Franchise Festival #6: The Elder Scrolls

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, Avocadoans! In this weekly column, we discuss and explore the development history of favorite game series from the past thirty years. Previous entries can be found here.

This week, we’ll be filling in a map to the wide world of Tamriel as we get a closer look at The Elder Scrolls.

Background

Bethesda Softworks was founded in 1986 and released its first game, Gridiron, the same year. This football game set a precedent, and the company would go on to primarily be associated with sports and action titles for much of the coming decade; it released a number of hockey games around 1990 and went on to develop licensed tie-ins associated with The Terminator, Where’s Waldo and Home Alone. Interestingly, and tellingly for future non-sports games created by this studio, its original Gridiron title was most impressive in its physics-based approach to the sport. Programmers had tried to replicate real-world football physics as accurately as possible on 1980s hardware, which distinguished their creations from competitors focused more on a purely ‘arcade’ experience. While the company had been fairly successful with these experiments in sports physics engines and licensed releases, Bethesda founder Chris Weaver set about an even more ambitious plan in 1992 – the development of an all-new medieval fantasy IP: The Elder Scrolls.

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The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994)

Someone unfamiliar with the series could be forgiven for assuming that The Elder Scrolls: Arena was set in a single location. In fact, it was originally being designed as a turn-based RPG focused on gladiators duking it out in a coliseum. While developing sidequests set outside of that environment, however, Bethesda found that exploring the wider world made for a more compelling fantasy game. Soon the project had shifted to being a first-person real-time RPG in which the player would explore the vast continent of Tamriel. This exploratory adventure launched for PCs in 1994, two years after development began.

After an initial prison escape, the player’s character (either chosen from among 18 pre-made class builds or determined by algorithm after answering a series of questions) is free to wander the world seeking the components of a magical artifact. This narrative was fairly standard fantasy fodder in the early 1990s, and the environments were similarly generic, though the prison break opening would go to become a standard introduction for titles in this franchise. Instead of having a distinct sense of place, The Elder Scrolls: Arena innovated in the sheer scale of its world – it was significantly larger than any game made before it, and indeed is geographically more expansive than its successors would be as well – unlike each of them, which focuses on one specific region of Tamriel, Arena permits exploration of every country on that land mass.

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Wandering the infinite wilds of Arena.

Unfortunately, this ambition comes with a price: all overworld locations are randomly generated, and a player cannot freely travel from one region to the next. Each region consists of a city surrounded by procedurally generated wilderness, and the NPCs comprising each settlement’s population are coded not as individuals with distinct dialogue but rather stock types, like shopkeepers and blacksmiths, bearing identical speech cues. The dungeons in which the game’s most compelling exploration occurs, however, are not randomly generated – this betrays the origins of the game’s development as a claustrophobic hack-and-slash and offers surprisingly effective level design.

Critical reception for the game was largely negative, as it was significantly less narrative-focused than competitors in the increasingly crowded RPG genre. Like later procedurally-generated exploration games, including Spore and No Man’s Sky, the premise promised more than what programmers could reliably deliver. It proved rather popular among fans, though, and led to the development of a sequel shortly thereafter.

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The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996)

The most immediately noticeable improvement between the first and second games in this series would be noticed by a player in Daggerfall‘s opening moments. Rather than selecting a pre-made character or being assigned one by the game, the player is able to craft a class by assigning points to specific statistics like strength, intelligence and agility; this mimicked the character creation process of earlier pen-and-paper RPGs quite well, and would inform future iterations in the series. Following the statistical portion of character creation, a series of questions allows the player to shade in his or her character’s background as well. Immediately, Daggerfall has a greater sense of history and world-building that its predecessor lacked.

That sense of place is carried over to the geography of the game world (expansive geography already being established as the franchise’s primary identifying feature). Promotional materials claimed that explorable in-game territory was comparable to the size of the real world’s Great Britain, but it was now confined to two regions of Tamriel – after initially setting the game in the strange, alien province of Morrowind, developers opted to relocate it to the more characteristically European lands of Hammerfall and High Rock. This reduced scale eliminates the need for infinite landscapes, and replaces it with a randomly generated yet explorable overworld between settlements. Surprisingly, developers also sought a sense of scale in the space between city shops, resulting in lengthy stretches of wandering with little stimulus.

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Dungeon exploration in Daggerfall.

The inhabitants of the game’s staggering 15,000 settlements, though, now feature more lines of dialogue and are often aligned with competing in-game ideological factions. Sidequests are significantly more numerous and detailed than the previous game, and lead the player to various guilds oriented around a particular goal. The guilds, in turn, present a sense of community and continuity that enhance the ‘realism’ of Daggerfall‘s world.

