There are a lot of fun books in The Elder Scrolls games. In length, they were more like independently bound short stories and essays, covering a variety of genres: histories of the setting (sometimes with meta-narratives that address the diverging plots of earlier games), simple pulp adventures, tantalizing notes, silly scraps of ideas and joke concepts, and the occasional serial narrative that actually built into something bigger.
My favorites of these stories have always been the adventures of unambitious clerk Decumus Scotti, as chronicled in the serialized chapters of A Dance in Fireand The Argonian Account by the in-universe author Waughin Jarth (sadly, I don’t know who the real author of these tales is). The stories are at least one part The Hobbit, one part Bartleby, the Scrivener, and one part Heart of Darkness. I couldn’t fully articulate why, but since my first exposure to an isolated chapter of the story in Morrowind, I’ve always been fond of this pathetic, middle-aged man, someone who so completely lacks ambition and almost completely lacks agency. He is consistently acted upon, forced into ever more dangerous situations, and he just bends with the blows. He somehow comes out on top, or at least no worse than he was at the beginning, and it typically has very little to do with anything that he actually does.
I am by nature a personality who tends to bend to pressure rather than resist. Certainly when I am at my happiest, I let myself bend, go with the flow, stay in the moment. I also like the idea of a mundane, uninteresting, middle-class, middle-aged clerk finding himself in the middle of an interesting, exciting story, even if it was a story he wanted no part of. It probably sounds rather pathetic, but a part of me always felt a kinship with the fellow. Only a part of me, though. I may lack ambition, and like Scotti I enjoy telling stories about adventure but would prefer to sit the actual adventure out, but I’m not particularly lazy, and I don’t avoid work, and I’m not a liar, and I’m certainly not corrupt or an embezzler.
I don’t view Scotti as an icon or fictional role model. I delight in A Dance in Fire and The Argonian Account because of their wry, dark humor. I appreciate the irony of Scotti as protagonist or even hero. Scotti is bland and uninspiring. Scotti is like if Bilbo went off on his adventure and never learned anything from it, never grew at all. Yet for every master thief and vampire and tragic hero to appear in the fiction of The Elder Scrolls, Scotti was delightful for just existing, without pretension or even purpose.
I continue to absolutely love Breath of the Wild. Way too much of my free time is absorbed by the game. I haven’t felt the spirit of adventure and the fun of experimentation this much since Morrowind; I’m always excited to go over the next rise, to talk to the next person, to see what happens if I mix two items or effects together. And Breath of the Wild will, I think, age much better than Morrowind has. That beautiful cel-shaded aesthetic and the sharp pops of color and intense contrasts, the shading and lighting, the far views sometimes obscured by fog or rain but sometimes blurred only by far horizon…I’d say it’s the most beautiful Zelda game ever, and the Zelda title with the most pleasant and distinctive aesthetic since Wind Waker (which also had beautifully cartoonish and colorful visuals).
I think that Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda game to show to me what other people like about the franchise. It seems to take pinnacles of Zelda gameplay to the peak: clever puzzle-solving dungeons, intense boss fights, challenging combat that frequently requires you to reconsider how you approach a fight, a sprawling overworld to explore, and quirky and even sometimes heartfelt side characters to interact with. It also cuts out a lot of the tedium of many of the other games. And it’s truly open-world, so I never feel trapped or constrained or railroaded. And while it’s challenging, it really rewards testing strategies and even taking risks that lead to failure (thanks to frequent auto-saves and soft “deaths” that only knock off some health points and set you back a little bit with events like drowning).
At this point in the game, I’ve now freed all the Divine Beasts, and I’ve just been knocking out side quests and shrine quests, doing a bit more exploring, before seeking out the Sword of Legend and taking on Ganon. I’m continually amazed at just how deep and dense this game is. Every time I think I discovered everything in an area, the game reveals something new. Take for instance the Dueling Peaks, which you cross through early in the game.
I thought I’d explored that area sufficiently, finding shrines nearby. But much later in the game, as I approached from a high rise at night, I saw this:
At times obscured by cloud, the orange glint of an unexplored shrine! Further investigation would reveal two shrines high in the peaks, with a simple yet fun puzzle that required matching patterns across both.
