How Skyrim let its lineage down

This is a retooled version of a piece I wrote after playing through The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn, a couple years back. Meant for readers familiar with the Elder Scrolls series and its lore.

Newcomers to the Elder Scrolls franchise can probably be forgiven for thinking it starts with Skyrim. Thanks to savvy marketing, great visuals, and arrow-to-knee memes, TESV still basks in the afterglow of a success its predecessors never quite matched in their heyday.

I find that curious since, objectively, just about all of those predecessors are held above Skyrim where the things that make TES TES are concerned.

Take the two seen in the preceding decade: Morrowind and Oblivion. Neither’s perfect: an overly restrictive plot in one, and an overly derivative conworld across the board, are just the tip of the iceberg. Yet the spell both have woven on players endures yet across the years, in a way Skyrim can only dream of – without mods coming into the picture. So where did the TES magic go?

Reinventing the wheel

It might help to first examine the one thing all three titles share: their conworld.

For all its painstaking depth and lore, Tamriel is still built upon a hearty dose of real-world ripoffs. From the patently Ancient Roman getup of your welcoming committee in Seyda Neen to the land of Vikings, horned helmets, and mead halls nine years on, the Elder Scrolls series has, like most conworlds, never shied from wearing its historical inspirations on its sleeve.

Bethesda certainly won’t be the last worldbuilder to play this card, because it works. Morrowind’s undisguised Roman Legion imagery, for instance, must have been a cake to sword & toga fans, topped with the thick, sweet icing of said Legion being joinable. I wonder how many first-timers on Vvardenfell rolled as a Maximus or a Julius Caesar, swore the sacramentum, and gunned for Knight of the Imperial Dragon.

But such brazen derivation is exactly where problems with immersion arise. Yes, tapping real-world influences makes a conworld instantly accessible to anyone with a modicum of cultural knowledge, and lets players – at least, those that care about such things – flavor their gameplay experience with preconceived notions and archetypes. However, infusing credibility into such a world takes considerably more work, which offsets the fact that such an approach makes the worldbuilding easier in the first place.

And here’s where Skyrim finally dropped the proverbial ball.

The problem of where you are

An outstanding mix of art direction and storytelling kept Morrowind and Oblivion feeling fresh despite real-world references left, right, and center. But unlike those predecessors, Skyrim simply shoehorned a thinly veiled copy of Norse culture into a tradition of propping Tamriel up without leaning too much on Earth or Middle-earth influences.

Bethesda tried, as they have always done, to balance this derivation gone overboard with cosmopolitanism – a must in any game with a menagerie of playable races. Cue the ‘racial hotspots’ peppered around Skyrim:

  • The Orc strongholds.
  • The Forsworn (Breton) insurgency in the Reach.
  • The Argonian dock worker community in Riften.
  • The Dunmer refugee ghetto in Windhelm.

But what was the effect of all these? Did they dilute the cultural homogeneity, and temper the overwhelming THIS! IS! NORDLAND! feel throughout Skyrim?

Not quite, to me at least. However, cosmopolitanism was not the culprit. Cyrodiil did boast a few racially themed cities. (Bruma, Cheydinhal…) And Vvardenfell needed no ‘racial hotspots’, with just about all non-Dunmer the player met having gone native. No, I blame Bethesda’s vision for Skyrim.

That vision fell flat against Morrowind’s stupendously realized alienness and the masterfully woven Western medieval of Oblivion. Vvardenfell’s ashlands succeeded in taking me (and many others) far, far away from any country on Earth. And the seemingly generic townships and villages of Cyrodiil housed little worlds with personalities and idiosyncrasies of their own. By contrast, in the holds of Skyrim, I felt merely a tourist in a superficially fictionalized Scandinavia.

It might be argued that Ye Olde Middle Ages tropes have been so spammed in games over the years, that a sprinkling of castles and counts in one more fantasy RPG is accepted as a matter of course, whereas the rarity of longhouses and jarls contributes to the jar (no pun intended) of their appearance. But either way, such a laser focus on the Nord culture led only to one end: Skyrim pandering to a single character archetype.

The one on the box.

The problem of who you are

Aesthetics and culture aside, main quests are another bone of contention.

Oblivion did fantastically here by casting the player as vaguely as possible: an everyman who helps save an empire. Lower on the scale is Morrowind, where the player discovered they are a reincarnated folk hero with a destiny to fulfill – pigeonholing them into a role they may not fit comfortably by virtue of what their character was born as.

And then came Skyrim. Which had the player, in the Nordic fatherland, discovering they possessed a legendary power that was also uniquely Nordic. Yes, uniquely Nordic. From Miraak through to Talos, the franchise mentions no past Dovahkiin who weren’t Nords. (And that’s Dovahkiin, not Dragonborn as in the Dragonborn Emperors – per Mike Kirkbride, St. Alessia and the Septim line were not soul-stealing dragon-slayers.) Without even considering how pyrotechnic superhuman powahs distract from the player character’s own journey of discovery, this is pigeonholing of a pretty high order.

Taken together, the blatant Nord bent of Skyrim’s Skyrim and the plot of the Dovahkiin’s quest produced a game experience where all but one or two races were mere window dressing; fine fodder for cinematic epicness, but not all that musical for immersion and replayability. True, Morrowind and Oblivion were both about the natives. But the devil is in how the other races of Tamriel fit in.

From the perspective of wanting to play an organic role in the world-shaping proceedings, is there really a reason to roll as a race other than the one said proceedings fixate on?

In Oblivion, yes. Because there was no fixation. You were nobody. You were anybody. There was no compelling reason to be an Imperial just because you were in the Imperial heartland. The game’s environment saw to it that no cut-and-dried, set-in-stone hero heritage was foisted on players.

