    But the setting – Vanderfel is a wondrous island full of bizzare creatures and cultures. The Stilt Striders, the Mushroom villages, the huge city built in a shell of an ancient crustacean, the mystery of Dwemer ruins (Skyrim glances over it, Morrowind explains how they perished), the political prison made out of hollowed meteorite hanging over the capitol city… The main story is absolutely amazing.

    It explains how the physical realm is basically a Daedric realm of dead prince Lokharn – how the moons are pieces of his corpse that was torn apart in his struggle. How mortals dug out his heart from the center of the earth and use it to grant themselves divide powers.

    Morrowind has living gods who usurped power they were never meant to have. It has mysterious disease that consumes the island and spreads through nightmarish visions. It has lost tribes clinging to ancient religion being the only source of truth about how the living gods were made.

    Not to mention that it has more factions than Oblivon and Skyrim put together, and each of them has more quests than above mentioned games have in total. Each faction has 5-6 quest givers with few dozen tasks. When you rise to the top, it really feels like you have earned it. The leaders scoff at you first, then appreciate your work, then admire you, and then eventually step down in awe of your accomplishments.

    And you know what’s the best thing? No essential characters and no plot driven doors. Every lock can be picked, and every NPC can be killed. The game does not cuddle you. It lets you do your own thing.

    But yes – by today’s standards it is clunky, dated and lacks polish and flair. Still, I maintain it is one of the finest sandbox RPG’s out there – great writing, unprecedented freedom, awesome setting, etc…

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  5. Eon UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Wow. I’ve been a hardcore ES fan since Morrowind, and I’ve even played a bit of Daggerfall, and frankly I couldn’t disagree with you more. I love Morrowind. I spent at least three hundred hours playing it and quite possibly three times that amount. I love the backstory, the freedom, the… everything, really. In fact, if I had the time, I would make an argument for a heavily modded Morrowind being quite possibly the best of the Elder Scrolls Games.

    Next was Oblivion. They trimmed down the factions to next to nothing, took what could have been an amazing main quest and made it boring as hell, created a fantastically flawed leveling system, and replaced Morrowind’s complex culture with the bland vanilla fantasy of Cyrodiil. But hey, they made the combat significantly better (not great, mind you, but a hell of a lot better than clicking as fast as I can while yawning), came up with some cool ideas for AI, and most importantly, came up with quests that beat anything in Morrowind. Oblivion was lacking in quests, absolutely, but in terms quality, name one quest that even remotely rivals that Dark Brotherhood quest where you’re locked up in a house and have to murder all the guests while pretending to be one. Morrowind was great in many ways, but its quests were largely deliver this item, clear this dungeon, visit these locations. There’s still a fair amount of that in Oblivion, but Bethesda finally started making things interesting on the quest front, and for that I am by no means willing to consider Oblivion a bad game.

    And then we have Skyrim. One thing I hated about Oblivion was the lack of moral ambiguity and depth compared to Morrowind, but right from the freaking tutorial Skyrim delivers both in spades. I genuinely didn’t know who to side with, something that never happened in Morrowind. Besides, between the Soviet-esque Aldmeri Dominion, the fascinating story details found nearly everywhere, and the welcome return of real racial tension, I find myself just basking in the world. One of the best parts of the game for me has just been reading all the new books.

    On the character creation front, my only real criticism is the lack of varied hair styles. The skill system is simply marvelous; no more must I slave away at casting alteration spells on myself over and over again just so I can get a +5 multiplier to willpower. Now I can actually enjoy the game instead of feeling obligated to grind and grind and grind. And hey, if you like that, great, but I care much more about story immersiveness than how much of a spreadsheet my character page is.

    As to being a small world, you’re just… wrong. So amazingly wrong. A lot of Morrowind people besides myself claim this, but that’s mostly because of Morrowind’s painfully slow walking speed. If you add a mod called Nymeria’s Faster Walking or something like that to the game, you’ll realize how small Morrowind is when you can actually move at a reasonable pace, and this mod only increases moving speed by ten percent. Besides, I’ve spent hours traveling on foot. If you want bigger distances than that, I recommend you take up hiking in real life.

