We chat to the series' co-creator as we look back on one of that generation's defining games and those that came before it.
Here's a list of things The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion is older than: Michael Bay's Transformers, My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade, The Big Bang Theory, and Gears of War. When it was released, Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie had yet to hit cinemas, the as-yet-unreleased PS3 still had a boomerang-shaped controller, and Iron Man was a B-Tier Marvel hero that seemed a strange choice for a feature film.
This weekend, Bethesda's seminal RPG turns 15. The fourth installment of the iconic series would prove monumental for the company, bringing in more players than ever before thanks to a simultaneous launch on Xbox 360 and PC. From the vast open-world of Cyrodiil, which demonstrated the power of the latest generation of consoles, to the use of bonafide Hollywood talent in some of the voice-work, Oblivion was a benchmark and a sea-change all at once.
To celebrate Oblivion becoming a proper teenager, we caught up with series co-creator Ted Peterson, who contributed to the first four mainline Elder Scrolls games, to talk about making Oblivion, its legacy, and the early years of the Elder Scrolls series.
“We'd always said that The Elder Scrolls 4 would be Oblivion,” Ted tells me. “Exactly what Elder Scrolls 3 was going to be went back-and-forth quite a bit, but we'd always been thinking that that was going to be the title of the fourth one. Daggerfall is the first time we reference Oblivion as being a place and Daedras being a thing, so when they said they were doing Oblivion, that was not news.”
Indeed, a late-game Daggerfall quest involves mages accidentally opening a portal to Oblivion, causing a load of Daedric enemies to spill into Mundus. Sound familiar? The lore surrounding the Daedra has shifted considerably over the years; Ted wrote them as demons first in Arena, then changed them to better suit the mythology of Daggerfall, and they've continued to evolve since, but the notion of a cross-dimensional conflict was there.
Oblivion is inextricable, in my mind at least, from the Xbox 360, and nothing demonstrated the 360's “Jump in” tagline more than the opening. After being pardoned and broken out of prison, you're given a royal mission by Emperor Uriel Septum, who is then promptly assassinated in front of you. You escape the sewer and can explore as you see fit. That first hour, from tiny jail cell to feeling the scope of Cyrodiil, was mesmerizing, and that you could do it on a wireless controller felt like the start of a new era. Ted speaks highly of the way Oblivion carried one of the series' hallmarks, though on first impression it wasn't quite what he expected.
“I think, philosophically, we'd done that in Arena and Daggerfall. You go through a dungeon and then pop out on the other side to free-range gameplay. I'm glad that [Oblivion] continued that tradition to a large degree,” He explains. “One of my reactions, just from being into the lore of the world, was that in the pocket guide to the empire that came out with The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard, it referenced the imperial province as being this jungle. When you enter into this world, you go, 'Well, this is more of a European-style forest, OK, that's different. Not quite what I was picturing.”
The emphasis on a console launch did breed some contrasts between Oblivion and its predecessors. Mapping everything to a controller meant fewer options for skills. In fact, there’s a little bit less of everything: side quests, guilds, and even the variety of scenery is reduced compared to Morrowind. Over the years, Bethesda has suffered criticism for this, Morrowind often ranking higher than Oblivion among fans, and Ted acknowledges he and Todd had different ways of manifesting their worlds.
“I have an 'everything and the kitchen sink' design philosophy. It's a giant toybox – do we have vampires? Yeah, throw in vampires, throw in werewolves, throw in witches, and whatever else. And dozens of skills, some of which, honestly, were not implemented particularly well in earlier games,” Ted says. “I think a very defensible philosophy is 'Let's do fewer things and do them better'. It's not the way I usually approach things, but I would definitely defend that as a smart way to make a game.”
Simplicity is fundamental to many of Oblivion's design choices. Cyrodiil was used as a setting in part because Todd, and lead designer Ken Rolston, wanted to move back toward the classic Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy of Daggerfall and Arena. The cornerstone of the Empire made a brief appearance in Arena, and if an invasion was going to be the thrust of the story, where better than the location of the throne itself?
