I originally wanted to do the math on this after seeing a lot of people saying that Elder Scrolls Online was more egalitarian than the previous titles. It’s more than a little out of date at this point, but I’m still proud of the work here. It was originally published on Tumblr, has has beed lightly edited.
Characters were counted by hand based on UESP quest writeups. Characters were only counted if they were a questgiver or involved in multiple quests. Only characters from the main quest or faction questlines were counted. Any expansions or DLCs have not been included.
Due to the incomplete documentation for ESO quests, that game probably has more margin of error than others, though it should be balanced out due to how many NPCs were counted overall. I realize that this is an imperfect process, especially considering the very different ways that each game handles quests. I think the overall patterns hold, though, even if the percentages might be off a few points were someone to repeat the process.
You’ll also notice that Morrowind, Oblivion, and ESO have two main quest graphs. The latter is for including characters who are also encountered in the other parts of the game. For Morrowind this is questlines where you must speak to all the house leaders to become Hortator, in Oblivion it is the Aid for Bruma questline where you must speak to the counts/countesses to gain their support, and in ESO this is the Weight of Three Crowns quest where the faction leaders convene on Stirk. Daggerfall, meanwhile, randomizes most of its quest, and the overall graph counts the main quest and nobles quests.
Sample sizes are as follows: Daggerfall (23 total, 10 main quest), Morrowind (82 total, 16 main quest, 34 with hortator), Oblivion (36 total, 9 main quest, 15 with Bruma allies), Skyrim (59, 11 main quest), ESO (278 total, 6 main quest, 10 with Stirk).
When it comes to the main quest, Daggerfall is the clear winner as far as number of women. Morrowind is a pretty close second, even after the addition of numerous male councilors knocks the percentage down. Oblivion, meanwhile, has no important female NPCs in its main quest until Allies for Bruma adds three countesses, and ESO only has one (Weight of Three Crowns adds one more). While Daggerfall’s small sample size works to its advantage, Oblivion and ESO’s works against it.
When we add faction quests into the mix, things shift quite dramatically. Daggerfall remains on top, though the percentage drops quite a bit. ESO, which had next to no women in its main quest, jumps to nearly Daggerfall levels. I should note that some zones are better at equal representation than others – as I understand it, ZOS is currently making gender parity a priority, and the zones that aren’t great at this were developed earlier on in the process. Although I’ve not tested the theory, more recent updates, like Dark Brotherhood, should be split 50/50. [2023 edit: they are]
Morrowind is a very, very close third. It would only need to add two more female characters to catch up to ESO’s percentage, which is a number I would consider well within the margin of error. Morrowind is also the only game thus far to feature an important character that is outside the gender binary. [2023 edit: ESO added a prominent trans woman character, Alchemy, in 2018, and featured her in a second quest in 2021. However, since she is not part of the main or faction questlines, she would not be eligible for this accounting]
Oblivion also makes significant representational gains, largely due to the inclusion of numerous women in the early Mages Guild quests. Skyrim gains a few percentage points as well.
I went into this to see if ESO is the first game in the series to really offer a good representational split, as many assert. What I found is, if we discount Daggerfall, it does end up on top, but it does so with really narrow margins. Morrowind would need to gain two women to match ESO’s overall percentages, Oblivion three, and Skyrim five. Hardly dramatic, world changing numbers. Further, when we look purely at main quest numbers, ESO actually worse off than everything except Oblivion.
Why, then, does it seem like it’s overflowing with women? I suppose that it comes from the fact that it’s got far, far, far more NPCs than any other game, and that all those NPCs are voice acted and animated. Morrowind, despite having more women in its main quest and nearly as many throughout all the questlines, did not have either. Remembering your quest giver is easier when you’ve heard it spoken than it is when all you have is symbols on the screen.
When compared to Oblivion and Skyrim, ESO wins out by having more NPCs over all for you to encounter and remember. The scale here is borderline absurd, with ESO having three times more women than Oblivion has important NPCs of any gender, and twice as many as Skyrim. When we look at all genders, ESO has 50% more important NPCs than all the other games do combined.