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Why I love the Elder Scrolls games (part two of two)

And we’re back for part two! First part of the essay is here, where I talk about my history with the games, the open-world gameplay, and the alienness of the setting.

Today we’re going to start with discussing TES as…

A game that started with derivative beginnings, and became something unique

It’s almost a meme to look back at the first TES game, Arena, and say it’s “not really an Elder Scrolls game.” The series didn’t know what it was about at the time. And so it’s no surprise that it looks more like D&D than anything else at that level. You have attributes, skill points, dice rolls, percentage chances, and your typical fantasy monsters. Heck, at that point it was mostly Julian LeFay’s idea for a D&D setting.

Basically what I’m saying is: if there is a stereotypical D&D concept, you can probably look back at Arena and Daggerfall and find it there.

Everything changed with Morrowind. From what I understand, they pretty much had the whole game planned out, and then they threw away the design document. (Did you know it was originally supposed to take place on Summerset, and be about the high elves?) Some of the weirdest and wackiest lore of the series was born in this time period. Say what you will about Michael Kirkbride and his deuterocanonical writings post-employment at Bethesda — I think we have him to thank/blame for many of the things that make this series unique.

A good example is found in the elves of the Elder Scrolls world. At first glance, they look like your typical D&D elves — high elves, wood elves, dark elves. The similarities mostly end with the names, though. Many creative somebodies, over the history of this game series’ development, asked some interesting worldbuilding questions and expanded these races beyond the stereotypes.

What if instead of pacifist treehugger wood elves, you have wood elves who eat only meat — even fermenting alcohol out of it! — and will cannibalize the bodies of their defeated foes?

What if instead of subterranean dark elves who are uniformly evil, your dark elves had complex relationships with terrible gods, which led them on pilgrimage to a blasted volcanic wasteland? And then along the way they broke some oaths and now they have equally terrible living gods who are vying for control with the original terrible gods? All of which has made them protective of what little they have, loyal only to themselves, and distrustful of outsiders?

What if your high elves are as passionate about social rank and bloodlines as they are about magic and knowledge? What if they’re so isolationist that they created Artaeum, an island that can Brigadoon out of the world when deemed necessary? What if their high-handed ways bred the necromancer who’s responsible for many of the most terrible things in the TES world (Mannimarco)?

Another example is the daedra — those aforementioned “terrible gods” the Dunmer used to worship. You can sort of summarize them as “demons,” but more specifically they are immortal beings made of bluish goo, able to change and be destroyed and be recreated infinitely. Some of them can and do create worlds, but they are defined by not having taken part in the creation of the Mundus, the mortal world. Their princes are as cosmically indifferent as Lovecraftian elder gods, and have domains like goetic demons. At least one group of them (the dremora) have complex social structures that mere mortals cannot understand. Judeo-Christian creatures of malice they are not.

A world where history has a POV

It’s always interesting to talk about canon in this game. To quote The Elder Memes:

This philosophy is deeply embedded in the series. One could argue there is no “canon”; every bit of history or lore is told from a point of view. “Canon” is only as reliable as the person relating it.

A good example of this (to go back to my favorite murder elves again) is the question of what happened at the Battle of Red Mountain in the First Era, between the Dwemer (dwarves/deep elves), and the Chimer (the precursors of the Dunmer/dark elves). A lot of weird shit happened in roughly the same window of time, including the entire Dwemer race disappearing in a puff of logic, but for our purposes, most interesting was the suspicious death of Indoril Nerevar, the warleader of the Chimer.

According to the Tribunal — Nerevar’s supposed pals who “just happened” to become living gods after his death — he died from his battle wounds. According to another faction, he was murdered by the Tribunal. If you dissect the 36 Lessons of Vivec, you find that Vivec confesses to killing Nerevar there — but you can tell Vivec is lying because his mouth is moving. And that’s not even not even get into the accounts from Dagoth Ur or any outlanders–

Elder Scrolls lore raises more questions than it provides answers. Just like actual history.

From the Battle of Red Mountain UESP Page: In a 2005 interview, Douglas Goodall stated that during the development of Morrowind there was no “official” account of what happened at the Battle of Red Mountain. “When I was at Bethesda, there was officially no answer. No one knew what really happened. They may have made up their minds now, but you’d have to ask a current employee.”

In addition to the complex and nuanced stories this breeds, this philosophy basically eliminates retconning. And I hate retconning. If you’ve played through WoW lately, you know the Warcraft lore has been created and destroyed and recreated a million times over now. Leveling to max level, you had best be patient with the fact that you are jumping between different continuities. Personally, it keeps me from investing in the lore.

