Published Nov 28, 2011Climbing up an icy ridge, one of a seemingly endless supply here in Skyrim, the northernmost province of the sprawling continent of Tamriel, I was stopped in my tracks by the Aurora Borealis splayed out across the night sky. Though I'd fought off a few wolves and the odd bandit while heading up into the hills, it was still a much-needed breather after nearly being beheaded in the town of Helgen, where I'd found myself on the wrong side of Skyrim's raging civil war but, ironically, on the right side of a dragon that had emerged from legend to burn the town down.
But one can only remain gobsmacked by nature's beauty for so long. Spying some ruins in the distance, I headed over to what turned out to be Bleak Falls Barrow, a massive underground temple. As the orchestral score increased intensity, I pulled out my battle axe, levelled up my fire spell and entered, ready to face whatever evil awaited below.
This is what Matt Carofano, the art director of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, dubs the game's "epic reality." Carofano has been working on the Bethesda Softworks series since 2002's Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, though he'd played the first sequel, 1996's Daggerfall, when he was in high school. Those early efforts, beginning with 1994's Arena, helped pioneer open-world gaming that emulated the freedom of pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. Still, the genre remained a geek culture niche until 2006 when Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, standing on the shoulders of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, hit consoles and took RPGs deep into the mainstream. But where LOTR told a monumental narrative, Elder Scrolls offered countless concurrent, interlocking narratives. I spent well over 90 hours on Oblivion and barely made it through half the main storyline because there was so much else to do. Skyrim is similarly sprawling with hundreds of quests and thousands of citizens and monsters populating its hand-crafted 16 square km landscape.
"We make a world first," Carofano explains. "We have some idea of what the story is gonna be, but we develop the world and let that develop the other parts of the game, from the creatures and characters who live in it to the kind of stories that are set in this environment. We also know that the player can do whatever they want — they can follow the main quest or they can go off on their own, so we tried to make a game that rewards them for going in any direction. They can tell their own story in the game that isn't the one we set up."
Though he says Bethesda has been inspired by other open-world games like Assassin's Creed and Red Dead Redemption, Elder Scrolls operates at an even higher level of ambition. What they may lack in storytelling, character development and graphical fidelity is more than made up for with the depth of their world-building. Bethesda creates lands that seem to exist whether you're playing in them or not and, five games in, Tamriel has earned its place amongst the fantasy pantheon of Middle Earth, Narnia, Krynn and Westeros.
Coming off of Oblivion, we realized we wanted to do a new setting and Skyrim was an obvious choice. I was excited about doing something that was little more rugged and darker. We wanted to show the culture of the Nords more than we had done in Oblivion, where it was a little more generic fantasy," he says.
Set 200 years after the Oblivion Crisis, Skyrim begins a new chapter driven by the return of dragons, which had been background lore up until now because the technology didn't exist to fully realize them. But as well as being freaking cool, the dragons are also emblematic of the series as a whole and the player's role within it.
They have a lot of unique behaviour and do their own thing in the world. We decide when and where we want dragons, but they make up their own decisions about how they're going to behave," Carofano says. "We set up lots of rules for how the various systems in the game work," he adds, "but a lot of it is setting it free into the world of Skyrim and seeing what happens."