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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Literary Review of Skyrim: Very Early Thoughts (Part 1 of ?)

[I can't really talk about this game without spoilers.  I will avoid walkthrough type spoilers that reveal answers to a puzzle or who to talk to, but it would be impossible for me to really mention the literary elements of Skyrim without some discussion of the unfolding story.  So if you haven't played through Skyrim, think you ever might, and don't like knowing ANYTHING about the game ahead of time, you might want to skip this review.]

I haven't really played enough Skyrim to do any kind of a proper write up, and what I have played, I've played through a couple of times.  Usually when I play a role playing game, I make a character play for a few hours, and when I start to realize how the mechanics are going to work and what I really want (plus how much exploring and side-questing I've missed out on by actually going where people tell me to), I go back and make the character I think I'll enjoy given the universe.  For example, I tend to like magic, but in some games its scope is so limited that doing comparable damage by swinging a sword without any loss of mana is far preferable.  (Of course in some games magic is so broken powerful, it's hard to imagine being anything else.)  I only like magic if it's going to be worth the loss of armor and combat prowess.

So I haven't had time to play much, and what I have played, has been split into two fairly-redundant halves of replaying the beginning again.  I found out that I really liked the magic system, and archery didn't suck the way it has in some of the past Elder Scrolls games, so I went back to make a High Elf sniper (archer and stealth) with magic for close combat, almost completely negating the need for stamina altogether.  Plus, I'm a raging altaholic, so I'm always going back to see what would be different in a game if I made different choices.

First of all, Skyrim is one of those games pushing the audio/visual envelope of excellence and since I recently upgraded my graphics card, my eyeballs just about popped out of my head.  This is one sexy, sexy looking game.  Interactive CGI isn't quite on par with Pixar animation, but it's getting pretty amazing.  I'm not a game designer, so I can't speak from the technical end, but when you're dealing with graphics this exquisite, it opens up the door to visual artistry, much like leaps in audio/visual recording have allowed filmmakers greater range of motion to create effect.  It's just easier to make a shot subtly reinforce a theme if you're not working with a square holding an arrow.

It's also a really amazing experience.  Proclivity to use redundant voice actors notwithstanding, Bethesda always goes the extra mile to make the experience realistic.  Accents are spot on.  The people watch you with what is (I'm sure) top of the line facial expression software.  Their A.I.'s are sophisticated and interesting.  I walked into the upstairs of a shopkeeper's store.  Usually this is the start of all kinds of nefarious mischief--you can only steal things successfully if you're out of sight.  Even games as recent as Fallout New Vegas, the act of going into the part of the house where the NPC isn't opens the door to stealing basically as much as your character can carry.  Not this time.  The dude followed me up, just to watch me, and make sure I stayed out of trouble.  Damn it!

But let me get on to story--even though I haven't experienced much of it.

A couple of things have jumped out at me already.

The Empire is very Roman.  The Empire in Elder Scrolls games has always been very Roman, but this time it's like extra Roman with Roman sauce.  The uniforms are straight out of the Imperial period including the signature curiass and the red and gold coloring.  They also start early by emphasizing their predilection towards lists.  (Romans were excellent record keepers.)  So right away, the game basically starts jumping up and down and screaming "These guys are the Roman empire!"

Which caught my attention because the very first scene puts you in a cart with a thief and the "one true king" about to be killed by Romans.  Subtle.  Subtle like a brick.

It's also interesting because you quickly realize you're in a Nordic land.  Tamriel has a lot of races, orcs and elves and kajit, and even four human races, but only two of them are obviously based on identifiable European cultures (the Bretons and the Nords).  There aren't really any "Redguards" in history (except for communist Fins).  The Redgaurds are sort of like Arabs, but more of a composite Middle Eastern, "other" sort of culture than discernibly from any particular group like Moors or Saracens.  I suppose "Imperials" could mean Romans, but they avoided a cultural name.  But the Nords in Skyrim are very Anglo Saxon in culture.  They have the Scandinavian accent, they have the sense of camaraderie outstripping friendship. (A guy says about you early on: "Not a comrade, but a friend.")  There is even a comitatus that you run into early on with a drinking hall and everything.  They like to sing songs.  I'm surprised they don't call the bards "scops."

Why is any of this important?  Well, for starters, I'm not sure that it is.  I'm only getting started, so this is just what I noticed and thought about.  The Bretons might culturally represent the historical Celts who knocked the expansion out the Romans, but the Nords...that's the Saxon culture from Scandinavia down into Germania that played a large part in the fall of the Empire.  So now we've set up the totally Saxons and the totally Empire.  And within five minutes you realize that they're in a grudge match.  The politics of Skyrim seem to be a powder keg of rebellion against the imperial rule.  (Something in which I'm sure my character will be the spark.)

