Video games are neither tea nor book, but I don’t know if this disqualifies them from art. It takes a lot of creativity to make a secondary-world RPG and I refuse to quibble about ‘high art’ and ‘low art.
An RPG (role-playing game) is rather like an interactive choose-your-own adventure novel, with varying levels of narration. Most RPGs keep the player to a tight narrative. Bethesda Softwork’s The Elder Scrolls doesn’t. These games’ claim to fame is that they are open-ended. Huge gameworlds, lots of choice. And from TES: III Morrowind on, the PC versions each been released with a program to customize them by adding items, making spells, altering the graphics and gameplay.
What I want to talk about is story and world-building in Morrowind and TES: V Skyrim from a feminist writer’s perspective. Why not TES: IV Oblivion? Well, I don’t like it. Simple. Skyrim is thematically much closer to Morrowind; Oblivion is thematically closer to the earlier DOS games, TES: I Arena and TES: II Daggerfall, and also to D&D, and lorewise is very shallow.
I’ll start by talking about Morrowind, and part 2 will be about Skyrim.
I discovered Morrowind when I was thirteen. I actually wanted to play Daggerfall and couldn’t find it; ironically, I was convinced I would hate Morrowind because of those gloomy Ashlands.
But as soon as I got off the ship you start the game in, I was enchanted.
I played a friend’s copy first, then I ran out to the nearest EB Games and exchanged all my The Sims games to buy the Game of the Year edition for $15. Then I spent the next several years obsessed. In fact, I just reinstalled it last night and rebooted up an old character of mine.
Why the obsession?
Firstly, it was the alien world. The village you start in is set in a swamp, but that’s only one landscape. You have a variety of choices right away. You can do some quests and get some money, or you can try the nearby bandit cave and see if you can emerge unscathed, and if you want to leave you can wander off in any direction. Or, you can travel by giant flea to a number of cities and towns.
(The bug-inspired wildlife was something I was sure I’d hate, but actually found adorable and fascinating. )
But let’s back up and talk about character creation, because this is really important, both to RPGs and why I love Morrowind so damn much. As a female gamer, I’m used to companies assuming I’m a guy, and if I have to play as a woman, at least she should be sexy. In fact, in most games, I’m used to being handed a fully formed character with a past. Well, in Morrowind, you can choose your name, your gender, your race—and then you make up your stats. And you don’t have to be sexy, unless you want to be!
So I can play a badass female if I choose. And the race options are pleasing. I can be a black woman. I can be an elf, which, depending on which elf, gives me pale skin, golden-yellow skin, or ash-grey. I can be a lizard or a cat. Already, there’s an inclusive feeling. And racial bonuses are only bonuses—my Khajiit (cat) character is ideally suited to the thief or assassin class, but the game puts no restrictions on me: I can also wear heavy armour and hit people with an axe.
The races are an interesting element. They all exist in uneasy cooperation as part of the Tamrielic Empire. TES: III is set on an island in Morrowind province, where the Dark Elves, or Dunmer, live. Which means that 50% of the NPCs the game is populated with are grey-blue people with a very alien heterogeneous culture. They have a very Eastern feeling: ancestor worship, the Ashlanders (unsettled Dunmer nomads) live in yurts, names are inspired by ancient Mesopotamia, the architecture is… well. Different. There are three main kinds of religion living in uneasy truce side-by-side—the Imperial religion, the traditional Daedric (demigod demons) worship, and the powerful Tribunal Temple. There are all kinds of politicking going on, all of which becomes slowly revealed as you read through the dialogue and in-game books.
The world is made of shades of grey. There’s lots of things to love about the Dunmer culture—and lots to dislike. They are slavers, they are xenophobic, they have infighting. But the Empire’s motives aren’t pure either. And there’s something real about all the species. The Bosmer, wood-elves, are cannibals , and carnivores because their cultural pact forbids them to eat plants in their home forests. This is a gritty world.
MAIN QUEST SPOILERS
The main quest is similarly complex. No one has noble motives, except, very possibly, the Urshilaku Ashlanders. The Empire just wants to rule and trade, and the Blades are there to exploit, not because the Emperor has any interest in saving Vvardenfell from Red Mountain. Vivec and the other two are certainly tricksters at best, pretending to be false gods. Dagoth Ur is not necessarily evil, either, though his bases terrified the crap out of me for years: madness and disease are scary, but not evil. And then there’s Divayth Fyr. God, I love Tel Fyr.
The game’s lore is complicated and difficult. If you play the main quest through casually, it’s quite possible that you’ll come away thinking that Vivec stands for good and Dagoth Ur for bad, but even a casually careful look proves otherwise.
If I have any critiques, it is that the plot does go: outsider joins alien native tribe and saves them because s/he is the Chosen One. (Like Avatar.) It’s a tired plot. But the details surrounding it are fascinating, and it’s a good conceit for an immersive video game, a good introduction that gives an excuse for your character to be ignorant. Avatar has no excuse, though, and much less interesting worldbuilding.
The game hasn’t aged well, graphics-wise, but mods are helping along. It’s still worth a play.
How does it measure up to its sequel, Skyrim? Stay tuned!