Oblivion's Ken Rolston Speaks

Ken Rolston, lead designer of the hit Elder Scrolls RPGs Oblivion and Morrowind, talks about his work on these titles and his long career in the gaming industry.


All the dialogue in Oblivion is voiced. How did that affect your approach to writing dialogue? Did it reduce the variety of dialogue you could write? If so, do you prefer fully-voiced dialogue or text dialogue with more branching?

Rolston: I prefer Morrowind's partially recorded dialogue, for many reasons. But I'm told that fully-voiced dialogue is what the kids want. Fully-voiced dialogue is less flexible, less apt for user projection of his own tone, more constrained for branching, and more trouble for production and disk real estate. Voice performances can be very powerful expressive tools, however, and certain aspects of the fully-voiced dialogue -- the conversations system, for example -- contribute significantly to the charm and ambience of Oblivion.

Oblivion's main plot, the imminent demonic invasion of Cyrodiil, feels much more urgent than Morrowind's quest to kill a waking god. However, you can still put off the main quest indefinitely, even when the gates appear everywhere. How well do you think the urgent feeling of the main plot works with the do-anything theme of the Elder Scrolls series?

Rolston: I think the narrative urgency of Oblivion's main quest is more dramatic for users new to the Elder Scrolls, and, at the same time, that narrative urgency in no way prevents the user from indulging the signature Elder Scrolls freeform style of gameplay. I only wish we'd presented Morrowind's main narrative with the same obtrusive urgency. The overwhelming number of quest choices and the lack of narrative focus was justly identified by many as a serious weakness in Morrowind.

The encounters in Oblivion -- enemies, equipment, and treasure -- are indexed to the player's current level. Why did you do it this way?

Rolston: Morrowind stops being much of a gameplay challenge long before you've exhausted the narrative and setting content. Encounters indexed to the user level addresses that problem directly. I think leveling was, at first, perceived as a cure for the obvious balance flaws of Morrowind. But as we refined leveling gameplay during development, we appreciated how it made the game more fun in every way. It does feel a little artificial, and, to some extent, it robs the player of the joy of getting the crap kicked out him. But I think minor refinements in leveling practice for the next Elder Scrolls projects can reduce those blemishes to a large extent.

Both Morrowind and Oblivion have a generally dark, serious tone, whereas your stint on PARANOIA was marked by hilarity and weirdness. With which tone do you feel more comfortable? At Bethesda did you hear a nagging inner voice prompting you to put in more puns?

Rolston: In both the RuneQuest Glorantha setting and the Elder Scrolls setting, I had little opportunity to indulge my puckish impulses. I was never tempted... much. I was content to confine myself to irony and humor of situation rather than farce and black comedy.

I greatly admire and enjoy wacky, farcical games like the recent Bard's Tale, the Planet Moon games, and Katamari Damacy. I would have loved working on such games -- but I guess I loved Glorantha and the Elder Scrolls more than I loved cheap jokes.

The traditional battle between computer-based RPGs has been between the sandbox model and the storybook model. In PARANOIA you preferred linear storylines, whereas for both Morrowind and Oblivion you went with the sandbox, even though it put limits on character development and set plot progression. Was that a purely economic/management choice, or do you think flexibility is simply more important?

Rolston: I've always preferred the sandbox or freeform model of RPG gameplay. I implemented greased-rail linear narratives in PARANOIA because I knew the players would ignore the storyline in the first place; I encouraged them to do so at every opportunity. It's the same with Oblivion. I was perfectly happy with a linear main quest narrative, because I knew the 'enlightened' (i.e., irredeemably perverse) user would march off at right angles to the story line the moment he had the chance.

How do you plan to spend your retirement?

Rolston: I aspire to be the nicest, most charming, most reliable husband, son, sibling, and friend in history. Against that laudable ideal, I plan to play the accordion. A lot. And sing in close-harmony groups. And wander around and sponge off friends, and have adventures. And play stupid paper-and-pencil RPGs. And paint toy soldiers. I may also become a positive force in society. Yeah. That's the ticket.


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