ESO Developer Deep Dive—Lore Books (2022)


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This interview was posted on elderscrollsonline.com on 11/09/22. It can be accessed online here.


Learn how Tamriel’s many illuminating lore books are created with an interview with ESO’s writing team in our latest Developer Deep Dive. 

We are thrilled to have The Elder Scrolls Online’s Lead Writer Bill Slavicsek and Writer-Designer Helena Wachhaus join us to chat about everything that goes into the creation of the game’s many lore books. As of Firesong and Update 36, there are approximately 7,000(!) lore books in the world of Tamriel (and beyond) for you to discover—want to learn how they’re crafted? Read on!

Thank you both for chatting with us about ESO’s lore books! To kick things off, what exactly are lore books in The Elder Scrolls Online and how do we use them?

  • Bill:
  • In ESO, we use several internal classifications for books, but the two primary ones are quest books and flavor books, also called lore books.

    We use lore books to fill out and add flavor to a release’s story. They can be notes, scraps of paper, stone tablets, or actual books. They usually deal with something going on around the zone, focusing on one of the themes, characters, places, or creatures in the area. They’re another way for us to provide story.

    You can find anything in a lore book. They are our most robust tool for further detailing the world. Beyond the quest and the dialogue and the visual storytelling. Anything that can be written down, we can turn into a book and use it to further explore this wonderful universe that we're helping to create.

How do you plan the creation of lore books for an upcoming release?

  • Bill:
  • For a Chapter or a story DLC, the Loremaster, the primary writer for the main story, and I usually come up with a style guide and a list of flavor books we want to add to the world.

    We create that basic list as a starting point, but everybody else in the team, including designers and writers, can suggest other ideas and throw them on the list. Then anyone can grab a book from the list and start writing. We do anywhere from 60 to 120 books for a release, depending on its size.

  • Helena:
  • While they generally have the fewest lore books, there's usually a lot of fun things going on in a dungeon that I want to give more context to. For example, the dungeon villains don't always have the time to explain their plans, so we like to have books that actually spell that out for any curious players to go and find.

There’s only so much you can ever have an NPC tell the player, right?

  • Helena:
  • Yeah. And in some respects, a villain monologue has its place and strengths. But if you need to go into some sort of complicated or emotional backstory, it might come across more genuinely in a book or a note or a journal entry than it does in something that they say in front of an audience.

Do you have a favorite format or style for a lore book?

  • Helena:
  • Just for me personally, I tend to like letters and to-do lists. I think I can get specific voices and character information across in those. I really like writing them, and because they're not restricted by any sort of length, I have the freedom to play around with however long I want this list or that letter to be.

What’s the process from start to finish for the creation of a lore book?

  • Bill:
  • First we come up with a big list of topics. Food of the zone, drinks of the zone, creatures of the zone, places in the zone, traveler’s guides—you name it. We cover a bunch of common topics every release, and then we add content that's unique to the new zone.

    Along with the big list of titles and topics, we add a sentence or two describing the specific idea. Then we leave it to the person who decides to take up that book to research it and write it up.

  • Helena:
  • Usually I go for ones that I think I can do something fun with. I play off of the descriptions and try to figure out what the lore book’s purpose is. What information are we trying to get across to the players?

    Then, I usually do a ton of research, because there are so many books in The Elder Scrolls universe and in ESO. I don't want to rehash something that somebody has already written.

    I spend some time trying to figure out how I can write this book, because there are so many different styles. Songs, poems, love letters, recipes, to-do lists, histories—you name it! If we're super clever, we might write them as ledgers or financial documents to get that information across.

    At that point I play around with the voice for a little bit because we have so many fun accents and characters and different things I can do. Figuring out the voice also leads into the tone, because it makes no sense to write something funny to cover something that’s supposed to be somber or serious.

    I tend to write in a Word document and then convert it into our internal system. This gives me multiple forms of word processing and spell checks along the way. Then, we put it into our game’s editor.

Is it at that point where the rest of your team reviews your new book?

  • Helena:
  • Yes. When it's in the editor, it's available to everyone and Bill gives notes.

  • Bill:
  • When somebody finishes a book, they throw it into a special folder for every zone package that we're working on. Anybody can look at them, but I do a full review of all the books in there. Sometimes I'll just do some editing, other times I'll throw it back to the writer, depending on how extensive my notes are. In general, lore books don't require a second rewrite.

  • Helena:
  • Apart from motif books, which normally have two or three rewrites!

Why is that? It’s it because they're a bit more technical than most other lore books?

  • Helena:
  • They're a bit more technical and they tend to crossover with multiple teams. So if we describe a piece of armor that then has its art or marketing change, we need to adjust. They also tend to lean heavily on obscure lore, and so Michael Zenke our Loremaster goes through and does a pretty thorough edit of them.

What happens after you’ve completed your internal reviews?

