How to Read A Videogame: The Books of Skyrim

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The bluntest instrument in a game designer’s repertoire is text. Words are forced upon hapless casual gamers in niche titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and offered immoderately to dedicated fans in lore-laden RPGs. The modern maestros of fantasy at Bethesda Softworks penned thousands of pages of text for the Elder Scrolls series, scattering 256 detail-packed, in-game books across 2006’s Oblivion, with a commensurate amount in 2002’s Morrowind. Presumably these tomes were consumed by the hardcore few. Did Bethesda spend countless hours of careful word-crafting for a fanatical minority? With the release of Skyrim on the frosty horizon, and a deluge of the northern territory’s historic annals in tow, we wondered just how many Argonians it takes to draft four volumes of The Argonian Account and where the legends lead.

According to co-lead designer Kurt Kuhlmann, the practical literature of The Elder Scrolls skill books is all about immersion. “The skill books are more an opportunity to give gameplay to something that is already in the game as flavor,” he says. “The player isn’t required to read the text in order to get the benefit from the skill book—just open it. The books are there to provide backstory and world flavor to those players who are interested. We’re not trying to force people to read the books if they’re not interested.”

So then who is interested?

Diehard fans, the hardest of the diehard, may comb through the literature, but Bethesda holds no record of these illusive lore lovers. “We don’t have any way of tracking [who reads the in-game books],” Kuhlmann explains. “We do have a group of passionate fans who love that kind of thing, but I don’t know what percentage that might be.” The percentage, it seems, is unimportant next to the sense of fullness that the written accounts provide. Books like Oblivion’s Liminal Bridges are either too referential or too technical to offer probative value to the player. They suggest rather than tell, and for Kuhlmann that’s the appropriate dynamic.

“I think the books provide that feeling of a real, larger world to everyone who plays the game,” he says, “even if they don’t read them. You know that you could read them, and I’m sure there are players who read a few of them (the ones that pique their interest) and then the hazy mass of other unread books contributes to that sense of the larger world waiting to be explored further.”

In an interview with @Play, Irrational Games’ Ken Levine explains how a game’s layers can speak to eclectic audiences. “With BioShock... our goal was to put the [lore] there for the people who want it,” he says, “and there’s an incredible amount of depth, but we really wanted people to be able to play it and… if they didn’t want to deal with this deeper story, they didn’t have to.”

Bethesda’s philosophic approach to in-game text is similar, as Kuhlmann elaborates. “A lot of the lore and backstory of the world ends up in the books,” he says, “where it is easier for players to access if and when they want to, rather than in spoken dialogue, where it can end up stopping the narrative dead in its tracks. There’s a limit to how long even the most devoted lore buff wants to sit and listen to an NPC expound on backstory. But we still like to make it available, because there are many players for whom ‘lore exploration’ is just as important as exploration of the physical world of the game.”

As each piece of Tamriel’s landscape draws inspiration from fantasy media, and as Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland draws from geographic and sci-fi influences, so the writers of Bethesda’s virtual volumes find guidance in their personal libraries. According to Kuhlmann, The Elder Scrolls’ literary roots are as numerous as the authors who crafted the books.

“We often make nods to real-world literature for a variety of reasons depending on the writer,” he says. “One thing that people may not realize is that the books are written by a large number of people—the designers write the majority of them, simply because that’s part of our job description, but there are a lot of good writers on the team outside of the design department who have contributed books to Skyrim. I think the wide range of writers helps make the books themselves feel more real—you get a greater variety of voices, styles, etc.”

Kuhlmann’s own influences, direct and indirect, include “Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Park, Jeff Vandermeer, and Tolkien for the Silmarillion.” On Tolkien’s fantasy omnipresence, Kuhlmann says, “the world-building that [Tolkien’s work] represents has never been surpassed.”

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were immeasurably central to the formation of The Elder Scrolls, with good reason. As ubiquitous novels involving goblins, magic and epic struggles between archetypes (see: good vs. evil), they form a cultural foundation for how a fantasy realm operates. Imitations—the good, the bad, and the Two Worlds—have come and passed, but Bethesda’s trademark series remains. The team drew from Tolkien’s rich narratives to create a fiction both parallel and unique.

“Tamriel started out as a pretty traditional Tolkien-esque fantasy world back in the Arena and Daggerfall days,” he says. “As we’ve developed the world, we’ve tried to put our own twist on the various fantasy standards, but we try to never repudiate any existing lore in the process. That’s one of the reasons that we try to present all lore from inside the world—books, dialogue, etc.—rather than in the authoritative voice of the game designer from outside the world, so to speak. All the lore comes with a point of view, and often there’s a different point of view on the same subject presented by someone else in the world.”

The 100 new books in Skyrim and the returning books from Oblivion represent a variety of tones and perspectives, from serious biographies of fictional characters to humorous parodies of Medieval literature. All of it is original content. Kuhlmann hints at the bounty of new tomes in Skyrim with an unexpected allusion. “There’s a series of books inspired by the Iliad which I think turned out really well. While this isn’t in a book, one of my personal projects was to attempt to write all the dialogue in a section of the game in alliterative verse—based on my extensive Wikipedia education on the subject… we’ll see if anyone notices.”

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