The Elder Scrolls

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The Elder Scrolls (abbreviated as TES) is a computer role-playing game series developed by Bethesda Softworks.


For more information, see: Development history of The Elder Scrolls series.

The development of the series began in 1992, when the staff of Bethesda Softworks, which had until then been a predominantly sports game-producing company, decided to shift the focus of their upcoming Arena from arena combat into role-playing. The team, inspired by Ultima Underworld and Dungeons & Dragons, released the massive and open first-person RPG The Elder Scrolls: Arena in 1994 for DOS PC systems. The game began a tradition of games based on the principles of "[being] who you want and [doing] what you want" that have persisted throughout the series' history.

The next Elder Scrolls series game — The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall — was published in 1996. Fueled by the modest success of Arena, Daggerfall was even more ambitious than its predecessor. Daggerfall attempted to create a game world twice the size of Great Britain, rendered in a truly 3D engine, and build a skill-system that revolved around skill building rather than experience gains. Daggerfall suffered from that very ambition: Daggerfall, rushed to publication, was found "tortuously buggy." In the opinion of one commentator, despite Daggerfall's commercial success, "the game still bears the mark of bad code".

Following Daggerfall's release, Bethesda ceased any development on any numbered series title until 1998, developing in the interim The Elder Scrolls Legends: Battlespire, released in 1997, and The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard, released in 1998. Both games had a smaller focus than the numbered series titles: Battlespire was a linear action RPG; Redguard was a slightly less linear third-person action-adventure game. The games sold poorly, and Bethesda flirted with bankruptcy. Only with the cash influx brought by Bethesda's acquisition by the well-funded Zenimax in 1999, did Bethesda return to the fore.

With The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Bethesda tripled their staff and pushed again towards hardware-intensive gaming. Morrowind saw a return to the old-style expansive and non-linear gameplay, but also a shift towards individually detailed landscapes and items, and a smaller game-world than past titles. Morrowind was released on both the Xbox and the PC, and saw popular and critical success on both, selling upwards of 4 million units by mid 2005. Two expansions were quickly released for Morrowind between late 2002 and early 2003: The Elder Scrolls III: Tribunal, and The Elder Scrolls III: Bloodmoon.

Work began on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2002, immediately after Morrowind's publication. Oblivion focused on providing a tighter storyline; improved AI, courtesy of Bethesda's proprietary Radiant AI; improved physics, courtesy of the Havok engine (used in Half-Life 2); and impressive graphics. The game was released, following much press coverage, on the PC and Xbox 360 in early 2006, and the PlayStation 3 in early 2007. Bethesda released one content collection and one expansion pack for Oblivion in late 2006 and early 2007: The Elder Scrolls IV: Knights of the Nine and The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles.

In late October 2008, shortly after the release of Fallout 3, Bethesda's Publishing Executive, Paul Oughton, indicated that the series' fifth installment could be released maybe in 2010. Zenimax, the owner of Bethesda Softworks, had trademarked the name "Skyrim" in 2006, but its relation to the fifth installment of the series is uncertain. At QuakeCon 2009, Todd Howard was asked about a fifth game, he replied that while the series will continue, "don't look for a new Elder Scrolls game in the near future."

The Elder Scrolls release timeline

Game mechanics

For more information, see: Gameplay of The Elder Scrolls series.

The Elder Scrolls games can be safely categorized as role-playing games, although they do include elements taken from action and adventure games. In Arena, like in most RPGs, players advance by killing monsters (and thereby gaining experience points) until a preset value is met, whereupon they level-up. However, in Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion, the series took a unique, skill-based approach to character advancement. Players develop their characters' skills by applying them, and only level-up when a certain set of skills have been developed. Because of this, players are allowed immense flexibility and choice in character advancement. The flexibility of the games' engines has facilitated the release of game extensions (or mods) through The Elder Scrolls Construction Set.

The Elder Scrolls main series of games emphasizes different aspects of the gaming experience than most computer role-playing games. A brief by Joystiq in early November 2006 compared BioWare's creations to Bethesda's by noting a difference in emphasis. Bethesda's creations focused on "aesthetic presentation and open-ended adventuring"; BioWare's on a combat system and modular architecture. This overarching aim has been noted by their designers as well. Bethesda has described their motivations in creating the first series game, Arena, as those of any good pen-and-paper RPG: creating an environment in which the player could be what the player wants and do what the player wants. Daggerfall's manual begins with a sort of design manifesto, declaring the developers' intention to "create a book with blank pages", and "a game designed to encourage exploration and reward curiosity". Choices, in the form of paths taken by the player, to do good, to chase after evil, are left open to the player, "just like in real life". This design trend continued with Morrowind, following the hiatus of similarly epic games in the interim, though Joystiq's previously noted insistence on graphics came again to the fore. During the development of Morrowind, Bethesda tripled its staff, so as to perfectly colour its newly hand-made world. In their own words, "We knew we had to exceed the visual polish of the other games on the market, and we made it our goal to put The Elder Scrolls back into the forefront of game innovation." The Elder Scrolls series' emphasis on freedom remained. In the words of Bethesda's Morrowind Prophecies, "Experience it as you wish."

