The Elder Scrolls, often abbreviated as TES, is an award-winning series of roleplaying video games developed by Bethesda Game Studios. Set in the vast continent of Tamriel, the series is famous for its richly detailed open worlds and focus on non-linear free-form gameplay, as well as the incredibly expansive and equally deep lore, history and mythology of its universe. The series had its humble start in 1994 with the release of The Elder Scrolls: Arena for the MS-DOS, and has since become one of the best-selling and most critically acclaimed roleplaying franchises in video game history.
The series takes its title from the Elder Scrolls, mysterious and powerful artifacts from outside of time which both archive the distant past and foretell the coming future. Each game deals with a significant Event that has been foretold by the Scrolls, where a Hero of unknown heritage and uncertain destiny - who often begins their journey as a nameless Prisoner - rises to defeat a great evil that threatens the world.
On a broader scale, the world of the Elder Scrolls contains an extensive mythology interwoven with the plot of the games and the cultures of Tamriel, with stories stretching back from the Creation of the universe all the way to its End. This mythology - often told through fragmentary and contradictory in-setting sources - possesses a vast and unique cosmology, and truly deep religious metaphysics. A lot of this is thanks to the efforts of writer Michael Kirkbride, who developed much of the setting and continued to explore and expand the series' mythology with his writings long after leaving Bethesda. This culminated with the release of C0DA in 2014, which told his conclusion for the Elder Scrolls Mythos as a whole.
Timeline of Installments
The following is a brief listing of every installment of the Elder Scrolls Franchise, with the date of release and a brief summary for each game:
The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994) - The first game of the series. Though originally planned as a multiplayer gladiator arena game (Hence its title), the game drastically changed during its development, eventually becoming an exploration-based roleplaying game. The game had a simple and straightforward plot, dealing with Emperor Uriel Septim VII's betrayal by his Battlemage Jagar Tharn. The player character is the Eternal Champion - a Prisoner within the Imperial Dungeons - is freed and tasked with travelling across Tamriel to gather the eight pieces of the Staff of Chaos, so he may defeat Jagar and free the Emperor from his imprisonment in another dimension.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996) - The second game of the series, Daggerfall took the ideas started with Arena and refined them. The game featured a procedurally-generated world twice the size of Great Britain rendered in a true 3D Engine. The gameplay was also expanded, as was the lore of the setting, and Daggerfall was the first game of the series to feature unique side quests, guilds to join, and in-universe lorebooks to discover and read.
The story was also more developed, and featured branching paths and multiple endings. In it, the player character is an Imperial Blades Agent sent to the Iliac Bay with the mission to deliver a letter from Emperor Uriel VII to a spy infiltrated in the Daggerfall Court. The Agent is quickly wrapped in a conspiracy involving the entire Iliac Bay, with multiple parties seeking to acquire the Mantella, a powerful Soul Gem and the key to reconstructing the Numidium - the Dwemer Brass God which Tiber Septim used in his conquest of Tamriel centuries prior. The game had six different endings, all of which canonically happened simultaneously as a result of events in the story.
An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire (1997) - The first Spin Off game of the series, Battlespire diverged greatly from its predecessors in both gameplay and setting. Taking place in the titular Battlespire - A magic fortress floating contained within a slipstream Plane of Oblivion - the game is a linear dungeon crawler with an emphasis on combat. The story takes place concurrently with Arena, with the Battlespire being invaded by Mehrunes Dagon's armies of Daedra. The player character is an Apprentice Battlemage inside the Battlespire who fights their way to survival, seeking to rescue their captured friend and find a way to banish Mehrunes Dagon from the fortress.