I’ve also had fun encountering increasingly bizarre steeds. I have only two registered horses: Sweet Guy, a paint horse with a gentle temperament (my oldest friend in the game), and Big Guy, a quest-related giant horse. But I’ve occasionally ridden and tamed other horses, as well as two deer, many sand seals, a skeleton horse (who would’ve been named Creepy Guy, if he hadn’t died spontaneously on me after riding him for a bit), and a literal mountain god (who would have probably been named God Guy if he hadn’t disappeared almost immediately after dismounting–after a stable refused to board him for fear of bringing on a curse).
These are all fun discoveries to me. Yet it’s weird to play a game this far out from release while still being a fairly new title. It’s, what, about a year old now? But of course there have been many 100% completions and filled-out Wikias and ever-shrinking speed runs. I’m aware of this stuff (and it’s been useful–a guide helped me find out the control sequence for shield surfing, which never seemed adequately explained in the game). Thankfully, it’s not distracting or overwhelming, but it’s in the back of my mind. Someone’s done it all before. I’m still surprising myself, though.
And I’m still finding new challenges. The coliseum, with its silver lynel (fucking lynels, the worst) and level upon level upon level of bokoblins and moblins with elementally empowered weapons, was a great challenge for me and required me to focus once more on the basics of combat, relying less on the brute force I’d come to trust in. I died many, many times. But when I finally climbed to the top, having killed and looted all the monsters I could find, it felt like a true triumph.
I don’t think I’ll play to 100%. I don’t know if I’ll ever interact with any of the DLC content. And when I finish the main quest eventually, that’ll probably be the end of Breath of the Wild for me–for a while, anyway. But this game has never gotten even remotely boring for me. I’m still having so much fun.
When I was younger, my favorite type of game was the open-world RPG. I could play those for dozens or hundreds of hours. I still do, at times: my Steam version of Morrowind, for instance, has racked up 260 hours of play time since purchase in 2012. And there are other exceptions, of course, like Arena and Shadow of Mordor.
But as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve had less time to play video games, and I’ve wanted my time with video games to be more meaningful even in that smaller amount of time, I’ve gravitated more toward shorter, narrative-rich experiences. For instance, while I was never a big adventure game fan, adventure games have taken up more and more of my time. I’m okay with a game that does not require a lot of skill or reactivity, but it’s still important to me that the game offer a sense of choice and diverging paths. There should be a sense of personal investment and consequence.
As a result, I’ve played a few of the Telltale games, though certainly not all. My favorite was The Walking Dead, with an emotionally gripping story and rich character drama. I only played season one, though; the first season alone was so emotionally draining that I am in no hurry to engage with the title further, and I’m not a huge fan of the nihilistic death and violence and gore of zombie stories in the first place. I played the Jurassic Park game, because I’m a huge fan of the original book and film, but that story offered very little sense of real consequences for most of the game, and it was too dependent upon annoying quick-time events. And I played most of the Batman game, which definitely offered the feeling of real choice and consequence, and it had excellent detective scenes that were fitting for the character and excellent character interactions. But I never finished that game, after encountering a persistent game-crashing bug in around the third or fourth episode. It was frustrating to have to give up on the game; I know that a lot of people complained about bugs and glitches and unplayability for the initial releases of each episode, and I suspect that the problem may since have been resolved, but I’m not too eager to get back into that story now.
My favorite contemporary adventure game was Life Is Strange, by Dontnod Entertainment. I was heavily invested in the choice and consequence of that game. The story was mystical and bizarre. And the time-looping powers of the protagonist resulted in interesting gameplay moments and were fully integrated into the game’s narrative. Narrative and game mechanics fed into each other. The weirdo teens and their interactions with the weirdo adults, and the snapshot of the Northwest, were great (I only really understood the comparisons to Twin Peaks after playing, as I only started watching the cult classic show months after finishing the game). Not that this is much of a feat, given that the achievements involved completing episodes and taking optional photos, but Life Is Strange is one of two games in which I reached 100% achievement completion on Steam (I stand by my final decision in that game, saving the town and reversing everything that happened, even though it is emotionally devastating; the other choice seemed too selfish to me, and I’m glad that 100% completion did not require playing both endings).