Anglo Saxons are also the culture that basically brought us the dragon in the form we know it now.  There were poison breathing wurms and wyverns and stuff, but until Beowulf goes and slays the dragon in the third part of Beowulf, we don't really see the treasure hoarding winged lizard.  So when dragons show up basically immediately in the introduction of Skyrim, I draw connections to the more literary monsters.

I should explain that.  Some modern authors have used dragons basically because they're fun characters.  Big lizards who cast spells--what's not to love?  McCaffry would obviously be a prime example, and even the bad dragons in Dragonlance were generally thoughtful and motivated by complexity--to say nothing of the good dragons and their general apathy to the world burning until someone figures out where draconians come from and then it's "Oh no you DI' NT!"

But in literature, dragons tend to represent moral failings in the culture especially regarding corruption. If you read Beowulf, the description of the dragon is a decaying, corrupted creature that has grown huge and lazy on its hoard. The dragon represents age and decay, but more so, it represents the complacent greed that strikes at men when they get old and the fire of idealism no longer drives them and they begin to turn to materialism to live forever. Beowulf goes to fight the dragon when he's much older than the Grendel parts. HE is starting to be "that guy" in terms of getting comfy in his old age--which is probably why he can't defeat the dragon without Wiglaf.

And so there are often common threads when dragons show up in literature.

1- No one has ever seen one before. Whether they are thought to be myth or thought to have died out a long time ago, or they just got smaller and smaller until they stopped showing up like in The Song of Ice and Fire, basically everyone thinks they're gone...until they show up out of no where.

2-The society they plague somehow deserves it. While innocents certainly die to a dragon--even virginal sacrifices sometimes--something is always rotten in Denmark if a dragon cruises into town.

3- It takes someone extraordinary to defeat them, and often it is someone who represents the virtue that acts as foil to the corruption that the dragon represents.

If you think about this in context, it makes sense.  Our moral failings as a society are usually something we deny or say don't really exist or were part of our "ignorant past" until they are so big that they can destroy us. We don't know they're a problem until they show up and kill a (metaphorical) village. No one who claims a culture might be fallible is believed or taken seriously (just like no one who says they've seen a dragon). Our cultural failings harm us. And while they may claim innocents--often the naive--we mostly bring that destruction on ourselves. And it takes someone who can step outside of that continuing cycle of destruction (remember the first dragons always ate their own tail--perpetuating the cycle). Classically literary dragons are manifestations of these failings.

Along another line, there's a tradition in really really old literature of the "big" people leaving. The Bible calls them Nephlim, and in Beowulf they are people LIKE Beowulf who can swim underwater for hours and fight for weeks. But these big people are always on the way out.  Sometimes there are only a few left. Sometimes there's only one left. In Lord of the Rings Tolkin gave a nod to these early legends with the elves--vastly superior to humans in almost every way, but all going west. It's like a very important part of the story is that now man can't rely on legends--he's going to have to start making his own destiny. (Which is a good lesson--sitting around and waiting for Beowulf to come fix health care reform would probably not be a good plan.)

I mention this because it seems that in Skyrim (like its predecessors), I am such a hero. I have some dragonborn powers of Weirding way or some shit.  But mostly I can just kick ass and take names, even at level six. It's all very cool.

Dragons and "Nephlim-types" form an interesting chiasmus in many literary stories--notably Beowulf. They are foils. One is the great legends of the past that is leaving, the other is the sins of the past made manifest that has returned.

And in the end, they usually destroy each other.

Beowulf could not defeat the dragon alone. With all his power and his might, he wasn't enough. One of his men--Wiglaf--made the pivotal difference, and so that torch of cultural agency is passed from legend to mortal.

Anyway, I couldn't help but think of all this as I wander a countryside on the brink of a civil war that most innocents seem to think is a terrible idea, and the yoke of imperial rule has corrupted from something useful into religious dictates, and they don't even seem to be AWARE of the failings their culture has in governing Skyrim. Like Imperial Rome, the Imperials of Skyrim rule a people who do not want them there, have ignored their own moral failings as leaders, and have become corrupt. It all seems like fecund soil for the literary dragons to emerge, challenging Skyrim to pay for her sins. I wonder if my life's blood will be the final price to stop their rampage. Because THAT, would really go right back to the allusion of being with a thief and the "true king" on the way to be killed by Romans as the story opens...

As I played through the storyline, I wrote Part 2...


  1. Well done. Play faster!!

    1. Holiday madness is over. Maybe I can sit and have a couple of marathon sessions.

  2. Nicely done. Morrowind isn't as pretty (you'll need loads of mods to make it easier on the eyes) but I would love to see your take on it.