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The Metaphysics of Morrowind: part 2

September 2, 2010

Part 2 of a series of posts about The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind and how it weaves metagaming into its metaphysics to interesting effect. Part 1 is here.

How to Break Your Dragon.

You may think historians in our world have it tough – sorting through multiple individual versions of events, accounting for bias and the vicissitudes of memory as they try to pin down what actually happened. Amateurs! Try it in a world where the fabric of reality can be warped by pure imagination, where multiple players create multiple possibilities and where time itself can break, or rather, be broken.

While exploring Vvardenfell, one may come across two books: Where Were You When The Dragon Broke? and The Dragon Break Re-Examined (full texts at links). Most players will encounter the former first, as a copy is prominently displayed in the Balmora Mages’ Guild, an early-game staple location. Of course, many won’t touch it – not everyone is interested in reading a book when they’re trying to play a game. And that’s fine – Morrowind is not really in the business of beating players over the head with lore. When I say that the lore of Morrowind is deep and complicated, what I actually mean is that it’s as deep and complicated as the player wants it to be. The lore is always there, of course, gently seeping into the player’s consciousness through the world, the sounds and the landscape. Terminally illiterate player should still feel suitably immersed, even if that’s the extent of their involvement with it. For those who want to go deeper, however, reading the ingame books is the first step. Philip Scuderi at Gamers With Jobs has already argued for the literary merits of Morrowind, holding that reading these ingame books is a worthwhile activity, and not one divorced from the overall gameplay experience*. I hope to offer another reason why this is the case: Morrowind‘s ingame books not only provide interesting and amusing lore, they explore concepts integral to the experience of gaming, the nature of gameworlds and the role of the player character. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s start by breaking some dragons.

Those players who do pick up that copy of Where Were You… will undoubtedly find that it makes absolutely no sense. A few extracts:

Penalty for breaking this dragon: scrubbing the temple floor for a year.

“According to Hestra, Cyrodiil became an Empire across the stars. According to Shor-El, Cyrodiil became an egg. Most say something in a language they can only speak sideways. The Council has collected texts and accounts from all of its provinces, and they only offer stories that never coincide, save on one point: all the folk of Tamriel during the Middle Dawn, in whatever ‘when’ they were caught in, tracked the fall of the eight stars. And that is how they counted their days.”

Corax, Cyrodiil.

“We watched our borders and saw them shift like snakes, and saw you run around in it like the spirits of old, devoid of math, without your if-thens, succumbing to the Ever Now like slaves of the slim folly, stasis.”

Mehra Nabisi, Dunmer.

“Do you mean, where were the Khajiit when the Dragon Broke? R’leyt tells you where: recording it. ‘One thousand eight years,’ you’ve heard it. You think the Cyro-Nordics came up with that all on their own. You humans are better thieves than even Rajhin! While you were fighting wars with phantoms and giving birth to your own fathers, it was the Mane that watched the ja-Kha’jay, because the moons were the only constant, and you didn’t have the sugar to see it.”

- R’leyt-harhr, Khajiit. – from Where Were You When The Dragon Broke?

So far, so incomprehensible. I can’t imagine that many players do more than give it a cursory glance and forget about it entirely. I know I did. Which is a shame, because if they later found the second book, The Dragon Break Re-Examined, they might find more light being shed on the matter. This second text takes the form of a scholarly attack on the previous book (a common theme among Morrowind texts, which near-invariably represent biased and conflicting viewpoints) and begins as follows:

“The late 3rd era was a period of remarkable religious ferment and creativity. The upheavals of the reign of Uriel VII were only the outward signs of the historical forces that would eventually lead to the fall of the Septim Dynasty. The so called “Dragon Break” was first proposed at this time, by a wide variety of cults and fringe sects across the Empire, connected only by a common obsession with the events surrounding Tiber Septim’s rise to power — the “founding myth”, if you will, of the Septim Dynasty.

