In RPGs, I’d rather read books than kill dragons

why i love

This article first appeared in issue 373 of PC Gamer magazine in 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 why we love them so much.

I’ve always believed that the best part of developing a game has to be writing RPG-flavored text. This is where RPG scribes can get weird or scratch a particular writing itch without the pressure that comes with integrating it into the main story, even if most of them end up falling into the nebulous category of the “lore”.

Either way, I swallow it. There’s just something extremely decadent about that kind of flavor text. This is all so pointless, but developers like Bethesda and Obsidian are still spending what must be a sizable amount of time and resources on what, let’s face it, a significant number of gamers won’t bother reading. It’s a little treat. As if I was nibbling on sweets that I had secreted between courses in a fancy restaurant.

And I know, when I nibble on it, that I’m lucky, because a lot of developers don’t have the luxury of messing up their worlds with so many side things. Even those that are lore-dense usually don’t turn those lore into a library of books covering nearly every genre imaginable. But for those who do, I am eternally grateful.

Homework

Even when they end up being stuffy historical accounts, I appreciate the hint of this larger world they provide. Sure, a lot of this stuff ends up being standard fancy nonsense with a bunch of unfamiliar names and a rote list of deeds, but even the less evocative ones can hold a nugget of information that gives us a better understanding of the digital universe we temporarily inhabit.

I appreciate the hint of this larger world they provide.

An author you’ve never heard of recounting a fictional battle that took place hundreds of years ago probably won’t have much bearing on the quest you’re on, but it might explain some old grudges still present today, or offer insight into the cultures involved in the fight, which in turn might inform you about what they are now. Or it can just be a fun thread that provides a diversion between quests.

Now if you just heard that Barry the Orc fought Leonard the Elf in the fields of Gloomheim in the year 678 that means nothing, and that kind of world building we could probably do with a lot less – but the books inspire a bit more effort. You must adapt this tradition to the structure of a novel or a collection of songs. Books demand more consideration. But they also provide more sources of inspiration. With all these different genres and formats to play with, a dry story about a famous sword could suddenly become a romantic epic or a tragedy that unfolds through the stanzas of a poem.

(Image credit: Bethesda)

Bookwyrm

The Elder Scrolls is the best example of this, even using a skill book to tell short stories. The sheer volume is impressive, but games like Skyrim also benefit from the series’ legacy. There are books that crop up in multiple iterations, and while the main reason for that is probably that it’s efficient and reduces the time and money that would have to be invested in developing all that flavor text, the result is a world that seems so much more tangible and permanent.

Recycling books this way also makes me feel less guilty for enjoying this treat, because while I’m snacking, I worry a bit that what I’m reading is the product of crunch or tyrannical management.

In any event! I’m playing Skyrim again, with a new roster of models (which has 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 much of a chance to get rich.

About Marcia G. Hussain

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