Close Reading Oblivion: Character Believability and Intelligent Personalization in Games


  • Theresa Jean Tanenbaum University of California, Irvine, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences
  • Jim Bizzocchi Simon Fraser University, School of Interactive Arts & Technology


This paper investigates issues of character believability and intelligent personalization through a reading of the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Oblivion’s opening sequence simultaneously trains players in the function of the game, and allows them to customize their character class through the choices and actions they take. Oblivion makes an ambitious attempt at intelligent personalization in the character creation process. Its strategy is to track early gameplay decisions and “stereotype” players into one of 21 possible classes. This approach has two advantages over a less adaptive system. First, it supports the illusion of the game world as a real world by embedding the process of character creation within a narrativised game-play context. Second, the intelligent recommendation system responds to the player’s desire to believe that the game “knows” something about her personality. This leads the players to conceptualize the system as an entity with autonomous, humanlike knowledge. Through the analysis of multiple replayings of the opening sequence, this paper considers ways in which Oblivion both succeeds and fails at mapping player behaviour to appropriate class assignments. The paper documents places where the dialogue between player and game breaks down, and argues for alternative techniques to customize the play experience within the desires of the player.