This happens much, much less frequently in TES. When some bit of lore needs to change for gameplay reasons, it can usually be passed off as “this was just one guy’s point of view; anyway, here’s a different one.” Occasionally it was “we didn’t know as much at the time; now we know better” (re: whether or not the Tribunal Temple allowed settlement in Vvardenfell in the 2nd Era) or “hey this guy became a god so he did what he wanted” (re: Cyrodiil being jungle) or, at the extreme, “dragon break!” (a timey-wimey event that very rarely happens in TES, usually involving dragons and/or those titular Elder Scrolls).

But they have never razed an entire body of lore and started afresh, and I appreciate that.

Meta-narrative possibilities

TES games are, fundamentally, stories about stories. I’m the sort of gal for whom every book is secretly about the struggles of writing, so of course I adore this.

I’ll start with a simple example: the Spinners, in the lore of the Bosmer (aforementioned metal AF wood elves), are storytellers whose stories literally have the power to change the world. The quests involving them in ESO are some of the best writing in the vanilla game.

In more recent content, the Summerset expansion provides us with more stories about stories, in the form of the Illumination Academy questline.

The Elder Scrolls that give the series its name are a handy bit of metanarrative, too — they are scrolls of prophecy, only readable by special priests who lose their sight with every scroll they read. The most tragic thing about these priests is that they know, with the foresight that the scrolls give them, when they read their last scroll; they know their vision is about to close forever.

But there’s a deeper sense of “meta-narrative” I want to get at — a sort of fourth-wall breaking, where the work comments on the work. And TES has this, too.

To go back to Summerset, it introduced a book called Sotha Sil and the Scribe. I dare you to read that and come up with an interpretation that isn’t metanarrative in some way. One interpretation I’m fond of sees the Scribe as Bethesda/ZOS, and the map of Nirn as representing the players of the game — showing how the developers hope to do well by the players.

Most intriguing is fact that Second Era Sotha Sil KNOWS the awful fate that awaits him at the end of the Third Era (spoiler warning at that link). He is cursed with the foresight of a god. Here, with a god’s benevolence he seems to be forgiving the Scribe what will come.

But let’s go back to that phrase I used, “the foresight of a god.” To become a god in the Elder Scrolls world is to know that you are a character in a video game, and to transcend that state.

Let me write that again:

To become a god in the Elder Scrolls world is to know that you are a character in a video game, and to transcend that state.

I mean, how often do you get to say something like that about your favorite video game series?

This? This is the whole concept of CHIM, and it’s some of the gnarliest, chewiest metanarrative lore that Michael Kirkbride came up with. Not all of it is accepted as “canon” — Kirkbride’s sorta created his own canon, with hookers and blackjack — but the core concept of CHIM is, and the question of who has achieved it and who has not is in debate. But unquestionably the characters in the series that have achieved CHIM have done some incredible things, outside the (meta)physics of the universe.

The consequent of this is that, you, the player, are a god. Whatever form that takes in-game — the Nerevarine, the Champion of Cyrodiil, the Last Dragonborn — you can break the laws of the universe and fix things that mere mortals can’t fix. Given this, heck, even the console commands are diegetic.

Looked at in this light, the main quest of ESO is especially interesting — you are the Vestige, shriven of your soul by the daedric prince Molag Bal. Throughout the quest, you can do all kinds of things that the NPCs can’t do, because you don’t have a soul — using wayshrines, resurrecting, and achieving certain quest objectives.

Your character is literally a soulless puppet piloted by a god.

Excuse me if I choose that over WoW, any day.

LGBTQ representation

Credit: johnnypebs on /r/elderscrollsonline

Okay, this is kind of an odd segue, but it didn’t fit anywhere else, and I didn’t want to end on YOU ARE A GOD.

TES — especially ESO — is amply populated with LGBTQ characters, going about their lives and doing normal stuff. There’s no indication that sexual or gender identity is a source of stigma in the world. They’re not there to be tragic, or to teach moral lessons. They are just there, where they belong.

Overall, it’s a beautiful example of “writers finally figured out that their fantasy world could have anything, so decided WHY NOT HAVE QUEER FOLKS??” And I love it.

Lady N has a whole big list of LGBTQ characters throughout the games, but there are lots in ESO that she missed. Just off the top of my head: Majoll, a Nord sailor pining for playboy Jakarn. Overseer Shiralas and her wife in Vivec City. The aforementioned merchants in Belkarth. And the whole House of Reveries questline in Summerset (in ways that are spoilery, so I won’t say more).


Thanks for coming to my TES talk!

If you got something out of this post, I’d love to hear from you! This took me a long time to write, and I did it to connect with all y’all in my TES fam. Comments are what basically makes it worth it <3 <3 <3

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    • Schick-senpai! I’m a huge fan of your work on ESO! (And the larps you’ve written, incidentally), so I’m chuffed to hear it resonated with you. How did you find this post? (I suspect mutual friends in the larp community).