Many aspects of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will feel familiar to longtime fans. The exploration of a vast open world, first-person combat, and interacting systems of melee, magic, and stealth are all tent pole ideas within the franchise. However, Skyrim introduces something new into the gameplay mix: dragon shouts. This special new set of powers stand apart from the existing magic system, offering a broad range of powerful effects. The ability to attain these abilities is unique to your hero in the world, and the path to attaining them is a quest in itself within the larger tale that unfolds over the course of the game. Dragon shouts give the player the same overwhelming might that drives the resurgent dragon population, and the same source of power that launched the last line of emperors.

“It’s in the lore,” declares game director Todd Howard. “It was like the classic barbarian battle cry. I’m not sure if it showed up in a book in Daggerfall, but it’s definitely mentioned in this pocket guide to the empire that we did for Redguard. It was the idea that the Nords had these battle cries, and they would shout at their enemies.” As the team at Bethesda began to design The Elder Scrolls V, they latched onto this little piece of mythology, and the way it could tie back to the dragons – powerful creatures that had been absent from the world for thousands of years.

Quickly, elements of the fiction began to fall into place around the dragon shouts, much of which was already firmly entrenched from previous games. The dragonborn are a unique group of mortals, gifted by the gods with the same power as the dragons. To be trained in the art of the dragon shouts, also called the Voice, dragonborn individuals travel to Skyrim in order to climb a great mountain called the Throat of the World. At its peak they reach High Hrothgar, where an ancient sect of powerful Voice users named the Greybeards train them in their art.

“In the lore, Tiber Septim was the first main emperor. He could shout. His way of the Voice was unmatched,” Howard explains. “He is the original guy who walks the seven thousand steps and talks to the Greybeards. And the idea is, at that time, that they were so powerful they had to have all the villages flee for miles. This little kid is walking up this snowy mountain, and all these people are packed up and they’re walking down and away. Because they know the kid is going up to talk to these guys, and when they talk there’s going to be avalanches.”

The ability to use the dragon language already exists in the fiction, called “Thu’um.” The concept roughly translates as “The Voice.”

Tiber Septim would use the dragon shouts to lead his troops into battle and unite Tamriel under one empire. Hundreds of years later, the Septim line has died out, and no other dragonborn have been seen for many years. That is, until the hero of Skyrim arrives on the scene. “There are other people in the world who can use the dragon shouts, but it’s very rare. It’s like arcane knowledge. It used to be done more in the past,” Howard explains. “The Greybeards know it. But your ability to absorb the dragon souls and do the shouts on the level that you can is beyond them.”

In the game, players will guide their hero to learn ever more powerful dragon shouts, and then use these arcane powers to supplement other combat and magic skills. Upon defeating a dragon, Skyrim’s hero absorbs the soul of the fallen creature, which fuels his ability to learn a new shout. Later, players can search out long lost walls covered in dragon script. Upon these walls, individual runes stand out to the hero because he or she is dragonborn. “There are these words of power, and if you learn how to say them right, they have a powerful effect,” Howard says.

Over time, players will build a vast arsenal of shouts: over 20 complete shouts in all, each with multiple words that must be gathered from different places around the world. “There are three words for each shout, and there are three levels to them. The amount of time you hold down the shout button is how many words come out,” Howard continues. “It becomes a bit of a collection mechanic – to collect all the words.”

Next up: Creating the language behind the dragon shouts