    I do admit that I am also disappointed by the shortness of the quest sizes. However, I keep getting so distracted by all of the other wonderful features in the game that I don’t honestly care. Perhaps if I just tried grinding through the College of Winterhold it would be a different story, but I keep getting distracted by other side quests, so by the time I do actually finish a questline (and I am quite pleased to say that I have not–the only reason I know how short the quest lines are is from the table of contents to a FAQ I read some time ago–naturally, however, I did avoid any spoilers beyond the specific question I had), I imagine I’ll still feel accomplished simply by nature of how much time has passed since I started each one. After all, I got it the day it came out and I’ve yet to get beyond the Thalmor embassy part of the main quest. Being distracted is simply wonderful. I heartily recommend you try it.

    To (finally) get on topic, though, I agree with the your general criticism (praise included) of the radiant story system. The entire reason I came here actually was because I just ran into a bug involving it.

    Oh, and two last thoughts. First, the genuinely varied combat styles plus the interactiveness of the environment in any given battle is a wonderful improvement over Morrowind. Second, I do wish they’d stop holding my hand for all the quests. A return to Morrowind’s lack of a arrows and compasses would be a welcome change.

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  6. Confused Redguard. UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I don’t think i could agree with you more, Eon.
    I never had the chance to play Morrowind unfortunately, I found Oblivion in my brothers room at the start of one Summer and practically ignored my friends for a few months. Seeing as i’d only ever play CoD and the odd racing game, this ‘open-world’ stuff was fantastic, like a drug.
    I played Oblvion through (In my own way) as a Redguard, Bosmer, Dunmer, and Breton, always with a set style, yet I somehow never got bored…
    I fully accepted the leveling system was damned stupid, and the main skills completely counter productive (Achieve powerful leveling by choosing the skills you dont want to use as your main ones) and the way i had to Repeatedly cast Minor Respite to level up in Restoration, but it was so godamn fun i didn’t care.
    The dark brotherhood? Absolutely fantastic…
    Mages guild? Riveting.
    Arena? Mindless killing.
    This game, to me, had no challenger.

    Then along came Skyrim, and i was shocked.
    Like he said, I couldn’t make my mind up who to side with (kind alike Bioshock? Save or slaughter the Little sisters???)
    I was ecstatic that the leveling system was fixed, i feel like im getting stronger…
    Until a bloody blood dragon shows up…
    The perk system is brilliant.
    I’m worried that everyone says the quest lines are short, but i cant notice, because everytime i try to do a quest, i start clearing out this cave, this grotto, this whatever.
    Havn’t had that level of fun in just randomely playing since GTA civilian killing sprees.

    To all those worrying about the length of the game?
    Like he said. Get distracted. It works.

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  7. Review UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I have noticed a few radiant quests here and there. Mostly the dark brotherhood as you mentioned above. Personally, I don’t like it and wish they focused on making all the main quests more fulfilling. It really feels like they just quickly threw a bunch of meaningless quests together with no sense of accomplishment when you complete them. Most of the rewards are useless items that you could make yourself if not better. I have completed all the guild quests/main story quests and I’m rather disappointed with them. Personally, I think they could have done a much better job in this area.

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  8. Neonomide FINLAND Google Chrome Windows says:

    I feel like a spoiled brat wondering wft I’m really missing. Actually the feeling is so strong that I had to start to install heavily modded Morrowind (+ buy some paper and a pen) to try to learn more. I guess I’m a bit of a RPG freak but I come from simpler console games to the PC role playing world so that makes things (= Preferences) a bit different.

    Let me elaborate. Like a commenter above, I have played Oblivion a lot, probably too much just loitering outdoors and starting it over just to smell the coffee – never of course finishing it in any meaningful (storyline driven) way and modding the shite out of it. I know it’s superficial, but I did fear Skyrim would really _feel_ smaller, less epic and less athmospheric.