Though the narrative is not appreciably more robust than Arena‘s, it does offer a window into the series expanding mythology. Tamriel’s competing government factions are heavily involved in the game’s plot, as do in-game books that shed light on the world’s history. Daggerfall actually features six distinct endings, depending upon the player’s actions over the course of his or her adventure.

Unfortunately, not everything about Daggerfall was an improvement on Arena. In particular, critics drew attention to the unprecedented level of bugs that made it into the game’s retail release. Many quests could not be completed due to disappearing NPCs, dungeons featured geometry that would simply drop players to their deaths, and the game’s code was so unstable that crashes occurred frequently. It was comparatively difficult for a given player to even make it to the end of the narrative without encountering some issue that required fully restarting his or her adventure. It’s truly a testament to the game’s ability to wow audiences with its size and attention to detail that such technical issues didn’t derail the series entirely.

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The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)

After setting two Elder Scrolls titles in medieval European environments familiar to anyone who had played contemporary RPGs, Bethesda opted to set its third core Elder Scrolls game on an island in Tamriel’s bizarre Morrowind province, which is full of unique architectural and biological elements. In a more technical evolution from past successes, Bethesda also released its newest game simultaneously on both PC and Microsoft’s Xbox console. For the first time, players could explore Tamriel using a controller from the comfort of their couch. Despite this multi-platform release, Bethesda had used the lengthier development cycle to ensure that it had fewer glitches and bugs than Daggerfall.

Geographically, Morrowind is appreciably smaller than its predecessors. This permits a significantly greater level of detail, as developers were able to place each object, give dialogue to each NPC, and carefully model the terrain. Cities are much more distinct than those in Arena or Daggerfall, and take their visual cues from an eclectic mixture of Japanese, Ancient Egyptian, and Middle Eastern elements. The developers also cited Gladiator, The Dark Crystal, and Conan the Barbarian as influences on the setting. The fauna is every bit as fascinating as the architecture, and fast travel is now possible through the use of massive silt striders – these towering flea-like creatures can be approached in towns and, while unfortunately not animated, transport the player from one settlement to another.

While the quest design does not improve dramatically on what Bethesda had previously created, the narrative elements are enhanced. The world’s mythology is much more fleshed out, particularly in terms of its demonic supernatural figures, ancient history, and competing political factions. Formerly unplayable races are given more visual distinction – khajits became humanoid cats, argonians became humanoid lizards, and orcs became more distinctive than their formerly generic Tolkin-esque enemy design – while the god-like Daedra become major players in the plot. Numerous books fill in both historical elements while also hinting at the world’s wider culture; they include poems, essay and short stories written by in-game characters.

The developers fully embraced the burgeoning PC mod community by packaging a version of the game’s development software alongside its retail release. Using this toolset, enterprising players could actually develop entire new areas, quests, and full expansions using the very same 3D models and assets used by Bethesda when creating the base game. Interestingly, the openness of Bethesda’s tools has allowed Morrowind to be slowly modernized in the 15+ years since its release. Over 3,000 mods had been released by 2016!

In terms of its visuals and audio, Morrowind does not disappoint. Enhancements in visual effects permit the developers to blind the player with dust storms or evoke melancholy through dynamic rain. Free-looking is default, and the intrusive HUD of earlier games has been eliminated, so the focus is more vertical and expansive than Daggerfall had been. This complements the fully 3D modeled characters and environments, which look dated by modern standards but were cutting edge in 2002 (particularly for a large-scale open-world game). Jeremy Soule was brought on to compose the game’s soundtrack, and his influence is felt immediately upon booting up the game and hearing its theme play. The specificity of Morrowind‘s world is enhanced spectacularly by its sympathetic audio design.

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A silt strider in Morrowind.

Two expansions were published in the following year: Tribunal and Bloodmoon. The former is a linear narrative adventure set in a new mainland location, the city of Mournhold, which requires fast travel from Morrowind‘s Vvardenfell island. The latter is a more open-ended adventure in line with Morrowind‘s core design principles, and is set in a colder region than the base game; it also brought back the ability to contract lycanthropy and become a werewolf, which had been present in Daggerfall. Both expansion packs sold well, but only Bloodmoon was a critical success. Additionally, Xbox players were unable to use the expanded content until the eventual release of a Game of the Year addition that packed in most of the improvements PC players had been receiving since the game’s release.

The commercial and critical success of Morrowind would permit much higher budgets and more ambitious designs in later Bethesda games, but it would prove difficult to recapture the magic of this unique title.

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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006)

Despite the acclaim surrounding Bethesda’s previous entry in its Elder Scrolls franchise, the studio sought to return to a classic European fantasy style in its successor, which was published on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC in 2006; surprisingly, a mobile version with an isometric perspective was later published. This is the most immediate break with Morrowind, though it is far from the only thing distinguishing Oblivion from its predecessor.