The basis of the Dragon Break doctrine is now known to be a rather prosaic error in the timeline printed in the otherwise authoritative “Encyclopedia Tamrielica”, first published in 3E 12, during the early years of Tiber Septim’s reign.” - The Dragon Break Re-Examined

The author goes on to criticise the inability of the foolish Encyclopedia authors to understand local dating systems or interpret texts correctly, resulting in their having recorded 1008 years, when only 150 years can logically have passed. He concludes:

“Today, modern archaeology and paleonumerology have confirmed what my own research in Alessian dating first suggested: that the Dragon Break was invented in the late 3rd era, based on a scholarly error, fueled by obsession with eschatology and Numidiumism, and perpetuated by scholarly inertia.”The Dragon Break Re-Examined

What can we now get from this? The first thing to note is that “the Dragon” means “time”, since in Tamrielic mythology, the Dragon is Akatosh, god of Time. To break the Dragon is to break time. It seems that many peoples and cultures across Tamriel were all claiming they “lost” several hundred years, during which they were in some sort of stasis-cum-chaos, when time became non-linear. Since this is impossible, later scholars attempt to explain it as a dating error. An early version of the Where Were You… text, posted online before Morrowind was released, actually explains this in more detail:

“Every culture on Tamriel remembers the Dragon Break in some fashion; to most it is a spiritual anguish that they cannot account for. Several texts survive this timeless period, all (unsurprisingly) conflicting with each other regarding events, people, and regions: wars are mentioned in some that never happen in another, the sun changes color depending on the witness, and the gods either walk among the mortals or they don’t. Even the ‘one thousand and eight years,’ a number (some say arbitrarily) chosen by the Elder Council, is an unreliable measure.” - Where Were You When The Dragon Broke? (Complete Version)

The Dragon Break was an instant where time was frozen, and then split into many different possible realities, with different events taking place in each, and different amounts of time passing, up to 1008 years in some versions. Then it just… fixed itself. All the possibilities resolved or dissolved into one thread of time, in which only 150 years had passed, and the events now recorded as “true” history occurred. One version of events emerges, but the other possibilities still “happened”, in those broken versions of reality, now lost and unnecessary.

Where am I going with this? Well… doesn’t this remind you of something? Like, say, a savegame? How many Dragon Breaks do you have in your saved games folder? Every time a player abandons, or is forced to abandon, the path they have chosen in a game and reloads an earlier save, do they ever consider how the denizens of that gameworld might experience it? These ingame texts imply that the people of Tamriel may very well retain some memories and awareness of their lost timelines – and not only that, it’s causing their historians no end of headaches! I daresay if they knew who was responsible, their righteous indignation at the player might exceed even that of Resetti the Angry Mole.

Note, though, that the 1008 year Dragon Break referred to in these texts is not intended to refer to an actual, extraludic**, event. Tamriel’s dragon did not get borked as the result of some player messing around with the savegames of an ES game… at least, not one currently released! The books do, in fact, provide a non-fourth-wall-breaking cause of the Dragon Break, involving fanatical priests practicing strange rituals. So, why include it? Do these books exist in Morrowind purely as a veiled joke about savegames? On the contrary, this is just the beginning of Fun with Time and Space in ES lore. Perhaps it would be instructive to consider why they felt the need to introduce the concept of the Dragon Break at this point in the ES series.

Multiple endings, multiple realities – picking up the pieces of player choice.

I quoted the first part above, but what follows now is the second part of R’leyt-harhr the Khajiit’s quote from Where Were You When The Dragon Broke? (emphasis mine):

“We’ll give you credit: you broke Alkosh [= Akatosh] something fierce, and that’s not easy. Just don’t think you solved what you accomplished by it, or can ever solve it. You did it again with Big Walker, not once, but twice! Once at Rimmen, which we’ll never learn to live with. The second time it was in Daggerfall, or was it Sentinel, or was it Wayrest, or was it in all three places at once? – R’leyt-harhr, Khajiit, Where Were You When The Dragon Broke?

Anumidium

It’s probably more impressive in person.

It would appear that this Dragon Break has not been an isolated occurence. To explain the real cause of the phenomenon we need to rewind a little, to the ending of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. Or, should I say, endings. At the climax of Daggerfall, the player is faced with a choice: to whom to give the power to control Numidium (“Anumidium”, “Big Walker”), the giant, world-stomping magic robot previously used by legendary Emperor Tiber Septim to conquer Tamriel. There are seven possibilities, and seven endings. Obviously, this left the writers of Morrowind with something of a quandary – which ending to call canon, and write into the history books of Tamriel? The answer, which came to be known as “the Warp in the West”, was: all of them.

“Your Lordship should know that the Blades have concluded there is no plausible historical account of these events, and despairs that a plausible historical account shall ever be produced. The Blades have concluded that a ‘miracle’ occurred, insofar as the events are inexplicable, but the Blades strongly doubt the miracle was of divine origin.” – Ulvius Tero, Blades Archivist, The Warp in the West

Sounds like the historians of Tamriel are having a hard time of it again.

