Video Game Reviews: Morrowind vs. Skyrim Part 2

Part 1

My main problem with Skyrim is: why are we going here at all?

Bethesda bored the crap out of me with Oblivion’s setting: medieval Europe. It was a huge letdown after Morrowind’s alien, Eastern-inspired culture(s). Not only that, but Cyrodiil, the capital province where the Imperials live, was in earlier lore supposed to be rather jungley and Roman. Look, I don’t care about white medieval, or in this case, Norse Europe—I can find it anywhere. Bethesda, you have a whole bunch of more interesting provinces to go, go to them!

One thing I’ll say: they bypassed Tolkien, though the influence is there of course, and went back to Norse mythology: what with the whole Ragnarok/end of the world plot, the power of the spoken word, etc. That was almost refreshing.

But we don’t need to go there. Why, oh why, are we back in a place that glorifies violent white guys from north Europe? Why does this story need to be told?

Yes, Bethesda is trying to make a game with solid gameplay and make it flashy and interesting with dragon battles, but any creative work will have something of politics in it… and apparently white burly Gary Stus to appeal to the 18 year old guys are still ruling the genre for game developers, despite that increasingly the people playing games are not all male or white or 18. Look, I’m sure Bethesda, being a big name RPG developer, could still appeal to those 18 year old white gamers with a backdrop of more inventive lore. Goes without saying it would interest folks like me. What about Summurset Isle? The vibe I get from High Elves is a sort of Victorian England crossed with Asia, which is newer. Or Elsweyr? The modders keep setting stuff there. Seems like a lot of (white male?) gamers want to explore the world of anthro kitty cats in an Arabian Nights setting.

I’m still pleased that in Skyrim, I can be any race, and skin colour, and female, with no restriction. I’m pleased that Skyrim, for all the NPCs will tell you there’s sexism, still features a good lot of female badasses. (Although… maybe they are more the minority?)

I enjoy/ed Skyrim, but after the initial several-month rush, I realized that it lacks a lot of in-game depth. Quest lines are incredibly short, uninteresting, and full of plot holes. They are so short, but you advance so fast, that there is no sense of progression.

 

BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS

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Video Game Reviews: Morrowind vs. Skyrim Part 1

Surprise!

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.

Ashlands Region

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. )

Not Tatooine

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

Tel Aruhn

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