Not every game developer has a specialist job title reserved for "Lead Lorekeeper," but not every game is The Elder Scrolls Online. The MMORPG is one of the biggest incarnations yet of a franchise spanning years, multiple sequels, and countless reams of story told by both quests and supplemental books scattered throughout the world.
Lawrence Schick is Lead Lorekeeper, a job title as fantastical as the game he oversees. Shacknews visited his office in Maryland for an in-depth discussion of crafting fiction around multiple perspectives, the collaborative process of using lore in game development, and why story needs to get out of the player's way.
There's a lot of material in every Elder Scrolls. No matter how big or small the project is, there's a ton of things to go through. So where do you even start? What is a typical day in your workflow?
Well I'm kind of on everybody's team, so I’m not sure I have a typical day.
It depends on where we are in the in the product cycle. Right now we are putting [Elder Scrolls Online] Morrowind to bed so I'm involved in promotional work. I've got a Skype interview on Saturday. And so that's where we are on the cycle on that.
Then there is our next DLC which we haven't announced yet, coming up fourth quarter and that's in the middle of full content development. So I am reviewing quests as they’re put together. I'm also one of the lead writers so I'm responsible not just for “Is this lore compliant with the Elder Scrolls?” but “Is this a good story? Are these characters fully fleshed out?"
We're going on into our next big chapter beyond that, which we also haven’t announced, and that's in the planning stages. And so I'm working with those folks on what this area about, what's the culture of these people, what do they care about, what are the conflicts that we're going to have? Who are the important characters in here? Who are the rulers? Who are the heads of the factions that are going to be the leading characters in the storyline? What recurring characters do we have from previous areas that are going to be appearing here and what's there? You know, who are they and what's their voice–that kind of stuff. So I'm working on sort of the 30,000 foot overview of the area.
That’s kind of the three different stages of content. I'm working with all of them as they go along. I also working with the concept artists who are coming up with the architecture you see, and the creatures, the armor and weapons and clothing of all the people who live in this area and who are invading this area.
It sounds like the life cycle of the project is, you're involved in all the stages of it. There's this scenario development where it’s the big picture, a thousand feet above. Then it goes into a nitty-gritty writing phase which you’re also involved in and then once that's wrapped you're on promotion, talking about what this adds to the story.
Exactly. And you know, through all of that, what I'm doing as far as the Elder Scrolls lore is concerned–the world of Tamriel is not like Tolkien's Middle-earth or George R. Martin's Westeros where you've got one lore-daddy who decides everything that happens and what he says is what goes. What's in the Silmarillion and what's in the appendices of Lord of the Rings, this is all ex cathedra, right? This is incontrovertible backstory.
The world of The Elder Scrolls, because it was developed over a period of over 20 years by a lot of people, and a lot of designers have had a hand in it, there been a lot of contributions from fans and it’s a very active community in Elders scrolls fandom. So what you have here, instead of a top down designed world, is you have this sort of collaborative fantasy world that's been built from the contributions of many different people and looked at very differently from all different sorts of fans.
And so we don't present anything in the world of The Elder Scrolls as gospel truth. There's no Tolkien saying, "This is what happened." Everything is presented from the viewpoint of somebody actually in the work. So everything is somebody’s opinion which means that the world can be not just really rich and diverse but even contradictory. Just like in our own world, you know opinions differ about what's true and what's real. And we don't settle those questions. We let those questions be voiced by the characters in the game. So every time we're delivering some kind of lore in the game, you're getting it on two levels. You're getting 'what this place is about?' This person is telling you what the city is about and who runs things here. But you're also getting their viewpoints and their cultural agenda. And you can't necessarily trust everything that you're told by anybody.
Can you give an example from Skyrim or even from the Morrowind expansion that two accounts from different characters who witnessed the same events might differ?
