As I continue to set up this new blog and decide how I want to handle frequency of new posts, I’ve decided to post some older blog entries from my days as a solo attorney. My posts on my law firm site already got a little weird–I can become a little preoccupied with my personal interests, what can I say. Below is one of those older posts, slightly revised and adapted for this new site.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, developed and published by Bethesda Softworks and released in 2002, has always been a favorite game of mine. As an adolescent, the appeal was fairly obvious. It was lore-dense power-fantasy, an ideal form of fantasy escapism that nonetheless dealt with some very dark, real-world themes due to its eclectic allusions to our own histories, cultures, religions, and politics.
As an adult, I find that perhaps the most appealing aspect of the game to me now is that it is really a game about textual interpretation.
The core plot is at face value the story of a conventional heroic narrative, with an outsider prophesied to lead to the independence of an imperial territory that was once a great nation in its own right. But that narrative is frequently subverted. While one could easily draw comparisons to the white savior trope in Western media (e.g., Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar), this trope must of necessity fail (at least in some play-throughs) because the foreigner can be of various races, some human, some elf, and some falling squarely outside the bounds of either of those traditional humanoid fantasy categories. Furthermore, it is not clear that Morrowind really is such a great place–its people are xenophobic and racist, enslave other races, and adhere to a fundamentalist religion devoted to three living gods. These gods, we learn, are just normal elves who have been granted a form of immortality by the same dark magics that have preserved and grown the powers of the temple’s devil figure.
Textual interpretation becomes important because there is no single history to understand this socio-political and religious conflict. At almost every turn in the plot, the player is presented with oral histories, academic treatises, hastily scribbled notes, and textbooks and histories written by sources with very different biases. Even the devil figure himself, Dagoth Ur, is given the opportunity to present his own narrative of events–which while deceitful is honestly not in outright contradiction to some of the more nuanced narratives attempting to piece together what happened in the ancient past to create these god-like figures.
Furthermore, written texts are a huge part of the experience of playing the game. There are various books, including in-universe works of fiction and scraps of plays and cookbooks and memoirs and poems and so on. The very dialogue system of the game is text-based; while there are scripted, fairly generic audio greetings, the robust system of inquiry and communication in the game is reliant upon lists of potential dialogue prompts and a window full of often long-winded replies from the non-player characters. This encourages seeing dialogue, and resultant oral histories and news reports, as yet another form of text that can be interpreted via the same sorts of analyses that are open for books and essays.
The world of The Elder Scrolls is worth learning more about, too. Its current events and lengthy history are the product of a considerable amount of harvested material from our own histories and current events and fantasies. Tolkien’s influence is obvious, both in similarities to The Lord of the Rings and in obvious reactions to those books (a couple examples of subversion: Orcs appear as a race commonly believed to be cruel and war-like, but they are actually civilized and renowned for their craftsmanship; Dwarves are an extinct race of elves who were not actually stout or diminutive, but rather were so-named by the Giants they interacted with). But the secessionist attitudes of the natives of Morrowind, and their arguments for their legal “right” to own slaves, draw heavily from the pro-slavery presence in the antebellum southern United States, and there is an abolitionist movement in Morrowind reflective of that same period in U.S. history. And the religions of the Imperial Cult and the Tribunal Temple both draw heavily from real-world religions, including Roman beliefs, Christianity, Islam, and religious systems that incorporate animism and reincarnation. This does not even touch on many of the parallels in history and historical culture, or the various (often subtle) literary allusions made in the game.
The focus on textual interpretation within the game invites a broader textual interpretation of the game itself, and there is more than enough content to reward that sort of interpretation.
Later games in the series played more with the power of the titular Elder Scrolls themselves, but this game nonetheless remains a highlight to me.