I tried Dontnod’s Remember Me, which felt like a fairly conventional action-adventure title although with the fairly interesting gimmick of memory alteration (memory and the past are obviously important themes in Dontnod’s body of work). I look forward to Vampyr, which seems to be quite a different game for Dontnod, and I’m curious to see how memory and the past might influence that experience.
But I’m discovering that there is a very specific form of typically short, narrative-rich game that I especially love. It sits somewhere between adventure game and visual novel. It often, though not always, has some level of consequence due to choice; at the very least, players’ investigative skills and growing familiarity with in-game systems are critical to advancement. And it involves the use of some sort of in-game software, often an operating system. I don’t know that this particular type of game warrants having its own genre, and I don’t know if there is already a genre descriptor, but I’m going to call these sorts of games In-Universe Detective games.
What I love most about these games is that they use the limitations of the genre to actually build a greater sense of immersion. Instead of remotely playing as another character, the game operates under the assumption that you are you. You may have a particular role or function within the game, and “you” can be defined by the player out-of-game. But who “you” are is built out of direct interaction with the game. The game itself, by acting like a software program, allows for easy suspension of disbelief. The world of the game is your world.
I know of three entries in this genre: Analogue: A Hate Story (and its sequel, Hate Plus), Her Story, and Orwell.
In Analogue: A Hate Story (designed by Christine Love), you are a spacer on a salvage operation to investigate an old, abandoned colony ship; the entire game involves reading through archives and interacting with one of two AI programs. You attempt to discover what exactly went wrong with the ship, and in the process uncover a feudal Korean-inspired culture that developed after a regressive societal change aboard the ship. The game has interesting things to say about misogyny and the myth of the forward march of cultural progress. And it has just as many interesting things to say about identity, rebellion, and forgiveness. It’s a short game, but I played the hell out of it; it’s my other 100% Steam achievement completion title. If you’re into anime or visual novels, it’ll be an easy game to get into. If not for some favorable coverage, though, I would have passed; the cutesy anime girl avatars of the AI were a little obnoxious for me to deal with at first, but they prove to be quite interesting quite quickly.
In Her Story (designed by Sam Barlow), you use an old police computer to review archived clips of interviews with a suspect in a murder investigation. You slowly piece together what happened as you find new videos. You have to find ways to draw connections to other videos, as you cannot simply review them all at once. There’s a fun amount of searching and browsing and deduction involved. Even though the case is closed, you feel like you’re doing a lot of detective work in the searching. Plus, there’s very little interaction outside of this searching role–just an occasional text conversation with a third party–so that a lot of the investigation work you do is off-screen, out-of-game, implicit, personal. I took notes on paper as I worked my way through. It was engaging, and the ending resulted in an interesting shift in perspective for me. This is a game that I would have 100% completion in, if I’d ever bothered to play more of the computer application game on the in-game desktop background.
Lastly, there’s Orwell (designed by Osmotic Studios), which I just reviewed on Sunday. Of the three, I found this the least rewarding to play, although it maybe had the most to say. I’d point you to my review if you want more insight there.
You could say that all of the above are basically games from other genres, and that I’m just reorienting them around a gimmick. But if it’s a “gimmick,” it’s holding up rather well for me and inviting a very particular type of immersive experience. I’ll gladly keep playing games like that.
If you know of any games that fit the bill, please let me know. I’m certainly not tired of them yet.
Last week I criticized Arena‘s flow. This week, I would like to retract that statement, at least partially. I feel almost as though a curse has been lifted with the death(s) of the blond mugger. Suddenly, combat is exciting and challenging, fun instead of frustrating, intense but manageable. Suddenly, I’ve fallen into a whole cycle of quests, often without even asking around for them. Suddenly, I’m finding secrets where I was sure there were none. I leveled early on in the past week’s play, to level 5, and now it’s as if I’m playing an entirely different game.
Partially, I think that I’m better at the game, sure. And partially, I think I was more frustrated than I thought about that blond mugger; I think my repeated night-time crises left me feeling weary and battered and worried. I wasn’t enjoying myself. Some time away from the game, and some “epic wins” in the first week back, changed my momentum and perspective. But I think a huge part of this, though it would be difficult for me to prove, is that I am past the hurdle of being a low-level, low-skill, weak little punk who’s only any good against rats and the occasional goblins. In other words, rather than necessarily getting all that much better at the game, I think that my current level has just reduced the game’s friction.
