Skyrim’s Dragon Shouts

by Matt Miller on Jan 20, 2011 at 11:55 AM

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

Bethesda games have always had a strong internal consistency. Dragonborn and the shouts they employ stand at the center of the Skyrim game experience, so there needed to be a rich background to make the system feel authentic. The answer lay in the creation of a language – the ancient tongue spoken and written by the dragons. The mammoth task of tackling such a project fell largely on senior designer Emil Pagliarulo.

“The first thing I worked on when I came to Bethesda was the Bloodmoon expansion to Morrowind,” Pagliarulo tells us. “And back then, I started really entrenching myself in all this Viking culture stuff. One of the things I listened to back then that I was able to find again recently was a reading of Beowulf in Old English. That was always my inspiration. What would an epic sound like? So I knew what I wanted it to sound like.”

But where to start? In the case of Skyrim, Pagliarulo had a distinct goal in mind. He knew there would be these scattered walls across Skyrim from which the dragonborn would learn the shouts. Here was a chance to create a whole new branch of mythology and legend for the world of Tamriel, writ large upon the ancient ruins of the land for players to discover. The team also wanted to have the language work into other elements of the game, including as a song that could be integrated into the main Elder Scrolls musical theme – the music that gamers would eventually hear in Skyrim’s teaser trailer.

“It had to rhyme in English and the dragon language. It had to tell this epic story,” Pagliarulo explains about the challenge of creating the stanzas that would populate the Skyrim theme. “But I also knew we wanted to use it for the game. It was sort of interesting, because we knew we wanted to have this language as a game device, because we have these gameplay mechanics built around it. So, you’re not developing it as an actual language. It’s much more word based or hieroglyphic based.”

Almost immediately, the challenges of creating a new language began to appear. How do you handle past, present, and future tense? Do verbs conjugate? What is the alphabet like? All of these were issues that needed to be addressed if the language was going to be useable in the game. “We started off making specific rules for the way words would work together,” Pagliarulo says. “So the way you would do ‘king’ would be the word for ‘son’ and the word for ‘leader,’ except you take off this one letter. And then we realized that it had started to collapse under its own weight. The more rules we wanted to keep track of, and the more complex it became, we knew the more complicated it would be for the designers to use, and the more mistakes we would make. So we really tried to keep it much more simple.”

The language concept that emerged abandoned tense, conjugation, and even upper and lower case letters, preferring that the context imply those ideas. For instance, in the translation of Game Informer’s back cover, the word “fundein” translates to “unfurled,” but it could mean either unfurl or unfurled, depending on where the word is used. Similarly, the word “prodah” could mean either foretell or foretold.

“Once we established the baseline, and the designers started using it, I was glad we kept it simple,” Pagliarulo says. “Because, boy, can it get out from under you. You’ll be like, ‘I need a word for “thunder,” I’ll do this.’ And you’ll realize you already have a word for that, and it was spelled differently. Then you have to go back through and fix all those instances. It’s a remarkable lesson in why the word ‘dear’ [or ‘deer’] means so many things in English.”

Not everything had to be such a tremendous challenge. Because Bethesda was designing the dragon language from scratch, they could shape the way it sounded to the vibe they wanted to express in the game. “You can choose the words for a concept that sound the best. The ones that feel more epic. The ones that roll together well,” Pagliarulo declares. “Like the word ‘dovahkiin.’ ‘Dova’ means dragon. ‘Kiin’ means child. So we did a lot of that. We played with the words. How did it all flow together?”

The sound of the dragon language when you hear it spoken or sung has a vaguely Germanic or Scandinavian sound to it. It’s a harsh but oddly beautiful sound that feels right at home in the rugged landscape of Skyrim. And you’ll hear it in plenty of places. Not only do the dragons and the Greybeards recall this long-dead language, but many other creatures in the world do as well. Included among them are the undead draugr, ancient Nord warriors who will call out in dragon language from their skeletal frames, threatening to pull you down to join them.

Next up: The secret to the written language of the dragons, and some of the specific dragon shouts that will appear in the final game

Beyond crafting the spoken language of the dragons, Pagliarulo and the rest of the developers at Bethesda needed one final important element to make their new language shine: a written alphabet.

“The idea was, how would the dragons write or scratch this language in the stone or on the ground? Everything is done with the three talons. You’ll always see combinations of one to three scratches, and sometimes the dot, which is like the dewclaw,” Todd Howard explains. With that concept in mind, someone had to make the idea into a reality: concept artist Adam Adamowicz. “One of our concept artists [Adamowicz] had the task of making a font. Make unique symbols for these letters that sound like this, using this scheme. He was literally like, ‘What?’ I think he sat there and stared at his monitor for an hour. And we came back, and he’d say, ‘I still don’t…say it again?’” Howard laughs.  

Working together with Adamowicz, a final runic alphabet emerged. “It doesn’t coincide directly with the alphabet we use in English. There are 34 unique characters within the language,” Pagliarulo says. Some Roman alphabet letters don’t exist, like the letter "c". In other instances, a single runic character represents multiple Roman letters, including many double vowels like “aa” or “ei.” For ease of use in implementing the language into the game, the final font was designed to work in word processors like Microsoft Word. Many of the number keys on a traditional keyboard are co-opted within the font to include the additional dragon characters.

Take a look at the individual runes in the written dragon language. Can you see how each character could be written by a creature with three front talons and a dewclaw? Even the shape of the letters echoes claw marks.

After months of work, the dragon language began to take shape and be implemented into the game. Even now, the designers at Bethesda continue to add new words to support the in-game existence of the dragonborn and dragon shouts. An entire internal wiki at Bethesda contains an evolving vocabulary list of words and phrases used in the game – any new uses of the dragon language have to be checked back against this list for consistency.

In the game, the final result of all the hard work is exhilarating, and even more so when you know how deep the rabbit hole goes. Every ancient wall you encounter carries an ancient legend. Every creature that cries out in dragon is saying an actual translatable thing to you. And perhaps most importantly, every dragon shout you acquire carries real meaning behind it. One power used in the game acts like a sort of invisible push of staggering power. Spoken in the game, your hero will intone the three words for the full shout: “Fus, Ro, Dah!” Translated into English, “Fus” means force, “Ro” means balance, and “Dah” means push.

After collecting more than 60 individual words that form up into over 20 complete shouts, Skyrim’s hero will be a force to be reckoned with, especially considering that these dragon-based abilities will be layered on top of his normal leveled-up abilities in combat, traditional magic, and stealth. He’ll be able to slow down time around him with one shout, or use a special whispered dragon shout to stealthily move close to an enemy in a mere instant. And while they’re cagey about the details, Bethesda says that one shout will let a player summon an actual dragon, calling him by name to fight.

The new dragon shout system, and the language that supports it prove one thing without a doubt. Bethesda is crafting one of the most intricate video game worlds ever made. Layered on top of over 15 years of previous Elder Scrolls games, the land of Tamriel has a depth of fiction you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else but in the most elaborate and well-loved fantasy novels. Many players may dive into the world of Skyrim this coming November and perceive the magic of the dragons and their shouts as a mere afterthought. You know better. 

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