The Metaphysics of Morrowind: part 3
Third (belated, apologies!) part of a look at how the metaphysics of Morrowind reach out beyond the game to drag extraludic, metagame phenomena into the fiction of the world… or is it the other way around? Here are parts one and two.
HERE BE SPOILERS, and I also apply the standard Elder Scrolls caveat that it is truly more fun to play the game, read the texts, and figure out your own interpretations. Also, because I’ve seen people on Reddit getting confused about this, THIS ESSAY DOES NOT CLAIM TO ACCURATELY DESCRIBE THE INGAME LORE. Seriously, read the game books for that. This is a piece of textual criticism, describing the relationship between the player and the game.
Divine CHIMistry, or: How Vivec Accessed the Construction Set.
“Certitude is for the puzzle-box logicians and girls of white glamour who harbor it on their own time. I am a letter written in uncertainty.” – Vivec, 36 Lessons, Sermon 4
I wrote, in the introductory post, that the Elder Scrolls series “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 person sitting on top of the fourth wall, possibly some inches above the actual wall, would be Vivec.
Vivec, also known as Vehk, plays many roles. Warrior, poet, general, thief, lover, liar, mystic, murderer. God. Weird floating dude who gave you a glove during the Morrowind main quest. He is all these things and more, although many players will only know him as the latter. Unless they’re one of those players, in which case he’s “dude I killed just to see if it was possible, and if he had any neat stuff on him”. Pardon me if I came across as rather contemptuous there, but I have little sympathy with players who try slaughtering him. I’ve always had a soft spot for Vehk. It has a lot to do with his books1 .
“Vivec is a poet. Trust not the words of a poet, as he is born to seduce. Yet for poetry to seize the heart, it must ring with the chimes of truth.” – Sotha Sil’s Last Words
“It was one dev, naked in a room with a carton of cigarettes, a thermos full of coffee and bourbon, and all his summoned angels.” – Michael Kirkbride on writing the 36 Lessons of Vivec
A brief digression: Bethesda games are collaborative efforts, and from the players’ perspective, they see only “the game”, knowing nothing of which individual designer or writer contributed which part. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention one-time Bethesda developer Michael Kirkbride, author of the 36 Lessons of Vivec, and many other Elder Scrolls texts, both ingame and out. I can’t, in good faith, go further without saluting his genius and his contribution to the ES series, even (especially) as I will doubtless go on to mangle and misinterpret its meaning. In the comments to part 2 of this post series, Ken Rolston implicated him as the chief mastermind behind the Dragon Break, and I can’t say I was at all surprised. He is, therefore, the one to praise or blame for the majority of the metaphysics and metagaming discussed not only in this post, but in part 2 as well.
The metagaming, yes. I am coming to that. First, however, I want to reiterate something I stated in the introduction – Elder Scrolls lore is layered, multifaceted and chaotic, like a… a crystalline, non-Euclidean onion. In these posts, I am looking at one layer, one facet only, and, some would argue, one of the less interesting. However, I think that drawing attention to the meta-game aspects of the lore can be an effective lure to thoughtful gamers, a signal that there is more going on in TES than in your common-or-garden fantasy worldbuilding.
Reading between the volumes.
The 36 Lessons of Vivec are a set of books scattered throughout Morrowind, a holy text divided into 36 numbered volumes, or Sermons. They are a common enough sight in temples, libraries and private homes, but generally only one at a time, a handful of volumes at most. Encountered in this way, it’s difficult for a player to know what to make of them. Individual Sermons are a delight to read purely for the language and imagery, which draw from myriad religious, literary, philosophical and occult sources, while maintaining their own unique voice. The narratives, while frequently obscure and ridiculous, are full of charm, humour, and some of the most thinly-veiled transgressive erotica ever snuck into a Teen-rated videogame. They tend, however, to come across as nonsense and gibberish to the reader seeking to understand what is actually going on, sometimes even at the most basic level. It’s possible, of course, for a determined player to collect all of them, but that may not help much. The 36 Lessons are mystical, cryptographical texts, crammed with internal cross-references, and use a system of symbols and metaphors that sometimes requires referring to several other Sermons to understand even a single line. The effort of switching between books means that a thorough ingame study of the 36 Lessons is incredibly frustrating, and if I started at all, I didn’t get far.
