This article first appeared in PC Gamer Magazine, Issue #373, September 2022, as part of our Why I Love series. Each month we talk about our favorite characters, mechanics, moments and concepts in games – and explain why we love them so much.
I’ve always believed that the best part of game development has to be writing RPG-style text. This is where RPG writers can get weird or scratch a certain writing itch without the pressure of fitting it into the main story, even if most of it just falls into the nebulous “lore” category.
Whatever it is, I lick it up. There’s just something extremely decadent about this type of flavor text. It’s all so unnecessary, but developers like Bethesda and Obsidian still devote a significant amount of time and resources to it, which, let’s face it, a significant number of gamers won’t bother reading it. It’s a little pleasure. Like nibbling a tiny bit of candy I’ve hidden between courses at a fancy restaurant.
And when I snack on it, I know I’m lucky because many developers don’t have the luxury of cluttering their world with so much side stuff. Even those who are rich in lore don’t usually turn that lore into a library’s worth of books, covering almost every genre imaginable. But I am eternally grateful to those who do.
Even if they end up being stuffy historical accounts, I appreciate the reference to this larger world they offer. Sure, a lot of this stuff turns into boilerplate fantasy nonsense with a bunch of unknown names and a list of grunts, but even the less than impressive ones can hold a nugget of information that will give us a slightly better understanding of the digital universe in which we find ourselves find temporarily.
An author you’ve never heard of recounting a fictional battle that happened hundreds of years ago probably won’t have much impact on the quest you’re on, but it might explain old grudges that still exist exist today, or provide some insight into cultures involved in the struggle which in turn might inform you as to how they are now. Or it could just be a boisterous yarn that provides a distraction between quests.
Now if you just learn that Barry the Orc fought Leonard the Elf in the fields of Gloomheim in the year 678, it doesn’t mean anything, and we could probably do this kind of world building with a lot less – but books inspire a little more Expenditure. You need to fit this story into the structure of a novel or a collection of songs. Books demand more attention. But they also offer other sources of inspiration. With all these different genres and formats to play with, a dry tale about a famous sword could suddenly morph into a romantic epic or tragedy that spans the stanzas of a poem.
The Elder Scrolls is the best example of this, as it even uses a skillbook to tell short stories. The volume is impressive, but games like Skyrim also benefit from the series’ heritage. There are books that come out in multiple iterations and while probably the biggest reason for that is that it’s efficient and reduces the amount of time and money that would have to go into developing all those flavor texts, the result is a world of that feels so much more tangible and lasting.
Recycling books this way also makes me feel less guilty, because I enjoy this treat because while I’m nibbling on it, I worry a bit that what I’m reading is the product of crunch or tyrannical management.
However! I’m playing Skyrim again, with a new mod list (which includes some nice 4K book covers), so I should probably get back to reading. My inventory is full of stories. There are no e-readers in Tamriel, so I carry my library on my back. It’s probably time to buy a house, but they’re expensive, and surprisingly, feverishly collecting all the books you can get your hands on doesn’t give you many opportunities to get rich.
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