“King Eadwyre and his queen Barenziah were celebrating their great victories when I arrived. By then, I had gathered the barest facts of the matter, that simultaneously there were seven great battles in the Iliac Bay, and no one could describe them at all, only their bloodsoaked aftermath.

To summarize: on the 9th of Frostfall, there had been forty-four independent kingdoms, counties, baronies, and dukedoms surrounding the Iliac Bay, if one includes the unconquered territories of the Wrothgarian Mountains, the Dragontail Mountains, the High Rock Sea Coast, the Isle of Balfiera, and the Alik’r Desert. On the 11th of Frostfall, there were but four – Daggerfall, Sentinel, Wayrest, and Orsinium – and all the points where they met lay in ruins, as the armies continued to do battle.

I was determined to find the truth from the King, even if I had to be a most undiplomatic diplomat to do it.

Eadwyre, though a generally jovial sort, had blustered, saying he did not want to give out military secrets. The Queen, ever calm with those unreadable red eyes of hers, told me, ‘We do not know.’ I think it is safe to assume that Barenziah did not tell me everything, but the facts of her story – which I later verified after pointed interviews in Daggerfall, Sentinel, and Orsinium – was that they had learned that a certain powerful, ancient weapon was going to be activated. I shan’t give the name of it here. Out of fear that it would be used against Wayrest, the King had attempted to buy it from the young adventurer [i.e. the player of Daggerfall - K.] who had discovered its wherebouts. Eadwyre believed, as it turns out quite rightly, that other powers in the Bay had also attempted to win ownership of this device.

What happened then, as Barenziah said, ‘We do not know.'”

- Ambassador Lord Naigon Strale, The Warp in the West

This ingame book, The Warp in the West actually appeared in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion rather then Morrowind, but as we have seen from the Where Were You… passage, the concept was already in place. We can also find, in a Bethesda-developer-authored text known as Skeleton Man’s Interview, posted online while Morrowind was still in development:  “And what of the Warp in the West, where it is said six Anumiduma were seen in six different places at once, each one carving out a different mortal’s destiny?”

A different mortal’s destiny… now, which mortals would those be, I wonder? Presumably, in the context of the passage, it should refer to the various rulers and faction heads with whom the player could ally themselves with at the end of Daggerfall, however I think there is more going on. The ES loremaster proweler writes:

“It’s funny really.

The concept of the Dragon Break was created because different people playing Daggerfall could create different endings. The Dragon Broke [sic] is nothing but the result [of] different entities controlling the events for themselves. It can be observed in the Dawn with multiple gods walking the Mundus, with Warp in the West and it’s Numidia.

Yet for some reason, the jump to connect this concept with that of the many different people playing Daggerfall never gets noticed.

You don’t even have to break the fourth wall. The only way in which Mundus allows seven versions of the Numidium to exists is through a Dragon Break where different entities control the events time in a different fashion. As such the mysterious agent of Daggerfall was a god-walker.” – proweler, Elder Scrolls Forums, 13 July, 2010.

Gods walking among mortals is listed as one of the phenomena reported during the original Dragon Break, too, but what is meant by a “god”, exactly? We know about four Dragon Breaks in ES lore, and all of them involve gods, but not necessarily gods in the way most people imagine them. Two Breaks are linked to mortals who ascended to godhood: Vivec at Red Mountain, and Tiber Septim at Rimmen. And in the Daggerfall Break, as proweler says, it is actually the players who take on the roles of gods, imposing their wills on time and space, decisions made in different playthroughs all affecting the gameworld at once, at least, as far as Tamrielic history is concerned.

But… isn’t this what players do all the time in games? Imposing their wills on time and space, shaping events, reloading the game when things go bad, entering cheat codes if a battle is too hard – to all intents and purposes, invincible and immortal. For all that games like to pretend the player is an underdog hero surrounded by powerful and terrifying enemies, the player had access to powers that no other being in the game does – the power to transcend the gameworld, to “cheat”, and to rewrite the past and the future with savegames.

And yet, in the Elder Scrolls games, this isn’t entirely true. There are, in fact, other beings with powers similar to those possessed by the players, and we just mentioned them: Vivec and Tiber Septim, fellow Dragon Breakers. Breaking the Dragon let Tiber Septim conquer Tamriel… how, exactly? Was it like the Warp in the West, did he create multiple realities where he conquered each province seperately, and then merged them? Or did he just keep reloading reality until events went his way? I asked this in the ES lore forum, and was told, “Both and either because of the other.” You get that sort of answer a lot over there.***

And Vivec, ah, Vivec is something else again, but he has part 3 all to himself, so he can wait. Suffice it to say that Vivec knows all about playing games – and winning them.