Fortunately, that’s not the only option: The Imperial Library site has been keeping online copies of ES ingame texts for many years now. I’m not sure what made me decide, long after I had last seriously played Morrowind, to reread the 36 Lessons from beginning to end, but read them I did. At first it was purely for enjoyment, but then a line caught my eye:
“The ruling king is armored head to toe in brilliant flame. He is redeemed by each act he undertakes. His death is only a diagram back to the waking world.” – 36 Lessons, Sermon 11 [emphasis mine]
“Heh”, I thought to myself, “that almost sounds like a player character, whose death in the game causes their player to be jolted out of the game and back to the real world.” A little further on, I found:
“The immobile warrior is never fatigued. He cuts sleep holes in the middle of a battle to regain his strength.” - 36 Lessons, Sermon 23
“I do that too,” I smirked, “it’s called taking health potions in the inventory screen while the game is paused.” The 36 Lessons contain quite a few tongue-in-cheek references to the digital nature of the world – one even refers to a bizarre graphical artifact in TESA: Redguard – so I didn’t think too deeply about it at first. After a while, however, references began to mount to this “ruling king”, and I started to read a little more closely. Here is a passage about how Vivec became a “ruling king of the world”:
“Then an Old Bone of the earth rose up before the simulacrum of the netchiman’s wife and said, ‘If you are to be born a ruling king of the world you must confuse it with new words. Set me into pondering.’
‘Very well,’ Vivec said, ‘Let me talk to you of the world, which I share with mystery and love. Who is her capital? Have you taken the scenic route of her cameo? I have– lightly, in secret, missing candles because they’re on the untrue side, and run my hand along the edge of a shadow made from one hundred and three divisions of warmth, and left no proof.’
At this the Old Bone folded unto itself twenty times until it became akin to milk, which Vivec drank, becoming a ruling king of the world.” - 36 Lessons, Sermon 4
OK. So Vivec is one of these “ruling kings”. But what does that mean, exactly? I found a clue in Sermon 12: “‘CHIM,’ … is the secret syllable of royalty”. This led to a few things starting to fall into place in my head, and here’s where I insert the disclaimer that my interpretations may be totally wrongheaded, in which case I hope someone will correct me. It’s also where things start getting brain-melting, especially to those not completely au fait with the deeper workings of ES lore (i.e. almost everyone, including me), so I hope I can keep this at least vaguely intelligible. Here goes…
Ones and Zeroes.
CHIM is a concept you are bound to encounter if you spend enough time reading ES lore, but it can be a difficult one to grasp. It is not really divinity, and not exactly omniscience or enlightenment, although it can be a way of obtaining these things. It is, first and foremost, a knowledge, an understanding, and secondly, the means of dealing with that knowledge.
In order to explain CHIM, it helps to refer to some of the things that Michael Kirkbride has posted in Vehk’s name on the ES forums over the years. While much of the same information is in the Sermons, it’s in a (slightly) more opaque form, as is par for the course. I’m not about to get into a full discussion of the mystic principle of the Tower (for that, you might want to start here: CHIM, the Tower, the Wheel and all things fun – A Beginner’s Manual) for our purposes, all you need to know is that the “secret of the Tower” is CHIM.
“The Tower is an ideal, which, in our world of myth and magic, means that it is so real that it becomes dangerous. It is the existence of the True Self within the Universal Self …
[The secret of the Tower is h]ow to permanently exist beyond duplexity, antithesis, or trouble. This is not an easy concept, I know. Imagine being able to feel with all of your senses the relentless alien terror that is God and your place in it, which is everywhere and therefore nowhere, and realizing that it means the total dissolution of your individuality into boundless being. Imagine that and then still being able to say “I”. The “I” is the Tower.”- Vehk’s Teaching
CHIM is the realisation that your entire world, everything you experience, does not really exist. It exists as the dream of a power, which, since it must be called something, is called God. Everything that exists is just part of the dream of God, including yourself. You are just a tiny fraction of the Godhead, that has managed to gain a modicum of self-awareness.
