Worldbuilder’s Anonymous – What’s In a World?

Posted: April 11, 2019 in Games, The Writing Process, World Building
Tags: , , , , , ,

This week I wanted to take a step back from the craft of worldbuilding and look at one of my favorite examples of what it can do for any story. I present: The Elder Scrolls.

The game series just celebrated its 25th anniversary and has gone through 6 full-blown, stand-alone games, some games not numbered in that timeline, various mobile device spin-offs and one huge MMO, there has been a LOT of development. If you’ve read my other blog posts, I may have mentioned that Morrowind, by far, is still my favorite, and that game came out in 2002, so only 8 years of development had been completed at that time, but…

According to Todd Howard (director and head producer at Bethesda Softworks), Patrick Stewart said, upon receiving the reference for the game’s character Emperor Uriel Septim VII: “I got the notes… Never in my life doing any role have I gotten such detailed notes and I loved it.”

First, let me clarify “development” here, as anyone who works with computer systems/games/etc. realizes this word really means to build up the game by creating its functionality, its mechanics, etc. In the case of the Elder Scrolls, it wasn’t just development in this sense, but also a real creation of new things, with ways every piece interacts in the world.

In ESIII: Morrowind, they really knocked the ball out of the park with Alchemy. To make the skill interesting, there had to be ingredients. Ingredients come from varied sources, and this is where the worldbuilding got interesting—they created (intentionally or not) a kind of ecology to support the harvestables within the world. A lot of plants and fungi exist around the massive province of Vvardenfell, with parts to pick that have certain beneficial or detracting effects when eaten or put into potions. But there are also creatures, not to kill just because they attack you (as just about everything does in most of these games) but to gather their parts as ingredients as well. ESIV: Oblivion and ESV: Skyrim would continue this practice, and Skyrim introduced Blacksmithing which enabled the player to build and furnish their own houses, further using the harvestable ingredients. But it goes beyond that. Plants weren’t just ever-present. Players had to find them (which was a major quest in Oblivion and in Skyrim) in their native or preferred habitat, or sometimes in pots around the area of the world which each game covers.

And that’s just the biology.

Its history is rich as well. There are a massive number of in-game books, and just stopping to read some of them not only confers skill points but also a great deal of history and culture developed for the game. Fiction is represented by stories like A Dance in Fire and Poison Song, both of which span multiple volumes. Non-Fiction includes topics like The Real Barenziah, Buoyant Armigers: The Swords of Vivec, The Oblivion Crisis, written, of course, after Oblivion. There are even books of riddles (Red Book of Riddles, Yellow Book of Riddles) and children’s books were introduced in Elder Scrolls Online (Brave Little Shalk). There’s also one tongue-in-cheek book, ABCs for Barbarians. You can check out an overview of them here. One of my personal favorites is the Lusty Argonian Maid, not for its content but for the way in which it’s been inserted into the world. At the time of Morrowind, it was supposedly written by Crassus Curio, a pretty colorful Imperial aligned with House Hlaalu. It was apparently a coveted classic by the time of Skyrim (reference cave of books), but in ESO is claimed to have been a much older work (implying that Curio took the story as his own, as the events of ESO is 800 years before he lived – not to mention that the people of Tamriel’s minds haven’t gotten any cleaner in the 1000+ years, hehehehe).

Let’s not forget some other cultural aspects – whole pantheons of gods and god-like beings were created to be worshipped, shunned, fought over, like the Nine Divines and the Daedra, the latter of which lend their dark shapes to the already very surreal landscape of Vvardenfell. The characters names illustrate the differences in their cultures, with Argonian names such as “Scales-Like-Gold” or Orc names, Gruf gro-Bargh or Hurna gra-Rohk, denoting male and female respectively. Imperials have befittingly Roman-sounding names (like Crassus Curio mentioned above, or Caius Cosades – the developers must have had a thing about using the initials CC to make the weird old guys in the game…). There’s even astrology with its own system (which has sadly gone by the wayside after Oblivion), from which your character can pick the star under which they are born, be they Steed, or the Tower.

I could go on. Really, I could. But you should experience the games for themselves, since most if not all are still available in one way or the other (GOG.com, or Steam, with tons of mods for them on Nexus). Or read here, if you’re not really a gamer, but still want to get the experience of an expansive world.

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