Next in part 3: Divine CHIMistry, or: How Vivec Accessed the Construction Set.

*This (excellent) article is pretty much the only academic/critical piece I’ve found on Morrowind as a game.  If anyone knows of others, please send me links! Or heck, write some yourselves – maybe that Critical Compilation need not be as dead as it looks!

**If we’re going with a neologism, (which would help, since otherwise I’m looking at “metagamey” as my only adjective) I’ll take this over the dreaded “metaludic”, even if it doesn’t pair with “metaphysics” as nicely.

*** To be fair, I did subsequently get additional explanations, but they enter into areas of lore that go beyond the scope of this piece.

Further discussion of Dragon Breaks and their implications can be found here and here.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2010 20:07

    Highly interesting, keep up this good work!

  2. September 9, 2010 17:38

    This is a fantastic read! I always felt Morrowind had an incredible storyline, both in terms of background lore and the actual in-game quest stories. Very much looking forward to your subsequent posts!

  3. Markus Schaefer permalink
    September 13, 2010 10:35

    For another interesting treatment of the savegame machanic which is integrated into the game’s lore one should look at Anachronox. In that game savepoints were represented by creatures called “time-minders” which experienced time not as linear but as a single moment. Within the gameworld it is considered lucky to pet a time-minder because it gave you an eternal spot in the creatures’ mind (the time-minders’ life expectancy wasn’t mentioned).

    • Kateri permalink
      September 13, 2010 13:17

      Thanks, that’s a really cool example! Reminds me of a character in The Longest Journey who experienced time in a similar way.

  4. Ken Rolston permalink
    September 14, 2010 20:37

    I follow your presentations with great interest.

    Speaking of game-meta-responses to Morrowind, I recommend the following source:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20051112010106/http://mw.downbeach.net/

    withershyn in morrowind

    [All hail the Wayback Machine of web.archive! Many long-dead game commentaries lie obscure but accessible here.]

    The web site is long-extinct. The writer’s journal of her experiences in unique [as far as I know] as an account of a player’s experiences exploring a heroic fantasy game setting…
    – charming and entertaining… a good read
    – a generously and faithfully illustrated screenshot journal of her travels
    – a graceful blur of player and player-character voices which… of particular interest to your treatments… ambles casually back and forth across the plane of the fourth wall.

    For example, here is the text from an early journal entry…

    “Here I stand contemplating a door in a rock. Morrowind seems to have a great many of these — people living like mud ducks in shacks and rocks. I feel right at home. I think I’ll go say hello.”

    As you have mentioned in the previous blog, we should see these worlds through the eyes of the people inhabiting these worlds. And here, Withershyn takes a clumsy artifact of Morrowind’s game geometry [door objects stuck casually into the sides of landscapes and landscape objects] and integrates it into her exploration of the culture of Morrowind.

    Another example, an entry about Hlaalu temple district guards…

    “This is one of the local Move-Along guys — House Hlaalu guards, in this case — and he doesn’t like me very much. But he is nothing to some of the shadier types I meet here, who call me vicious expletives like outlander and foreigner.”

    An artifact of the shallow, repetitive, limited-set random dialog guard barks, the repeated ‘Move along’ brusque and casually hostile attitude of the guards helps reinforce a high-level design goal… making the beginning player feel like a despised foreigner… the better to make his later salutation as the glorious Incarnate hero all the more gratifying.

    • Kateri permalink
      September 14, 2010 23:08

      Oh my gosh. Look who’s here.

      By which I mean… thank you for the link (very nice Morrowind journal), and the feedback! Oh yeah, and that game I spent years losing myself in!

      Part 3 (which I am now approximately 500 times more self-conscious about posting!) is about Vivec, as I mentioned – am I right in thinking you wrote his ingame dialogue? I’ll be looking mostly at Michael Kirkbride’s nefarious textual schemes, but there is a little of both. It always seemed to me that Michael wrote the divine Vivec, the Vivec of the Sermons, but you (if it was indeed you), wrote the mortal Vivec, that half-memory of who he used to be that he puts on as his face for speaking to ordinary mortals, it being the one least likely to melt their brains.