For most, the self-awareness doesn’t last. Their minds can’t support two co-existing statements of “I exist” and “I do not exist”, resulting in the total negation of identity known as “zero-summing”. 1 + -1 = 0. To “zero-sum” is to literally evaporate. It’s rather reminiscent of the bit in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in which God, on having his existence proven to be impossible, immediately vanishes “in a puff of logic”.
To successfully attain CHIM, one must take the next step: to hold the two conflicting statements simultaneously. To add one and minus-one, and come up with something other than zero. Instead of following the mental path of “it’s all a dream… I don’t exist”, you instead move to “it’s all a dream… I can control it.” Reality is mutable, and yours for the changing. ES forumite Darkom compares it to lucid dreaming:
“To achieve CHIM is to realize this, to recognize the Godhead, to see that everything is him, that you are him, and still maintaining your individuality. You are still able to say I, and thus you have achieved CHIM. In knowing that everything is merely an extension of the same thing, an extension of you, you have power over it in the same way you can move your arm. It is like a little part of the Godhead having a lucid dream, where he is still dreaming though he knows he is dreaming and thus has control over the dream.” – Darkom, TESFU, 25/12/09
In retaining their individuality in the face of absorption into the mind of God, the attainer of CHIM recognises that not only are they the Godhead, the Godhead is them.
“The secret Tower within the Tower is the shape of the only name of God, I.” – 36 Lessons, Sermon 21
Vivec as Meta-NPC.
At this point, you are perhaps wondering why I am going off on mystical tangents, since I promised to talk about metagaming and the fourth wall. But you see, this is the ultimate metagame reference, and what it does to the fourth wall, I’m not even sure how to describe.
CHIM can be interpreted as Vivec’s awareness that he is a fictional character, existing within the mind of an author3. It is both true and false to say that Vivec “knows he is in a video game”. On the one hand, the fourth wall appears to remain intact, in that his knowledge is clothed in the language and symbols of TES. And yet he is a meta-NPC, aware of his existence as a product of the creative mind, and commenting on it in a unique way. Interesting comparisons might be drawn with the overtly-fourth wall breaking meta-NPC Psycho Mantis, in Metal Gear Solid – though not by me, as I’m sadly unfamiliar with the MGS series, comments welcomed!
But, someone might object, if Vivec is purely a creation of the author/Godhead, how can he also be identified with it, and therefore in control: “the only name of God, I”? To which I would give an answer that I suspect any author might understand – that sometimes creating a fictional character is precisely like this. They start out as a product of the author, and an extension of their mind, but the best ones soon escape those limitations. They take control. They assert their individuality in the face of the author’s attempts to shape them, puppet them, melt them down, zero-sum them. They attain CHIM – and they soon have their authors dancing to their tune. (Aaron Reed, author of Blue Lacuna, recently described a great example of this in this interview, when he talked about creating the character of Progue.)
“To keep one’s powers intact at such a stage is to allow for the existence of what can only be called a continual spirit. Make of your love a defense against the horizon.” – 36 Lessons, Sermon 35
Vivec is not powerless because he is imaginary; quite the reverse. To think otherwise would be to misunderstand the nature and power of the imagination. Vivec is imaginary, and knows it, which empowers him with a special kind of agency (another example of this sort of thing can be seen at the end of the philosophical novel, Sophie’s World). Vivec can interact with the world of TES on a level that most NPCs cannot reach. For example, he can do this:
“Vivec put on his armor and stepped into a non-spatial space filling to capacity with mortal interaction and information, a canvas-less cartography of every single mind it has ever known, an event that had developed some semblance of a divine spark.” – 36 Lessons, Sermon 19
This “space which is not a space”, also called “The Provisional House” is used by Vivec to locate things, and apparently to delete people, or “erase [them] from the thought realm of God” as he puts it. If, like me, you have ever modded for Morrowind, you will recognise this “thought-realm of God”, having spent countless hours there. It’s the Construction Set.