  • Bill:
  • Once I've done my review of all the books, I put them into the collection so that they can be found by players in the world. At some point I tell the zone lead they are ready to be physically placed in the world. In general, flavor books can go almost anywhere, but if they're related to a specific area or place, they'll go there. Or if they're related to a specific new monster type, they'll go where you might see the monsters. We leave it to the designers and the world builders to place them and make them look like they’re a part of the story in the world.

Is that when QA might jump in and start reviewing them?

  • Bill:
  • QA looks at everything we do. That's part of their job and we love them for that. Once in a while, a writer will have thought they did their research and didn't get it quite right, so in addition to finding spelling errors, we might get QA asking “Hey, this book said X, but the quest said Y, so which one is right?”

    Recently we had a book about wine, but neither the writer nor myself are wine experts, but a QA team member was, so they gave us some suggestions to make the content more accurate.

What's the craziest or most esoteric thing you've learned when writing a lore book?

  • Bill:
  • The difference between beer and mead and the fact that they're not made the same way.

  • Helena:
  • Early on I did a book on birds and knowing exactly which birds are in Blackwood is very niche knowledge. I don't know if that's going to be useful at any other point in my life.

Is it challenging to craft lore books for characters who might not be very good writers?

  • Helena:
  • It's how we explain the typos!

  • Bill:
  • We try not to do that too often, because the books do have to be understandable. I had fun writing Rigurt the Brash. His journal entries were each titled simply with “Today,” so we never knew when he actually did these things. He just wrote stuff as he thought of it.

  • Helena:
  • In Deadlands I wrote books for a couple of different Scamps, and I remember having a lot of fun coming up with their writing style because they don't use articles.

  • Bill:
  • We follow the philosophy of the unreliable narrator throughout the game, so we make a real effort to make sure that books are written in somebody's voice. It's their opinion, and if we have an opportunity, we'll provide the opposing opinion or even a third view, because nothing is true in Elder Scrolls except your experience.

What type of books do you consider the trickiest ones to write?

  • Helena:
  • That’s a controversial topic in the writers group because people have very strong opinions on motif books. I don't mind them, but there are some people who absolutely detest writing motif books and will vocally ask not to do them.

  • Bill:
  • I have never written a motif book. I leave those to everyone else!

    I would say history books can be tricky, and they take a lot of work. You want to make sure that you do your research. Or if we're making up a history of a new place that we’re being consistent, or at least as consistent as we need to be. Sometimes, coming up with things like Daedric riddles or books of spells, things like that, can be challenging.

  • Helena:
  • I’m bad at poetry. When I write it, it feels so clunky. I'm very glad that there are other people on the team who can help me make it better, but my first and second drafts of poems are always terrible.

  • Bill:
  • Songs can be interesting to write. We do a number of them every release, and some of them go to the audio team to score so we can hear them get sung in the game. We give them our best shot before Brad (our Composer and Audio Director) writes the music. He often makes changes (or asks us to make changes) so the rhythm works. Those are probably the second-most reviewed books after the motifs.

Putting you both on the spot—do you have a favorite book?

  • Helena:
  • My favorite book that I've written was one of the To-Do Lists I wrote for a Scamp. It's actually a quest book, so it's got a purpose in the game. I threw in a couple of twists at the end, outlining his goals as a Daedra and to show him just being weird. I think I saw five or six tweets on launch day as people found this and wanting to go find more. I was pleasantly surprised at the response.

    But my favorite book (one that exists in infamy) is the series of cheese books. They are ridiculous and I love them.

  • Bill:
  • And that's another thing we had to learn: How to make cheese so we can write those crazy books!

  • Helena:
  • All the cheese books!

  • Bill:
  • I have a couple of categories. In general, I love all the stuff we write. They're all my children and they're all wonderful. Whether I wrote them or my team wrote them. But some of my favorites include the To-Do List that Stibbins wrote in Orsinium. I always found that one to be funny. I love the Investigator Vale books that I created. Now it’s an ongoing series that's taken on a life of its own and other writers have contributed to it.

  • Helena:
  • We try to do you proud.

  • Bill:
  • And you know, I love it when something in a book inspires the designers and suddenly becomes part of the game. Narsis Dren is an example of that. He was a character in a book that Janet Priblo (one of ESO’s Senior Content Designers) and I figured would be a great character to throw into a quest, so you could get to know this really obnoxious guy. And then do something horrible to him.

How does it feel to see lore book content shared and discussed online? Are you surprised at the reaction to some of your books?

  • Bill:
  • Oh, I love it. It also helps us find stuff later. We write this for people to see and read and experience and it'd be a lot worse if they weren't doing that!

  • Helena:
  • It's always so much fun going through and seeing what pieces they're reacting to, what they like, and what’s generating posts or tweets. It’s the ones that you think nobody is going to care about, or just read and chuckle and then put it down. Those always get more attention than you're expecting. It’s a delight!

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