Friday, May 11, 2012

“Wow! You really are Mr. Hero!”: World-Building and Role-Playing in The Elder Scrolls

 Note: Being a writer I'm eternally critical of my older work. However, this piece I feel especially hostile towards as there's quite possibly no single work of fiction I feel I've misread quite as catastrophically badly and unjustly as The Elder Scrolls series, in particular the two games I highlight in this post, Morrowind and Skyrim. Suffice to say my opinions on both games have changed dramatically since I originally wrote this and if ever there was a time I wish I could completely retract something I wrote this would be it. If you haven't already read this post, I'd first humbly ask you *not* to, but if you must I suggest you skip the entire section where I discuss them. There still may be one or two vaguely valid points I bring up in regards to gender roles and the story of Mjoll the Lioness, but mostly I talk absolute bollocks and get everything about the series' core philosophical tenets laughably, provably and factually wrong. As of this writing I'm in the middle of planning a major update that I hope will give The Elder Scrolls a much, *much* fairer and more appropriate evaluation. The bits about Tolkien and RPGs I stand by though.

 I'm leaving this post up as a historical record of my own stupidity, but please keep in mind I no longer feel comfortable defending it at great length.


I'm going to make a confession. After I do so, you are free to revoke my Nerd Card (I haven't taken great care of it; haven't used it in years and the photo's out-of-date), though I do ask you at least bear with me for the remainder of this essay. That settled? Alright then.

I do not like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

Now, when I say this I mean I am not especially enthralled by its merits as a novel-Tolkien *did* accomplish something truly incredible and I have a huge amount of respect for that. The Lord of the Rings does something very, very well, it's just that its strength is not in its ability to tell a story. What Tolkien did is craft an entire world from scratch, populating it with its own unique cultures, languages (complete with alphabets and primary sources) and thousands of years of intricate historical record. Granted, many of the rote building blocks of Middle-Earth were cobbled together from various Norse and other Northern European mythologies, but Tolkien's savvy move was to arrange them in such a way as to make the whole thing streamlined, cohesive and elegant to follow. As no-one had blended these literary traditions in this way before and enough of Tolkien's own imagination shown through, The Lord of the Rings still felt uniquely singular and remains so today. What The Lord of the Rings reads like, more than anything else, is a three volume set of historical records about a meticulously detailed fantasy world, and it's difficult to argue that isn't a remarkable achievement.

However, the other side of this is that it's a rare person who actually relishes the thought of settling down in front of a fireplace and eagerly digging into a history textbook. I will freely admit to not being that sort of person. History textbooks are notoriously dry, prosaic and full of questionable appeals to authority and objectivity-In other words, pretty much how The Lord of the Rings reads to a non-fan, or at least to me. More relevantly though, history textbooks do not tell stories: They're focused on crafting a linear, deterministic model of history and not the story arc of one or a handful of protagonists. The Lord of the Rings chronicles the stories of many different characters (Frodo's quest to return the Ring, thus fulfilling his destiny and embodying the spirit of hope and perseverance, Aragorn's quest to assume the Throne of Gondor and rally the Alliance of Men, Arwen grappling with the repercussions of her immortality) but no one character can be claimed to be the central focus of the whole saga. This has both positive and negative ramifications: On the negative end it's potentially laborious for a reader to get invested in a text more geared toward relating the historical record of a fictional world instead of chronicling the evolution of one particular character. On the positive, by contrast, it makes the world of Middle-Earth feel for more nuanced and alive than many other fictional settings owing to the staggering amount of lush detail that went into creating and documenting it.

If The Lord of the Rings falls down as a novel though, there's one genre it fits very comfortable as a trailblazing member of and its impact makes it arguably exceedingly ahead of its time: The tabletop Role-Playing Game, or RPG. In his overview of the FASA Doctor Who RPG from the mid-1980s, the meritorious Phil Sandifer compares that game to one based on The Lord of the Rings, making the claim that the latter property is “in many ways a world in search of a story. (Or, actually, a language in search of a world in search of a story. Which is even better, really.)”. This is, to me, a perfect reading of the series and a great summation of why it makes a great RPG and something like Doctor Who doesn't: Like Sandifer argues, as the framework of Doctor Who relies to an extent upon The Doctor being the central figure and, in one way or another, upsetting the establishment into which he's cast, it's difficult to map out a cohesive, three-dimensional world for the franchise to be set in. In other words, and the way I tend to read it, Doctor Who is about inserting The Doctor into other people's stories so he can give them a little kickstart. Since he is simultaneously the one irreducible part of the series and an ability to transgress narrative boundaries is tacitly written into his character, it's essentially impossible to build a universe around this.