The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard (1998) - The second Spin Off game of the series, Redguard differed from other games in the series even further, being a third person action-adventure game with minimal Roleplaying elements, and a linear story with a set protagonist. Set in the small island of Stros M'kai and taking place centuries before Arena, during Tiber Septim's conquests. The player controls Cyrus, a Redguard mercenary who seeks to find his missing sister Iszara, but is quickly wrapped in a conflict between Hammerfell's rebellious forces and Emperor Tiber's invading armies.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002) - The third game of the main series, featuring a long-awaited return to the expansive and non-linear gameplay of Arena and Daggerfall, but also showing a change to a much smaller, hand-crafted game world with individually designed landscapes. Morrowind was also when the Elder Scrolls setting was truly shaped into what it is today, thanks to greatly expanded lore and a refined, more distinct setting.
Morrowind's story is set in the island of Vvardenfell during the waning years of the Third Era. The player character - a Prisoner in the Imperial City dungeons - is released and sent to the island by the aging Emperor Uriel VII himself so that they may fulfill the ancient Nerevarine prophecy and defeat the mad God Dagoth Ur. Throughout their journey, the player character will succeed in many trials which fulfill the ancient prophecy, and become the reincarnation of Indoril Nerevar. They eventually succeed in stopping Dagoth Ur, and in the process render the three Dunmer Gods of the Tribunal mortal again.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind had two expansions, Tribunal and Bloodmon. The former is a direct continuation of the main storyline whereas the later is a new adventure on the island of Soltsheim north of Vvardenfell.
The Elder Scrolls Travels (2003 - 2004) - A small series of mobile spin-offs Elder Scrolls game developed and released for the Nokia's N-Gage. Despite their limitations, the Travels games were true roleplaying games with graphics and a style of combat akin to that of Daggerfall. The Travels series saw the release of three games: Stormhold, Dawnstar and Shadowkey.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) - The fourth game of the main series, Oblivion is set in the central province of Cyrodill, and was the first game of the series to feature fully-voiced NPCs with their own dynamic AI. The game's world was much larger than Morrowind's, and the gameplay streamlined and refined, with a greater emphasis on combat.
Oblivion's story begins as Emperor Uriel VII attempts to flee an assassination attempt through Imperial Palace's dungeons, where he meets with the player character - A Prisoner he recognizes from his dreams. As he is dying, Uriel tasks the player with finding his bastard son Martin to continue the Throne and save Tamriel. Their quest as the Daedric armies of Mehrunes Dagon begin to invade Cyrodill. This event forces Martin to accept his destiny as the heir to the Septim Crown, and eventually sacrifice his own life to repair the broken boundaries between Tamriel and Oblivion.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion had two expansions, Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles. The former deal with the return of the Ayleids to Cyrodill and the rebirth of the Divine Crusader Pelinal, while the later is set entirely within Sheogorath's Plane of Oblivion - and ultimately ends with the player character becoming Sheogorath.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) - The fifth game of the main series, Skyrim is by far its most successful installment. Set in the titular homeland of the Nords and taking place 200 years after the end of Oblivion, Skyrim possesses vastly improved gameplay in comparison to its predecessors, refining many of the features previously present in Oblivion, as well as the unique Shouts and the presence of dragons as enemies.
The story of Skyrim deals with the sudden return of the dragon race brought by Alduin the World-Eater. Skyrim, already split in brutal civil war between the governing Imperials and the nationalist rebel Stormcloaks, is further terrorized by the rampaging beasts. Amidst this chaos, the player character - a Prisoner taken to Skyrim by carriage - is discovered to be the foretold Last Dragonborn who would master the ancient art of the Thu'um and slay Alduin.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim had two expansions, Dawnguard and Dragonborn. The former deals with the return of the vampire lord Harkon, who seeks to blot out the sun, while the later is set in the island of Soltsheim and deals with the First Dragonborn, Miraak, who seeks to break free of his imprisonment in the Oblivion Plane of Apocrypha.
The Elder Scrolls Online (2014) - Developed by ZeniMax Online Studios as opposed to Bethesda, The Elder Scrolls Online is an MMORPG spin-off of the series. The first Elder Scrolls game to be offer a fully multiplayer experience, Online nevertheless follows the previous installments' structure of offering vast open-world to be explored through non-linear gameplay. Unlike its single-player counterparts, Online isn't set on a sole province, but rather features specific regions from across all of Tamriel.
