I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow to the knee.
- Guards in Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls is a single-player action role-playing1 computer game series set in a detailed fantasy world. It has been developed by Bethesda Softworks since the early 1990s and is today one of the most popular computer game series on the market.
The most important feature of all games in the Elder Scrolls series is the open game world which the player can explore freely without having to follow a linear path through the story. In addition to a main plotline there are uncounted numbers of side-quests and, once the player starts to roam freely, they may even completely forget about the main story. In the vast game worlds there are plenty of people to meet, dungeons to explore and monsters to hunt. The developers of the game were fans of Dungeons and Dragons as well as the Ultima games series and both inspired them to develop the first Elder Scrolls game.
The Elder Scrolls series is also a favourite of modders - gamers who modify the game code. These modifications can range from enhanced or altered graphics, added items, weather effects and faster levelling to anything else you can think of. Want to play the game as Link from The Legend of Zelda or as a Space Marine? Fine, that is possible through mods. A large number of mods are available on the Bethesda Softworks homepage and elsewhere.
All Elder Scrolls games are set on the continent Tamriel on the fictional planet Nirn. It is home to many different cultures and races and is divided into nine provinces, each of which is predominantly populated by a different race of people. The landscapes vary from deserts to lush forests, from wetlands to snow covered mountains.
Nirn is one of a few planets and the centre of the mortal plane, which has been created by powerful deities. The mortal plane is surrounded by the planes of Oblivion, many of which are the homes of the daemonic Daedric Princes who some mortals worship as gods. Each Daedric Prince (male or female) has their own personality and patronage over a certain aspect of life on the mortal plane. Most of them seem to be rather unpleasant. By magic it is possible for mortals to travel to different planes of Oblivion or to summon Daedric Princes from there. Seen from Nirn, Oblivion appears as an empty void.
The planes of Oblivion themselves are surrounded by Aetherius, the source of light and magic. All stars and the sun are in fact just holes in Oblivion through which Aetherius can be seen. It is the home of the divine Aedra, who are worshipped as gods by the majority of the inhabitants of Tamriel. They created the mortal plane and some of them became mortals themselves and are the ancestors of all races on Nirn. Each culture in Tamriel prays to a different set of of Aedra.
Tamriel itself has a rich history of which the players learn many things during their adventures. Very often there are books to be found at various places with several pages of history to read.
Provinces and People
Each province of Tamriel has their own landscape, culture and architecture. While no region is exclusively inhabited by one people there is always one predominant species. Each Elder Scrolls game focuses on a different region of Tamriel. Generally the people inhabiting Tamriel can be divided into men, elves and those who are neither.
At the heart of Tamriel lies the human Empire of Cyrodiil, a rich land with temperate to sub-tropical climate. At the centre of Cyrodiil lies the Imperial City from where the human emperor and the imperial council rule their realm. West of Cyrodiil lies Hammerfell, a large province of mountains, deserts and grasslands that gained sovereignty from the Empire. It is the home of the dark-skinned human Redguard. High Rock is a peninsula in the north-western sea belonging to the Empire. It is mainly inhabited by humans known as Bretons who mostly live in small villages among the ruins of ancient castles and fortifications. The north of High Rock is populated by the barbarian Orcs. East of High Rock and north of Cyradiil lies Skyrim, the third human province. It is a rugged and frosty land inhabited by the Nords, a tough and strong people.
East of Skyrim and Cyrodiil lies Morrowind, which in theory is also part of the Empire, but is de-facto controlled by local groups. It is a strange land mostly inhabited by Dark Elves. South of Morrowind lies Black Marsh, a densely vegetated swamp populated by the reptilian Argonians. As it was impossible to conquer this area permanently it is an independent province. West of Black March and south of Cyrodiil lies Elsweyr, a land of both jungles and deserts which is home to the feline Kajiit. In other provinces they usually appear as shady merchants.
In the south-west of Tamriel lies Valenwood, a dense and wild rain forest inhabited by Wood Elves. Their clans live in settlements built on walking trees, scattered across the forest. In the ocean west of Valenwood lie the Summerset Isles, home of the proud High Elves. It is a beautiful and fertile land but visitors are not welcome here.
At some time in the past Tamriel was also populated by dwarves. Their mines, advanced technology and artefacts can still be found in various places while the people themselves disappeared for unknown reasons. They probably rose to a higher form of existence.