The Lord of the Rings is different, however: Where Doctor Who is a framework for reshaping existing stories, Middle-Earth is first and foremost a world; a setting. It's a place where stories happen, not an agent for creating stories or a story in and of itself. This is what makes it such great fodder for RPGs, because an RPG depends fundamentally on taking a pre-built setting and finding new ways to tell engaging stories with original characters that take place there and are lore-friendly. Because the source material has a big enough scope and the focus was never on characters (no matter how iconic they may be) it makes it very easy to roll up an Elven battlemage in a Lord of the Rings game where it might be tough to convince a Doctor Who fan to play a game where they aren't allowed to play The Doctor or one of his cool companions.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting at my main point, which is to analyse and re-examine the legacy and influence of the RPG as a framework in contemporary fantasy video games. I mean at first glance the footprint is pretty clear: A great many video game fans are also fans of pen-and-paper RPGs and a great deal more game designers got their start crafting intricate and unique fantasy realms through traditional RPG rulebooks. We even have a genre of games called “RPGs”, which immediately imply that these titles are drawing on a very long and very specific intellectual heritage. It should almost go without saying-Video game fantasy owes a tremendous debt to pen-and-paper RPGs: Our medium's very oldest fantasy epics, games like the Ultima series, were overtly based on their creators specific flavour of Dungeons and Dragons. Richard Garriot's Brittania is literally his old D&D map and Ultima was his exercise in realising that world in a new medium. Games like Neverwinter Nights are explicitly designed around translating the rules and game mechanics of D&D to video games. Dungeons and Dragons has been with us from the very beginning and its presence is still heavily felt today, as even recent AAA blockbusters like BioWare's Dragon Age games can trace an easily noticeable lineage back to D&D. Pen-and-paper RPGs are in the very blood of video games.

I personally feel there are other models of narrative structure video games can (and actually should) take advantage of more often that aren't descended from RPGs (anything by Shigeru Miyamoto and his school, for the most obvious example), but that's a treatise for another day. Right now I want to look at the RPG model itself and the very beneficial effect it can, and has, had on game design via my favourite series to invoke it: Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls. Like in Ultima, the world of The Elder Scrolls, Tamriel, is based on the original designers' custom D&D map. Where it differs from its predecessor, however, is that while Ultima followed the story of one hero who, through a series of epic quests and tribulations becomes the Avatar of the Eight Virtues of Brittania tasked with bringing spiritual enlightenment to the people, The Elder Scrolls is expressly the story of Tamriel itself, with each of its as of this writing five main games (Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim) chronicling the events of a specific era in Tamriel's history with an emphasis, more often than not, on a a specific region. The choice to write the games this way is nontrivial: While each installment can (and does) feature a different, specific hero, the focus remains squarely on the world itself and the state it finds itself in at the time any given title begins. This focus on the state of Tamriel itself, coupled with Bethesda's famous penchant for obsessively meticulous attention to detail (each game has hundreds of fully written books on millennia of Tamrielic history that even account for authorial biases and misinformation; every character, player or otherwise, has a specific backstory and several branching character arcs for starters) means the world of The Elder Scrolls comes alive in a way very few other video game settings are able to.

It's at this stage I'm careful to avoid too much dialogue about “immersion”, “escapism” and “suspension of disbelief”, however, because these can be very loaded terms. A strong argument, and one I'm not entirely inclined to contest, can be made that the goal of fictional storytelling should not be these things, but instead on an emphasis that fiction is not reality but merely resembles reality and showing how that can be used to explore specific themes and get readers invested. I'll freely admit this is an effective model for explaining how stories work. That said, here's the real rub: I don't feel either RPGs or video games should be, at least primarily, about telling stories. I've previously argued that the purpose of video games is to serve as an outlet for a designer to share an experience with players, and explicitly so owing to the irreducible factor of player agency. In this sense, and in terms of comparisons with other expressive media, I liken video games most closely not to books, movies and television, but to music and theater (an analogy that warrants further study at a later date). RPGs, by contrast, I am currently arguing are designed to build a detailed, cohesive world in which stories can take place. This is what makes the two genres a natural fit for one another: From RPGs, a game gets the ability to craft an expansive, intricately detailed canvas on which to tell a story and the power to write any kind of story. From other video games, it gets the ability to intimately link authors and readers through shared experience. When put together, a good high fantasy video game can give players the power to explore and craft their own story in tandem with developers, hence making each playthrough of a game such as those in The Elder Scrolls series potentially unique. And this is what Bethesda does really well from my perspective: Effortlessly fusing the two styles to create games that both clearly reflect themes the designers wish to explore whilst at the same time providing players a level of freedom to run around and help shape a shared world that's almost unprecedented.