      Hopefully I can post it soon – it’s just a bit slower going than the other parts, as I have to be careful not to melt my OWN brain!

      • Ken Rolston permalink
        September 15, 2010 15:20

        Kirkbride is definitely the ecstatic voice of Vivec’s sermons. Great stuff. I wrote the dialog that Vivec speaks to the Nerevarine. Wow. That was ages ago. I also vaguely recall that Michael wrote the voice of Vivec in an bulletin board trial of Vivec for the murder of Indoril Nerevar. [I have no idea how to locate that, and it is not textual (i.e., not 'in the game'), though I'm sure it would be interesting.]

        I particularly admire the conceit of the Dragon-Break, which I think was Kirkbride’s scheme, probably collaborative with Kurt Kuhlmann, who was his passionate partner in design thought crimes. What a wonderful designer response to the criminally irresponsible design scheme of having Daggerfall’s multiple endings in an epic heroic fantasy setting certain to be followed by sequels.

        Morrowind, and all the Elder Scrolls titles, have been intensely collaborative projects, and I can’t recall who actually spewed ideas, or who polished them for publication. And it doesn’t really matter… it was a profoundly collective effort, with the enthusiastic internal ears and responses of designers being an integral part of the authoring process.

        For all its many warts, Morrowind remains my favorite CRPG experience. I certainly admire the authorship and coherence of Planescape: Torment more… but the open-endedness and sheer vast glory of Morrowind made that experience far cooler and satisfying.

        I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to experience Morrowind as a player rather than as a developer. And I look forward to TES V as my first chance to experience a modern Elder Scrolls title that way.

  5. Photographer Leia permalink
    September 16, 2010 06:41

    This is incredibly fascinating. It’s funny, no matter how far removed one might become from the game time wise, it never quite leaves you. I have always thought that it would be great to see all the ES in game books printed in comprehensive, tangible volumes available for lore junkies. I realize how massive something like that would be, but it would certainly be worth the price to actually possess a hard copy. While in game I’ve never had the drive to sit down and compare texts once I’ve read it once (if my character is the reading type). It’s nice to see someone put serious thought into this.

    • Kateri permalink
      September 16, 2010 08:47

      Thanks! I’m completely indebted to the geniuses and obsessives of the Elder Scrolls Lore Forum (http://forums.bethsoft.com/index.php?/forum/16-elder-scrolls-lore/), who plumb depths of ES metaphysics I’m only paddling in the toddler pool of here.

      While not a hard copy, you can read all the ingame texts at The Imperial Library site: http://www.imperial-library.info/

      • Photographer Leia permalink
        September 16, 2010 10:23

        I have indeed spent many an hour in the Imperial Library since discovering it last year, but I’m rather old school when it comes to reading. Nothing beats holding an actual volume in your hands. :)

  6. Nigedo permalink
    October 22, 2010 16:41

    Nice read with a refreshing viewpoint. Been a long time since I studied the Dragon Break and associated phenomena. It’s nice to see people still find TES lore just as fascinating.

    • Kateri permalink
      October 22, 2010 18:44

      Agh! The loremasters found me! Hide!
      Seriously, though, I do hope you hang around – I’ve nearly finished part 3, and I just know there’ll be things I’ve misinterpreted (and not just in a Dwemer way).

  7. Andy Bentz permalink
    December 30, 2010 13:06

    Never has a game’s pre-story or quest-story writing intrigued me for so long. I knew the first time I played Morrowind that I would play over and over and over just to change one little piece of time fabric that I missed the chance to change the last time through. Addiction is the wrong word. Obsession lends itself to unhealthy. Let’s say overwhelmed by curiosity? Fortunately, it takes more than that to kill this cat, MORROWIND NEVER DIES!!!

  8. Brandon permalink
    July 17, 2011 10:14

    Isn’t the dragon break also referred to in the warp in the west? I don’t remember but I think it was three places and I remember the first time I read that I thought it looked like something had tried to defy the elder scrolls but ultimately failed

  9. Brandon permalink
    July 17, 2011 10:25

    Holy shit I only read halfway and then saw it lol (giddy dorky wtf is this world real moment) stories have a way of fucking with my mind I’m so captivated but answers I’ll nvr have answers ya know man its like I’m not smart enough for this stuff I rlly want to be and I can’t help imagine how I wld view things if I was I think its time for my own dragon break ;P

  10. Ascendant permalink
    November 7, 2013 10:33

    What if the dwarves were the Mayans lol… *hopes sparks critical thinking*

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