“In the first Elder Scrolls, the imperial province existed, but it was just one city, and when you collected all the pieces of the staff, you could travel there. You just went into the main town, and then you were kicked out, so you didn't get to visit any of the rest of it,” Ted says. “It was kind of a clean slate to draw on, and then, if the game's called Oblivion, and it's about the planes of Oblivion opening up and causing all this havoc, you want it set somewhere important, like where the emperor lives. And if you know the player's going to be visiting Oblivion from time-to-time, then having the mundane world be as mundane as possible, looking just like you imagine a traditional campaign setting would be, it lends itself to better contrast.”
One major change Oblivion made to the series was the addition of restrictions to save you from yourself. Important NPCs became unkillable, and you couldn't sell or dump important items until their use was fulfilled. This is counter to the branching structure of Elder Scrolls and its forebears, where consequences for behaviour take precedent over barriers – if you kill someone necessary to your questline, Morrowind tells you to reload or “continue in this doomed world.”
Ted gives me an anecdote from Ultima Underworld 2, where he decided to kill the king after earning an audience. After he's subdued and arrested, the king reappears with a vague platitude about being prepared for assassins. His “psychotic break” was then mentioned in later dialogue, the game acknowledging and remembering what he did, but not letting it railroad his current save. This shaped much of Arena, Daggerfall, and Morrowind, and its absence is another “defensible philosophy” where he and Bethesda now differ.
“I believe in role-playing games you should have the freedom to do whatever you want, but there will be consequences for it. It's probably good not to have the player have the opportunity to make really fatal errors early on in the game,” he says. “If the important NPC is some homeless guy outside the town that you first encounter, then maybe you're going to try out your dagger on him, then you don't want to ruin your game on that. But if it's a king, and you've taken a long time to get an audience with him, and you decide to attack him, then yeah there's going to be consequence. I don't think it should be the end of the game, but you'd have to be really dumb not to expect something from killing kings.”
That said, the Elder Scrolls has always been accustomed to change and weathering feedback from its community. Character progression was one of the early controversies; the skill-based system today was born out of the old school D'n'D system where you leveled up through experience points by defeating monsters, “like when we were kids,” as Ted describes.
Between Arena and Daggerfall, where Ted became one of the lead designers, there was an idea for players to carry the same character through every Elder Scrolls, like the first three Wizardry games from the early eighties, capitalizing on the “Chapter One” in Arena's full title. But so many systems changed and evolved, and Daggerfall became such a different game to the first, that this became untenable, and Ted remembers enduring some blowback when delivering the news.
“Because Arena was released on CD-ROM, and partly because we were working on Daggerfall at the time, it was always our philosophy that you should be able to move your single character through all of these adventures,” He remembers. “We realized, it might have been well into development, that because we changed so many systems about how characters advance and were created, that they just weren't compatible anymore. So we had to release out a 'Sorry', and we'd mentioned in interviews that this was a possibility. The backlash was not as strong as I was afraid it was going to be.”
Ted describes the development of Daggerfall as being a slog, a feature-heavy sequel that incorporated more role-playing, and used procedural generation for its dungeons. He talks about the freeform approach the team had to creating the lore on the first two Elder Scrolls, putting down ideas on the fly as they came up. “I remember us literally creating, on a piece of paper the size of somebody's desk, the map of Tamriel, and a bunch of little where all the cities would be,” he says. “People would come into the office, they would say, 'Oh, I'd an idea for a city name', and they'd write down Ebonheart at this location, and just gradually filling it out.”
The same is true for certain mechanics, often derived from whatever games, tabletop or otherwise were being played by the developers. “I know we put vampires into Daggerfall late in the development cycle, and that was a combination of conversations with some of the fans, and the fact the pen-and-paper role-playing system Vampire: The Masquerade had come out, and we were enjoying playing that,” Ted states, “so we were into the world of vampires and werewolves. It wasn't part of the initial design.”
After Daggerfall in 1996, Ted left Bethesda, returning as a contractor for Morrowind and Oblivion. Between Daggerfall and Morrowind, Bethesda released two spinoffs, The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard, and An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire. Neither got a warm reception, but each is important in its own way. The former was Todd Howard's first time as project lead, and the latter included online multiplayer, a notion that had been floating around Bethesda for some time.
