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The Metaphysics of Morrowind: part 3

October 25, 2010

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 ponders the mystery of his missing chair.

“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.

Morrowind books

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. Those who know it can reshape the land. Witness the home of the Red King Once Jungled.”2The Mythic Dawn Commentaries

Vivec Giant-Form by Michael Kirkbride

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

More threads about CHIM.

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:

Morrowind Construction Set

Vehk is all up in 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

Indoril helm, said to depict Nerevar’s (understandably grumpy) face.

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).

3 I could refer to a singular author or plural authors here. Many people have contributed to Vivec as a character, but in the context of the Lessons, the Godhead is effectively Kirkbride.

Finally, click here for some brief final musings about Morrowind and Metaphysics.

57 Comments leave one →
  1. Photographer Leia permalink
    November 30, 2010 20:11

    The series returns! As soon as final papers are written I shall come and read. I’m glad to see you discussion of this subject is still active.

  2. December 4, 2010 00:17

    mind blown

  3. December 4, 2010 01:25

    This probably completely cheapens the ideas here, but I couldn’t help but think of Neo from The Matrix as I read about Vivec, which then got me to thinking whether The Matrix would have been a better movie (esp. the 2nd and 3rd ones) if its onion had more layers and some 4th wall breaking.

  4. Matthew C. permalink
    December 15, 2010 21:05

    I just finished reading the whole series and I loved every word of it. One of the reasons I love The Elder Scrolls so much is because the fourth wall is rarely touched, and when it is, it is so entangled in lore that the willing suspension of disbelief is maintained. I’m not religious in reading the lore, but what I remember from the game…

    “The ruling king will remove me, his maker. This is the way of all children.”

    …there’s a more roundabout interpretation of this passage. In destroying the Heart of Lorkhan at the very end of Morrowind’s Main Quest, the remaining gods–Amalexia, Sotha Sil, and Vivec–lose their immortality, since that was originally where they stole or derived their power. However, the fact that there is more than one way to interpret this statement, and that it alludes to the multiple paths to the endgame, is pleasantly surprising.

    Again, excellent job with this; I love reading critical analyses of video games.

  5. Steve permalink
    January 21, 2011 22:28

    God damn…

  6. Albin permalink
    February 16, 2011 22:46

    Wow. Absolutely amazing text. Inspiring!

    I really hope that Michael Kirkbride is working on tes5.

  7. Josh permalink
    March 1, 2011 06:27

    I just gone done reading part 3 and I realized something. Once I read about the CHIM, immortality, and instantly-evaporating it made me think of the Dwemer. Did they try to achieve immortality by teleporting into another realm (the real world), because they figured out they were in a video game? Hence their disappearance, or ‘evaporation’?

    It all makes sense now.

    • Kliban Katz permalink
      November 28, 2011 07:55

      WHOA. A convenient way for devs to wave away a whole race while still keeping their stuff around. Well, it was said that the Dwemer were trying to reverse-engineer life, right? They accidently discovered the fourth wall, became self-aware and BAM!

      • Ometh permalink
        August 11, 2013 17:59

        During the First Era, Kagrenac and the Dwemer had found the Heart of Lorkhan in Red Mountain. Kagrenac created the tools, Keening, Sunder and the Wraithguard to work with the Heart. When they were defeated by Indoril Nerevar, Kagrenac used the tools on the heart. Let us also mention, that Vivec did so at one time as well and had achieved CHIM.

        The most plausible theory is that an ability known as the Calling, which all Dwarves possessed (a sort of telepathy), was used in conjunction with Kagrenac’s tapping into the Heart,. When he did, the Dwarves were given divine understanding but selfish and vainglorious as the race is shown to be (not to mention, downright positively evil sometimes), they could not reconcile the fact that their existence was a lie. The entire race “zero summed” as a result, with the exception of Yagram, who was not present, with his mind dwelling within another plane.

        Most people will try to debunk this theory one of two ways, through the use of Dwarven Ghosts (which could have existed before the event) or the Dwarven Ruin that contained ashes of Dwarves (which also could have occurred before or may even help reinforce the idea of zero summation — witness the testimony of a Priest in the process of zero summation in Oblivion — it was not a slow process. For a little added mindscrew, think about how much ASH existed in Morrowind and how much your character inhaled) but neither of them stand to the test.