The Elder Scrolls
The Elder Scrolls which give their name to the game series are a number of ancient artefacts which allegedly were brought to Tamriel by the Aedra themselves, or they may be even older than them. These scrolls tell of various important events which lie either in the past or a possible future. They reveal their secrets only to trained individuals who in return slowly go blind or even lose their sanity while reading them.
Although the scrolls themselves hardly ever appear in the games, each story is thought to be foretold by them.
A typical Elder Scrolls game starts out with the player being a prisoner in a strange land who gains freedom. During the first few minutes of the game they have to decide on a name and gender of their character as well as their race, which usually can be one of the ten different races living in Tamriel. Each race has different traits and weaknesses. There may be other choices like a character class and a star sign that gives a certain bonus. Developing and improving the abilities and equipment of the player-character is a major aspect of each game.
After a few minutes of introduction that sets off the main story, the player is released to the world where they can roam around freely. By following clues and talking to people many different stories will unfold. There are many places to discover, ancient artefacts to unearth and magic to learn. The player can decide to join many different groups with different interests, forge their own armour and weapons and collect and trade valuable goods. Some of the games even allow the player to own a house and have companions that follow them around to help them in battle and to carry their items. It is possible to help all kinds of people or sneak into their houses to steal their treasures - or both. If you like, go and murder them in a dark alley to steal their belongings. Just don't get caught by the guards!
Every Elder Scrolls game has one main story that is told during its course, but whether the player wants to follow this lead and at which speed is entirely their own decision. It is often advisable to first collect some good equipment before going along that road. Only those who take a little time and explore Tamriel will see the whole complexity and depth of the game worlds, those who rush through the game will miss the best. There are uncounted details to discover.
Additionally every game can be played in various ways, so you easily get hundreds of hours of gameplay out of one Elder Scrolls game.
Games of the Series
Arena was originally planned to be a fighting game but as the game was developed it became more and more of a role-playing game - but the packaging was already printed, so the name stayed. At the time of its release it was probably the largest computer game world ever created, simulating the whole continent of Tamriel. It was also larger than later Elder Scrolls games2. This was possible through the use of lots of randomly generated content, which took pre-designed elements like buildings and vegetation and combined them in new ways every time the player would enter an area. Arena has hundreds of dungeons to explore, which the player's computer creates randomly when they enter. The game has one of the first realistic day and night cycles in a computer game. The CD version of the game even already featured some voice acting (the first release came on eight floppy disks).
Arena tells the story of how the emperor is deceived by his trusted mage and teleported to Oblivion. To bring him back the player has to find the pieces of a magical staff which were scattered all over Tamriel. Compared to the later games Arena's story is still quite linear and side stories are short and similar to each other.
Despite initial problems Arena developed to a cult among gamers. It also set new standards for the genre of role-playing games. A free download of the game is available but you need a DOS emulator to play it.
Daggerfall allows the player to customise their own magic spells and enchantments for equipment. It features various guilds and organisations the player can become part of and depending on their standing with them characters will have different reactions to the player. Again, parts of the game are randomly generated from pre-designed elements.
The game is set in High Rock and Hammerfall and had the second largest game world in the series. Daggerfall is the name of a kingdom and major city in High Rock. The story is about laying the ghost of the former king of Daggerfall to rest and restoring the power of an ancient giant brass golem which was built by the dwarves. In the course of the game various factions want to gain control of it. Depending on who controls the golem in the end, the story has a few different conclusions.
Just like its predecessor, Daggerfall set new standards in designing role-playing games. The realism and openness of the world it was set in was incredible at the time of its release.
Platform: PC, Xbox
Morrowind has a much smaller but also much more detailed and realistic game world than its predecessors. This is due to the fact that Bethesda reacted to complaints that the randomly arranged elements of their worlds seemed too repetitive. Designing all towns and landscapes by hand however restricted the size of the area depicted in game but made it possible to feature a diverse collection of landscapes and architecture. There are also realistic weather effects.
At the beginning of the game the player is a prisoner who arrives on the island Vvardenfell, which is part of Morrowind. It is unclear why they are set free there, but it happens on the Emperor's command. The player then gets various tasks from the Emperor's secret agents who operate in the area and begins to discover what seems to be the player's foretold destiny. The main story can be played in various ways and after it is resolved the player can go on exploring the world and playing side-stories.
