Worldbuilding and Storytelling in Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age

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Akhi Pillalamarri
Web Content Contributor
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Storytelling and world-building in games can be quite hit or miss for me. Therefore, in this post, I will examine two first-person role-playing fantasy games (RPGs) that I feel possess both good stories and well-developed lore: the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age

While I’ve played other games with interesting story-lines, such as Halo, those types of games are generally constrained by a linear story-line and predetermined consequences. However, the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age games are characterized by multiple plot-lines (quests), rich historical lore, and interactive characters with distinctive personalities which change based upon the player’s actions toward them. These games are ideal for people who already like fantasy novels — in particular, fantasy-readers may enjoy following different point-of-view (PoV) characters in different places and getting to know different worlds in great depth and detail. After all, fantasy readers experience epic series such as A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), the Lord of the Rings (LoTR) and the Wheel of Time (WoT), all of which unveil incredibly detailed and rich worlds filled with hundreds of distinct characters.

This is also true of the Elder Scrolls games and the Dragon Age series. Summarizing all of the plotlines of the games in these series will not be possible in this short post, but suffice to say that games like Morrowind, OblivionSkyrim (Elder Scrolls), Dragon Age: Origins, and Dragon Age: Inquisition are well developed fantasy role-playing games where the player plays as a first-person character and has the option of completing both a main quest-line and side quests, while exploring the worlds of Tamriel (Elder Scrolls) and Thedas (Dragon Age).  If you’re interested in learning about the lore, I recommend checking out these excellent videoseries on YouTube that focus on the history and lore of the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age respectively.

The medium of gaming lets the elements of storytelling and worldbuilding express themselves differently than in novels. In my view, compared to novels in general, worldbuilding is more satisfying and storytelling less compelling in the two fantasy game series this post covers.

Why do I think so?

First of all, obviously, games allow you to visualize and move around in constructed worlds. There is almost no constraint on wandering around in the open world of the Elder Scrolls games. Dragon Age, too, allows you to wander around, though it is a bit more constrained; nonetheless, there is significant freedom to explore specific areas that you can revisit anytime you wish. Consequently, you can get to know every nook and corner of Tamriel and Thedas featured in their respective games in detail and for as long as you want. Your own constraint is the game designer’s limitations on detail. On the other hand, in a novel, you’re always only where the author wants you to be. If the author is describing a room, you’re limited to what the author wants to write about; you can’t just wander about in the room to look at the cupboard, the architecture, or the local food. This is a particular delight for me when I played Skyrim, where each castle, keep, and hall is distinct and unique. Fantasy role playing games, by being more immersive, allow for more indirect worldbuilding not related to the actual plotline. You can experience distinct mountains and forests just by walking through them in these games.

The only thing you miss out on is the level of realistic scale that you can’t achieve in a game. If games are designed to accurately represent thousands of miles of territory, you’d spend hours walking around. Although, it is important to note that the second Elder Scrolls game, Daggerfall, is an exception to that informal rule, as the player does spend a great amount of time walking around.

The scale of the game is the size of Great Britain: around 229,848 square kilometers (88,745 square miles), though the actual size of the map is 161,600 km² (62,394 mi²). The game world features over 15,000 towns, cities, villages, and dungeons for the player’s character to explore. According to Todd Howard, game director and executive producer for Bethesda, the game’s sequel, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, is 0.01% the size of Daggerfall, but some aspects of Daggerfall‘s terrain were randomly generated, like the wilderness and some building interiors. The explorable part of Morrowind, Vvardenfell, is 24 km² (9.3 mi²).By comparison, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is approximately 56.97 km² (22 mi²), and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is 37.1 km² (14.3 mi²), with a quarter of this terrain as unplayable, as it is stuck behind invisible borders.” (taken from Wikipedia)

In addition to exploring well-crafted worlds, the societal and historical aspects of worldbuilding are developed more richly in these games than in most novels. Again, this is due to the differences between a game as a medium versus a novel; the difference between a large canvas in which the player can move freely, versus the linear fashion in which a reader must consume a written story. For example, there are various guilds and secret societies that have nothing to do with the main plot in the Elder Scrolls, such as the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves Guild. While novels may be able to mention such tangential groups and even include characters from them, it is unlikely that an author can take the reader through all the various guilds that exist in her/his world without boring the reader or expanding the series to dozens of books.

The best thing about games, though, is lore. Many fantasy series have deep and interesting histories. However, novels simply do not allow the sort of realistic immersive experience you gain in real life where you pick up lore from a variety of different conservations and random books lying around. I described this experience here in my previous post on lore as encompassing “narration, stories, passages from books, conversation, and the like.” This is exactly the sort of thing the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age allow.

As the videos mentioned before demonstrate, there’s a lot of lore you can derive from these games. And unlike novels, where you only have mentions and passages the author chooses to show you, you can walk around in these games and actually read books, many of which amount to novellas or chronicles. There are 820 unique books in Skyrim. There is a limit in novels to how much random lore and history you can pack in. The main character generally cannot stay the entire time in a library reading books, the content of which would also be presented in the novel. The plot has to move forward in the limited pages of the book.