Right now there's the stories about how Morrowind is ruled by these living gods called the tribunal of Vivec, Almalexia, and Sotha Sil. There are these three dark elves who, by interacting with the artifacts of divine power, were elevated to the level of divinity themselves. And we already met Almalexia in the base game and that is a big part the story of the Morrowind chapter. And we get to see it later. But the origin of how they became divine and what their rules were and who got injured in the process is disputed and comes from several different sources.
So you've got Vivec telling his story and sometimes he contradicts himself–where his powers come from and how he got elevated. And then you've got Almalexia who talks about it slightly differently. Sotha Sil will just not talk about it at all. So you have no viewpoint from him and then you have the viewpoints of the divinities whom they replaced. Before then, the Dark Elves worshipped three of the Daedric Princes which are sort of divine demonic presences of the outer void of Oblivion. And one of those Daedric Princes Azura, who was replaced by the tribunal, got really upset at the way it was done and the way one of her hero worshippers was killed in the process and cursed the entire Dark Elf race, and made them from the Keimer who were these golden-skinned elves into these ashen, red-eyed Dunmer. And she's got her opinion on all this stuff as well and she's also one of the movers and shakers in the in the Morrowind chapter.
So what actually happened there? Well, we'll never know exactly. But was it even one of these stories or was it something else entirely about how these dark elves came to elevate themselves to Godhood? And that's a central part of Morrowind that is very well known to players from Elder Scrolls 3. And we we revisit to a certain extent in our new chapter.
So you have a little bit of flexibility because like you said it's from a different perspective. There are things that can contradict. So what in Elder Scrolls is ironclad? What are the things that you would that when you're checking out contradictions you're like “no we can't contradict that.” Is it only things that you've actually shown to the player? Like if a player has witnessed a thing happening in a game is that is that the point that you can't cross that line?
No, because it's a multiplayer game and this person saw it, but that person didn’t. So that person's reality is different from that person's reality and they're both true. And that person plays through this quest and it works out a certain way and that person plays it a different way and those are both true also.
So you don't have like an official version. Like in Skyrim, you could ally with different armies and a big climactic battle could go different ways.
So you don't have an official, "In canon the Dragonborn allied with these people?"
You know the only the only thing that is ironclad in the Elder Scrolls is that we don't make anything ironclad. We will not ever tell you what happens to the Dwarves when they disappeared back at the Battle of the Red Mountain. There was lots of people in the game will tell you what happened. There will be lots of lore sources which will give you different theories but no one is ever going to say–
Solve the mystery?
That's right, and it's not just because we're big teases, it's because that's the way the world works. And we don't violate the way the world works. So a lot of what I do as the Lore-Master when I'm reviewing a story that we want to tell–the content designer and his team lead, we go over what's what's going to happen and they'll say, "We want to tell the story and we want to have this sort of thing happen." It's not my job to say, "No we don't do that in the Elder Scrolls. That's not the way the magic works here" or "That's not the way these people think" or whatever.
It's my job to say, “Here's how we do that" or "Here's a way to do that in the Elder Scrolls that will fit in with the mosaic of all the other stuff we already know or has been believed and told." So a lot of what I'm doing all day long is helping people make minor course corrections to kind of keep them in line with precedents.
The Elder Scrolls is not our intellectual property. It belongs to Bethesda Softworks and we're borrowing it. So they've got certain red lines that they don't want us to cross. There are certain areas of information that they don't want us to expound upon because they think they might do something with it later in life. So part of my job is to say, "No we don't mess with that. Just keep away from those guys" because, you know, Bethesda's reserving them. But that's about the only time that I say no and that's just because that's just for future design reasons.
This sounds respectful of how history actually works. You're writing a fictional history and you recognize multiple authors. You can read accounts of the 1500s, there's multiple authors all telling you how things were, they all are probably kind of right.
So is history like something that you were interested in before you did this?
Yes, I like to write historical fiction on the side.
History is our guide. The real world is our touchstone. How do people actually act is what you have to go to if you're going to make characters that are believable. So when we go to create a culture or expand upon a culture, we look at real world historical cultures. We don't copy them exactly, we look at them for inspiration so that what we do feels convincing because it resonates with what people know about the real world. That's why all the best fantasy worlds are grounded in history. That's why they feel real and we have a very broad world with a lot of cultures. So we can mix and match all different sorts of inspiring cultural examples from history and cultures.
