A game about textual interpretation

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 WolvesThe Last SamuraiAvatar), 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.

10 thoughts on “A game about textual interpretation

      1. Thank man I appreciate that! 😄 My personal favorite was Oblivion, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that I was in 7th grade at the time, and didn’t have many responsibilities. So my friend and I would play it non stop LOL. Now I don’t have as much time as I used to! Skyrim was pretty awesome though too !

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  1. Oblivion was the game my wife and one of my best friends probably played the most of. Morrowind’s a hard one to sell people on because of how the graphics have become so dated (at least without mods), and I think people can be a little turned off by how simplistic the AI was and how text-heavy and stats-heavy the game could be. I unfortunately never played any of the older games, though I’ve always meant to get around to it. Same reality as you–just not enough time anymore!

    I had a couple gripes against Oblivion. One, the fantasy world felt really generic. And two, the people all fell pretty heavily into the uncanny valley–they didn’t look quite right. But I loved that they all had their own lives and routines, and Oblivion excelled at dynamic, random, weird moments that let players have their own stories to tell. I think Skyrim combined a lot of what worked well in Morrowind and Oblivion, and it felt really weird and strange even though its setting fell back pretty heavily on fantasy tropes pulled from LOTR and Conan the Barbarian.

    In the end, as much as I enjoy the sense of verisimilitude and cinematic nature of newer open-world RPGs, I really do miss the literary nature of a lot of those early-to-mid-2000’s games (admittedly, some of that is probably nostalgia).

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  2. Morrowind is my absolute favorite game. Nothing will top playing that for the first time, especially since I wasn’t really into gaming at all. I was just sort of curious about this game that had kept my boyfriend up until 5AM one day. I was skeptical that anything could be that engaging. Then, after a week of solid 9 hours/day playing, I got it. I still get all kinds of fuzzy feelings when I listen to the soundtrack.

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    1. I was really excited when Skyrim had the re-interpreation of the main Morrowind theme in its soundtrack. Though I think all the music in Morrowind was great, right?! It really inspired a sense of wonder and adventure. What do you think appealed to you about Morrowind that you didn’t get from other games?

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      1. It was like nothing else I had played before. The last video game I played was Zork and Morrowind was my introduction to all-things-RPG. And I love Skyrim and Oblivion, but Morrowind is just so special because it was the first time I got pulled into that kind of world (I didn’t even read much fantasy to this point in my life.) I might have said the same thing about Oblivion or Skyrim had they been my first, because there are moments in the Oblivion soundtrack where I could just cry (which is generally a bad idea because I tend to listen to it at work) and I am still consumed by my Skyrim fiction, even if I don’t update as often as I used to (getting a job outside of my living room makes fan writing less frequent).

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        1. From Zork to Morrowind! That’s pretty wild! I never played Zork but it’s certainly something of a legend. Morrowind served as sort of an introduction to fantasy for me as well, to be honest. It’s been interesting every time I’ve replayed it with a greater understanding of the sources it’s drawing from and reinterpreting.

          I’m looking forward to going through your blog in more detail when I get a chance, I’m always down for Elder Scrolls fiction, both in and out of the games. Did you read The Infernal City and Lord of Souls?

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  3. The only decent thing my exboyfriend ever did was buy me the Lost Treasure of Infocom (Vols. 1 and 2), which had all of those text-based games. But Zork was always my favorite. I even had a name for my character and a short backstory, because she needed a reason to be there, you know?

    I have not read either of those books yet, though I intend to.

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    1. I get it! The pull of RPGs for me, both video game and tabletop, is the chance to develop a shared, dynamic story–developing a character, crafting a purpose, and then interacting with the environment, whether that environment is shaped by the game or by the dungeon master across the table.

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