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The Metaphysics of Morrowind: part 4

November 23, 2010

Concludatory ramblings to a post series on extraludic/metagamey wossnames in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. Introductory part one here, part two on time, space and Dragon Breaks here, and part three on meta-NPC extraordinaire Vivec here.

Final musings on metaphysics in Morrowind

TES examines what it means to create an imaginative work by setting up a world and then subjecting it to the literary/ludic equivalent of laboratory analysis. Metaphysics undergo destruction testing, seeking the limits of the universe by pulling and twisting time and space to (dragon) breaking point.

Metaphysics are an age-old human concern, to poke and prod at them is in our nature. TES creates characters who are pushing the limits of their fictional world and struggling to come to terms with its rules, with varying degrees of success. In TES, true agency is not something afforded to just anyone. It must be sought after, fought for, stolen. Whatever it takes. Sometimes these attempts take the form of assaults on the fourth wall, yet paradoxically, I don’t find that my suspension of disbelief suffers as a result – quite the reverse, in fact. TES is more real, more human, more relevant as a result of these metaphysical clashes of imagination and reality, and metagame clashes of NPC and player, player and game. They remind us to question the nature and limits of our own perceptions, our world, our agency. (Note to self: attempt to restrict use of tricola.)

Explorations of fictional metaphysics, self-aware characters and the fourth wall are not unique ideas in art, but when encountered in a game, especially an RPG like Morrowind, the dynamic is different. Games are all about player agency, the imposition of the player’s will upon the gameworld. The artistic achievement of a game is inherently collaborative. The designer creates the world and the rules of that world, and the player provides a response to that: the way they move within, or learn to break out of, that framework. “It’s impossible to cheat in a single-player game” is a quote from a TES forumite known as Brash, back in the day. The simple rightness of her words has stuck with me. Breaking the rules is just another way of playing the game. Sometimes the best way. Just ask Vivec, the Thief of The World, the ultimate cheat.

A game is a created reality, and TES invites the player to invest their imagination in that reality, and to interact with it. To shape it as they see fit. They release tools to mod it, so any player can make themselves an all-powerful god. Cheating? Wrong word. It’s part of the game. It is allowing the player to change their world.

And so it makes sense that Bethesda create ingame lore that plays with these ideas of so-called cheating, of power and agency, of warping the world around you. If the devs are the Godhead, then each player is immersed in their own god-dream. But the good player, the ruling king, is a lucid dreamer. If they can master the dream-game, if they can gain enough power, or cheat, or create their own reality in the Construction Set – this player has not just beaten the game, they have *become* part of the Godhead. Of the creative process. CHIM.

This is not just why TES is special, this is why gaming is special. Collaborative creativity. The sharing of the “divine” act of creation through play. Authorial control is not lost, it is multiplied – we are all part of the Godhead. What some have seen as gaming’s creative Achilles heel is, in fact, the source of its power. It’s creating a dream, and sharing it with other dreamers, who then make it their own and share it back.

“A whole World of You.


God outside of all else but his own free consciousness, hallucinating for eternity and falling into love: I AM AND I ARE ALL WE.”

Loveletter from the 5th Era

52 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2010 00:31

    This series is, in my opinion, one of the most important pieces of games writing/criticism from the year. Kate you are to be congratulated for your lucidity, the depth and intriguing nature of your ideas, and for not rushing the conclusion! (Though you certainly kept us waiting =P)

  2. November 24, 2010 13:25

    Well I did it. I read all four parts in one sitting and I do not regret it at all. This was an absolutely stunning read. Bravo!

    (And I second everything Ben says. Except the part about waiting as I didn’t wait at all :D).

  3. November 28, 2010 23:33

    This is an exceptional piece, and some of the finest analysis it’s been my pleasure to read. I realise now that I only scratched the surface of Tamriel, despite 100+ hours in TES:Morrowind and a similar amount in TES:Oblivion. Perhaps it’s time to dust off those disks and go back.

    Congratulations on some truly excellent work, and I look forward to reading more in the future!

  4. Ken Rolston permalink
    November 30, 2010 22:13




    Thank you for the considerable effort, energy, and insight spent on this presentation.

    Deee… lightful.

    There sure is a lot of text in Morrowind. I hadn’t thought about it in a long while… but that leaves Morrowind in the literary mainstream… more or less. Text is certainly a fine medium for presenting a character like Vivec and his metaphysical riddles. Text is also a pretty dubious medium for today’s console games. So we won’t be seeing any more Vivecs any time soon, I suspect.