Morrowind was the first Elder Scrolls game with music written by Jeremy Soule, who made the soundtrack for many well-known games, including for instance Guild Wars. He created the well-known Elder Scrolls theme music, which from then on was used in different variations and orchestration as the main theme in all games. While Morrowind features flutes and violins, in Oblivion for instance the theme is played at a faster pace with trumpets.
Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Oblivion is set in Cyrodiil, where the player is a prisoner in the imperial city. By chance they are freed by the emperor who flees through the dungeons from attacking assassins. Shortly before his death the emperor gives the player his amulet which they are supposed bring to the grand master of his agents. There it is revealed that due to the death of the emperor, the gates to Oblivion will open. The rightful heir of the throne has to be found.
The game won several awards and ranks high in the lists of most popular games of all time. The world has even more depth than before and the behaviour of in-game characters got more realistic. Oblivion is the first game of the series which has all conversations with in-game characters completely spoken by voice actors. Emperor Uriel Septim was voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart, who even won an award for this work (his son was voiced by Sean Bean). The music by Jeremy Soule won an MTV video music award.
Together with two other players, Sir Terry Pratchett worked on mods for Oblivion, writing text for 'Vilja', an added companion character. This can follow and help the player in the game3. The game also inspired the goblins in the Discworld novel Snuff
Platform: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch
In Skyrim the player starts out as a prisoner on a horse-drawn cart on its way to an execution site at a village. Before the player's execution can be performed a huge dragon attacks the village. This makes it possible for the player to flee. They find themselves alone in the wilderness of Skyrim where a civil war rages and the return of the dragon Alduin foreshadows the prophesised end of the world. On the other hand the Elder Scrolls also tell about a person known as the last Dragonborn who is destined to defeat Alduin once and for all.
In Skyrim the player can freely choose their character's skills without being restricted by a character class. Character development is therefore even freer than in the previous games. The player improves their character's skills during the course of the game just by actually using them. With improved weather effects and in-game character behaviour the world of Skyrim is also more realistic. Skyrim includes a huge amount of spoken dialogue by a large number of different voice actors. The dragon Paarthurnax for instance is voiced by Charles Andre Martinet, who has also been the voice of Mario in the Super Mario series since the early 90s.
With over 30 million games sold, Skyrim ranges close to the top 10 bestselling video games of all time. Within only two days after release the game had sold over 3.5 million copies. The Nintendo version of the game includes the option to play as Link from The Legend of Zelda games series.
The Elder Scrolls VI
Platform: probably PC and next generation consoles (eg Playstation 5)
A short teaser trailer for this game was released in 2018, showing a flight over a rocky landscape at the sea. The most plausible theory seems to be that it shows a part of High Rock.
Two spin-off role-playing games were made which are set in the Elder Scrolls universe: Battlespire (1997) is the only Elder Scrolls game featuring a multiplayer mode; Redguard (1998) is a prequel to the main series being set about 400 years before Arena.
The Elder Scrolls Travels is a series of three mobile phone games released in 2003 and 2004 in which the player explores various dungeons.
The Elder Scrolls Online was released in 2014 and attempted to transfer the universe of the Elder Scrolls games to an MMORPG. It managed to both absolutely fail at conjuring the atmosphere and depth of an Elder Scrolls game as well as re-create all of the more unfortunate aspects of older online games. Still many people seem to enjoy it.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends (2017) is a digital card game which can be played on computer or phones. It features both single-player and multiplayer modes and can be played for free.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades (2019) is a game for mobile phones and Nintendo Switch. It features a rather complex skill and fighting system and has quests and dungeons to explore. You can create your in-game character from all the usual different races. The main goal is to rebuild a town.
Choose your own path
What is better - to be born good or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?
- Paarthurnax, Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls is a very popular and successful games series, but still has never been copied successfully. It is unique in the freedom it offers to the players and the large varieties in stories you can see by playing the game multiple times. The depth of the in-game world is astounding and the work you can put into improving your character's skill is taken to a whole new level. As the games are open-ended you can in theory go on playing indefinitely.
Although The Elder Scrolls games are set in a fantasy world, the graphics style is mostly realistic. Even the elves are not that pretty or glittery. Buildings and other objects are designed with attention to the landscape and climate.
The Elder Scrolls games are definitely not for gamers who are only looking for quick success. They are made for people who really enjoy games that tell a story and are not afraid to spend a long time exploring and trying different things.