I should have predicted this sort of rise-plateau-rise in improvement; it’s sort of iconic of Elder Scrolls games, isn’t it? I certainly remember having many close calls in early save files of Morrowind when the Tribunal expansion was installed from the beginning of a game. And any Elder Scrolls game has a habit of giving you tense early experiences while your skills are low and your equipment sucks, then eventually rewarding you with a sense of ease and power, only to start chipping away at that security again around the middle levels when the enemies reach a certain level in response to your success. I hope I’ll remember that lesson more readily when I inevitably reach the next plateau.
That said, I now understand more why there are user-submitted Arena save games on the UESP. You can skip straight to a more powerful character, avoiding the frustration of low-level weakness and the necessary grind to improve. Interestingly, the lowest-level character offered on the page is a Level 5 Thief. Perhaps Level 5 is an important milestone.
Okay, so what did I actually do this week in-game? A whole lot of quests. I won’t get granular here; I’ve discussed quests before. They’re all fetch quests, and getting into the specifics of each procedurally generated quest would be way too dull. I will say that I have encountered a new type of fetch quest, though. Whereas before I always had to deliver a person or an item from the quest-giver to another location, I am now often tasked with going to a separate location to pick up an item and then to return that item to the quest-giver.
There are four idiosyncrasies I’ve detected over these procedurally generated quests. First, there’s some gender confusion. Even having the title “Sir,” which surely must be one of the most masculine-gendered titles out there, does not guarantee that a shopkeeper won’t later refer to having “her” item. Second, the gratitude displayed on these quests has come with some prepackaged phrases that add some flavor without definition to the world–we hear exclamations regarding the “Soulless One” and the “Black Maw,” for instance, without any further elaboration. (I want to note that The Elder Scrolls Online appears to have had a lot of fun with tiny Arena references, having the Soulless One as the player protagonist, a Shrine of the Black Maw, and even at least one daedric monster dungeon boss that appears to be a balrog). Third, while most places have constant location names, I think (based on my map notes and the quest log and my memory) that one place has changed names two or three times, always the same format but with a different owner; I guess there’s a lot of turnover there. Fourth, quest-givers often say they can’t escort or fetch because they’re busy or disabled, yet they also almost always declare that they had heard you collected an item before you returned to them–they have a good reach for people too busy to walk down the street to pick something up. This last oddity is especially amusing to me; to the extent that I can roleplay in Arena, I’ve decided that my character believes that these quest-givers are actually testing him to see if he is worthy of larger jobs, but it’s equally amusing to imagine them stalking the hero messenger boy just to make sure he picks up the package like they asked.
The more quests I do, the more gold I get offered on average, so it’s pretty rewarding to keep doing more quests.
Also, the more night-prowling I do, the more rewarding it becomes. I’m easily swatting down most monsters at this point. I also returned to the Mages Guild for another break-in, this time discovering a “secret” door in a back corner bookshelf.
The door revealed a narrow hallway that peeled away to another bookshelf. At first it was pretty impossible for me to get through:
I tried several times, failed several times, and left; it was actually at this point that I leveled, and I went back in to face the challenging door. This time I cracked the lock and found a repository of sorts, with rows of bookshelves and some fairly useless loot.
I had a couple human opponents to face in the Mages Guild this time; I suppose in-universe that the Guild beefed up security with some hired mercenaries after Aizen so readily dispatched the conjured lizard-men. But these human guards had no magical ability, and with my healthy stock of potions and able use of the blade, they were no match for me.
I also now know that corpse models are fairly simply animated and so always face you from the same angle no matter where you stand in the room. All the above images are just different shots of the same guy.
Between questing, prowling, and sleeping, I passed enough time in Corkarth Run to finally reach the day that my saber was to be fully repaired. I stopped by many times that day, often picking up quests in inns to pass the time between visits, only to keep getting this message:
Eventually, I gave up, renting a room in a nearby inn for one more night. The following day I collected my completed saber.