    I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but I had originally thought that Morrowind’s hyperlinks for topics might produce an epic, naive hypertext novel. ‘Naive’, in that the novel would just grow, like Topsy, as an organic and non-deliberate c0mpositional process of writing lots and lots of text with lots and lots of hyperlinks in it.

    That was, in retrospect, a pretty stupid thing to think.

    But it makes me wonder what a modder could make of all those hyperlinks and various ways of displaying and linking in the Journal.

    Ah, well. Another future project for an idle eon.

    your servant and admirer,
    Socucius Ergalla

    • Kateri permalink
      December 1, 2010 00:30

      After several attempts at drafting a reply that didn’t make me sound like a *total gibbering embarrassing fangirl*, I now accept that some things are inevitable.

      Ken, I’m incredibly honoured that you read all this, and to hear that you enjoyed it absolutely makes my year. Morrowind changed my life – both the inspirational game itself, and the experience of modding it, and being part of the amazing dream-creating-and-sharing community surrounding it. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

      As I said at the beginning, Morrowind (and TES in general) deserves much more critical/literary analysis than it gets, and it’s been a pleasure to write my own love-letter to metaphysical mindfuckery and narrative thoughtcrimes.

      Thanks to everyone who read along, and especially everyone who posted comments and encouragement!

  5. November 30, 2010 23:48

    Wow! I will read your series, and again, to come up with a smart comment in the near future.

  6. December 3, 2010 22:00

    Absolutely stunning and brilliant. A fantastic read; thank you! I’m going to share this with every gamer/philosopher I come in contact with from here forward. 😀

  7. dodo permalink
    December 8, 2010 12:17

    I’ve just read all four parts of this and I can only agree with the others, absolutely beautiful work. I have never played any TES, shame on me, I know, but I everytime just love this analysing, picking things apart and looking beyond what games present on the foreground.

    The whole series of articles reminded me of a movie though, Waking Life. It’s about lucid dreaming too and maybe death (or if we’re really living) or some such. Maybe something you’d enjoy to watch and pick apart after too. 😉

    Anyway, I’m looking foward to read more of you in the future…

  8. Kholdstare89 permalink
    December 14, 2010 01:06

    Wow, now I can really say that I’m embarrassed that I haven’t read all the in-game books.

    You explained everything so incredibly well. I think I need to go pick up Julan and start another quest as the Nerevarine. 🙂

  9. Chris permalink
    December 14, 2010 16:22

    Yeah, great, thanks. What I really need right now is an uncontrollable urge to re-install Morrowind for the fortieth time and spend ANOTHER couple of hundred hours in it…


    Lovely stuff – very interesting indeed. It’s such a shame that there’s (almost certainly) no way Skyrim is going to have the same level of interest and depth Morrowind did. I can hope…

  10. yokaiy permalink
    December 17, 2010 22:08

    I wonder if it’s intended that the dunmer used to be called chimer (note the CHIM). The fact that the last remaining chimer, after Azura abolished them and turned them into dunmer, also became gods (see Almalexia, Sotha Sil, Dagoth Ur, and Vivec), and the only one surviving (in theory) at the end of Morrowind is Vivec might also be a nod at the CHIM concept.

  11. smeagol92055 permalink
    March 15, 2011 04:50

    Holy cow.

    I’ve been playing Morrowind for years and none of this ever occurred to me. I will never again see this excellent game the same way.

    Also, I’m off to straight murder Vivec. Fantastic article series!

  12. Jambalaya permalink
    March 17, 2011 14:33

    Great analysis!

    I started playing Morrowind in high school, and as one might expect I wasn’t quite prepared for the scope of the lore and story in the series. I’ve been recently revisiting the game world this time with more of an RP focus so I can give the game world the attention it deserves. There’s so much detail and tongue-in-cheek references that went way over my head back then.

    Though I totally cheated and pumped up my character to kill Vivec and trapped his ass in a soulstone on my first ever playthrough. I remembered that I used his soul to power my daedric helmet of constant regeneration. Good times.

    • Icalasari permalink
      January 16, 2012 01:32

      So in a way, you did exactly what Vivec wanted: Completely fuck over the game so that you were unstoppable

  13. the tower permalink
    August 14, 2011 09:56

    cool story bro

  14. Felix permalink
    August 19, 2011 13:06

    Absolutely love your writing. Morrowind is truly an exemplary piece of literature and you have explained it in a way that allows even numbskulls such as me to understand the meaning behind the text!

