In the first of a pair of new interviews with Bethesda leads (look out tomorrow for an interview with marketing VP Pete Hines on Bethesda's past, present and future), we speak to Skyrim game director Todd Howard. He's has had a rich history with the Elder Scrolls series, having project led Morrowind, executive produced Oblivion and helped design Daggerfall. We asked him about the series, hoping its latest incarnation will build on some of its more idiosyncratic attractions.
Was Oblivion’s setting weird enough? Will Skyrim reintroduce some of Morrowind’s idiosyncratic otherness?
I think some people, when they go to explore the world, want to be surprised more. I don't know that I'd categorise it as weird per se, but more culturally different. Skyrim has a much more unique sense of culture to it than we did in Oblivion, where one was relatively the same as another, whereas here they're vastly different. If you've seen the trailer, that first city shot, that big stone city is actually an ancient dwarven ruin carved into this mountain. It's one of the main five cities. We wanted Morrowind to feel alien, like you were a stranger in a strange land. Whereas this we want to feel instantly familiar but that it does have it's own unique culture. We kind of walk that line in between the two games, if that makes sense.
Can you ever see and Elder Scrolls game being developed externally like with Fallout: New Vegas?
I don't know, we kind of take it bit by bit. I mean New Vegas was unique: as a publisher, we wanted to do something with Obsidian; we knew we were moving on Elder Scrolls; they had a team available. They gave us the pitch and we were like, ‘That would be a really fun game’. But they had experience with the IP, and with Elder Scrolls we don't have that. I wouldn't rule that out, but generally with everything we want to keep it internal.
Was it a big adjustment moving back from Fallout to Tamriel?
It took a few weeks.
Just a few weeks? Do you have to rein in the humour for Elder Scrolls games?
It's one of the big differences. I think we're all about the same age [at Bethesda], sit around and have lunch and make up jokes and say, ‘It'd be funny if we did this in the game!’ – and you laugh. In Fallout you can do that thing you just talked about at lunch, whereas in Skyrim it's more like, ‘Well that's probably the wrong tone.’ There are a lot more avenues in Fallout for crazy things that are funny. We do very little humour in the Elder Scrolls and when we do it, it's humorous to the people /in/ the world as well as the viewer, if that makes sense. We had some things I thought were very funny in Oblivion. There's this one case where you meet this battlemage in a dungeon – turns out he's this little wood elf guy and he's like, ‘I know where the treasure is – follow me!’ and he runs right into a trap. The comedic timing of that level – it just crushes him immediately – it's like, ‘Follow m-’… Splat! It's really funny to someone in the world; that's the kind of stuff we go for. Just a little bit, not a lot.
With such big games is it difficult to keep the tone consistent?
Yeah. It's something our designers work on a lot. They all review each others stuff, and our lead designers review all the writing. At the end, there's still a ton of it, and sometimes you'll get things that are tonally different, but if it's written in the right way, meaning it's written in the voice of the world, it's not the tone of the game changing as much as the tone of that particular character. We have had to go through and rewrite – we've rewritten all our cities because they were a bit of a mishmash. We want to make sure the tone is right not only for the game but for that individual location.
A lot of Bethesda's partners are now working on open world games. Have you been able to dispense advice to them? If so, what do you say?
We look at each other's games, which is one of the great things. I'm the biggest Id fanboy there is. So I get to go to Id and look at their games and they go, ‘What do you think?’ and I'm like, ‘Awesome!’ and they're like, ‘No, really, tell us what works for you.’ I had to work past the fandom with these other studios.
What things did you dare criticise?
I'm not going to tell you that! But it's really really nice to have those kind of people with those experiences. Whether it's id or Arcane Studios and now Tango with Shinji Mikami – all the studio directors tell each other what we think is working and not working. That's pretty amazing to get.