This felt like a significant milestone to me and a justification for change. I felt it was time to set off for Hammerfell to actually look for Fang Lair and begin the main quest proper. My journey was quite lengthy (IRL, it was just a bit of flavor text and a brief animation).
The journey was immediately worth it, though. I had become so used to the doom and gloom of Morrowind, the thick smog rolling off Red Mountain at almost all times. Hammerfell, by contrast, is beautiful:
I’m looking forward to the next chapter in my voyage.
P.S. I’ve reluctantly accepted the reality that this game is probably the least immersive of the main Elder Scrolls games. It is certainly quite interactive, and it has impressively robust systems at work for its age. But while it encourages me to act onthe game world, I have very little opportunity to act withinthe game world. It’s not a fatal flaw, but as someone who loves roleplaying games for the ability to play a role, it’s disappointing. Still, so long as the game lets me do things that are fun, I won’t complain too loudly about this. And the procedurally generated monsters and quests have yielded some interesting stories of their own, if mostly in my head.
Ok, like I said, I wanted the next one of these out-of-game Arena posts to discuss Ted Peterson a little bit. The reason is that Mr. Peterson seems like a truly fascinating individual who was directly involved in shaping the Elder Scrolls story from Arena through Oblivion, though to varying degrees. He was a designer for Arena and Daggerfall, and he provided additional writing for Oblivion and Morrowind (he wrote many of the books, I believe). It’s interesting because he seems a narrative constant throughout the evolution of the series from generic first-person D&D-style offshoot to the quirky, unique, different fantasy setting it has become. How much of this is attributable to his influence–versus, say, Ken Rolston (the lead designer for Morrowind and Oblivion) or Todd Howard (who has had a leadership role in all Elder Scrolls games from Morrowind onward and was game director on both of the Bethesda Fallout games)? It’s tough for me to say at this stage, both because I haven’t familiarized myself enough with the available interviews, oral histories, and industry accounts of the development of this franchise and because I have yet to play Daggerfall, which appears to be regarded as the pinnacle of involvement for Peterson and lead programmer Julian Lefay.
Rather than just repeat a summary biography, I’d urge you to check out the short write-up on The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages, a site that has long proven a useful resource for any and all Elder Scrolls information. Of course, the page does not contain citations for its list of accolades (though it does link to some interviews), so take it for what it’s worth; at the very least, it’s good myth-building about an interesting gaming figure. In short, besides being involved in The Elder Scrolls, he has more recently written for television and film and has occasionally returned to video games; these basic facts are easily verified through sources like IMDb and Moby Games.
It’s surprisingly difficult to find interviews with Mr. Peterson, especially more recent ones. One of the better examples appears to be from July 2010 on The Imperial Library. If the information in that interview transcript is accurate, he is responsible for a not-inconsiderable deal of the lore books associated with the contemporary mythos of The Elder Scrolls. And an interesting element in the interview: he seems quite willing to encourage ambiguity and alternative readings into the myths and lore of The Elder Scrolls. He seems delighted by people who have become engaged by that lore, who have been motivated to read more because of it, and he seems to especially enjoy the idea of hidden mysteries to be teased out and interpreted. Frankly, the interview feels like a missed opportunity, since (again, if accurate) Peterson offered to answer as many questions as the interviewer liked, and yet the interviewer rather quickly wrapped things up (despite the interview in fact appearing to be a series of emails).
I think I’ve actually found him on LinkedIn (just a top result from a basic Google search of his name, nothing creepy). Maybe if I work up the nerve, I’ll reach out to him to see if he’d answer some questions of my own. But I’ll save that for another time, when I have a better grasp on the series, and when my questions might have a little more practical use.
It appears that this side quest has become rather rambling–and thus rather like the first. I think that seems appropriate for a side quest, really. Especially when that quest is to learn more about the career and influence of a creator of often-ambiguous lore.
According to Wikipedia, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was first released for Microsoft Windows on May 2, 2002. It was released on Xbox in North America on June 6 of that year. That makes today its fifteen-year anniversary for console release. I first played the Xbox version. I think I got the game for Christmas the year it came out, although the timeline is a little fuzzy in my head now (it might have been the following Christmas–I didn’t follow game releases or gaming news that closely until high school). And as soon as I started playing it and got off that ship in Seyda Neen, I fell in love.
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.