    As a lead-on from your comments on cheating and CHIM: could this not also tie into Vivec’s allusions to ‘violence’, but instead interpreted as a plea for characters to ‘break’ the game world itself? He is imploring us to act not as narrative characters, drawn through the game in a linear fashion, but instead as conscious agents, using tools such as the construction kit to reshape Morrowind’s narrative as we see fit. His claim that “The ruling king will remove me, his maker” is Vivec/Kirkbride handing over Morrowind’s imaginative license to us, the players and modders, to do with as we see fit.

  15. evercharmer permalink
    August 26, 2011 08:22

    Wow. You’ve managed to put into words something that I both have never fully realized myself and why I’ve been so taken with TES since I first played Morrowind, and in turn why I’ve come to love video games and the possibilities they represent as far as storytelling goes.

    I’m not sure I have anything intelligent to add to this, but I do know I;m about to go replay Morrowind at least once now.

  16. AH! permalink
    November 28, 2011 21:03

    Thanks for this analysis. I’ve been a fan of TES in general and Morrowind in particular por quite some time now and must say I’ve had a nerdgasm reading through this carefully and also reading the content you mentioned through a different filter.
    Morrowind is filled so much with things, all I’ve done ingame and read feels like just a book in a library.

  17. rizzo permalink
    December 14, 2011 14:43

    Still think Vivic is an asshat and deserves to be killed.

    • Jacob permalink
      December 21, 2011 10:55


      • Icalasari permalink
        January 16, 2012 01:35

        I tried to find the words to explain what was wrong with rizzo’s reply, but nothing measured up to your *facepalm*, Jacob. Just… Wow

  18. catalystparadox permalink
    December 15, 2011 08:54

    Hm, I feel as though the trackbacks rather missed the point of the article. It’s about so much more than merely breaking the fourth wall – in many ways, the remarkable thing is that the fourth wall is NOT broken, but deforms and is reshaped to accommodate an expanded and altered sense of reality and totality to the game world.

    Brilliant piece, Kate. I read it all in one sitting and it has been an eye-opening delight. I hope you return to this blog soon to write more – I’ll surely become a regular reader if you do so.

  19. Jacob permalink
    December 21, 2011 10:53

    WOWOW!! I’ve played TES since I was old enough to play games and I never dreamed it could have so much depth! I never took the time to read all those books, I just rushed through ( I killed Vivec! *glances nervously at the writer*) but seeing it in this light gives me so much more appreciation for the game! It was always the best RPG ever created in my opinion, but until I read this I hadn’t realized to what scale! Now Skyrim is out….it’s fantastic, but in my humble opinion, I still love Morrowind. There was just something about that game that sucked you in. I’ll never forget the sense of adventure I felt when playing that game. I’d love to hear an updated post from this writer about Skyrim! AMAZING WRITING! I read in one sitting, and I was captivated the whole time! Thanks so much for the eye opener!

  20. Frigida permalink
    December 27, 2011 02:27

    I would never have figured out that damned book [Where were you when the dragon broke] if you had not made this 4 part analysis. I commend you for the lengths you have gone to, for bringing my mind some form of understanding of the complex entity of these worlds.

    Furthermore, I will never forget I am causing historians unrest with every revert to a saved moment of time I make use of. I consider this part of the ‘cannot unsee’ meme. Bravo… bravo.

  21. Matt permalink
    January 9, 2012 23:36

    I must ask that you now continue your series now that TES V Skyrim has been released for some time.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed your writings and especially how you strive to make things simple and easy to understand for us fans.

  22. January 12, 2012 00:14


    I’m Proweler from the Imperial Library. Just dropping a note that we’ve moved the books around a bit. You might want to update them. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.

    • Kateri permalink*
      January 12, 2012 14:14

      LUCKILY I enjoy spending my days off locating and updating dozens of tiny links! I think I caught them all, but if anyone spots any, do let me know.

      Thanks for the heads-up! 🙂

  23. Fitz permalink
    May 28, 2012 03:18

    Have just recently come upon this amazing series of articles from some out of the way Skyrim forum, and couldn’t be more impressed. I’ve been playing TES games since morrowind, and this has been an eye opener indeed. Makes me feel like a knuckle dragging ape for not noticing any of these subtle undertones to TES world, but on the other hand I now have a renewed appreciation for it all! I’ll definitely be sharing this with friends, fellow gamers, and anyone else who will listen. I’ll probably play morrowind again too. You know…for scholarly reasons…

  24. May 29, 2012 14:54

    Thank you for this insightful analysis. Morrowind is a very, very valuable gem of a game, indeed. Kateri, I don’t really know who you are (can I assume that you are browsing the Bethesda forums under the same name?), but thank you for the time well spent reading this.

  25. feld permalink
    June 5, 2012 18:31

    Just happened upon this amazing article. I know it’s been some time but thank you very much for that lucid explanation.

