When I played the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, I was an elven archer. For god’s sake never be an elven archer, in any part of your life. It’s much less glamorous than in the movies.
In its beautiful-for-the-early-2000s fantasy world, Morrowind embodied all the hope and possibility and bigness of life that I almost felt when I was younger. I want to say that I felt freer in Morrowind that I ever did in real life, but that would almost certainly be nonsense and narcissism. That said, it you’re going to be a narcissist, you might as well save the world whilst you’re at it. In most tight, well-polished works of art, everything happens for a reason. In Morrowind, that figure is 20%, tops. I have no idea why the other 80% happened, but I’m glad it did. Quantity has a quality all of its own.
Like all good fantasy Role-Playing Games, Morrowind was 99% side-quests. These were necessary in order to accumulate the human capital and emotional investment in the world necessary to complete the main storyline and defeat the evil deity, Dagoth Ur. Their freeform structure meant that you had to plan your day in order to be a productive citizen. First I’ll walk to Balmora to talk to Eydis Fire-Eye, then I’ll walk to Caldera to murder Sathasa Nerothen, then a quick lunch at my desk whilst I walk to X to get the Y, then back to Balmora to get a reward, then it’s quitting time. Public transport did exist, but the infrastructure was limited and weird and slimy, so you generally had to walk everywhere. You actually jumped everywhere, because this leveled up your Acrobatics skill, and you also jumped off high ledges in the hope that you would hurt yourself a bit, because paradoxically this leveled up your Acrobatics skill even faster. You also left paperweights on your keyboard with your character running into a wall whilst you had dinner, because this leveled up your Athletics skill. You didn’t have to do these things if you thought they were cheating or immersion-breaking, but I would have felt like a sucker if I didn’t. You might think that the Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction is stupid and regressive, but you’re still going to deduct your mortgage interest if you ever somehow manage to buy a house, because no one’s giving out trophies if you don’t.
There were a lot of metaphors in Morrowind if you chose to see them.
I don’t think I ever actually completed Morrowind, although I did become the CEO of several guilds and accumulate more material wealth than Warren Buffett, if Warren Buffett ever got into Morrowind instead of capitalism. You don’t need to have completed Morrowind in order to talk knowledgeably about it. It’s kind of like how I never technically finished “med school” but I’ll still fix up that bullet hole if you’ve got the cash and aren’t wearing a wire.
In 2006, a few years after I didn’t complete Morrowind, Oblivion was released. Oblivion was the sequel to Morrowind, and it was one of the two pieces of 2006 culture that I was excited about. The other was 80s medium-stars Level 42’s comeback album, Retroglide. Anyone else somehow familiar with both will agree that, whilst neither fully lived up to expectations, Oblivion was better. I disliked its use of level-scaling - as you got stronger, so did the enemies. A big part of the magic of Morrowind was straying into the wrong part of the realm and getting your face chewed off. Oblivion seemed to care more about making sure you were having a nice time more than Morrowind did, and this made it feel weird and clingy. It was very pretty though. I wasn’t allowed to play computer games during the school week, and even at 17 years old I was still very superficially respectful of my parents’ arbitrary rules. In the name of a harmonious home life I dutifully stayed up until after they had gone to bed and then played Oblivion until 3am.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out in 2011. But but by then I had all but stopped playing video games other than online poker, and was uninterested. My brother decided he wasn’t going to play Skyrim either, because he needed to revise for his university finals. One day whilst revising he got blackout wasted. When he woke up the next morning he realized that, in addition to several other regrettable actions that I have sworn never to blog about, he had drunkenly purchased Skyrim. Over the following months he showed true grit to become both one of the most powerful mages in Tamriel and one of the most powerful Mathematicians in Cambridge, completing a really quite common double.
I recently added the music from the Elder Scrolls games into my rotation of ambient working music. Jeremy Soule’s soundtracks made me remember the bigness and possibility that I felt when I was a kid playing Morrowind, which has been hard to recapture ever since I saw my first graph of US real median wage growth since 1980. I decided I wanted to return to Tamriel. After several weeks of prevarication and rationalization, I acquired a second-hand TV and PS4 from Craigslist, hoping that neither of these purchases contained any latent electrical faults or covert surveillance equipment installed by their previous owner. One day after work, I went to Skyrim for the first time.