      • the permalink
        September 20, 2014 14:19

        ometh i differ slightly actually about the specifics. i don’t believe the dwemer even had the opportunity to reconcile their ability to be both the dream and the dreamer or to exist as an independent while still existing within anu/god/whatever. the dwemer were probably evaporated on the spot by their sheer lack of preparation

        the dwemer were always the scientists, or the kind of blasphemous atheists, whereas vivec likely had plenty of religious training in worshipping the “good daedra”. the dwarves simply thought that divinity would just be another problem that they, as talented engineers, could approach through their usual methods, and were proven completely wrong when they were unable to handle the results. whereas vivec, almalexia, and sotha sil, who probably had lifetimes of spiritual training, the gifts of the daedra, etc, were able to handle it and gain CHIM. the dwemer never even stood a chance – they were eliminated on the spot, because their path was incompatible with CHIM.

        so in other words – the disappearance of the dwemer in the elder scrolls is almost a parable of the arrogance of science in the elder scrolls universe – probably why it’s barely developed except in the dwemer, at least, not in any format we’d recognize it in

    • the permalink
      September 20, 2014 14:13



      i’d always assumed the mystery of the dwemer was just that, to remain a mystery, with no ever possible answer that could be fully satisfying. like when people say “the doctor’s name can’t be revealed! it will destroy his mystery, nothing can live up to the buildup!” about doctor who

      and then you just did that and actually solved the disappearance of the dwemer in a way that lives up to all the hype

      i’m gobsmacked

      • September 20, 2014 14:30

        If we’re to believe MK (which is up to you as he’s essentially said Elder Scrolls lore is what you make it) then the Dwemer ‘achieved’ their goal (at least in a way). Each race has its own metaphysical Tower (Red Mountain for Dunmer, Numidium for Dwemer, White-Gold for Ayleids, the Mane for Khajiit etc…) and that helps them to reach their goal which is usually some form of ‘ascension’ to a higher level/immortality/become one with the Ada. The Dwemer reportedly became the golden skin of Numidium (their Tower) and are united as one in an act of denying everything.

        However, them breaking the fourth wall is still a damn good alternative, and alternatives can co-exist with each other. Reddit’s /r/teslore works in this way with all sorts of craziness going on – including Echmer which are Bat-elves, but more bat than elf. They were just bats in a Dwemeri cave and the Dwemer’s experiments with Tonal Architecture mutated and transformed these bats into self-aware beings who then took over when their creators disappeared. They live on Ynelsea (or whatever it’s called), na island off the coast of Tamriel.

  8. Alvar permalink
    March 19, 2011 22:18

    In my opinion, the key to understand VIVEC lies in his own words after the death of Almalexia and Sotha Sil (what implies the end of the Tribunal). Vivec suggests that the player should finally kill him (“perhaps at your hands, Nerevarine”) to fulfill the destiny. Why? He also says that what started being so glorious has now become so sad… Let’s remember Vivec is a POET and, like all poets (like me) looks for BEAUTY (this includes the shape, the sense, the excitement, the dreams, the love, life and death, specially the power to create new wonders…), and, after losing his divinity, Vivec does not desire to live any longer in his new human life of vulgarity and boredom. He knows this game is already over and prefers to be switched/killed, probably to be reborn again in a new universe with new expectations. In fact, I had been dubting if I should kill Vivec or not until that moment, then I decided to use my “Lover’s Kiss” power on him (it was appropriate, isn’t it?); since after this he attacked me, I felt legitimized to kill him with Sunder. Vivec said nothing, but I suspect he felt gratitude (or, at least, relief).
    (I apologize if this comment is too long, but it is not an easy matter to solve in a few words…) By the way, I must say the Morrowind storyline (or plot?) is probably the best one I have ever known in any computer game (and that is much to say…), and I think that is due to its open-minded complexity (like Vivec’s one…).

    • Kateri permalink
      March 20, 2011 14:18

      Thank you for commenting, I quite agree! A poet knows that death can be a very good thing in service to art! The play’s the thing (as it were). And I love your story of “attacking” him with Lover’s Kiss. Very appropriate. 🙂

      • Alvar permalink
        March 20, 2011 17:22

        Thanks to you. A wonderful job!

  9. April 4, 2011 15:56

    Interesting article, I like the idea of the construction set being available to Vehk, its a cool interpretation. The concept that all is connected, which is to say God, and we are but ideas in the mind of God is not a reference to a fictional character in the mind of author, far more likely a direct analogue to the works of Baruch Spinoza, a 17th Century Dutch philosopher who used geometry-inspired proofs in his Ethics to show just that – there is one substance in the world, God, infinite in its attributes, and we are ideas inside God.

    Of course this being MK there is a good chance both are going on at once, I think the point of his work is to spread discussion and disagreement, to obfuscate. Still, I’d heartily recommend the Ethics to anyone who enjoys MK’s work; Spinoza does for earth what some of Kirkbride’s more metaphysical works do for Nirn.