  26. cosmogoblin permalink
    July 29, 2012 14:42

    I’ve also just found this. Fantastic series! Thank you VERY much. You’ve managed to analyse succinctly and clearly some of the most obtuse metaphysical writings I’ve ever come across (the 36 Lessons), adding a great deal to my understanding.

    I’d never considered the Lessons through the lens of metagaming, but it certainly helps a lot make sense to me that didn’t before. I’ll be forwarding this article to several of my friends.

    Morrowind had poor graphics for the time, a clunky combat system, and a terribly slow initial movement speed. Oblivion and Skyrim are much, much better in those respects. Yet I can’t play Oblivion or Skyrim without yearning for Morrowind, largely because of the depth of the lore and metaphysics presented throughout the game. And the Telvanni mushroom towers, of course.

    • Dian permalink
      April 25, 2013 02:59

      I found Morrowind long after Oblivion had been released …. and only because my best friend used it as a world setting for a role playing game. To this day, I still cannot be lured by the better graphics, but the fancier games. There is just something. And I suppose part of that something is the reality of the RPG, and of the saves, and of the fanfic that I started to write, and keep doing ‘alternate’ versions of.

      • April 25, 2013 09:30

        Awesome, I run a roleplaying game set in TES as well. It uses GURPS v4, and I’ve put the source material on my website for anybody who cares to use it.

        I’ve run sessions based in Cyrodiil, Morrowind and Elsweyr. Elsweyr was my favourite, I had fantastic fun designing six different forms of Khajiit!

  27. chunlin permalink
    September 26, 2012 07:44

    still reading this in 2012, amazing

  28. October 1, 2012 00:21

    Also reading in 2012, very astounded. Inspired to reinstall Morrowind and explore some of the lore again.

  29. Pendrillion permalink
    December 5, 2012 09:58

    Thanks Kateri for that insightful essay. I have to disagree in one point though. The killing of Vivec. In my opinion and as far as I played, destroying the heart of Lorkhan is actually killing the tribunal. I always saw it as the catalyst and source of the Tribunes powers. Of course for propaganda reasons they go at great lengths about how the belief of the Temple infuses them with the powers necessary to maintain their strength. But I don’t think thats the whole truth… And the Ministry of truth did hit Vivec…

    I spent more than 1000 hours in Morrowind over the past ten years. I played a good couple of Hundreds on Oblivion and around 280 hours on Skyrim. One thing strikes me as sad. Even though Skyrim went back a bit to the dense tapestry of myth that was woven in Morrowind, with its quirky twists and metaphilosophical/physical ideas – I miss that a great deal in Skyrim. Although the whole Dragon storyline seems persistent in some form through all games. And it was an eyeopener to be finally in some form *SPOILERALERT* The last or the heir to the Septim Throne nearly 200 years after the Dragon broke again… In a way… And we did break it again I suppose 😉

  30. Jhonny de Salles permalink
    April 21, 2013 16:41

    Explanatory text very well, caught my attention his study of this beautiful game, I am a big fan of this game, and I loved how you esplicou so well his story. I would love to have sequence, having a study behind TES IV Oblivion and TES V Skyrim.
    Sorry for bad English, I used google translator. ‘m Brazilian 🙂
    Thank you.

    Texto muito bem explicativo, me chamou muito a atenção seu estudo sobre esse belo jogo, sou muito fã desse jogo, e adorei como você esplicou tão bem a estória dele. Gostaria muito que tivesse sequencia, tendo um estudo atras de TES IV Oblivion e TES V Skyrim.
    Desculpe pelo péssimo ingles, usei o google tradutor. Sou brasileiro 🙂
    Muito obrigado.

  31. james permalink
    August 18, 2013 03:04

    Wow, this is quite an interesting article. It’s very different from common explanations of TES metaphysics, but I found it just as valid and good as other explanations. Some people on other forums have taken to bashing your work here as “invalid”, however, there are no definitive canons on these metaphysics. Just as Michael Kirkbride once mentioned, TES universe is extensive, and many of its elements are open to players’ interpretations. After reading your work here, I found myself with a better grasp of TES games. While your theory might not be as “deep” as some loremasters claim, I like it a lot personally and it’s one favorite articles regarding The Elder Scrolls and video games in general.

    Thanks for writing a great article and I hope you will get more recognitions from TES lore community.