For me, the best part of vast games with aspirations of immersion is the beginning. You start with no possessions, no skills, and a flagonful of curiosity. You read every sign, talk to every NPC (non-player character), and rummage through everyone’s bedroom when they’re not looking in case they have any powerful hats or gold that you can use to buy same. You follow up on every lead; if Galadabrom tells you that Pliesk is looking for someone to go on a quest to fetch her dry cleaning, then by Talos you’ll track down Pliesk and bring her her dry cleaning if it kills you.
But it slowly becomes apparent that this approach isn’t scalable. Everyone and their drog (like a dog, but more demonic) wants you to get their dry cleaning, and the marginal utility returns on the twenty-ninth Hat of Death are slim. Sure the work is flexible and you get to choose your own hours, but you have to pay for your own gas and there’s no health insurance. The NPCs blur into one, and you find it harder and harder to feel invested in their individual stories, compelling and well-structured as they might be. Weapons and armor get reduced to stats; dungeons and quests are strictly about the loot; and everything becomes a means to yet more means.
Jesus Christ that’s a lot of metaphors.
But this is all too nihilistic. Skyrim stayed fun even after the initial buzz had worn off. My heart continued to leap whenever I was given a distant new quest many miles of cross-country trekking away. I limbered up my quads and calves and fingers, invested heavily in carrots and humous and potions of healing, and set off for an hour or two of adventuring on the open plain. The modern innovation of fast-traveling to already-visited locations did make my life more efficient and gave me more time for recreation, but it also made me long just a little bit for the days when an adventurer had no choice but to slog their own way across the world. If I really cared about the good old days of self-sufficiency and mystery then I could introduce house rules banning fast-travel apart from between major metropolises, but I’m too caught up in the modern gospel of GDP maximization and I don’t have enough romance in my soul.
Hiking around the world lost another layer of majesty when I realized how quest markers worked. Quest markers are little arrows on your map and compass that show you exactly where you need to go for the next stage of the currently selected adventure. Navigation by skilled, thoughtful orienteering gave way to keeping my eyes glued to my GPS and sprinting in the direction of the next checkpoint. This doesn’t feel like what a real Dragonborn would do. On the other hand, this technological innovation did increase my Q1 quests-per-hour by a little over 4%.
Quicksaving was also created for my gaming convenience, but I don’t think this is what Judeo-Christian God would have wanted if he were still alive today. He gave us the freedom to make our own choices and mistakes; the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail and die in immiserated agony despite having done nothing wrong other than be born in a mineral-rich but institution-poor country at a time of severe political strife. It is these freedoms that make life worth living; it is the fear of failing and dying in immiserated agony despite having done nothing wrong other than be born in a mineral-rich but institution-poor country at a time of severe political strife that makes life’s successes feel real. If you are able to quicksave every few minutes, this delicious fear evaporates. Instead of sneaking discreetly through dungeons in case there’s a Draugr Wraith on patrol just around the bend, you can quicksave and charge in headfirst, quickly reloading and reassessing if your face gets chewed off. And a seventy percent chance of getting caught whilst pickpocketing sounds risky, but all it really gives you is the lambda in your Poisson distribution for the number of times you’ll have to reload before it eventually succeeds. I could institute another house rule forbidding this kind of nonsense, but this rubs up against the same soulromance deficiency that I mentioned above. Maybe this is what Judeo-Christian God and the people who made coin-operated arcade machines get right.
Many advances in modern games are about trying to force the player to show some god damn decorum and respect. They try to make the player feel in-game social anxiety. You wouldn’t spin around in circles and steal cutlery whilst the President of the United States was giving you your next quest, so why do you act that way with Olfric Stormcloak? However, a game can’t force, or even effectively incentivize a player to be punctual or kind or to not murder innocent bystanders if they have a nice hat and they think they can get away with it. The leader of the Whiterun guards told me to meet her at the South Watchtower to fight off the dragon that was busy terrorizing the city, but someone at the local inn had mentioned something about a wizards’ college to the far north, and since that sounded much more exciting I spent a few days exploring that before wandering over to help out with the dragon.