Furthermore, Vivec is the only character in the game who can address the player as an equal, who knows who, or rather what, the player is.
36 Lessons from one ruling king to another.
Keep in mind that Vivec’s thirty-six Sermons are explicitly presented as “Lessons”. The questions therefore become: what is being taught, and to whom? As early as Sermon 6, Vivec is cast as teacher to the legendary hero Nerevar (also known as the Hortator). Throughout the Sermons, Vivec continually attempts to teach things to Nerevar, who seems to be rather a slow learner, often becoming confused and misunderstanding. This is not surprising. It becomes increasingly clear that he is not actually the intended student.
Let’s look again at some of these “ruling king” references. We have already seen that “ruling king” can refer to Vivec, but he isn’t the only one. Vivec himself refers to someone else:
“The ruling king is to stand against me and then before me. He is to learn from my punishment. I will mark him to know. He is to come as male or female. I am the form he must acquire.” – 36 Lessons, Sermon 13
The second “ruling king” is the player. Within the fiction of Morrowind‘s narrative, the player is told their character is the Nerevarine, the reincarnation of Nerevar, the latest in a long line of “failed Incarnates” who died before they could fulfil their destinies as Nerevarine. Thus, while it makes no sense for Vivec to mention to the original Nerevar “the prophets that have borne your name before”, it makes perfect sense when addressed to the Nerevarine. I don’t think it stops there, either. Let’s go back to this earlier quote:
“The ruling king is armored head to toe in brilliant flame. He is redeemed by each act he undertakes. His death is only a diagram back to the waking world.” – 36 Lessons, Sermon 11
Who is Vivec talking to here? It could be the Nerevarine, since their death will lead to yet another reincarnation. But I think my initial reaction was correct – it also refers directly to the player. It doesn’t really matter whether or not we are to believe that Vivec does this deliberately: the function of the Nerevarine is in many ways equivalent to to the function of the player, lacking only the self-awareness. From his perspective, is it any wonder if Vivec, correctly, conflates the two? We meet a cave full of the ghosts of “failed Incarnates”, different individuals who were once Nerevarines, different characters the player might have created, different players. “The ruling king… is to come as male or female.”
Vivec recognises that the player is more then just their ingame character, that their deaths do not matter, they have the power to override it. This is also true of Vivec; he is a god. Both the player and Vivec merely possess avatars ingame, and CHIM means that we are invited to see Vivec as existing beyond the pixels of the game, just as the player does. Vivec is, therefore, in the perfect position to teach the player how to become a ruling king – how to “conquer” the game. To be a “ruling king of the world” is to be a successful player, to be a self-aware agent, to possess a form of CHIM. We can see from the failed Incarnates that not all players know how to “beat” the game. Via the 36 Lessons, Vivec claims to be teaching the player how to avoid this fate. What, then, does he suggest? And should we believe him?
Reach heaven by violence.
“Six are the guardians of Veloth, three before and they are born again, and they will test you until you have the proper tendencies of the hero.” – 36 Lessons, Sermon 6
If you have played through the Morrowind main quest, a certain thought may have occurred to you by this point. “Hang on,” you may be thinking, “isn’t there a lot of evidence that Vivec, in fact, murdered the original Nerevar, to conceal the truth about how he stole his divinity? Not to mention the fact that during the course of Morrowind, Vivec persecutes the Nerevarine, again, in order to conceal his crimes. And yet he tries to feed me this ridiculous and elaborate fiction in which he casts himself as Nerevar’s helpful teacher, who also wants to “help” me? The way he helped Nerevar? Does he think I’m an idiot?” This is a perfectly reasonable attitude.
For a start, it’s true – Vivec almost certainly did murder Nerevar. He admits it himself. A secret message encoded into the Lessons states:
“He was not born a god. His destiny did not lead him to this crime. He chose this path of his own free will. He stole the godhood and murdered the Hortator. Vivec wrote this.”
Yet, it’s also false – while Vivec may have murdered Nerevar before he became a god, in becoming a god, he broke the Dragon and was then able to rewrite his own past, shaping it as he saw fit. If the 36 Lessons depict a fiction, it’s one that Vivec, as a fictional being, was able to impose on his fictional universe. When reality is fictional, fiction IS reality. See what I mean about the power of the imagination?