Like previous games in the series, Oblivion is strongest in its approach to sidequests. The player is free to explore the large-scale world at his or her leisure, rather than pursuing the main storyline, and the interface is enhanced with the now-standard arrows pointing to upcoming objectives; this, like many other changes to The Elder Scrolls formula, would prove a controversial update due to the sense that it “dumbed down” the game’s mechanics. Another major change intended to facilitate sidequest exploration was the inclusion of level-scaling enemies to ensure that the player would face a consistent challenge no matter the order in which he or she proceeded. Unfortunately, this feature could actually render the large-scale battles of the main plot virtually impossible, as numerous powerful enemies could replace the numerous weak enemies that designers had anticipated being present if the player had leveled themselves up through sidequests.

Morrowind had iterated on Daggerfall by featuring unique dialogue assigned to its many NPCs, but Oblivion would go one step further and include voice acting. Sean Bean, in fact, voiced the game’s protagonist (who was not the same as the player character – more on that later). A relatively slim budget forced the repetition of various lines and voice actors among a vast array of NPCs, but the effect overall was a positive one. Like the greater attention to detail afforded by hand-crafted environments, voice acting functions s a mechanism to draw players in and make the complex world feel more lived-in.

Another attempt at giving the world a persistent touch was establishing schedules and goals assigned to each NPC through a system called Radiant AI. Though players could not see these predetermined schedule or goals, every NPC would have particular interests and tasks informed by those interests. Humorously, in a pre-release build of the game this system went haywire, as characters would attack and kill other characters based on their goals (like desperately obtaining more skooma, an in-game narcotic); this would eventually be toned down in the retail version through the implementation of rules that would limit NPC behavior.

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Night in the Imperial City of Oblivion.

The narrative is certainly the grandest yet, and is appropriately set in the capital of the Septim Empire, a political entity controlling most of Tamriel’s nine provinces. It opens with a political assassination of the emperor and his heirs by a religious cult and focuses on the ensuing chaos, during which a number of portals to a supernatural realm are opened; through these portals come demonic Daedra, which had featured less prominently in earlier games. To close these portals, the player character aids a previously unknown illegitimate heir of the emperor retake the throne; this is a peculiar  way to design a narrative, as the player character is not the story’s key player, but has the compensating virtue of offering narrative logic for his or her engagement in various side activities.

Interestingly, in the scope of the series if not this specific game, Oblivion features the series’ first appearance of an Elder Scroll if the player partakes in an optional Thieves Guild quest. These relics, from which the franchise’s name is derived, are rarely mentioned directly in the games; the little information presented about them depicts them as mythological relics, created at the dawn of time, that supernaturally record the realm’s history in code and drive readers to blindness.

As it released entirely on consoles which were easily connected to the internet, Oblivion was the first title in The Elder Scrolls to feature downloadable content. Even this element of the game could not escape controversy, as fans mocked the cosmetic horse armor sold by Bethesda. Happily, the game’s expansions were more popularly received. The first of these major expansions, Knights of the Nine, was a basic questline that expanded the game’s narrative a bit; The Shivering Isles, however, was set entirely in a new otherworldly environment ruled over by the Daedric Prince of Madness, Sheogorath. This went a long way towards recapturing the unique, mysterious air of Morrowind while maintaining the tighter quest design of Oblivion.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)

Skyrim was the series’ second entry in a single console generation, and would go on to become the series’ most commercially successful title. Having already exhausted four of Tamriel’s provinces, Bethesda set its 2011 game in the northern province of Skyrim – aesthetically and culturally, this region takes its cues from Northern Europe. Still, it retains a sense of geographical diversity by being subdivided into nine distinct ‘holds’ with their own topographical elements and sub-climates.

With regard to gameplay, Skyrim made several major changes to The Elder Scrolls’ formula. These were generally geared toward making the minute-to-minute action of the game, especially the combat, more compelling. Arrows were faster, a crafting system permitted the development of powerful potions and equipment, ‘shouts’ unlocked through exploration and narrative progression granted the player overpowered supernatural abilities, and skills were open to any character rather than gated by class decisions made at the game’s start. In fact, classes are entirely absent from Skyrim, so a single character could conceivably develop every skill and follow every faction or guild’s story through to completion.

In much the same way that the emphasis on crafting reveals the influence of other major video games on the franchise’s development, Skyrim features character romances for the first time as well. Partner characters can join the player on his or her adventure, and can become engaged to the player character through the use of an in-game ring. If the player has purchased a home in one of the game’s settlements, moreover, this in-game spouse will wait there to greet him or her.

In its narrative, Skyrim immediately breaks with its predecessor. Oblivion had been set a mere six years following the events of Morrowind, but Skyrim is set two hundred years after Oblivion. In that time, the province of Morrowind has been ruined by volcanic activity and the Septim Empire has grown unstable. In contrast with Oblivion, Skyrim‘s plot strikes a more epic tone – the player character is a Dragonborn, a being born with the ability to absorb dragon souls and use that strength to fight these oversized opponents.

