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Decrypting The Elder Scrolls

In light of our upcoming cover story on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, we take a look back at the storyline and development of the role-playing juggernaut series.   

The tale of the Elder Scrolls began in recent years for many fans, as they explored the massive nation of Cyrodiil in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. However, that popular entry was only the latest chapter of a sprawling epic that began way back in 1994. As we prepare to help Bethesda unveil the first look at the next installment, entitled Skyrim, we decided to look back at both the in-game and out-of-game stories that have shaped these incredible role-playing experiences. We asked longtime Bethesda developers to share their knowledge and memories, and present the history of the Elder Scrolls here as told by the people who made the series happen. We’ve split their responses into two major sections. Page 1 and 2 include the team’s reflections on creating the game, and the major technology changes that fueled each entry. Page 3 and 4 include a detailed look at the fiction and lore of the Elder Scrolls universe – a perfect place to start before learning about the intriguing storyline of Skyrim, which we’ll begin detailing in our February issue. 

NOTE: A version of this article originally appeared in Game Informer issue #213

Developing the Elder Scrolls

The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994)

One of my first jobs at Bethesda was helping with the CD‑ROM version of Arena in 1994. Every time there was a new build, I took it upon myself to finish the main quest. I can probably finish that game faster than anyone. The “Passwall” spell, which lets you literally carve your own path through dungeons, is still cool. – Todd Howard, Game Director

Arena used a raycast engine that we developed, that was similar, but more advanced to the one used in The Terminator: Rampage. It had a massive world, most of it randomly generated using seeded tilesets. Daggerfall used a similar building system, but in true 3D. – Todd Howard

The Elder Scrolls Chapter II: Daggerfall (1996)

Daggerfall in my memory is mostly flavored by how large it was. It was something we really struggled with during the project. We were never sure if it was big to just be big, since it was randomly generated. We could dial up or dial down the size very easily. But it became the sum of its parts. You could do so much. It’s also the Elder Scrolls game that introduced the skills system, and the whole “you improve by doing” paradigm, which I think defines the series in many ways. You really felt like the character you played was up to you, and not the game. – Todd Howard

It was 1995 and we were working on Daggerfall. We were building out the small shrines that were randomly sprinkled around the Iliac Bay. I happened to travel to one around sunset. The bright orange wisps framed the crumpled entrance to a hidden shrine. I thought to myself, “***, this game looks amazing.” Little did I know what the future held. – Bruce Nesmith, Design Director

Daggerfall initially was developed using an updated Arena raycast engine similar to Doom's, where the world is really 2D and drawn to look 3D. We then decided to begin development of one of the very first true 3D engines – the XnGine. This engine would go on to power other titles such as The Terminator: Future Shock, SkyNET, X-Car, Battlespire, and Redguard. The Terminator Future Shock, was the first game to use the engine, and also the first PC game to use the now popular mouse-look interface, though at first, people didn’t like it. The basis of the XnGine, and its world building, is still the basis for how we build today. – Todd Howard

I was hired during the final throes of Daggerfall’s long development. Nobody had a lot of time to train or supervise me, so I was pretty surprised to be this brand new rookie designer basically doing whatever I wanted. Luckily I was still young and responsible, so I didn’t take (much) advantage of my freedom. This was also my introduction to the magic of game development – I still remember my amazement at being able to put together a dungeon or quest, fire up the executable, and see what I’d just done right there on my computer screen in an actual game. I’m still occasionally floored by that magic, even after all these years. – Kurt Kuhlmann, Senior Designer

The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard (1998)

Redguard is still my favorite game that I’ve worked on. Todd, Michael Kirkbride and myself worked up the story and all the puzzles over a few weeks of continual brainstorming. I’m pretty sure Fuddrucker’s was heavily involved in the process. Because the team was so small, I ended up doing a bit of everything on that game – I even built a few levels in 3DS Max, which is the first and last time I got art credit on a game. – Kurt Kuhlmann

Redguard was the last of our XnGine games, and one where we really worked on building the world by hand, as opposed to the random generation of Arena and Daggerfall. It also had 3Dfx hardware acceleration, and was our first hardware based 3D game. It was one of the last popular DOS based titles, just as Windows gaming was getting popular. The 3D acceleration only works in 3Dfx’s glide system. – Todd Howard

Next up: How the later games in the series were developed

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