If we take as read the goal of The Elder Scrolls is not to tell a story, but instead serve as the generative vehicle, framework and setting through which stories can evolve, what consequences might this have for the way the narrative of any given entry plays out? There are, I argue, some peculiarities of this arrangement that ought to be addressed. The most important of these is that in order for The Elder Scrolls to successfully be a video game based around RPG-style world-building, the one kind of story it absolutely cannot entertain is, unfortunately, the kind that the main quest of nearly every single Elder Scrolls title has been thus far: Epic poetry about a chosen hero destined to deliver the world from evil. The protagonist of Arena traverses the world to retrieve the broken pieces of the Staff of Kings and reunite a war-torn Tamriel, the Emperor himself chooses the PC in Daggerfall to soothe the restless spirit of a ghost terrorizing the region's capital and navigate the rapidly deteriorating political situation, and Oblivion's main character becomes the beloved Champion of Cyrodiil by closing the gates to a chaotic Otherworld and preventing all of Tamriel from falling under the rule of the very embodiment of destruction and conquest. This becomes especially egregious in Skyrim (cribbing from testosterone-laden Norse mythology as it does): Not only do players assume the role of the prophesied reincarnation of the “Dovahkiin”, one who is born with the soul of a Dragon who is destined to prevent the Tamrielic equivalent of Ragnarok, but who also conveniently becomes the destined heroic saviour of any in-game faction they choose to join. The game is arguably a modern classic, but the amount of beardy macho bravado its plot exudes actually makes me physically gag a bit sometimes.

This is even more incredulous if you happen to come off of Morrowind, which actually very cleverly deconstructed the Chosen One archetype effectively. Throughout the game, the player character is referred to as the “Nerevarine”, an alleged reincarnation of a literal God who will lead the Dunmer people to salvation. However, as the game progresses, players get conflicting information that casts doubt as to whether or not they truly are the Nerevarine, before it's ultimately revealed that the title is essentially meaningless and is used primarily so external forces can use the player as a political pawn. In an absolutely delicious bit of irony, the character who would be traditionally held up as the most powerful and given the highest accolades and adulation winds up potentially the most marginal and easily exploited. Morrowind leaves readers with the underlying theme, especially evident in its final moments, that destiny, fate and the future are ultimately only what each individual person chooses to make of it. No-one, it would seem, is predestined to be a legendary hero or given a divine right at birth that would set them above everyone else. In other words, the Chosen One archetype is so ancient The Elder Scrolls itself already picked it apart to a satisfying extent almost a decade before Skyrim even came along and it most certainly wasn't the first.

I'm not going to continue going on about how dull and hackneyed this storytelling framework is, dearly loved by hack fantasy writers since the days of Beowulf it might be, because it actually has different ramifications for this kind of video game that are a bit more interesting to talk about. Put simply, an intellectual framework that sets world-building as its primary concern and a story where one character, even if it is the player character, is the centre of the universe is completely incongruous. It runs completely contrary to the very thing that keeps The Lord of the Rings, and by extension RPGs, afloat: Namely, that the worlds of these stories are places where heroes live and heroic deeds are done, not where one character is the most important entity in existence. An argument could be made Lord of the Rings falls into this trap more often than strictly necessary given how all of Middle-Earth seems at times hinging on whether or not Frodo makes it to Mount Doom, but there's enough else going on and the world is developed enough it diverts our attention from the painfully pedestrian nature of the basic plot. In the case of Skyrim, however, if the Dovahkiin is the most important being in the lives of everyone in the game world at this particular time, this dehumanizes the other characters and ultimately reduces the world the game is trying to build to little more than a series of levels and checkpoints the player passes through.

I've seen quite a few fans come out to defend the decision to write The Elder Scrolls stories this way: A common argument seems to be that it is “empowering” to be given such “special” treatment and that it's a good way to get players to feel like their actions have consequences. This is often used as a way of defending such “massively single player games” and contrasting them with “massively multiplayer online games”, (MMOs) from which they derive their epithet. Now it is true that some MMOs have serious issues in terms of handling individual players, but this is the thing: A game series like The Elder Scrolls should not be about making the player feel special. Turning the player into a legendary unstoppable exalted demigod is absolutely the last approach to take to this kind of scenario for it does nothing but cheapen the world and the stories it's supposed to be fundamentally about building because in RPGs nobody is special. What makes RPGs unique is that the stories of countless heroes that walk the game world and interact with it in entropic ways help shape and mould the world and allow it to come to life. When the world itself becomes subservient to one hero, it ceases to feel singular and cohesive. As Skyrim is explicitly the story of the Dovahkiin's heroic deeds and destiny and there are no other characters cast at a remotely comparable level, the effectiveness of the game's setting as an entity unto itself suffers mightily.