    Boy I was wrong. I’m still totally sold by the overall feel of the game and still feel little sympathy for nitpicking on total size of content. Former games (just as Skyrim) seemed to reward different players by a wide margin but modding culture made the gamers closer to each other, even if the core game would be quite similar. But I believe have learned something from the armies of Morrowind fans: my preferences in TES enjoyment could be more refined and mature. Not just because the perceived awe of the experiences of others, but the refinement level of the genre in total. I hope someone understands my point.

    For me, in Oblivion and definitely Skyrim, _content_ pretty much balances between finding some (just enough) variety, meaning, grinding potential and food for imagination to not let the game feel “finished”. In Oblivion, there was a sense of achievement when a bag of dungeons was cleared. In Skyrim, former dungeons that are marked on the map as *cleared* may have filled again and (for me) make each and every game session a bit more interesting. I don’t care if it’s a bit stupid (like seeing scripted/non-scripted fights take over of not take over in various locations), I simply feel like I’ve seen something surprising and not just ran doing and encountering nothing. I guess I don’t like my game too refined either – as I play Skyrim I at the moment also grind Sega Saturn 1997 dungeon bash Shining The Holy Ark and feel about as content.

    Yes, I did not see any point in some missions in Skyrim, like forging the bills of various merchants and seeing (about) 321 mission darts in game map feels like the game wants me to work my ass of so hard I need a pension and retire before time (to the game world of course).

    I like being a completionist. I also like grinding to a certain extent. I also see that huge sandbox style games are a bit of a nightmare to review as a whole, since possible (realistic) playing styles are quite different. All in all Bethesda seems (to me) have succeeded in Radiant system, though I’m not too sure if it’s seemless enough or not or really that refreshing to play again. Only time will tell. As a action (somewhat) grinder Skyrim feels the best of the bunch though – dwelling in outdoors and getting pelts fells like hunting, the system rewards for experimentation and deliberate weakening of the character and there seems to be elements of surprise just enough. Let’s see I feel the same after two years or so. ^^

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  9. Ky-Zaar Google Chrome Windows says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    You can turn of the quest arrows in the settings.

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  10. Spuff UNITED KINGDOM Google Chrome Windows says:

    ‘The game is positively tiny’ ?
    My first run through totalled 176 hours and I did very little of the repeat radiant quests. After 176 hours I did not have any more I wanted to do – but why the heck would I expect to be able to after 176 hours? In my book that is not a tiny game.
    And when I finished my first run through I started immediately over again with a different character build which I will play all the way to the end again.
    I like the change in Skyrim that elements of the enemies scale up but only to a point such that you can get to a stage where you can be all superior (I currently have max magic resistance (85%) no magic expenditure for destruction spells, and full dragon light armour – love it (double enchantments)).
    No, Skyrim isn’t perfect, but I like it more than almost anything else. Oblivion, incidentally, was my most enjoyed video game I’d ever played (and I’ve been playing them since the days of the ZX Spectrum).

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  11. Enton UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    The original quests are better, but it still beats the other elder scroll games in one area. In the other games, once you finished all the quests, you are left with nothing left to do except wander, which gets boring after a while. But in Skyrim, this at least keeps the game from coming to a dead stop!

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  12. TheDude Google Chrome Windows says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    Well, I agree, that well at least for me, Oblivion, had a more immersive story, and faction missions, it felt different with each faction, Morrowind had more that Oblivion, Oblivion had more than Skyrim. But the thing is in skyrim’s defense, the bar of quality in gaming industry is rising, and well a popular game studio like bethesda are expected, to provide a quality product, by users and probably by publishers, that means, better graphics, more details, more voice acting more of this more of that, given the console limitation and time constraints, the game get’s smaller, though still good, but smaller, I bet it was much easier to make Morrowind than Skyrim, in morrowind there weren’t so many little details, it was quite plain(visually), because of that time computers, and technology, there was no voice acting, the publisher probably weren’t pushing hard, there weren’t many big expectations to live up to, it was more about the world and the story. Nowaday all is more important…

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