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Battling dragons in Skyrim.

At the same time, the player’s quest to use his or her abilities to strike down the legendary dragon Alduin is set against a backdrop of civil war between the nationalist Nords – original residents of the province – and the Empire seeking to re-establish control over the region. It’s a fraught, ambiguous political situation, and one that lends the entire game an air of intensity that many found missing in its immediate predecessor. The Elder Scrolls are again featured prominently, as they act as one of the plot’s catalysts – evidently, they prophesy a series of events culminating in the dragon Alduin’s destruction of the world and play a role in the player character’s ability to travel through time and destroy the antagonist.

The audio design is a major step forward for the series. Taking Oblivion‘s criticism to heart, Bethesda included over sixty thousand lines of dialogue spoken by more than seventy actors to add diversity and immersion to the region of Skyrim. At the same time, Jeremy Soule was influenced by the epic nature of the game’s narrative, working up both a haunting, powerful choir theme and smaller-scale folk songs encountered in the game’s taverns.

Like Oblivion, Skyrim featured several major DLC expansions. Hearthfire was focused primarily on the player character’s dwelling, offering new expansive layers of customization. Dawnguard was a narrative adventure set in two new areas and emphasized the battle between a vampire clan and a group of vampire hunters. Dragonborn was the most ambitious expansion, featuring a new landmass in the island of Solstheim (previously featured in an expansion to Morrowind) and the ability to ride dragons.

In spite of its critical and commercial success, Skyrim was not without its own set of controversies. In particular, it was used to launch a paid mod service on Valve’s Steam platform. This drew fierce criticism from fan communities, and was rapidly discontinued. It also experienced serious performance problems, particularly on the PlayStation 3 platform. These issues did not stop it from being revised and ported repeatedly: by 2017, it had been released in an upgraded special edition on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Switch, and even virtual reality hardware!

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Spin-Offs

Following the success of Daggerfall, and seeking to make the most of the resources the studio had pumped into its development, Bethesda released two spin-off titles: Battlespire (1997) and Redguard (1998). Both were more linear adventures that lacked many of the expansive features the series was already known for. Battlespire focused on dungeon-crawling and an online player-versus-player deathmatch mode, while Redguard is a third-person linear action-adventure game in which the player takes on the pre-defined role of a character named Cyrus. Both were built in Daggerfall‘s engine, both were originally planned to be expansions to Daggerfall before becoming their own standalone titles, and both were major critical and commercial failures.

Surprisingly, three unique Elder Scrolls games were released for portable platforms between 2003 and 2004: the first two, Dawnstar and Stormhold, were published on Java-enabled mobile devices while the third, Shadowkey, was released on the Nokia N-Gage. All were released under the overarching title The Elder Scrolls Travels, and were adaptable to the type of mobile device on which the game was played; on more limited hardware, the games would scale down to present only a portion of the total areas to be explored. Each one emphasizes dungeon crawling and battling monsters, rather than exploring a large-scale overworld. Though all Elder Scrolls Travels games were published by Bethesda, they were developed by the small, Washington, DC-based Vir2L Studios. A version of Oblivion was planned for the PlayStation Portable but was cancelled prior to release.

After five core entries in The Elder Scrolls, Bethesda released an MMORPG entry in their long-running franchise titled The Elder Scrolls Online. It is set eight hundred years before the events of Oblivion, and is the first game since Arena to feature more than two provinces of Tamriel. An overarching main plot exists, but is less emphasized than the player’s experience with sidequests and his or her character’s occupation. The title launched in 2014 with a paid subscription model, but became free-to-play beginning in 2015; players can still subscribe for access to a greater amount of in-game currency and expanded content. While the initial critical reception to the game was poor, its reputation has slowly improved as its issues have been fixed through patches.

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Blowing up cards in Legends.

In quite a twist, The Elder Scrolls also branched out into the collectible card game genre in 2016. The Elder Scrolls Legends is an entirely digital card game, much like Hearthstone and Gwent, and is available on PC and mobile platforms. It is one of the few games in the series not developed in-house by Bethesda, though they were responsible for publishing it. Legends is free-to-play, though, like the aforementioned competitors, it offers numerous advantages and expanded content to players willing to pay money. The most surprising element of an already-surprising game is the fact that it actually includes a narrative – the plot trappings are slim, but they certainly set this apart from its contemporaries and bring it more in line with The Elder Scrolls series.


What do you think? What are your favorite or least favorite entries in this long-running franchise? Have you experienced any of the humorous or enraging bugs that have plagued the series over time? Where would you like to see it go from here?