One of the reasons that Elder Scrolls is so rich and diverse and flexible is by having this approach whereby everything is from the standpoint of people actually in the world. And it enables lots of different design voices to be worked in and to have them still feel like they belong because they they're not dissonant with what Tolkien said or George R.R. Martin said or whatever. We have this rich diverse world and so we know that there's going to be lots of people you know there's been lots of designers has gone before us. We've got the others after us all of their voices can be heard and mingled into this world as long as it's as long as they follow the precedent of doing it through the viewpoint of the inhabitants.
So I guess there is one other area where I do say "No" and it goes back to the ironclad rule. We had just did a chapter based upon one of the previous single player episodes on Morrowind and right there when we had all of our designers were huge fans of Morrowind, and some of them wanted to settle some of the mysteries of Morrowind. And then I told them no, we are not going to do that.
We're not going to settle anything.
No, no. We can refer to these things. You can add further information but nothing gets settled. For one thing, that's not our story to tell.
That's another aspect of the similarities with historical accounts. Every culture tells the story that portrays themselves as the heroes. You know, in America we're the heroes of the Revolutionary War. I'm sure they tell it very differently in England. So how do you take that into account when you're telling these stories from these from these different cultures?
This is something that goes way back in the Elder Scrolls to the early installments of the series. There's not the good races and the bad races. Like in Middle-earth: elves good, orcs bad. No, not in Tamriel. In Tamriel every group, every faction, every race, every religion has its own rationale for why they do what they do. Sometimes they do good things and sometimes they do bad things. There is a dark tone to the humor a lot in Elder Scrolls. We don't do gags, we don't do cultural references. All the humor comes from characters and situations because it's a world of conflict and trouble, it's often very dark and grim which means you get a lot of gallows humor and kind of a dark tone to it. That is not relentlessly grim but it does it does mean that there is this kind of a shadow on everything in the world of The Elder Scrolls in that good intentions very often lead to the worst possible results. And that's that's kind of a hallmark of the series.
Can you give an example of cultures that were on different sides of the conflict that come down to the same incentives?
We have that largely for the purposes of driving the player-versus-player combat, but it also drives story very effectively. We have, at that time that the Elder Scrolls Online is set, these three great alliances. We have the Old Mary Dominion which is dominated by the High Elves, we have the Daggerfall Covenant which is dominated by the Bretons and the Red Guards and we have the Ebonheart Pact–which is an unlikely combination of the Dark Elves the Argonian Lizardmen and the Nords.
There's a great power vacuum in the center of the continent because the empire of Cyrodiil has essentially fallen and we are in a period in the history of Elder Scrolls that's called the Interregnum, in between the Second Empire and The Third Empire, which is when all the single player games are set. So we're actually before all the single player games. We’re in this great period of history which is just confused. And the three alliances each for their own reasons are fighting to establish control and dominance of the fallen empire in the middle of a continent really to re-establish order each in their own way. And so they've got very different ideas about how to go about this. But they each see themselves as being justified in that you know they just can't trust the others to rule things properly. So we're going to have to go and set things up.
Earlier you mentioned how you work with the art team. That hadn't even occurred to me, because when I heard about your job I thought, 'Oh, you review a lot of text.' The big tomes that you find in Elder Scrolls. So when you're reviewing something like armor, what are the sort of factors that come into play?
There are several things that come into play. First of all, because of the cultural inspirations of the different races and societies we have an established visual look for their clothing and for their architecture and for their worldly goods. And in some cases we have we have sub-styles even. For example in Morrowind we not only have the Dark Elf style of the Dunmer, there are five great houses that make up the Dunmer plus the Ashened or sort of nomads and each of them has their own style. And these these styles are based on how these people see themselves and what their history is, and what materials they typically use to make stuff from.