“We were trying to get multiplayer in Arena, and we continued to try. It's a hard feature to implement, especially given the technology we had at the time,” Ted recalls. “It was a feature that kept getting dropped, and I know Julian [LeFay] was very enthusiastic about it, so I think part of it with Battlespire was to say 'Let's concentrate on a few things', and one of those was the multiplayer aspect.”
Battlespire didn't do well commercially or critically, but releasing around the same time as MMORPGs like The Realm Online, Meridian 59, and Ultima Online did make Bethesda think twice about scrapping the idea of an MMO altogether. Early conversations about an Elder Scrolls Online started to take place, and some wise decisions about priorities within Bethesda itself were made.
“I'd say at least, in the early days of MMOs with Ultima Online and things like that, there were discussions about doing an Elder Scrolls online,” Ted says. “But they smartly didn't do it in-house, and said 'OK, we're going to make sure that for those people that want that online experience, we're going to do that, but it's not going to be set in the same era, and we're going to continue to do the massive single-player games.'”
One of the ways Oblivion set itself apart from the series to date was the inclusion of a voice cast, Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean among the performers. Arena on CD-ROM had some voice work, but nothing on the level of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Professor Charles Xavier talking to the player. Bringing in such talent spoke to Bethesda's standing as a studio, but did mean a trade-off for scenes that involved those characters – you're not likely to get Patrick Stewart to record dozens of variations for any and every way a player can act at any given moment.
“I think everyone was excited when we got to the stage where Bethesda had enough money to hire these people,” Ted says. “But whether Patrick Stewart wants to read a particular thing or not, you also know that you probably can't have him read thousands of hours worth of dialogue either. It forces you to be linear if you're going to use a person for a limited amount of time. You don't want them to address your player's name, or referencing your gender, or your character's class. You have to know how you're going to use him in the game, though I think there's always a way to work around it.”
In terms of the first four games, Ted believes that each of the Elder Scrolls is a reaction to the last. Daggerfall was wilfully complex in response to complaints that Arena was too straightforward, and then it was decided Morrowind would have one ending instead of multiple, but if you read the lore, you get some added perspective that throws into question whether you were the real hero. Oblivion's fairly cut-and-dry in that the Daedra are clearly evil and should be stopped, with a limited opposing view.
“When changing from demons to Daedra in the second one, we'd always said, 'They're not really demons, they're not really evil', as much as possible, we want this to be shades of grey,” Ted explains. “In Oblivion, there are not many shades of grey. It's Daedra of destruction who are coming through a thing that looks like the Eye of Sauron, and the landscape is literally hell. In some of the add-ons, like Shivering Isles and things like that, they said 'We're going to explore a little of these shades of grey a bit more.'”
Ted couldn't be involved in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim due to other engagements, but the game still bears his mark. The quest 'The Wolf Queen Awakens' is a direct reference to The Wolf Queen, a series of in-game books he first wrote for Morrowind. The door remains open on both sides, he still gets invited to all the Bethesda parties, and there's been “no official parting of the ways.”
He's since started a new studio, Once Lost Games, with old Elder Scrolls teammates LeFay, and Vijay Lakshman, the directors of Daggerfall and Arena, respectively. In a sense, they're starting fresh, with full creative freedom in their own company, but in another they're getting back to unfinished business, to explore things they couldn't in the nineties. Carrying a character from one game to the next, not unlike Commander Shepard in BioWare's Mass Effect trilogy, is something Ted still wants to have a crack at.
It's hard to understate the kind of success Oblivion brought for Bethesda – the game is a cultural ubiquity for the latter half of the noughties, the map of Cyrodiil that came in the case a staple of teenage bedrooms. Once Lost Games’ first project is Wayward Realms, and as Bethesda continues to garner a mainstream audience, they’re aiming for the people who remember when the imperial province was still a mystery, and what the Daedra were depended on what game you played.
“You can run into the problem where you're trying to be a game for everybody, and we are not,” Ted says. “We're basically saying 'What if this was 1994, with all of the technology of today around, and we were also older and smarter?'”
“We're making the game that we wish we had made.”