The absurdist fictions of The Elder Scrolls
What does a truly absurd video game do to storytelling and game play? Our ‘games and stories’ season continues, as Rob Barker of Overlap navigates the wonderfully weird world of The Elder Scrolls.
“Walking finely from the hips, the two of us made our way home through the afternoon, impregnating it with the smoke of our cigarettes…” From The Third Policeman, By Flann O’Brien
Another world. A land of god-ruled magic seared by dragons and scarred by skeletons. An incredible world where you are the hero – and on your shoulders falls the task of closing the very gates of hell… But first you must completely fill your house with troll skulls! And place baskets on everybody’s heads! And climb a cathedral!
This is the world of The Elder Scrolls, Bethesda’s multimillion dollar video game franchise. And an experience that maps to the Absurdist topography of Franz Kafka and N.F. Simpson as much as the high peak fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien.
A scruffy genre of no fixed abode (although like its predecessor Dada, a reaction, in part at least, to the horror of 20th Century World War), absurdist fiction seems to go out of its way to welcome the awkward and the waylaid. Aren’t the locales of The Elder Scrolls too exotic a fit for the absurd?
Not really. Strip away the high fantasy armour, and The Elder Scrolls’ undergarments are as bland and workaday as Pinter. These are games proposed to facilitate grand endeavour, but built using materials that encourage obsessional behaviour and a fiddle-fiddle-break mischief that adds often insurmountable obstructions in the path of the hero’s journey. The characters, players and systems of The Elders Scrolls games are riddled with a fatal a set of flaws reminiscent of Albert Camus or Tom Stoppard.
In Bethesda’s breakout Elder Scrolls smash, Oblivion, players take the role of a wrongfully imprisoned hero who has to close the gates to a hellish portal and prevent a demonic invasion. In the latest title, Skyrim, you are the Dragonborn, a legendary hero foretold to save the world from the Dragon-god of Destruction, Alduin. Even in Morrowind, the most roundly (and rightly) garlanded episode of the series and a game whose overwhelming mythos offers a kind of verisimilitude, players take the role of a saviour – the prophecised ‘Nerevarine’ foretold to defeat the evil god Dagoth Ur. These are epic, sweeping endeavours and central to the way the games are promoted to a vast worldwide audience, but the biggest revelation of the main storylines in Elder Scrolls games is that no-one cares about them…
“From my character’s point of view, when my character enters a world, he wants to explore the world, not the plot that the game designer put out there…”
– Ken Rolston, Lead Designer of Morrowind and Oblivion.
It’s not that they’re boring. Bethesda go out of their way to ensure the main questline in their games offer some of the richest play experiences in the series. But as Rolston’s comment highlights, The Elder Scrolls offer story worlds that let the player do more.
Imposing rulesets, inspired world building, shonky bug testing and imaginative players keen to role play parts contrive to make the authorised narratives of Elder Scrolls’ main storylines feel like something that happens in another room. They’re the Hamlet to the rest of the game’s Rosencrantz & Guidenstern are Dead.
Just as Stoppard’s Rosencrantz spends his time being distracted from Shakespeare’s grand narrative by women’s backs and the invention of the hamburger, players of The Elder Scrolls’ Skyrim can witness floating horses jump on people’s heads to make them talk in a squeaky voice and explore entire inchoate landmasses through the games’ glitches and exploits. There are even moments when the games aren’t accidentally absurdist – such as eccentric wizard Wylandriah, who sets the player on a mission she later forgets about…
From K’s attempts to untangle the bureaucracy of a local government castle in Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss to Kirby Groomkirby trying to teach a group of Speak Your Weight machines to sing in NF Simpson’s If So Then Yes, absurdist fiction concentrates its gaze upon the grand, often foolish missions undertaken by its characters. Wylandriah’s mission is a great example of this. The player is tasked with recovering, amongst other things, a spoon that looks exactly like the one on the table she sits at.
Morrowind boasts a sophisticated mythos and interplay between nuanced factions that induce in the player the not entirely unpleasant feeling of being a tiny cog in a much larger machine. But on one occasion I stepped off the boat at the start of the game, collected my equipment from the quatermaster and fell in battle to a rat. The End.
Subsequent games have removed this kind of imbalance, but I’ve always liked it. As the level of spit and polish has increased over the course of the series and the lead character become stronger, more heroic and central to the story world, so the storylines, characters and dialogue have become simpler and less strange. Luckily, accomplishing this has meant the games have become more absurd in other ways.
The capital city of Skyrim has a population of around 70 people. Non player characters are often immersion-breaking automatons who repeat themselves. The vast number of missions frequently boil down to reductive ‘fetch quests’ wherein the player is tasked with retrieving a weapon or character from a nest of enemies.
But The Elder Scrolls landscape is so ambitiously vast that it provides a fantastic setting for roleplay and foolish endeavour, even as the biggest challenges become absurd counterpoints to the enormity of the undertakings. Battles with zombie-like draugr become mere preludes to the more substantial challenge of managing one’s inventory in order to carry the transit-van-filling quantities of loot recovered from vanquished foes.
The systems within the game seem designed to encourage obsessive collecting, compulsive hoarding and other unhealthy behaviour. The greatest endeavours in Elder Scrolls games are player defined wild goose chases and compulsive, virtual expressions of order, ritual and desire. Players collect complete sets of armour, attempt to steal every horse in the game or fashion axes that make peoples’ clothes fall off.
But the central absurdity is that all these deranged activities are performed by the roundly acclaimed hero of the story. Absurdist fiction relishes the sublime within the meaningless. The Elder Scrolls relish the meaningless in the sublime. In a world where ghosts and dragons are as numerous as commuters, a character being unable to walk through a door without glitching is a wonder.
And it never ends. While the main quest can be completed, the games cannot. There’s no ‘Win’ screen, no ‘The End’ to this life sentence. The game world offers an experience as vast and inconclusive as our own. Videos of maddened players attempting to impose finality and order on it – in some cases by massacring every character in the game – are unnerving, but hardly surprising. The only way to escape the lifelike grind of quests is to die, switch off the game, or retreat to foolish pursuits. Like Franz Kafka’s asbsurdist novels, the story is unfinished; a beautiful expression of futility and failure. You might close the gates of hell but the very special torment of filling your lounge with every melon in the game cannot so easily be escaped. Because it’s in the latter that we see our own absurd selves.