    • the permalink
      September 20, 2014 14:21

      i think it’s more explicitly drawn from the new age school beliefs, which just copy off hindu ideas of advaita vedanta and various trains of buddhism, not to mention the similar aztec philosophy about ometeotl

  10. Brandon permalink
    July 17, 2011 09:31

    Is it possible that the dwemer where transported to the clockwork city…it’s something to think about I love there is so much mystery and it makes u think about things on a very spiritual level an helps u change ur viewpoint easier. Like idk wat my life is weird things happen all the time to me like wen I was reading the page on sotha sil I saw the words before it and knew I was about to see something I had already seen even tho I had nvr even been to that website yet there it was exactly I had no recollection of the words and it’s said that wen u dream u cannot read its just a hazy symbol that u already kno wat it means because it has been prefabricated by you
    ..or has it? maybe thts wat dejavu is a conscious/subconscious dream or maybe it is a gift by another being or a lack of being

  11. Brandon permalink
    July 17, 2011 11:02

    Ik I’ve been commenting a lot lately but sotha sils machine wen it reversed to never be realigned and wen the dwemer philosopher tricked azura with the puzzle box can anyone help me make sense of that it seems all the events are to confuse the reader endlessly lol ik the living gods (especially sotha sil) had close ties with the main daedra and seeing that makes me wonder if this is just a start pls help lol it’s drivin me crazy

  12. October 22, 2011 13:31

    Great job, fascinating, I never would have thought about this.

  13. Jbm permalink
    November 15, 2011 03:28

    Shouldn’t the language of “removing” (not killing) Vivec be the hint that we should go into the Construction Set and literally delete him from the world? I don’t have Morrowind installed anymore, but if someone else is up for it…

  14. Huntershound permalink
    November 25, 2011 20:57

    Vivec was a lie. The Tribunal was a lie. They had to be brought to truth. In the name of Hircine, Meridia, Azura, and Nocturnal they were slain.

  15. Kliban Katz permalink
    November 28, 2011 07:27

    I came across this on the uesp forums. This is a delicious read. No doubt countless hours and thought went into the writing of this Metaphysics series. As TES players, we’re no stranger to the wonderful half-truths that are placed around the game worlds for us to salivate over, but to read you interpreting Vivec’s dialogue and writings to make him come across ultimately as some cryptic, lucid, and self-aware Easter egg is amazing. I remember reading that Vivec’s 36 sermons were written over one long night by one writer with a lot of coffee, but the depth of metaphor makes me wonder if it wasn’t something stronger. (Skooma? lol) Being -able- to write like this about the TES series shows that it is a prime example of excellent world-building skill and that it should serve as a standard that more games of the genre should aspire to. Although, like the Nerevarines before us, many are doomed to fail. 😦

    • Huntershound permalink
      November 28, 2011 14:07

      That was a lovely reference that made me a little teary eyed. However since I can’t grasp the concept of our tormented reality mixing, and there by contaminating, all that is TES universe I have to read this article from a purely in-game perspective. In this light it only further illustrates how Vivec is by far the most vile and wretched tyrannical monster of an overlord lusting for power history has ever seen. Open brutality is something that can be stopped but his covert mission shrouded by a mask of love is beyond acceptable.

  16. hi guys permalink
    December 5, 2011 21:25

    “The immobile warrior is never fatigued. He cuts sleep holes in the middle of a battle to regain his strength.”

    I think this actually means saving in the middle of a dungeon or a quest, or even combat, since its late, sleep, and load back the next day

  17. Alex Kirk permalink
    December 18, 2011 12:11

    Loved the piece.

    You should also examine the triangle relationship of Vivec, Azura and The Ruling King (Player, mantled Nerrevarine)… Not to mention the avatar of the Emperor Tiber Septim in the Tower of Dusk at Ghostgate.

    When I played Morrowind myself, I used Azuras star to trap Vivecs Soul. His soul was consumed in creating the ring called “Folly of the Mortal Traitor known as Vekh” which has a permanent effect of damaging the wearer. The ring was tossed into the fires of Red Mountain.

  18. Jerkin permalink
    February 9, 2012 21:18

    I can kind of see where religion came from. The whole Lore behind TES could be recorded in various volumes. Different peoples opinions on them (like gospels MMLJ and such) and found much later. I’d believe this. I’d pray to these gods!