“As Vehk and Vehk I hereby answer, my right and my left, with black hands. Vehk the mortal did murder the Hortator. Vehk the God did not, and remains as written. And yet these two are the same being. And yet are not, save for one red moment. Know that with the Water-Face do I answer, and so cannot be made to lie.” -Vivec, The Trial of Vivec
In an imagined universe, asking what “really” happened is a fool’s errand, as the historians of the Dragon Break discovered. What matters is what Vivec wants us to take from the 36 Lessons, and he is, unusually for him, really rather blunt about it:
“If there is to be an end I must be removed. The ruling king must know this, and I will test him. I will murder him time and again until he knows this. I am the defender of the last and the last. To remove me is to refill the heart that lay dormant at the center that cannot hold. … The ruling king is to stand against me and then before me. He is to learn from my punishment. I will mark him to know. He is to come as male or female. I am the form he must acquire. Because a ruling king that sees in another his equivalent rules nothing.” - 36 Lessons, Sermon 13
Vivec sets himself up as a teacher not just through words, but through example. He is the form the player must acquire… how? Through murder, Vivec implies. The treacherous slaughter of Nerevar is recast as a example to the player, not a betrayal, but a lesson. “It’s for your own good, you’ll thank me one day!” Vivec’s detractors would see this as the ultimate in arrogance and delusion. Arrogance, yes. The 36 Lessons can be seen as an attempt by once-mortal Vivec to hide his shame at betraying Nerevar. He builds a beautiful divine mythology for himself, in which every action is planned, premeditated and part of his holy mystery. All the faults and imperfections of his mortal existence are erased, transformed, reinterpreted. But delusion? Vivec’s divine existence is a delusion/illusion made as real as anything gets in TES, and if anyone is being deluded, it’s hardly Vivec himself. Some might say that God-Vivec’s rationalisations of mortal-Vivec’s actions can hold no possible validity, but within a world shaped by God-Vivec, aren’t his rationalisations the only ones that can hold any validity?
Because, of course, he’s right. It’s true. Vivec killed Nerevar as a plot device, to allow the player to play as the Nerevarine. This is as close to an “ultimate” truth as we’re going to get, and to believe otherwise would be the delusion. And Vivec, in his way, understands this.
“You alone, though you come again and again, can unmake him [Dagoth Ur -K]. Whether I allow it is within my wisdom. Go unarmed into his den with these words of power: AE GHARTOK PADHOME [CHIM] AE ALTADOON. Or do not. The temporal myth is man. Reach heaven by violence. This magic I give to you: the world you will rule is only an intermittent hope and you must be the letter written in uncertainty.” – 36 Lessons, Sermon 15
To win the game, then, the player needs to emulate Vivec, the “letter written in uncertainty”, and kill things. Reach heaven by violence. Morrowind is a game where the combat mechanic is a central one, so this will perhaps come as no great revelation to the player. From early on in the game, Dagoth Ur is presented as the enemy, the Big Bad who must be defeated to save the world. So, the player just needs to keep murdering things until they are powerful enough to slay Dagoth Ur… but hang on. That’s not what Vivec actually said, is it?
“The ruling king will remove me, his maker. This is the way of all children.” - 36 Lessons, Sermon 15
Vivec states clearly: “If there is to be an end I must be removed. The ruling king must know this, and I will test him. I will murder him time and again until he knows this.” The moral of Nerevar’s murder is one of retaliation. The 36 Lessons are not teaching the player that they should kill Dagoth Ur – the player knows this already. They are saying that the player should kill Vivec. This was the part that floored me. All those bloodthirsty Vivec-killing players I sneered at had apparently stumbled their way into doing his bidding!
I couldn’t figure it out, at first. True, the death of his ingame avatar would not be a huge deal to Vehk, but why? Then I remembered about the “back path”. This is an alternate way to complete the main quest, and requires killing Vivec to obtain the magical artifact Wraithguard long before the player would normally get it. Although it’s no easy task, it allows the player to skip large sections of the standard main quest, and is therefore much faster, if the player is powerful enough to succeed. From a metagaming perspective, the “back path” makes sense, if you are a speedrunner, or a powergamer with something to prove. And a true “ruling king” sounds like they would be a powergamer to me!