The series' grand ambitions have put some members of the gaming press into an apparent position of subdued scepticism prior to the release of each new game, incredulous as to Bethesda's capacity to surmount its obstacles. Nonetheless, whether this is a grab for reader interest or a true sentiment on behalf of the game press, such feelings evaporate by the end of each unvaryingly warm review the series' games receive.


The world of the Elder Scrolls is known for its attention to detail, attempted realism, and the vast number of names, dates, and places that constitute its history and the interconnected structure of its various societies, cultures, and religions. There is no one compilation of all information pertaining to the Elder Scrolls world, and, within the games, historical references are often vague or unclear. Players are encouraged to draw their own conclusions about situations and events for which the records are sparse, contradictory or incomplete.

The Elder Scrolls games take place on the world of Nirn in the continent of Tamriel, a large landmass divided into nine provinces. An exception is The Elder Scrolls Legends: Battlespire, which takes place between the realm of Oblivion (one of several alternate dimensions ruled by immortal Daedra) and the mortal realm of Mundus. There are other continents besides Tamriel on Nirn (such as Akavir), but there has yet to be an official game that takes place in one.


The key to the Elder Scrolls universe is the power of myth. Myths in Tamriel are drawn from both common folklore and the odd monster from Greek heroic tales. In Tamriel, racial memories from the dawn of the world affect the present in very real ways. Many major players in the Elder Scrolls universe (i.e. Tiber Septim, Vivec) harness this power, known in scholarly circles as mythopeia.

The Elder Scrolls places great emphasis on the idea of the dualism and equality of opposites. This dualism is not the Abrahamic dualism of good and evil, but more closely resembles a fusion of Eastern and pre-Christian Western beliefs on the subject, being the duality of order and chaos. These notions might be more exactly approximated using the words stasis (inert potential) and change (constant, random flux). Almost all Tamrielic religions strongly feature the idea that the universe was created through an intermingling of these two forces, often personified as entities unto themselves in creation stories. The many myths regarding Creation are all inherently similar and deal with one or more mythological characters representing these absolutes either procreating or engaging in combat (or both, as the case may be). Their actions represent a mythical pattern of behaviour and struggle that, when emulated, can affect the mundane world in dramatic ways. Creation's influence on the mortal world is the mythopeia mentioned previously. The thought experiment of the irresistible force is often invoked, and much of the Elder Scrolls theosophical lore is devoted to developing and examining hypotheses as to how such a thought experiment might actually play out on all levels, were (and if) it metaphysically possible.

Another theme is the struggle between individualism and collectivism, which is represented on a cosmic scale and also by the beliefs of cultures such as the Dwemer.

The Scrolls

The Elder Scrolls themselves play a major (if often unseen) role in the storyline of the series. In T.E.S. lore, it takes a powerful mystic to read the Scrolls, and interpretations are never absolute. They are used much like an over-complex and difficult divinatory tarot. One "tunes" them to a specific time and place through a mystical ritual, and then interprets the assorted symbolism and iconography which appear on the otherwise blank or incomprehensible parchment. In Oblivion, there is a sect of monks, known as the Order of the Ancestor Moths that devote their lives to the reading and interpreting of the Scrolls. The more advanced members who actually read the scrolls wear blindfolds at all times when they are not divining the Elder Scrolls, and are instructed to use their eyes for this purpose only. Retired Moth Priests are completely blind and continue to wear the blindfold, apparently for ceremonial purposes. At times, however, cosmically important individuals, or individuals that are the subject of prophecy, have been able to see writing on the Scrolls without the associated rituals. It is said that when any event has actually occurred then it sets itself unchangeably into the scrolls, and no action, magical or otherwise, can change this.

In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the Elder Scrolls themselves are the object of the final Thieves Guild quest, "The Ultimate Heist", in which the player must steal an Elder Scroll from the Imperial Palace. This is one of the most difficult quests in the game. Though the player can pick up the scroll and add it to his/her inventory, he/she cannot read it: the scroll appears as an incomprehensible chart containing glyphs transcribed upon an arrangement closely resembling the constellation known as "The Thief".