  19. Rikphilips permalink
    December 14, 2012 04:57

    That was m’ m’ magical…

  20. Tim Steffon permalink
    December 28, 2012 10:25

    Did it ever occur to you that it was all an elaborate lie. A lie constructed to conceal the fact that the tribunal used the heart of Lorkan to steal divinity. If they thought it was that chim nonsense, who would ever think to look for the heart?

  21. Eamil permalink
    January 6, 2013 15:54

    For anyone interested in the “CHIM, The Tower, The Wheel, and all things fun” post mentioned in the article, the link seems to have died recently and doesn’t have the thread, but Google has it cached:

  22. March 8, 2013 08:18

    I like it when individuals get together and share views. Great site, continue the good work!

  23. John KP permalink
    March 23, 2013 09:42

    Da… fuq?

  24. João Vic permalink
    May 9, 2013 06:47

    Thank You! That was one of the most intresting thing’s that i have read in my life! Even english dont being my mother languace i read it all. Thank you again.

  25. jomy permalink
    June 14, 2013 01:42

    Vivec – Spinoza of Nirn

  26. Theo permalink
    August 18, 2013 02:45

    I’d be interested to hear your take on the MGS series if you were to play through it. There’s a lot of 4th wall leaning but MGS 1 makes it more of a gag. MGS 2 is the one that really messes with people.

  27. dingledang permalink
    October 30, 2013 20:09

    This article seriously misinterprets what CHIM and the rest is. It is most certainly not using the construction set.

  28. April 17, 2014 23:23

    Interesting that Vivec refers to killing himself and taking the back path. There was another reference that I can’t seem to find again, but here’s the interesting bit.

    Many ES players who respect the series and lore immerse themselves as much as they can, and hate when other players tall about stuff in a lore breaking or un immersive way. Yet, it appears that Vivec is teaching us that to truly appreciate the game we should not immerse ourselves completely in out character, but in ourselves. In the real world and the links at the fourth wall. We should not become the nerevarine, but play the nerevarine.

    An interesting comparison is with music. First you can’t make music as you have no concepts of it or musical rules. Then you are taught about keys, cadences, haomising etc. But, the truly expressive and creative players abandon the rules of music. They break the yet still produce stunning music. Vivec is teaching you to metagame by first roleplaying immersively.

    • Rythiel permalink
      April 18, 2014 04:16

      Preach it!

      Seriously, though, great thoughts.

    • Kateri permalink*
      April 18, 2014 11:03

  29. fantasywind permalink
    April 18, 2014 20:05

    Good one hahaha I personally always interpreted Sermons of Vivec as mystical propaganda crap of the Temple to explain his divinity to his new religion believers because you know telling them that your new physical god get his power due to abusing the artifact Heart of Lorkhan and murdering the great, beloved by people, king Nerevar plotting with king’s wife and other advisor Sotha Sil which resulted in Azura’s curse changing Chimer’s physique isn’t something you tell to your would-be worshippers (propaganda just like the whole premise of Tribunal gods being ,,anticipations” of Daedra previously worshipped by Chimer who became Dunmer, it is highly possible that Deadra viewed this ,,heresy” as vile insult and that’s why in Oblivion we hear rumours that Daedra ,,kidnapped” Vivec during the events of gates of Oblivion opening all over Tamriel and after his power waned enough 🙂 bascially Vivec is arrogant ass so his claims of godhood related wisdom (,,how can you question a god” nonsense, believing his power gives him any right to be better than anyone else in moral sense 🙂 and all that made me fall into uncontrolled laughter, though he admitted that he isn’t infallible in conversations in game. Without renewal of power from the Heart his ,,divine” nature was rather lacking (and as one apocrypha text says Azura stated clearly ,,you think you are gods but you are blind fools” or something along those lines :).

    • April 19, 2014 20:36

      Well, for starters the Tribunal were never ‘gods’. They were demi-gods. So quite clearly the Daedra (and probably the Aedra too, though they have always been shunned by the Dunmer/Chimer) were going to be mad at the Tribunal who thought they were gods.

      Vivec either planned out what he did in order for the events of Morrowind to happen (using the power of his people to crush Dagoth Ur, but somehow Azura didn’t foresee this and still cursed them) or he had an immediate lust for power which he has subsequently regretted. It’s possible as the Heart caused Voryn Dagoth to become corrupted and lose himself, staying ‘guarding’ the Heart when Nerevar came back and asked him to stop.

      Vivec definitely has CHIM so I’d disagree that he’s an arrogant ass for the sake of it. He may appear so, but he obviously understands something most in Tamriel (probably the whole ES universe) and most players don’t understand.