This isn’t the only possible interpretation of Vivec’s words, just the most explicitly meta. It’s something of a stretch I know – though if I were really trying, I’d interpret the repeated claim that “a ruling king that sees in another his equivalent rules nothing” as an indictment of multiplayer. (Hey, it’s not as if there isn’t a precedent!)
Did Vivec (and/or his Godhead co-conspirator, Kirkbride,) really create a 36 volume, 16,000+ word cryptographical prose-poem in order to say, through veils of obscurity and allusion: to win at Morrowind, you should kill stuff, and for best results, kill me? Hardly. The metagame allusions are one thread among many, a fraction of the overall artistic achievement of the 36 Lessons. Still, it’s an enjoyable thread to follow, and trace the patterns it weaves.
It’s also nice to know that if I ever do bring myself to slay that glorious invisible warrior-poet of Vvardenfell, Vivec (AKA the magic hermaphrodite, the martial axiom, the sex-death of language and unique in all the middle world), he will be laughing all the way back over the fourth wall and into the thought-realm of God.
Epilogue: Know Love to avoid the Landfall, or What Vivec Did Next.
Vivec claims, ingame, that his divine powers are fuelled by the faith of the Dunmer people, apparently literally:
“Why did I try to kill you? Because you threatened the faith of my followers, and I needed their faith to hold back the darkness. … Any doubt whatsoever weakened their faith, and we needed their faith to give us the power to maintain the Ghostfence. … We have lost our divine powers, but not altogether. Some token of the people’s faith remains, and we shall dedicate it to rebuilding the Temple.” - Vivec’s ingame dialogue
It’s tempting to spin this another way – that the powers of a fictional being are fuelled by the imaginations of those who are thinking about him. So… what happens if no one is? In Sermon 18, Vivec predicts that a time will come when he is no longer necessary, as “the currency of the world’s condition”, the “ever-changing unconscious mortal agenda” will have changed so as to render his role superfluous. In other words, his narrative function will be spent. The plot won’t need him as a character anymore, the Godhead’s imagination will move on to other things.
In Oblivion, we are told that Vivec has mysteriously vanished from the world of Tamriel. In the recent ES novel, The Infernal City, we hear that the Ministry of Truth, the giant rock held aloft by the power of the people’s love for Vivec, has crashed to the ground, causing massive devastation of most of Vvardenfell. Has CHIM failed? Pity the fictional character forgotten by his author! Do we need to clap if we believe in NPCs? Personally, I can’t say I’m too worried. Certain documents, apparently sent from the “future” of Tamriel as we know it, make me think he was quite complicit in the destruction of Morrowind, and that he has a plan. For all the fans wailing and gnashing their teeth about it, destroying Morrowind is dramatically interesting and in a world where imagination is currency, that is much more valuable than complacency and stasis. I doubt we’ve heard the last of Vehk.
1 Whether, within the fiction of the game, Vivec himself wrote the Lessons is never explicitly stated, but this is the general understanding . In any case, I hope by the end of this piece it will be clear why such a question is meaningless!
2 The “Red King” is Tiber Septim, and, according to this quote from a TES IV: Oblivion text, he also possessed CHIM. It is significant that what he does with his CHIM is to resolve a metagame ES lore inconsistency! According to ingame texts from earlier ES games, Cyrodiil is mostly dense jungle. Oblivion depicts a Cyrodiil with no jungle, a little mild swampage, and a lot of Northern European forestry and farmland. What gives? CHIM does: we are told that at one point, Tiber Septim engaged in a bit of mystical landscape gardening, because he knew his people had always hated that darn jungle. This follows the pattern set by the Dragon Break of metagame-as-metaphysics in the service of what has been called “dev weaseling” (though I also like Ken Rolston’s “narrative thoughtcrime” appellation).
Finally, click here for some brief final musings about Morrowind and Metaphysics.