The Literary Achievement of Morrowind
The impending release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion fills me with panic of the kind that struck the brave Danaans, who must have exchanged wide-eyed glances and silent "WTFs" as their master Odysseus writhed in ecstasy at the sirens' song that only he could hear. On the one hand, it forces me to confront, yet again, my computer's inability to play the games that the cool kids play, and so more than ever I feel that they must not count me among their number. But more than this, I have reason to believe that we could all do with a healthy clump of wax in our ears. The song of Oblivion will otherwise lead us well astray from duties to which I feel we have yet to attend.
It comes down to this: In spite of my having devoted dozens of hours to conquering its expanse, I have only ever scratched the surface of Morrowind, the previous game in the Elder Scrolls series. I am frankly unprepared to move on to any further games in the series, knowing that there remains much to do in the previous installment. And with your permission, I would now like to inflict my piddling insecurities upon you, if only for a short time--after which, feel free to remove the wax.
It's not that I fear my unfamiliarity with the latter stages of Morrowind's plot will detract in any significant degree from the experience of Oblivion. Quite to the contrary, I felt that Morrowind's plot (and "plot" here should probably be plural), or what I could decipher of it from my roughly 50 hours of playing, was a bumbling expedition through a sloppy morass of inconsequential agents, bland characters, stilted behavior, and poor delivery; the tedious details of which have already largely slipped my mind. Much of Morrowind's shortcoming in this regard is attributable to an ineffective narrative, rather than a poor story per se--the former consisting of how the story is told. For Morrowind's story is told by robotic NPCs who display no greater sign of character or vitality than occasionally repeating the same vocal loop as their hundreds of look-alike counterparts. No, the excellence of Morrowind does not lie in its plot, but rather in its setting, which, while partly dependent upon the game's graphics, level design, and art direction, establishes itself in force through the many and voluminous tomes that fill the world of Vvardenfell.
To a new player these books may seem a confusing babble of names and dates, irrelevant stories and lengthy diversions from the actual game itself. But upon closer examination, the books begin to take on form, as cross-references and intriguing contradictions leap into view, as well as many passages that are worthy of much consideration in and of themselves. Take, for example, "Progress of Truth," a banned religious text written by an underground group of dissident priests. It has the form of a rigid manifesto, and declares with startling succinctness eight ways in which the authors disagree with established Temple doctrine. The first item on the list reads,
1. The divinity of the Tribunal
Temple doctrine claims their apotheosis was miraculously achieved through questing, virtue, knowledge, testing, and battling with Evil; Temple doctrine claims their divine powers and immortality are ultimately conferred as a communal judgement by the Dunmer ancestors [including, among others, the Good Daedra, the prophet Veloth, and Saint Nerevar]. Dissident Priests ask whether Dagoth Ur's powers and the Tribunal powers might ultimately derive from the same source -- Red Mountain. Sources in the Apographa suggest that the Tribunal relied on profanely enchanted tools to achieve godhead, and that those unholy devices were the ones originally created by the ungodly Dwemer sorceror Kagrenac to create the False Construct Numidium.
So, the Dissidents argue that the venerated Tribunal of the Temple derive their powers from the same source as the wicked Dagoth Ur. Moreover, they assert that the Tribunal spring not from divine sources, as the Temple teaches, but from base magic--the same magic known to the mortals of Vvardenfell, practiced even by common mages. These two claims by themselves are already more interesting than the full text of nearly every game on the market. They channel the terrible power of religious schism and strife, and recall Catholic condemnation of heresies, as well as Protestant revolts. But what's most impressive is that they achieve all this without feeling like a cheap transposition of historical cliche. This is no thin veneer of fantasy slapped upon a familiar core of real-world allegory, such as we usually see in the fantasy genre. "Progress of Truth" is a spirited and fascinating document, fully capable of standing on its own, and ample evidence of the remarkable creative minds employed at Bethesda Softworks.
Let's have a look at "Response to Bero's Speech," one wizard's public response to the arguments of another wizard, Bero. It begins,
On the 14th of Last Seed, an illusionist by the name of Berevar Bero gave a very ignorant speech at the Chantry of Julianos in the Imperial City. As ignorant speeches are hardly uncommon, there was no reason to respond to it. Unfortunately, he has since had the speech privately printed as "Bero's Speech to the Battlemages," and it's received some small, undeserved attention in academic circles. Let us put his misconceptions to rest.
A later section, concerned with Bero's attacks on the magical School of Destruction, reads,
Bero's argument, built on this shaky ground, is that the School of Destruction is not a true school. He calls it "narrow and shallow" as an avenue of study, and its students impatient, with megalomaniac tendencies. How can one respond to this? Someone who knows nothing about casting a spell of Destruction criticizing the School for being too simple? Summarizing the School of Destruction as learning how to do the "maximum amount of damage in the minimum amount of time" is clearly absurd, and he expounds on his ignorance by listing all the complicated factors studied in his own School of Illusion.
The subject matter here is very different than that of "Progress of Truth," but both works employ the same literary technique of suggesting to the reader that there is a hidden vastness to the world of Morrowind, even considering the game's already huge size. We readers involuntarily imagine what sorts of cities these wizards inhabit; we wonder whether they work out of quaint shops or shut-up university towers; we picture the community of brassy aristocrats who eagerly follow the trends among leading intellectuals. The books of Morrowind represent a world far more lively than the actual game-space that the player experiences.
And yet, there is a third world in Morrowind, other than the worlds of graphics and of text. It is a world of synthesis; a fusion in the player's mind of the world they experience directly, and the world they experience through mediation, i.e., through reading and imagining. The books refer to and shed light upon the "physical" game world, and the act of exploring that game world, in turn, lends both romance and tangibility to the books. The player joins these two worlds in their mind, into something which is greater than the sum of its parts. The books, pamphlets, codices, notes, recipes, histories, screeds, gibberings, poems, and fables of Morrowind are therefore not merely incidental to the game's success; they are essential to it.
(For a full list of all the books in the game, along with the entire text of each, visit The Imperial Library.)
Morrowind and the other games of the Elder Scrolls series reject the increasingly common notion that playing games and reading text are mutually exclusive activities. The books in Morrowind would not be so grand on their own, and neither would the game divorced of its books. Together, though, they ensure Morrowind's status as one of the most important games ever made. It reaches out to its players in a way that few games do, and in ways that non-games media cannot, since they cannot produce in their audiences anything at all like the senses of exploration and arborescence that permeate Morrowind. What Planescape: Torment did for the status of plot in games, Morrowind accomplished for setting.
I'm uncomfortable about the imminent transition of focus from Morrowind to Oblivion. Legions of fans are frothing at the mouth, eager to move on to fresher pastures. But how can we move on, when, as I said earlier (albeit with a different meaning in mind), we have only just scratched the surface? For although Morrowind has received nearly every manner of praise since its release in 2002, it seems that virtually nobody has paid attention to Morrowind qua literature, which is its most original and lasting contribution to the history of games. I would not deign to describe the present piece of writing as anything but the barest beginning for such an effort. I hope simply to have shown that Morrowind deserves more attention, and of a different kind, than it has received.
But once Oblivion comes along, what are the chances of that? It is not healthy to our hobby that we totally replace the old games with the new. Remove your wax if you so choose; I'm leaving mine in place.