    • Rythiel permalink
      April 19, 2014 23:36

      Is that, is that all one sentence?

  30. Tybrosion permalink
    April 22, 2014 18:33

    We are literally debating about the actions and motivations of fictional characters… If the character had all these enlightenments, doesn’t that mean that the author gave them to them, and doesn’t that mean that they weren’t actually aware at all, but still blindly following the creators will. It’s a massive logical hole, unless somehow the coding of the game changes post-release…

    • Rythiel permalink
      April 23, 2014 02:36

      I don’t think anyone here actually believes Vivec is self-aware; we’re merely admiring the amount of thought and work Michael Kirkbride and the Morrowind team put into the character.

      I feel like I should add “duh” to the end of my comment since it seems obvious to me that your comment goes without saying, but I understand that it may appear that we are assigning intelligence to a character. A good story often sparks such discussion, but your warning of the dangers of over-immersion is well-taken. As andyysplash said above, “We should not become the Nerevarine, but play the Nerevarine.”

      • April 26, 2014 23:04

        That’s a slight different context than I intended for my comment, but no less correct.

        And yes Morrowind is a game set in a fictional universe, with characters that do what their scripts say, but there’s two ways of seeing it: as a fictional universe and a thought experiment, or as a ‘real’ alternate universe that we can catch a glimpse of through the games, lore and fanfiction. In the first case Vivec is simply a utility to express the idea behind CHIM. In the second, Vivec does exist, and his portrayal I’m the game is used as a utility to express the actual Vivec and his CHIM.

        Also, typing this on the mobile site is really laggy

  31. someone passing by permalink
    August 9, 2015 12:50

    Anyone who pray Shiva can wrote this in few words, because it’s just what they believe in. We are all part of Shiva’s dream, and so we are all Shiva.

    What surprise me is that, before reading you, I had never realized how much this can also apply to gaming. Basically speaking, you’ve rewrote a millennial doctrine and simplified it. Shivaism is… Shiva playing SIMS, with us as his sims.

    • February 14, 2016 20:08

      A very interesting comment.

      Morrowind Lore is based heavily on Hinduism, but I wonder if the within-game (and not fourth wall breaking) lore has a lesson to teach about Hinduism.

      By worshipping Godly men as literally Gods, we blasphemed against the truth and beauty of the timeless universe, of Brahman. Did Hindu texts stop following the wisdom and example of the Asuras and instead begin to worship the Devas (Aedra and Daedra respectively), and over time adopted Asuras as not important, even the enemy?

      But the Devas were mortals made God. Our texts say there were millions of gods. They proclaimed themselves Gods, and their descendants and lower-caste native people were taught to worship them.Were they right to appoint themselves so? Our texts describe Devas fighting and destroying Asuras. One story tells how Indrajit, an Asura killed almost the entire “half man – half monkey” race, a reference to negroids who lived in ancient India, who were fighting allied with the Devas. Could this be, like in the case of the Tribunal Temple, a piece of propaganda concocted to paint the Asuras (who perhaps refused, unlike the Devas, to seize Godhood for themselves) as deserving of destruction?

      Every culture which makes the mistake of pursuing power over the pursuit of truth and beauty eventually collapses because, within it, the seeds of its own demise have been created. But it is in the nature of even the least fallible humans to sometimes seek power over truth and goodness, and so create the cancer that will one day inevitably lead to our own destruction. It is true of Christianity, it will be true of Islam, and it is certainly true of Hinduism.

      Could it be said that the rebellion of the Devas against the Asuras, of appointing themselves God, sowed the seeds of our society’s own demise, by allowing destructive heresies like Buddhism to follow the same path?

      The Devas having created a precedent, a heretical caste-ignoring noble could use his wealth, education and influence to proclaim himself a God amongst mortals, and turn our most sacred traditions on their head. Buddha destroyed Indian society, it’s religious integrity and it’s holy truths. The weakness created by his heresy led our nation to fall to intruders and invaders.

      I am no expert on Hinduism, but the lore of the Elder Scrolls series and the history of God and Civilization interests me. Please correct my understanding, if I am mistaken. Although I suspect there are few Hindus who will ever read this, it would be a pleasure to be further informed or corrected.


  1. Bryant Drew Jones | Spry Bry
  2. Morrowind: Busting Through the Fourth Wall « What On Nirn?!
  3. The Elder Scrolls: What is CHIM? « The Pixel Beat
  4. Skyrim – The God illusion. « The Noisy Rogue
  5. Space & Times
  6. CHIM and Morrowind part 1 | HumanioraHumaniora
  7. Book review: The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec | Journeyman's Retort

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