The other side of this issue, which we can find if we approach it from a strict video game perspective in addition to an RPG one, is equally as troubling. This justification language of “empowerment”, “player autonomy” and “massively single player” is unfortunately intrinsically linked to some truly disquieting patriarchal power structures. The plain, simple and sad truth is that video games, as a business and not an art form, are still targeted fairly heavily towards adolescent males and the vast majority of our designers are either also straight males or tend to write from that perspective for commercial reasons. As a result, an uncomfortably large proportion of games are meticulously designed to play into and feed adolescent male power fantasies. An obvious example would be the borderline hilarious levels of manly bravado in military shooters like the Call of Duty series or the depressingly well documented male domination subtext and rampant Male Gaze in Batman: Arkham City, but sticking to the case study of this article lets take a look at Skyrim. One of the most popular features in the game is its “Follower” mechanic, wherein a friendly NPC will happily set aside all her (and the vast majority of these characters are female) goals, aspirations and responsibilities to travel all over Skyrim with the Dovahkiin and “carry” the player's “burdens”. Followers can even be married, at which point they can be ordered (yes, ordered) to literally stay at home, cook dinners, watch the house and open up a shop to manage the couple's finances. This should without doubt already be making my readers uncomfortable, but let's take an even more specific example to illustrate how this can go wrong.

My follower for the first playthrough I undertook of Skyrim was a character named Mjoll, a retired explorer who dedicated her life to fighting crime and corruption in the city of Riften after she was nearly killed in combat. However, she gladly set all that aside (and by extension all the people in Riften counting on her to help them) to go travelling with me after I found the trusted sword she lost in an ancient underground city and returned it to her. Now, my Dovhakiin is a woman, because Bethesda most appreciatively allows players to customize every aspect of their characters, from race to appearance to most welcome of all gender. The subtext of the characters' relationship thus becomes one of rapport and camaraderie: One can assume that two female friends who share a love of travel and adventure might bond over shared and similar experiences and thus get on quite well and relate with one another. Imagine however, for a moment, that I'd chosen to play a male Dovahkiin. That, by contrast, would dredge up centuries of patriarchal power structures and lend the entire relationship a very different, and altogether more awkward and distasteful, implication: The story then ceases to be one about sisterly bonding and becomes one about a heroic, powerful, dominant male coming in, sweeping Mjoll off her feet and carrying her away from the wicked streets of Riften. In one reading, Mjoll and the Dovahkiin are relative equals. In the other, that becomes far more difficult to claim.

For another, perhaps more vivid, example, look at Aela, a wild and keen huntress who manages the Companions, Skyrim's warriors' guild. Should the Dovahkiin choose to join them, Aela will happily step down and let the player character take command of the group at the end of the quest line because the game casts the Dovahkiin as the destined saviour of the Companions who will restore the group's honour and greatness. Additionally, Aela can also become a follower and a candidate for marriage after the player completes this particular story. Similar to before, this is merely a puzzling state of affairs for a female Dovahkiin and seriously problematic for a male one: The former simply raises the question of why a relative newcomer would be entrusted with such power and responsibility, her status as Dragonborn notwithstanding, while in the latter case it seems awfully like Aela is submitting to male authority and retreating towards a more “proper” supporting role in the epic tale of the virile male lead.

This is the fundamental problem with doing a Chosen One story in an RPG video game. Because of the medium's historical connection to adolescent male power fantasy, not only is it counter-intuitive to tell this kind of a story with this framework, it's downright self-destructive, potentially running the risk of scuttling the entire game in a mire of tangled patriarchal power structures and traditional associations. No amount of “escapism” or “empowerment” protestations and defenses will extirpate this particular narrative archetype from its web of problematic implications. It's perfectly possible to tell a different kind of story than this with this setup, I'd simply point to the nigh-infinite amount of variety to be had in traditional pen-and-paper RPGs. In fact the genre is essentially designed for it. Perhaps one solution is to bring other players back into the equation (As I mentioned in my Mass Effect piece I hate talking about current events, but I couldn't help noticing this got announced as I was writing this essay) but MMOs come with their own suite of problems I'm not prepared to discuss right now and I would rather hate to see single-player RPG-influenced games completely disappear. But as the clever subversion of Morrowind shows, there's a certainly mileage to be had in crafting an exquisite single-player RPG experience that doesn't play into generations of male dominance and oppression. I certainly don't have all the answers (perhaps they're to be found written in The Elder Scrolls themselves), but I do know that if our medium is ever going to continue to evolve, mature and sustain, it absolutely must shed the childish and antiquated power structures it mires itself in with frustrating frequency. This then, must become its quest.

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