  32. Heero22 permalink
    August 26, 2013 19:00

    Wow, my head hurts and my brain is blown after reading this whole thing. This article inspired me to look deeper into games and realize what was right there under my nose. After reading this article it seems like the forth wall of TES isn’t in front of you but behind you creating a circle around you. This also explains things in further games like Oblivion and Skyrim where as they move further in time Morrowind seems more like a memory that slowly drifts away into obscurity. It also makes sense on how some of the “easter eggs” in those games happened, i.e. St. Jiub removing cliff racers from Morrowind(as mentioned in Oblivion,) makes sense because he WAS a meta-NPC. Because of this article, I am now able to make a bit more sense of the in-game lore of TES.

    • dingledang permalink
      October 30, 2013 20:11

      The problem with this article is that it very badly misinterprets most of Kirkbrides works and the works of the series itself.

      • Dian permalink
        October 31, 2013 00:28

        Who or what is kirkbrides?

  33. Robin permalink
    December 23, 2013 16:11

    Jesus this is beautiful. Thank you so much!

  34. Neo permalink
    March 25, 2014 23:28


  35. Muzzbug permalink
    May 18, 2014 02:21

    When I first played Morrowind (about a month ago. I know… I’m behind), I fell in love with Vivec, and really had no clue as to why. When I first entered his temple, I was expecting some sort of spiteful and corrupt religious leader, but was instead greeted by the very transparent and very genuinely wise Vivec. Today I stumbled across your article after deciding to read up about Vivec and whatever people thought of him. A minute into reading part 3 I went back to part 1 and read the whole thing. All I have to say about this article is that it is amazing. I love the way it complements Walt Whitman’s transcendental ideas (the idea of CHIM is very similar to Whitman’s “true free will” expressed in in implementing them in TES’ reality as opposed to ours, which gives a less personal view of CHIM/true freedom/whateveryouwannacallit, but shows us how it might affect someone from an outside perspective. It brings into focus that maybe we all are characters in a story, and the way that achieving this understanding of reality might then affect a fourth wall between our reality and whatever may lie beyond it.

    In my almost childlike level of excitement at having found this article, I can’t not share these here, as you have shown that they are a deeper and more personal look into the way Vivec, Tiber Septim, and the characters you create, look out at their reality.

    Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (16,000 word poem. Found it amusing that the 36 Lessons were around that number too x3):

    Aaand Jack Kerouac’s “true blissful essence of mind”:

    This article makes Tiber Septim and Vivec (And TES lore in general) so much more glorious than they already were. Thank you so very much for this wonderful piece of video game criticism!

  36. Frank D permalink
    January 23, 2016 17:56

    So, I’ve never played Morrowind, although I would love to do; I’ve played (and thoroughly enjoyed) Skyrim. I played and for some reason did not enjoy Oblivion, at least not enough to do more than the main quest line and delve into the mythology of TES universe the way I have with Skyrim. I played both on Xbox 360 so modding has not been a part of my experience, either.

    I found your insightful, brilliant exploration of TES metagaming nature because (unlike Oblivion), Skyrim’s main quest line requires an encounter with an eponymous Elder Scroll, and this led me to seeking out more more about them in-game, and eventually outside the game, which finally led me to this brilliant piece.

    Because, this is exactly what The Elder Scrolls are, within the mythology of the game: without breaking the fourth wall they are the interface between the player and the universe of the game. In fact they make the universe of the game a part of our own and make TES, Aurbis, Nirn, and all the planes of Oblivion and Aetherius as real as anything.

    I found much speculation “who writes the Elder Schools,” but haven’t found this idea expressed anywhere, so far (maybe it’s so obvious that no one has bothered?): we write them. The player is the clear authoring agent, because the Scrolls give all the potential futures (all the choices the player can make) but once an event has passed they are an immutably fixed, historical record (our choices are made), but they do not record Dragon Breaks (revert to save points, and retconning by devs of events for future games, ala The Warp in the West).

    I find this fascinating, and it makes the game far more compelling to me… TES specifically acknowledges the player within the universe of the game without asking us to suspend disbelief.

    Am I way off base here? Or just restating the obvious? 🙂

    • January 23, 2016 18:33

      Sounds good Frank!  It sounds like you’ve understood things in a deep way, not just remembering the facts, but synthesizing your own conclusions. Which is what the Elder Scrolls – the games, and the scrolls themselves – are really all about.
      And as far as I’m concerned, you can’t be “way off base” – whether I or anybody else agree with you, your story is your own, and indeed the games are your own. This is always true, but TES is one of the few fictions out there to actively acknowledge that. To quote Terminator 2, “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves”.


  1. Morrowind: Busting Through the Fourth Wall « What On Nirn?!
  2. Skyrim – The God illusion. « The Noisy Rogue
  3. Book review: The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec | Journeyman's Retort

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