I don’t like it when people get into arguments over which is “better,” books or games. They’re so wildly different that it feels pointless even trying to compare them. There’s a legitimate argument (originally spearheaded by Roger Ebert) that video games shouldn’t be considered art in the traditional sense, that they are something more akin to a sport that you fully immerse yourself in. There’s also a legitimate argument against that, where video games are such a young medium and still evolving on a monthly, even weekly basis that it’s unfair to build such a stigma against them just because the current majority are built around a rule system where you can score points and “win” them.
They’re still storytelling mediums, though, whichever side of the fence you come down on. Sports can tell a story. The act of scoring points and winning is, in and of itself, a narrative arc to me.
Morrowind and Skyrim both hold a special place in my heart. I like the Elder Scrolls series in general, but those two have done a lot for expanding my mind. I grew up primarily playing strategy games and Japanese RPGs which a big emphasis on linear storytelling, making them more akin to a book with mild choose your own adventure overtones than anything else. Morrowind was my first step into more of a sandbox mode, and on top of that it served as a first taste into non-western fantasy storytelling. It takes place in the land of the Dunmer, the dark elves of the setting, and the creators went into the Dunmer territory wanting to draw influence from Egyptian, Japanese and various ancient Middle Eastern cultures without actually transposing one into the game. They came up with an incredibly fleshed out setting with these martial elves who lived by their own codes of ethics, where if you went into a situation expecting a resolution based off of your rules you could get yourself killed or imprisoned. More importantly they made many, many factions of the Dunmer. City-dwellers, recent converts to the ways of Imperial life who have accepted the “protection” of the Empire in exchange for giving up many of their traditions that clash with the imperial edicts. You have Ashlanders, various nomadic tribes who consider this a betrayal of everything that makes the Dunmer strong.
You have hundreds of NPCs caught in the struggle between these two broad views, and more importantly, they’re both right. In Morrowind, life does feel better under the Empire, but part of that is because they’re based heavily on the Romans, and that is familiar to us and makes the Imperial holdings feel like little pockets of western civilization in an alien landscape. The Ashlanders have a lot of good points as well, the Empire does feel like it demands more than it gives at times. This is a recurring theme of the faction throughout the Elder Scrolls; they are broadly the “good guys” but they are… well, Imperialists who are not afraid to get their hands dirty and exploit natives in colonized areas if they deem it to be for the greater good. Doubly so when the natives are not of human descent.
The Dunmer themselves are intensely xenophobic, have practiced slavery, and many of the older generations worship what the rest of the world considers literal demon lords. The younger generations worship the Tribunal, three “living” gods who ascended to godhood together and have their own agendas. Building clockwork universes, unraveling magic, peering past the veil of reality, sometimes working together and often working apart. Machinations within machinations. And this is just a fraction of the game, a bit of background on which an entire volcanic island has been built. I haven’t even gotten into the pack lizards, yurts, jellyfish public transit or other stuff that makes for such a unique experience.
That’s a lot of words about Morrowind for someone who wants to talk about Skyrim today. I wanted to lay down just how integral Morrowind was to me growing up before I dive into Skyrim, because on the surface Skyrim is much more of a traditional fantasy setting. Conventional, even. Straight up vikings.
Except it isn’t.
What I like about Skyrim, possibly even more than Morrowind, is how much they’ve hidden in the nooks and crannies. There are entire series worth of books in the game world to be read, and that’s just stuff you can collect and read from the safety of a tavern. When you get out there into the world there’s so much exploration it’s kind of mind boggling. I’ve played through the game with several characters and I’m still stumbling on new things every time.
If I had to compare it to a book, it’s like a straightforward viking adventure novel. But on every page, you can fold the paper out on certain sentences and find that they hide entire paragraphs, and sentences within those paragraphs then fold out to do more. You can walk past a viking crypt as scenery, or explore and find it full of ancient demon altars hinting at cults that, by the Imperial Record, should not exist. Poke a few stones near those and you might find a hidden passageway leading into a cave system filled with blind, cannibalistic elves. Fight your way past those and you could stumble into Blackreach, an abandoned city of amazing clockwork devices, artificial suns and spectral mushrooms, still patrolled by the bearded golems of a vanished race.
I like how these games make me think, how they inspire the creative portions of my brain to start sparking and lighting up. Part of that is just playing through as how I imagine my character would play through.