For all the wonders that games can do for world building, they are as yet constrained in their storytelling abilities.

A drawback of storytelling in games is this: while you can have multiple stories and plots due to the presence of multiple quest lines in different locales, these exist independently of each other and can be picked up or dropped as the player wills for the most part (expect major quests). This gives the impression that time doesn’t really move or respond to the player.  The constraints of first person play means you cannot follow many characters in many places all at once. The storytelling device wherein you can have many different points of view characters doing different times at the same time is limited in fantasy roleplaying games.

In terms of actual storylines, both the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age games have better than average storylines complete with interesting characters and competing factions. However, which they lack is the great level of complexity and depth in storytelling that one finds in a good fantasy novel. And this is again due to the nature of the game as the medium. Characters are not designed to say very many interesting or witty things, or banter too much. There’s a limit to what you can say to them and what they can say to you. They’re mostly designed as accessories to the gameplay itself. This is true to a greater extent in the Elder Scrolls than in Dragon Age.

In Elder Scrolls, some characters in these games may change their attitude toward you based on in-game options, but in a generally predictable manner. There is not of the deep-seated love, fear, anger, or hate that seem to naturally arise in real human-like characters. Skyrim uses a feature known as Radiant Story to personalize each player’s storyline. This is successful to an extent. For example, “murders an non-player character (NPC), the family and community may find out, which may trigger a related quest or initialize an attack by assassins.” However, this is really a matter of cause and effect rather than a motive arising from deep and complicated factors. Nonetheless, it makes the game more fun than simply wandering around and doing set quests.

While not as good as a complex novel, storytelling is much better in Dragon Age than the Elder Scrolls. So far, I’ve mostly been treating the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age as one unit in order to compare them with novels. However, there are significant differences between them that should also be noted. As I mentioned above, the world of Tamriel (Elder Scrolls) is more open and developed in its entirety. In Skyrim, you can walk from place to place via road and explore any random cave, tree, or what not on the way. However, in Dragon Age, you can only explore specific villages, towns, and castles in detail. The world is segmented, because there is little scope to see what’s in between. This makes, in my view, the Elder Scrolls games more enduring than Dragon Age, because you can keep on coming back to them to simply keep on walking around. In Dragon Age, you can wander around and explore buildings to your heart’s content but there are fewer random inns, bars, and shops since only important buildings are developed. This is not to say that Dragon Age has terrible worldbuilding; far from it. The architecture of the buildings is just as distinct and stunning as in the Elder Scrolls, and various political dynasties and religious institutions have well-developed lore associated with them.

But its forte lies in using worldbuilding to light up its storytelling. This is because Dragon Age is more purpose oriented: it utilizes characters, religious institutions like the Chantry, and political developments met through doing quests in order to advance the story. Therefore, by necessity, characters are complex, though much of this complexity is designed and predictable. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, you can carry on a romance with one of numerous side characters, who gradually fall for you if you execute the right set of moves and words as the game goes on. You can also make other characters jealous, demonstrating that the in-game characters respond to each other’s feelings in a way not true in the Elder Scrolls.

One of the best aspects of Dragon Age games are that they contained specific quests that amounted to long cut scenes where the character interacts with other characters in pivotal aspect of the story (in a battle, ball, or dungeon for example). My favorite moment in Dragon Age: Inquisition was a scenario, which lasted a couple of hours, where I wandered around at a royal masquerade ball, hobnobbing with guests (“networking”), foiling assassinations, stealing secrets, and generally preparing the social vibe of the room for the climax of the event, where I got to choose the ruler of the nation of Orlais from one among three guests at the event. Because interactions with characters in Dragon Age are more personal then in the Elder Scrolls, the daily political and social dynamics also come across as more personal. For example, relations between Elves and Humans are often strained in Dragon Age and there are many incidents of race-based violence and even attempted rape in Dragon Age: Origins  that color this. Social relations are less meaningful in Elder Scrolls, where often you just read about such and such wars between different races in lore-books. 

However, the problem with the Dragon Age games is this: between such interesting events, the game is rather bland. You can’t wander around to the extent you would in the Elder Scrolls. And even when you do explore one of the segmented sections of Thedas (Dragon Age’s world), you’re not as invested in the nooks and corners the way you are in Elder Scrolls. Once you finish a Dragon Age game’s main quest, you’re less likely to come back to keep on exploring the world. Essentially, the advantage that the Elder Scrolls has over Dragon Age is that no matter how good Dragon Age’s storytelling is, it won’t be able to match up to the complexity of a novel’s; subsequently, if a game wants to really stand out and make the most of its distinct medium, having an open and developed world is a good idea.

All in all, despite these differences, the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age both provide models of how games can develop storytelling and worldbuilding in ways that are different from novels, by making the most of their specific mediums.


Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.

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