The dragon was very powerful and resistant to my fire magic, so I let Ishabel and my other friends have first crack at it whilst I strategically hid in the Watchtower regenerating health. After we had won a famous victory we reported back to the Jarl, where my friends kindly covered for me, telling him how brave and gallant I had been. They must have known that I was only level 4 and had put all my bonuses into stamina in order to maximize the amount of cutlery I could steal.
I can keep poking holes, for example in the inconsistency with which Skyrim society treats extra-judicial killing, or how quick NPCs are to decide that you are the chosen one who should lead their millenia-old organization. But I don’t actually want to sit through Skyrim’s notoriously slow and bureaucratic legal process. Neither do I really want to put in the hundreds of hours in the tavern with Rolf that it would take for him to truly judge my character, not least because my character is extremely flakey and would murder him without a second thought if he had no quests left for me and his shoes were nicer than mine. It’s probably impossible to make something that gets anywhere close to approximating human life but is also thrilling and dopamine-inducing and able to compete for the same disposable income as Call of Duty and FIFA. The best you can do is at least show that you’re trying.
And many things in Skyrim do work the way you think they should. If you are spotted murdering someone inside a city then a bounty gets put on your head, but if you also murder all of the witnesses then the bounty goes away. People get upset if you barge into their home. They are shocked if they encounter a dead body in the street. They all indicate their shock with the same few repetitive phrases, but that’s not so different from real life (“epic fail”). Rival enemy factions fight each other as well as you. Assassination targets can be disposed of by “reverse pickpocketing” vials of poison into their inventory. Far fewer NPCs get stuck in far fewer walls than in Morrowind. And whilst I only joined the Dawnguard in order to shut up the townsfolk who kept yammering at me about it, this was also the only reason why I saw the movie Gravity, so perhaps this wasn’t so immersion-breaking after all.
My favorite quests were the ones where you have to do something viscerally evil. To win the mace of the Daedric Lord Molag Bal you have to repeatedly club a defenseless priest to death whilst the Dark One brings him back to life to continue suffering. The Dark Brotherhood, a not-so-secret murder-as-a-service co-op, finds themselves in need of an interim Chief Stabbing Officer, and they want to interview you.
Let’s stop looking for metaphors for just a few minutes shall we.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the average player only ever completed half of the quests in the game, at most. The player won’t even find the several-hour-long Dark Brotherhood storyline if they don’t happen to overhear and investigate a specific, innocuous-sounding tavern tipoff. This means that for most players, there is at least $20-worth of Skyrim that they never actually play. However, I think that just the knowledge that the unseen world is rich and huge and was there if you had chosen to explore it is well worth twenty bucks. I’ve never been to Omaha, Nebraska, and I suspect that I never will, but I’m still glad that it’s presumably real. And I’ve never met you, dear reader, but I’m still glad that you exist, if only because I don’t want to live in a Truman Show and because solipsism is frowned upon nowadays.
I’ve never liked being around other people when I’m trying to concentrate or relax. I mostly played Skyrim whilst my wife was out, and when she was home I holed up in my study so that I could continue focussing on doing my best work. I didn’t like being followed around by anyone in the world of Skyrim either, even if they were only trying to help. Once I got high up enough in the Dark Brotherhood org chart I got given a company horse that followed me everywhere, but that was mostly OK since it was just a horse and couldn’t judge me. In the same vein, I wish Bethesda didn’t keep trying to advertise their Creation Club mod store on the start screen. All I want is to feel like a legend instead of a consumer for just a few hundred hours.
However, I’m still excited about Elder Scrolls XXII, or however far Bethesda get in the coming decades before my arthritis gets too bad to safely control a protagonist. The amount of long-term progress in graphics and immersive realism they’ll surely make in the coming decades is mouthwatering. On the other hand, despite what the people of the 1960s may have expected, we still haven’t invented flying cars or robot butlers that don’t also sell all your data. Perhaps I should just go back to Skyrim.