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The Metaphysics of Morrowind: part 1

August 29, 2010

Some time ago, I was asked by David Carlton if I was interested in assembling a Critical Compilation on The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowindfor Critical Distance. I liked the idea, but research appeared to confirm my initial suspicions that, despite its rampant popularity, reams of fanfiction and endless debates about the lore, there is relatively little critical writing on Morrowind that has survived the vicissitudes of the internet since its release in 2002. This made me sad, so I thought I’d better write some!

Part 1: Introduction

When we talk about the world we live in, we can talk about physical laws, like gravity and the rules of thermodynamics. We can also talk about metaphysics: meta being Greek for “beyond”. This is where science meets philosophy, where we might try to identify underlying principles of reality that go beyond standard physics. Theories of time and space, of causality and determinism, of the nature of existence itself.

When we talk about the games we play, we can talk about game mechanics, how the game engine controls and defines space and time, perhaps how the physics engine governs the interactions of objects within the virtual space. The rules of the gameworld; the rules of the game. Such rules, of course, are generally dictated by the needs and demands of gameplay rather than nature. If games were realistic, you’d only ever get one life. So, thought experiment: how might it feel to actually be a character in a game, and to exist according to the rules of a game engine? How might you formulate theories about the metaphysics of your world?

Some games attempt to mask the differences between our world and the game world by creating elaborate justifications for the existence of obvious game mechanics. You’re not saving the game at a savepoint, Jade is saving onto her data disc at the MDisc reader machine. Or it’s a mystical memory-crystal, or the protagonist is recording their progress in their journal, or some other protestation of realism. Nels Anderson calls this “the Disguise”.

Mr. Resetti is not happy with you.

Alternatively, metaphysics are sometimes included in games purely as a joke, when self-aware characters break the fourth wall to refer to the mechanics of their own game – TVTropes.org has a huge list. A good one related to time and save-mechanics is in the Animal Crossing games. If you reset the game without saving, be warned. The next time you load it, Resetti the Angry Mole will endlessly berate you for your attempt to warp the fabric of time, which has not only caused him enormous personal inconvenience, but also provoked vast moral outrage.

The Elder Scrolls series doesn’t really do either of these things – and yet, in a way, it does both. In the process, it does very strange things to the fourth wall, not so much breaking it as morphing it, moving it, twisting it, painting it purple and sitting on top of it laughing.

The lore of the Elder Scrolls is so beautiful and complicated that some people have spent nearly a decade unravelling it, and there are still vast areas of mystery and debate. While I’d call myself fairly knowledgeable, I’m by no means expert on the higher level metaphysics, which can get horribly eldritch and render certain discussions in the Bethesda Lore forums virtually unintelligible to the casual reader. This is an attempt to clarify some of the more interesting meta-gaming* issues. Mistakes are possible, and corrections welcomed. In order to keep this manageable, some detail has to be omitted, but I’ll provide links to further reading for interested lunatics.

I should mention at this point that many Elder Scrolls loremasters frown upon the practice of pointing out the meta/fourth-wall-breaking aspects of ES lore. While they don’t deny their existence, discussing them is considered to be somewhat infra dig, spoiling the fun, not playing along. Not only that, to focus on the meta aspects as the “ultimate” truth, is to miss that they are hardly the final layer of the onion skin that is ES lore. They are one of many interpretations, and hardly the deepest, or the most interesting. So say the hardcore loremasters. They’re right.

“The world is understood through metaphors. Language is a metaphor-system. Mathematics is a metaphor-system. All real-world schools of magic and religion revolve around the understanding of vast metaphor-systems, symbols as they relate to concepts. The Elder Scrolls games feature a really vast and rich series of thoughtful metaphors regarding life, the universe, and the place of ‘us’ in the grand scheme of things – with an obscured emphasis on themes of ascension – so there can be a lot of reward in the gleaning and contemplation of them.”

- LDones, Bethesda forums, 03/25/04

Nevertheless, these posts will focus on the meta-gaming aspects. Forgive me, loremasters, I shall submit an earnest analysis of the deeper mystical implications of the Pomegranate Banquet to The Whirling School any century now.**

Vivec and City-Face

Next in part 2… Breaking the Dragon, or: How Tiber Septim Learned to Stop Worrying and Reload the Game.

*If I wasn’t a Classicist, I might say “metaludic” here, but I am, and I just can’t commit such an atrocious sin. Damn you, Greek, for not having an appropriate word for “game” that we can use to form pretentious neologisms!

**I might!

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010 03:54

    It’s great to see you starting this, I’m really looking forward to reading the subsequent parts!

  2. August 30, 2010 05:18

    Nice.

    Though I probably won’t have much to offer, being that Morrowind was one of the many games that went ‘in one ear and out the other’ for me. I don’t own it anymore either, as I figured it was better off with the younger sibling of a now-ex girlfriend. It was rather shocking to see your blog flow through in Google reader though, so now I’m intrigued and will be keeping watch. >;D

  3. August 30, 2010 05:35

    Oh HELL yes. I was afraid you had abandoned this thing!

  4. Madis permalink
    June 4, 2011 16:26

    This was a wonderful piece of reading (I’m referring to all the parts). You’ve really opened new ways of seeing Morrowind for me, thank you :)

  5. June 30, 2011 18:54

    Each game has its own meta physics and the internal mechanics to real the goal.

  6. September 1, 2011 12:36

    Ahh Morrowind. A world where the oddity feels quite normal. I might have to play this before Skyrim.

  7. November 28, 2011 07:46

    There is so much that we can dissect and learn in the TES series, and so much we can learn from its creators, that it’s a shame no one has dedicated a college course to it yet. lol

  8. January 9, 2013 07:27

    Thanks a lot for writing “The Metaphysics of Morrowind: part 1
    falling awkwardly”. I actuallywill definitely wind up being back again for much more reading and
    commenting soon. Many thanks, Willa

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