The Bethesda style of oral formulaic epic, part 1

In a series of essays starting in 2004 and including a series of posts here on Play the Past, I’ve described player-performance in adventure games of various genres as examples of what Albert Lord, in The Singer of Tales, the seminal work on oral formulaic composition of homeric epic, calls thematic recomposition. Briefly put, the player of, for example, Skyrim, composes their performance from existing themes provided to them by the game’s mechanics: indeed those mechanics are themselves themes deployed by the player to shape and exhibit their performance.

(In Lord’s terminology a theme is a recurring element: it’s important to keep this in mind since the word theme has other uses that I don’t mean to invoke. For one very important example, Lord’s use of theme has nothing to do with what I call in this post and throughout my discussions of the topic meaning-effect—that is, the sense of a broader significance that we get from the Iliad concerning, say, the nature of war. The theme of Achilles’ wrath, from a Lordian perspective, is the interconnected set of words that tell the bard’s audience about Achilles’ mental state upon being dishonored by Agamemnon, and its consequences; the meaning-effect of Achilles’ wrath, much debated, might be said to involve the audience’s reflections upon the futility of human conflict.)

I’m currently writing a chapter for a collection whose eventual appearance will I hope mark a milestone in the humanistic criticism of games: essays concerning the relationship of classics, oldest in some sense of the humanities, to the myriad points of contact videogames have with the ancient world. My chapter concerns what I call the Bethesda style of RPG, and represents a complement to and in some ways a completion of a chapter published in 2012 about the BioWare style. The series of posts I begin with this one contains a few spoiler-heavy thoughts on the matter, hopefully in service both of sharpening my focus and of whetting your appetite. As we say, it’s a work in progress, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Bethesda style is easily recognizable as such to anyone who has played more than one game in the Elder Scrolls series and/or the Fallout series. Players who have also played other styles of RPG and adventure games (Rockstar’s GTA games and Red Dead Redemption are particularly apposite comparisons here to place alongside BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and DragonAge) will recognize even more quickly the distinctive features shared by Skyrim, Fallout IV, and Bethesda Softworks’ other open-world RPGs.

In this post-series I want to discuss one of those features in particular, what I call the theme of community-membership, though I plan in the chapter to build up to that discussion with a briefer analysis of two closely-related themes that I can only touch upon here, significant exploration and progression by performance. In this inaugural post I deal with the former of those, significant exploration, by which I mean the specific representational relationship of a game’s open-world materials to the rest of the game.

It’s easy to see the similarities of the realistic 3D worlds presented by Bethesda’s adventure games, as well as many other developers’ games, and discuss them in a monolithic way, perhaps invoking that much-debated term immersion as a quasi-theoretical framework. I hope to persuade the reader, however, that a thematic analysis of these worlds shows considerably more complexity—a complexity towards which Trevor Owens pointed in a wonderful post about none other than Fallout 3 here on PlaythePast, way back in 2010.

First, although we’re accustomed to seeing these possibility spaces in a conventionally mimetic way, as a representation of an imaginary world whose chief task is fooling the player-performer into thinking themself present there, they actually function at the same time along radically different lines. The performance materials—that is, from an oral-formulaic perspective, the themes—provided to the player-performer in a Bethesda game, for the example I’ll touch on here, relate very strongly to the lore of the fantasy-world represented, in part, by the game’s possibility space. The signature theme, as it were, of this set of materials, is the importance of books in the games of the Elder Scrolls series, which play a role very similar to that played by the artifacts whose presence Trevor analyzed in his post, “The Presence of the Past in Fallout 3.”

Throughout the worlds of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim, the player-character (PC) encounters books. That is in itself notable, because there aren’t a great many games that incorporate books as separate objects: when books do appear it’s nearly always as a row of covers of various colors to make a bookshelf look, well, like a bookshelf. The books of The Elder Scrolls, however, though they aren’t all readable by the PC, are nevertheless all separately rendered. So many of them, however, are indeed readable that a player new to the series and focused upon performing a conventionally adventurous sort of narrative would be forgiven for thinking otiose the lore found in the tomes so broadly scattered.

As if to ensure that that lore doesn’t go unread, however, a few of these books, some found in notable locations and others in completely obscure ones, have a progression-effect: simply by reading one of these special books the PC gains an ability point in a relevant element of their character.

The rest of the books contain a wide variety of information, written to be sure in a prose style that seems remarkably similar from one book to the next, but most of it—and here the connection to Trevor’s discussion of Fallout 3 becomes obvious—concerning the history of Tamriel, the world of which Morrowind, Cyrodiil (Obilivion‘s setting), and Skyrim make constitutent parts.

Going forward, I want to suggest that the thematic materials to be found in these books, along with other themes as apparently superficial as the architectural styles used in various parts of the game’s world, provide players of Bethesda’s open-world RPGs with a kind of exploration-performance that on the one hand exerts a meaning-effect of its own (succinctly, you are part of history, real and imagined) and on the other give the more obvious distinguishing marks of the Bethesda style, progression by performance and community membership, a meaningful context. As a player-performer levels up their PC and does so within the ambit of the various communities the PC joins along their long road, their adventures will in the end become part of the history they experience in the themes that make up the game’s landscape.

In my next post I’ll deal with progression by performance; in the meantime, what’s the best book you’ve ever read in Tamriel?


  1. My favourites are the Wolf Queen series about Potema Septim. Not for the prose of course, just the story 🙂

  2. The book I remember best from my playthrough of Skyrim a few years ago is Immortal Blood. I read it in a cave where I just killed a vampire—the named character in the book. That was a pretty cool moment for me.

    But I think there’s a few downsides to the way Skyrim handled books. My character’s interactions with the world doesn’t change because of the books’ contents, and when it does (by means of a side-quest or skill increase), I don’t actually have to read through the book. Even when I do decide to read a book, action for my character is paused, from combat to the next objective in the quest log, as I navigate through my character’s inventory.

    Skyrim’s creators obviously thought that in-game books were important. I see a similar mechanic at play when I turn to Dragon Age, the Witcher, or even Diablo III (in comparison to Diablo II, which didn’t have a Journal). Is this the best way to convey information in an open-world RPG, compared to cinematics, dialogue, audio logs, and other mechanics?

    If a player doesn’t read a book, whether they didn’t want to or they didn’t realize it was there, has it contributed to Skyrim’s theme of significant exploration?

    1. Author

      I think it’s a way that provides the player-performer with a distinctive set of themes. For me, from the perspective of formulaic epic, the quality or efficiency of that way doesn’t impede the effect on the player’s performance–indeed, inefficiencies can make for striking effects, the way for example the formal trappings of dactylic hexameter might not be the best way to convey dialogue, but the dialogue they convey is memorable and moving in part for that very reason.

      The question of what happens in a performance of a Bethesda game where books go unread is revealing. I guess I’d compare a performance of the Wrath of Achilles where Agamemnon’s sceptre is just a stick without a lineage. It can still be good in many other ways, but such a performance would cut against what most performers and audience members would expect–not a bad thing, but certainly a different thing.

      Thanks for the thoughtful response!

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