So in Morrowind, a lot of the fauna is just basically giant bugs. So you've got armor styles that are made from chitin, or inspired or look like they're made from parts of chitin because that's what they have used traditionally as as one of their most important materials. And so that informs what all their stuff looks like. The armor of the house Telvanni which is one of the Dark Elf houses, they're known for their wizard towers that are made from giant mushrooms. They live in giant mushrooms. Their helmets look like giant mushrooms!
So you have a big lore bank if you need to review this sort of thing. If somebody presents you with a piece of work, you need to see if it fits the visual style. Do you have to do like a big vault?
Well, we've been you know we've been working on this game for, you know, I just had my eighth anniversary. We've been working on this game for the better part of a decade. And so we have got a great big internal wiki where we've got all of this material, and we've got all these designs that have been done over time and they're all they're all in there and it's a reference to all the other stuff that's been done the single player games.
So the artist would check [the wiki] too and then you just kind of confirmed that they did it.
And they say well, you know, these wretched barbarians, who the heck are they and what does the armor look like? Well they use horns and stuff like that because they're barbarians. Now when we get down to what the different animals they would be using in their clothing and in their armor. And what’s the patterns in those furs you know it gets pretty detailed and the artists use a lot of real world references obviously as well.
Has an artist ever made a head-canon explanation of what they were thinking to explain something that otherwise may contradict it? You say, 'Oh, they wouldn’t do this because of their religion' and the artist says, 'These are heretics.'
Sure, they do that all the time. And then it's my job just to incorporate their head-canon where possible. Because that's what makes the world so rich, is that you have all these people making their own contributions and it's not just what I think. We're very collaborative.
They will often come up with with a new creature that they think is really really cool because they want to use it as like a boss monster, you know, in a dungeon or something. Well, where the hell did that come from? Then it's up to me to figure out where it fits into the background of the Elder Scrolls. Typically I'll outline something and one of the other writers will write a book about it that explains the origin of of of this creature. And we'll do some side conversations to put on some of the characters in the dungeon so that everything is worked into the grand tapestry of life and Tamriel.
There's an explanation for everything. Is it the true one? Is it the only one? No, but everything has some explanation. So yeah, sometimes they'll come up with a big new area you want to have new creatures new challenges for the players they've never seen before. What is appropriate for this area? What is too goofy? What's interesting and strange and can can obviously be seen as an extension of something that's already already in the game? So you go back and forth until you settle on things that that make sense in the context of the story you're trying to tell.
Things can be strange, but they have to fit something else.
Yeah. I mean, it's a fantasy world, right? So yes, things get really strange.
When I heard about this job I was thinking: they send you material, you get your red pen out, you mark it up, and you send it back and they come back to you.
As I said I work with every team. I just had a discussion with our lead composer from audio this morning. He had written some new music for Morrowind which is just being heard now by the players. Some of it is vocal and some of it is an ancient Elvish and I've written the ancient Elvish words for him. He has his vocalists just sing this stuff. And then there were questions like “What do these words mean and where do they come from?” And so I had figured out in ancient Elvish what what they were singing. He wanted to have a certain rhythm and certain line lengths that they could sing and I was going back saying okay well what were they saying?
Yesterday we were about to go and do the VO recording for the dialogue for the next release that comes after Morrowind. And so there's all these proper words and the VO artists need to know how to pronounce them. So I went into audio and they put a list up on the screen of these new words that we’re adding to our pronounciation guide, and I pronounced them all, and they were these little digital sound bites into this translation guide that they can access while they're doing the VO recording so that when somebody wants to know how to pronounce your words. They got my voice saying it, then it's consistent and we've got it so that if that character recurs again in another chapter we don't have them say the name differently. So yeah it's all these details get get digitally filed away. One of my jobs is to know what we know already, and if we don't know it...
Then make it up?
Yep, make shit up all day that fills in the gaps in the big mosaic and it has to all fit in between the bits of the pieces of the colored chips on the mosaic that are already out there.
