Next week Skyrim becomes the latest in a long line of games to get HD re-releases — never mind that in this instance the developers seem to be oblivious to the fact that Skyrim HD already exists: it’s been created by the legions of dedicated and talented modders in the Elder Scrolls fan communities. But it’s perhaps too harsh to criticise Bethesda for responding (even if arguably unnecessarily) to market trends in an increasingly cutthroat industry. You gotta do what you gotta do to keep a development studio’s wheels well-greased these days.
Instead, let’s look at something that no amount of subsurface scattering, ambient occlusion, and screen-space reflection can ever disguise: that there Dragonborn. Skyrim‘s central plot is a steaming pile of excrement situated in a breathtakingly expansive, wonderfully realized, living and breathing digital world. Most frustratingly it’s certainly not for lack of writing talent or a dearth of ideas: Morrowind (Skyrim‘s weird, eccentric older brother) shows us the way.
Let’s take a moment to admire just how strange Morrowind is, how weird fantasy worlds could be before mass-market publishing got its inescapable claws into the genre. The flora and fauna for a start – inspired in equal parts by deep sea monstrosities, HP Lovecraft, and Siberian body horror – is one of many things to set this enigma of a game apart from more recent iterations in the Elder Scrolls series, and in fact, almost anything else the fantasy genre has thrown at us in the last 15 years. That’s not all though. Find Game of Thrones’ incestuous relations troubling? This major plot character has four wife-daughters and they’re all his clones.
In Skyrim there are places called things like ‘Throat of the World’ or ‘Dragontooth Crater’. You know, fairly standard fantasy fare. In Morrowind there’s ‘Tainted Marrow’ and ‘The Carcass of the Saint’. There’s also a lot of illegible fantasy language gibberish, but I’m feeling forgiving. But we’re already getting off on a tangent here – let’s begin where one ought to.
Skyrim and Morrowind both start as is traditional for Elder Scrolls games, with the player-protagonist imprisoned, soon to be released. From here the tone of their respective plots, much like their art direction, quickly diverges. Skyrim opts for early and spectacular empowerment – granting the power to literally consume the souls of dragons almost from the outset. This revelation is combined with a prophetic call to action that speaks to an iconic and human-readable history of the world – one which is quite literally set in stone. While Skyrim at least has the good grace to leave the future unwritten – this Dragonborn lark has only delayed the inevitable end of the world after all – it’s Morrowind that presents us a world willing to reflect our own: ambiguous and ever-shifting, disembowelled by religious paranoia, greed, and petty in-fighting.
“Where Skyrim finds itself hamstrung by identity politics, Morrowind flourishes in existentialism.”
The most striking difference between Skyrim and its 2001 predecessor, at least in terms of how it tells its story, is that Morrowind never makes you something other than you make yourself. A more controversy-courting version of myself might claim that where Skyrim finds itself hamstrung by identity politics, Morrowind flourishes in existentialism – though I’m not certain I have either the evidence or the intellect to fully support that claim. In Morrowind though, prophesied is as prophesied does. The Nerevarine prophecy serves primarily to give hope and a promise of freedom to the dispossessed Ashlanders, a native population whose cultural and religious practices are under threat from imperialist missionaries externally, and a dogmatic, intolerant national religion internally. Secondly it convinces mugs like you (the player) that liberating the Ashlanders, thus fulfilling the prophecy, is something worth attempting. In doing so it frees itself from the necessity of divine intervention, and simultaneously frees the player from the tyranny of a fixed identity. The player in Morrowind, until they actually begin to fulfill the game’s central prophecy, is only ever another inhabitant of its world.
“The stories in Morrowind have something to teach you about the real, actual world that you inhabit.”
Why make this distinction? These games are both fantastical role-playing games, both power-fantasies, both (like the majority of Western RPGs) libertarian wet dreams. The difference is that Skyrim’s metaphors grant comfort where Morrowind issues a challenge. Skyrim has allowed its fantasies to infect its message in a way that Morrowind never does. The upshot of this, in Morrowind, is a dose of realism that is so often lacking in fantastical worlds – an underlying commitment to narrative realism that adds true weight to the deceitful machinations of the Tribunal, the Protestant apostasy of its Dissident Priests, and the endless scheming of its Great Houses. Morrowind requires that you tacitly accept the authority of, and co-operate with, one set of not-so-divine oligarchs in order to prevent the murderous totalitarianism of another not-so-divine being. All the while the player is made increasingly aware that all this divinity stuff is utter garbage. Which (and you may call me a cynic) is a roundabout way of saying the stories in Morrowind have something to teach you about the real, actual world that you inhabit. That is a quality which is increasingly lacking in its successors.
Which isn’t to say that Skyrim is a bad game. It was at the time of its release (and still is to some extent) a technical and visual marvel. It might even be unfair to critique it on the same scale as Morrowind, because Skyrim is a medieval fantasy in a much stricter sense. It is (unsurprisingly) far more beholden to the language and structure of an epic saga, or the tall tales of Britain’s noble patron St. George. In comparison, I’m not really sure that Morrowind ought to be thought of as medieval fantasy. While it certainly has the hallmarks of a classic fantasy world (magic, monsters, some elves, etc.) it twists and turns in wild and unfamiliar ways. Neither the environment nor the fantasy narrative contained within are medieval in any but the most superficial ways. Rather, Morrowind creates a technologically (and politically) medieval world and sets a modern-realist story in it, whereas Skyrim tells us an actually medieval tale. One for the ages.
And why not? What’s wrong with a little epic fantasy between friends?
“We need art that goes out of its way not to lie to us.”
In a post-Brexit, Trump-toting world, a little realism in our fantasy life goes a long way. In a world where past certainties are unravelling at an ever more startling rate, the warm blanket of nostalgia seems more and more welcoming. Where political and moral identities are increasingly muddled, and personal density is a fleeting concept, we need art that goes out of its way not to lie to us. Or if it must lie, may they at least be useful lies rather than anodyne. The soothing wintry embrace of Skyrim‘s mountain vistas might be what we want, but choking in the blighted ash-storms of Morrowind‘s volcanic wastes, sinking in its sodden mires (geographical and political), is certainly what we need.
All that said, I’ll probably still be booting up Skyrim once more come the 28th. Those are some damned fine vistas.