I was a temporary project director for Bethesda's game development department for a short period of time during the launch of their fourth installment to The Elder Scrolls saga, Oblivion.
From early 2004 until its release in the spring of 2006, my team and I were responsible for quest story-boarding and design, mapping out and detailing each quest objective, any necessary story component and of course, the reward. One quest in particular has had me regret I've ever been apart of that team. Even the executive producer Mr. Todd Howard admits that this wasn't something he could ever imagine happening to a game like this. This quest—rather—this "Achievement awarded' quest (rendering it much more unsettling) was actually a very real, very important part of the game.
Entitled, "Infiltration," it was the second last and most unusual quest for the Fighter's Guild, and a quest result we didn't originally plan to produce, in fact, we didn't expect to produce. In case you've never played the game, the faction's quests follow a league of fighters who are hired to perform jobs, involving a great deal of fighting as the name suggests. After you've furthered yourself through the Guild, you learn about a group called the Blackwood Company, who are stealing members from the guild and performing jobs created almost out of thin air.
Here's where things start to get bizarre. For the quest, you are told to pose undercover as an interested recruit for the Blackwood company to learn their secrets. We as a team had already agreed that this is how we wanted the quest to begin, but it's been a reoccurring nightmare for us from what follows.
Once you become a member, you're tasked with your first assignment of eliminating a few goblins from a town just north of the city of Leyawiin. We sat in the board room for an hour, rallying ideas until one of us suggested that we add a hallucinogenic substance for the sole purpose of the quest, loosely named "Hist Sap".
For the quest, you are given it as a gift to drink for your first mission, unknowingly ingesting the rare hallucinogen. Before you know it, you're in the village, and tasked with killing the goblins. Now, I don't know why exactly we decided to go this direction; why we wanted to create such an abnormal, unsettling mission, but strangely, that was the way we all wanted it, almost as an overwhelming temptation.
But here's the thing: The end of this mission is where things started to fall apart during the testing sessions. To end the mission, you go back to the village after awakening from the hallucinogen, only to discover to your horror, that the "goblins" you imagined yourself slaying, were not goblins at all, but animals, and people. But what was meant to only be a row of dead bodies to the player, turned into something nightmarish.
We first heard about the discovery one evening, when an emergency meeting was called into the studio to review what the game developers found, myself included. We were greeted by a disturbed group of pale-skinned developers and animators, who briefed us quickly on the subject matter. Trembling, one of the animators, the one specifically testing the quest, tried to explain what he saw, and what's worse, what he heard. I will tell you what happened, but try to understand that this was no rendering error, no glitch or flaw in the game's coding, or any other factor we tried to establish. Everything checked out. What I witnessed there in the studio that day, I will never forget.
The animator sat at his station, claiming to have recorded the incident to recall his work in case of accidental deletion. He maneuvered the video to the exact point in the recording, and once he hit play, the entire room fell silent. At first, it was nothing out of the ordinary. It was exactly how the mission progressed when you visit the village a second time. Only this time, the quality seemed to be grainy and unsaturated, like an old movie. As the character walks a bit further towards the settlements, you saw a man standing in between two homes facing the opposite direction. As the character moved closer, the man began to distort, After twenty seconds of footage, the game appears to lag to the point of a still frame of the man with his face still looking forward.
The animator assured us that this is exactly what happened to him and his video did not stall. After about seven seconds, the frame rate began to pick up again, only this time, the man began to turn around. This face looked as though it was pieced together from several different face models, but grotesquely disproportioned as a mess of random, horrifying placements. At this point, there was no sound in the game, just a faint buzz and a crackle of the grain. The character moved around but the face followed, and only the face. The rest of his body, still distorted, and now bloody as if to suggest he was a victim, remained grounded and still.
Suddenly after a minute or so, the character's view shifts hard to the left, and on cue the animator points out something enormously disturbing. Children, who were among the dead, were suspended in the air staring blankly in the face of the character, slowly glitching backwards as they remained perfectly still. The character moves closer and the children keep watching, their legs dangling lifelessly. The bodies, one by one, glitched through the landscape as if they were being swallowed. As each child disappeared through the rocky terrain, the noise began to enhance and transform. Distinctive moans could be heard periodically, but then something happened. The screen, flashed white and then black, then back to white, but this time the screen stats were there; the health bar, the compass. It was as if the character was transported to some sort of void room, while it began to render random chunks or raw data and designs littering the void from every direction.
The animator couldn't explain why the game had taken him to this place of limbo. Five or six minutes passed in the recording, by this time many other designers had left, too shaken from the experience. But I stayed.
Suddenly, a line of dialogue appeared at the bottom of the screen, but it's unreadable, strange symbols and omitted letters from words completely jammed together. A noise is heard, a man's voice, as slurred gibberish. His tone is angry, but sorrowed, but gets louder after every passing second until it's almost a scream. Then the game starts to lose control. The character starts to spawn all over the map, but everybody is lifeless. The character at this point cannot move, it is forced into a point of view, locked in place as the horror flashes over and over.
Howard, at this point, urges the animator to turn it off but the video remained on.
A point came where the sound stopped, the game ceased to randomly spawn the character. It stopped exactly where it started, a grainy unsaturated view of the village. Only this time the man with the face stitched and pieced together like a rag doll was not there. Abruptly, the man rose from the ground inches away from the character, eyes as black as night and his mouth wide open. He started to speak, "You did this," over and over, his speech turning to shouts, and his shouts to screams. Repeating, without the movement of his mouth, "You did this, you did this!"
The video stopped, the room was quiet, the air was thick. The animators did all they could to fix the problem but the children still float, lifeless, as if the game was broken beyond repair because of what was experienced that evening. No one ever spoke of it again, and the evidence and its contents destroyed. A month later, I left Bethesda. I've not shared this experience until now, and myself and the rest of the team swore to secrecy, but I felt this needed to be shared.
I've never looked at, or touched the game again.