When games are released, there's always fans that find this bug that the developers didn’t necessarily realize because once you get these to million people you've got a lot of testing. Has there been anything in the lore that the fans said, wait, what about this? Then you incorporate that question into the lore from then on to set it right on the fly.
Yes, absolutely. We had when the base game came out which was gigantic. It was so much stuff being produced so quickly in the last few months for release. Not everything got triple-checked. And and so a few things slipped out that were just plain mistakes. We had a character in a Nord area, a Nord starting zone called Bleakrock who came from Morrowind. It was a Dark Elf and referred to having come from a city or town on a part Tamriel that doesn't exist in our time period yet.
I could see that being a problem.
So that was just a mistake, you know, and those happen. Now I'm pleased to say they don't happen very often because because we've got really good processes for catching that kind of stuff and our QA people are lore nerds too. And they will very often flag stuff that is questionable. Actually, probably 19 out of the 20 things that they flag are actually fine. It’s that one line that you have to be like, “ok thanks, glad you caught that one.” There's an infinite amount of detail and sometimes you just get something wrong and then you just figure out why it's not actually wrong.
Shrug it off, power of myth.
I assume you didn’t start out as lead lore keeper. What was your start here and how long did it take you to get your sea legs?
I started out as being one of the design content leads. And so one of the team leads on the people who design parts of the zones as we build them. The teams that build our content are very interdisciplinary, you don't just have a concept designers. We're making the quest, you have you'll have a writer-designer who is in charge of the characters and the story and all the words. You'll have world-builders you've got encounter designers who handle monsters and placement. You've got people who work on abilities. Team Lead has it has to integrate the work of all these folks. That's what I did at first.
Also we had a lead writer and he left for family reasons to go back to Texas. And so I moved in his role because I was the history wonk and most "literary" of the of the leads. So I became lead writer for a while. And in that role I guess I just sort of naturally became just kind of evolved into the person who was the guy you went to talk to about Elder Scrolls stuff.
For example, with Bethesda Game Studios, to ask them when we have questions about how would this work in The Elder Scrolls. And so I was that guy. We were making the transition into being a fully voiced at this point which was like six years ago. And so you wanted a guy who had done a whole lot of dialogue to be a writer but they still needed somebody to perform the function that I was performing. So they invented this role. It kind of just just recognizes what I was already doing and takes advantage of it and takes advantage of my particular mix of skills and background.
When you were transitioning to lead writer and then into this role, did you come into this company already kind of knowing Elder Scrolls? Did you have to do a lot of homework like research or work?
I had already played the previous Elder Scrolls games of Oblivion and Morrowind, I hadn’t played Daggerfall and Arena and in fact I knew a lot of the guys who worked on them. Ken Rolston, who was the lead designer for the Bethesda Game Studio on Oblivion and Morrowind is one of my oldest and closest friends in the business. So I was already familiar with how the sausage got made how what the thought processes were in it and how Elder Scrolls stuff got put together.
Plus just prior to this, I'd been down the street at Big Huge Games working on the game that eventually became Kingdom of Amalur. I had come in there first as actually a systems designer because I'm pretty good with that stuff too. But then I became their narrative lead. They were explicitly sort of basing kingdoms of Amalur or to an extent on the success of the Bethesda fancy RPG. And so yeah I had already been studying those games before before I came up the street here.
Is there somebody else who kind of does your job for Fallout and Skyrim?
The guys at Bethesda, they've been doing what they're doing even longer than we've been doing it. They have a tremendous amount of internal continuity and a grasp of the of the IPs that they work on. So there are individuals there I deal with when I have questions. I don't talk to them very much anymore because I know pretty much at this point everything they have to tell me and and I know and they don't worry about us anymore. What we’re doing is Elder Scrolls canon and they're happy with it. The folks who work on Legends have occasionally asked us for advice and they also ask Bethesda for background information.
Since this job was sort of tailored to you, do you get a sense that eventually, when you retire, is there going to be a new Lore-Keeper? Are you training a protege?