With Skyrim, and regrettably, even Morrowind too, no. Because there, you were somebody. “Holy hell, I’m that legendary figure”, and all that. Becoming the Nerevarine and the Dovahkiin as anything other than a Dunmer and Nord, respectively, was less Luke Skywalker and more of being pushed along on cultural rails. The problem with being a folk figure turned out to be the ‘folk’.

This, I feel, constrains the fundamental Elder Scrolls premise of a freeform RPG experience where you are who you choose to be.

Bethesda’s counterweight

Morrowind tried, at least, to address cognitive dissonance on the player’s ‘hero mantle’ being clearly and unavoidably tailored for a Dunmer:

  • Players are slapped with ubiquitous Dunmer xenophobia from the get-go.
  • Locals persistently express disbelief that an ‘outlander’ could be the Nerevarine.
  • All the ‘Failed Incarnates’ were local Dunmer in life.

These helped. They established the notion of a foreigner becoming the people’s savior as only slightly more believable than a Chinaman kickstarting the American Revolution. A big Chekhov’s gun, meant to elicit a powerful irony when finally fired (or, in this case, turned on its racist little head). And, on top of all that, the plot mixed in a “what, the national hero is reborn as an alien, hence the real enemy is the enemy within” spin on prophecy – a credible enough justification for Nerevar reincarnating as a non-Dunmer.

What did Skyrim do here? It threw in a book – a piece of completely optional, and easily overlooked, content. A single, deliberately vague treatise which, in essence, says, “being Dragonborn, or Dovahkiin, however you slice it, is a matter of being chosen by the elder god and not of race, and even that is uncertain since, you know, gods work in mysterious ways”.

Hardly a firm, or satisfying, pretext to be receiving dragon Quickenings and wielding the most powerful vocal chords outside of draconic throats. It answers nothing. What exactly does being Dragonborn mean (besides a destiny of dragon-slaying), and why does the player character have this Shang Tsung thing going on that Dragonborn of legend don’t? That book might have stood finely on its own before Skyrim, but not now that the Dovahkiin is out of the bag.

What next?

The Elder Scrolls verse has always been rather protean, what with all those brilliantly conceived explanations of inconsistencies between games. But what TESV did with the ‘Dragonborn’ concept, and the ensuing popularity, raises my concerns on how far future titles will stretch the believability factor. Will we start seeing renditions of Warcraft’s ludicrous Draenei retcon, next?

Despite Skyrim’s broad appeal and pop culture status, I cannot see it for anything more than a mainstream, fan-serving knockoff of horned helms and drakkars. A gallant but unworthy successor to a lineage of some of the most spellbinding RPGs ever made.

It did not fail on the level of Diablo III, to be sure. THAT is a feat I’m sure no game developer is eager to equal. But it failed an altogether different, nobler pedigree.

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6 Responses to “How Skyrim let its lineage down”

  1. You’re right, but the main quests are always some of the weakest parts to me in these games. I give some exceptions to Morrowind’s since the actual story was pretty fascinating and fairly unique as far as game stories tend to go.

    So while I agree with one of your points, Skyrim still stands as the FAR superior game to Oblivion and an almost close second to Morrowind for me.

  2. I see the merit in that view as well – the TES games are also about the world and the experience, not a linear thing it shares with all other RPGs. I took issue with the main quest as I thought it was the one aspect all players would experience (assuming they don’t treat the game as a combat sim and just clean out dungeons).

    Out of curiosity, though, why would you rate Skyrim as far superior to Oblivion? Because it got the eye-crossing leveling system out of the way? I read that in an opinion piece somewhere – can’t for the life of me remember where.

  3. You brought up some points that I didn’t even realize I felt until you said them. I’ll admit to Skyrim being the only TES game I’ve spent a significant amount of time in so my view might be a little skewed.

    The races of the game do follow a lot of tropes, something that a lot of games don’t want to stray from for whatever reason. I would like to see those turned on their head one day, to have lizardfolk living high in the mountains, white-skinned men living in the desert, and brown-skinned men being cosmopolitan. Just for something new and different.

    The “monoculture” of Nords is really evident to me since I decided to play an Argonian. My housecarls are mostly Nord, the shopkeepers are mostly Nord, even my adopted child is a Nord. I think I’ve only come across two Argonians other than me so far. I understand it’s the land of the Nord but some more variety couldn’t hurt.

    What I find so interesting about the game is the landscape (love the snow and northern climate) and the open world allowing me to explore. As soon as I could leave the starting village, I walked off in some general direction and have barely touched the main quests since. I don’t really care about being the Dovahkiin or any civil wars, I just want to know what’s around the corner.

    It’s likely that Oblivion would let me do that too, which is why I bought it. I just haven’t had a chance to play it.

    • Your experience echoes mine when I played a Dunmer. Never mind that the first housecarl you meet, Irileth, is also one – she just felt like the ‘token racial diversity’ employee. I guess that’s one thing TESV succeeded in doing – making your minority Dovahkiin feel every bit as out-of-place as real-world minorities!

      Take your Argonian to Riften if you’re looking for same-race company! If you recall, the game even lampshaded it during the intro by asking you if you were “related to one of the Riften dock workers”.

      As for Oblivion, yes, it’s the same. Complete unfettered exploration right from the moment you see the light of day. You’ll notice a ruin right ahead across the water – it’s there on purpose, to encourage a little early, independent dungeon-delving.

  4. […] was odd. Sure, I enjoyed my time in TESV. (Even though I ranted about it.) But it was nowhere near the (gamer-) life-changing level of my TESIII […]

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