Set nearly 1,000 years before the main titles, Online takes place during the Interregnum, a period where Tamriel was without a ruling Empire, and three separate factions battled for control of the continent. Taking advantage of the escalating conflict, the Daedric Prince Molag Bal attempts to merge the plane of Nirn with his own. The player character is a soul Imprisoned within Molag Bal's Coldharbor. They are resurrected as the Vestige, a soulless trace of their former self, and thus having the ability to revive whenever killed. The Vestige is then sent to fulfill an ancient prophecy to unite the three warring factions and stop Molag Bal's ambitions.
The Elder Scrolls Online constantly receive updates and expansions which provide it with new content, including entirely new open areas to explore with their own quests to complete. The most notable of these are the Morrowind and Summerset expansions, which add the island of Vvardenfell and the Summerset Isles respectively.
The Elder Scrolls Legends (2017) - A free-to-play digital card game spin off of the series, Legends was the first Elder Scrolls game to be released for both computers and smartphones. Despite its simple gameplay, Legends still features a story mode which bridges the gap between Oblivion and Skyrim. Set during the Great War, the player character is the Forgotten Hero, a Prisoner who escapes from gladiatorial cages, and alongside a small band of adventurers and survivors, finds himself battling against the forces of the Aldmeri Dominion, and unbeknownst to all plays a crucial role in the Sack of the Imperial City. The game continues to receive story expansions to this day.
Power of the Verse
The Elder Scrolls is an incredibly powerful universe, easily standing as one of the most powerful video game settings there are due to its expansive cosmology of higher-dimensions and greater infinities, a wide number of powerful deities of cosmic power, and metaphysics which push the setting even further.
Although deceptively unimpressive at first glance due to its apparently medieval setting, various mortal characters of the Elder Scrolls world have shown great feats of magical power. These include defeating large armies single-handedly, manipulating the weather on a wide scale, destroying entire cities and mountains, sinking islands and teleporting entire landmasses. Particularly powerful mortals - such as the oldest and most learned mages - have shown the ability to create and destroy pocket dimensions containing planets and stars, warp space and time, and even rival the power of lesser gods.
The various gods of the Elder Scrolls are incredibly powerful beings, often higher-dimensional and infinite in relation to mortals, and possessing their own planes of infinite size which they have full control over. Even lesser deities such as the Ehlnofey can embody and stabilize the laws of nature across an entire reality, up to and including the flow of time, while greater deities such as Celestials can destroy the entire Multiverse of Mundus with their presence alone.
The Aedric Divines and the Daedric Princes are at first glance the most powerful gods of the setting, ruling over the greatest planes of Mundus and Oblivion respectively, but they are pale shadows of what they once were as the Et'Ada - The Original Spirits. The Et'Ada were originally boundless, non-dual and infinite beings free of all laws, the concepts of space and time, and even when later bound by the creation of Time and Space by Akatosh and Lorkhan, they helped shape and stabilize the entire infinite-dimensional multiverse of the Aurbis.
The most powerful entity in the Elder Scrolls setting is the Amaranth - also known as the Godhead - a transcendent, supreme and boundless entity which exists as one with everything while also originating everything. The whole setting is its dream, and it exists as a state of boundless "zero" which originates all numbers, possibilities and dualism.
For further explanations on the Elder Scrolls Cosmology and its Metaphysics, see the following two blogs:
As the Elder Scrolls Universe is incredibly expansive and often complex, those that wish to learn more about the setting beyond these pages are advised to explore the following links:
- The Elder Scrolls Wikia
- The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Page
- The Imperial Library
- The r/teslore subreddit and its resource list
- How to Become a Lore Buff by Lady Nerevar
- An Aurbic Primer by The Tel Mora Independent Press
- The Elder Lore and Written in Uncertainty podcasts.
- Matthew Schroeder
- Ultima Reality
- Self Love
- Arrogant Schmuck
- The Archdemon
- The Divine Phoenix