Well, as you might imagine, because this is such a collaborative process and because the people who work on this game are such Elder Scrolls lore hounds, there's lots of people who could do at least parts of my job as well as I do them. And so if I get hit by a bus then–
I said retire! I didn't go the violent way. [Laughter]
One of the things that a writer does is he mentors other designers and brings them along and teaches them how to do this stuff in a way that is collaborative. And the thing about game design, especially roleplaying game design because because roleplaying is about characters and stories, is that it's not just collaborative in the studio between all the people who make all this stuff and all of all the different disciplines. We're making a multiplayer story game and what we're creating doesn't actually exist until it's played. So we have to think about collaborating not just among ourselves but with the players we're going to play it on all their different play styles and approaches.
That's the nature of being interactive.
That's right and how they're going to interact not just with what we've created but how they're going to use what we've created to interact with each other. And so what we make is really just a potential experience that doesn't really exist until when the players is playing it. So it's it's like jazz. It's like music, it only exists when it's being played, and people are making it up as they go along and playing off each other, and that's the real experience.
Getting people to wrap their heads around how to approach that you know that takes a while because because you come in thinking–you come into working on video games thinking, I've got these big ideas to make these ideas become reality. And you don't do that. That's not the job. The job is to make the players ideas become reality. And so teaching people to think in that way is an interesting task that has to be approached differently by all the different leads in building this. This kind of thing is the single most complicated entertainment ever created on the planet. A giant role playing game is a jillion different systems that all relate.
Especially in Elder Scrolls, which is not a guided-experience kind of RPG. It's much more like clockwork systems interacting.
Right, and there's so much stuff in there that most players don't even do at all. They just pick the subset of things that they're interested in and interact with. Keeping track of the lore is really kind of easier compared to keeping track of how everything operates. My job is easier than keeping track of say how all of the combat works. Because all the different skills that are possible and the interaction is not just between the players and the monsters that we give them but the players and each other. That's that's a much more complex thing to sort out.
As much as people love the background and the history and the lore of the myths and legends, it's all in service to the gameplay. It's all there to make the game feel more meaningful. So the gameplay really drives the lore, not the other way around. It’s really what experiences are we helping the players to have, and how do we make them feel like it's significant and fits into this reality that they're immerse themselves in. That's what the lore has to do and that's why it has to be so flexible. Because it has to accommodate all of these different things that the player can choose to do or not do and still make it all feel like it matters.
You mentioned part of the job of a writer is to mentor people. If you were to just decide you want to retire tomorrow, what would be what would be the most valuable thing that you hope that your mentoring gets passed along? What part of your philosophy towards this do you want to keep going after you leave?
I think I already alluded to it: the most important thing is for a designer not tell his goddamn story. Right? Don't tell your goddamn story. Don't be cooler than the player. Let the player tell their story and enable them to play their story. Enable them to create their place in this world, and their reason for living there, and their reason for interacting with the other players there. Give them the power to do that. Stop telling your goddamn story.
Steve Watts posted a new article, Elder Scrolls Online's Lead Lorekeeper on Story, Collaboration, and History
Fantastic interview, Steve. His job sounds awesome. I kinda want it.
Really cool interview. The stuff about fictional history being ambiguous and written from multiple viewpoints in the world, and the emphasis on the player's story, really point out what makes BethSoft-style RPGs (including TESO) different from most games. Even other RPGs.
I love that they just embrace that all of the in-game lore comes from in-game sources and individuals that have different points of view or motivations for whatever history they're recording. Like reading Herodotus - here's a guy that wants to record a history of the world, so he travels around and collects stories and tries to puzzle them together. Some of the broad strokes it matches up to other sources from the time, but all the fine details are probably just embellished, or fragments of some story or other that he heard and liked.
Now, since we have a zillion different characters in the game all telling the player different things, even across 20+ years of video games in that universe, we get the same result. It's kind of an organic telling of history that's grown over time.
Yeah, it's a big part of why I find their world more convincing than, say, the Mass Effect universe. Mass Effect's in-game information is too clinical and unambiguously authoritative to feel authentic.