My first Skyrim playthrough was as a Nord barbarian with a giant axe. It felt kind of right, you know? It takes place in the Nord homeland, there are some cool ancestral ties going on there, it’s a tried and true narrative. It’s a “going home” story. When I played through as a Nord I ended up doing all of the dragonshout quests first because those seemed like the kind of thing a Nordic warrior would be interested in; discovering the secrets of great warriors past, not really caring about the civil war brewing in the background. He only joined in on that when he had to, to continue his questing with the greybeards and unlocking the most powerful dragonshouts so that he could confront the great wyrm attacking the Nord afterlife. There was a familiarity I imagined my character would have with the landscape and with the legends that came through in how he interacted with the NPCs.
Second playthrough I wanted to do something a little more magical, so I went with an Imperial combat mage wielding conjured weapons and throwing around destruction magic, and he dove headfirst into helping the Imperial Legion solidify their holdings in Skyrim, put down the rebellion, and then he worked on taking over the mages’ college before researching ancient spells led him down the path of the dragon language and the harvesting of dragon souls to power them. He became the prophesied savior after the fact because it was more realistic for him to advance the interests of his country and his art, being an intense patriot and practitioner.
I’m currently playing through as a Redguard, which is interesting because it’s the first truly neutral character I’ve done. Within the context of the story, the Redguards are really not a big fan of the Empire by the time of Skyrim, they used to be tight but they feel that the Empire gave in too soon to the elf nationalists who besieged them in the wake of the Oblivion gate crisis. The Redguard, being a very military culture, were able to repel the Aldmeri Dominion along the edges of their homeland for a long time and eventually drove them off. They split from the Empire, seeing them as weak allies who could have outlasted a prolonged siege instead of surrendering key aspects of their religion to the conquering elves (who, as it turns out, believe that the human race needs to be exterminated in order for the elves to retake their rightful place as rulers of the world).
So going into Skyrim as a Redguard, I really sat down and asked myself how and why this dude would find himself in a war-torn frozen wasteland with a bunch of factions he doesn’t have any personal ties to.
Merchant is an easy answer but flies against the idea of him being a master of the blade and shield, so I went with the idea of making him a smith. He’s on a pilgrimage to Skyrim because he hears that there are various magical forges dotting the landscape, some dating back to the dawn of the human race, and he wants to learn all the secrets of the agents. He signs up with a caravan and decides to use his military background to an advantage as a bodyguard, figuring that once they reach Solitude he can use the money earned to buy his way back into blacksmithing equipment and a decent horse.
His caravan gets caught in the middle of a skirmish between the Legion and the Stormcloaks, he’s one of the armed dudes and ends up on a prison wagon and the story picks up from there.
Coming into Skyrim as a Redguard character has been a really interesting exercise, because it’s so far removed from what other characters are going to experience, particularly other human characters. The Redguard, in kind of a weird plot twist, aren’t actually descended from the ancestor-race that gave us the Nords, Imperials, Bretons, etc. They’re from another island entirely, one that sunk long before the games and necessitated them to flee to Hammerfell and the surrounding regions. This isn’t even a visiting your forgotten homeland story, it’s stranger in a strange land. He’d have no ties to the culture, the history or anything else.
He does, however, know the importance of a tightly regimented military and the peace of law, so he knows he needs to sign up with one of the two factions ASAP. A quick trip to Windhelm, the Stormcloak HQ, shows that non-Nords live in abject misery and can be subjugated or even killed on a whim of any Nord living there. Our hero does the math in his head and hightails it to Solitude, where the Imperials recognize his use and outfit him with a full suit of heavy armor, a nice shiny new sword, and send him out to quell rebellions.
They are quelled without complaint, because when you’re a Legionnaire you follow your orders to the letter and with utmost efficiency, but you bet he’s been marking down every interesting tomb, crypt, town and temple while he travels. As soon as he finishes his tour of duty he’s going to be visiting all of them in search of the secrets of ancient smithing, of working dragonscales into armor, possibly of visiting the fabled Skyforge and the clan of warrior-mercenaries who have protected it for generations.
If he goes delving in the right (or wrong) ancient burial tomb, who knows what he might find? He’s already met the draugr and been very impressed by the quality of the weapons and armor they come adorned with, even if they have been left in damp crypts for hundreds and hundreds of years. The ancient Nords certainly knew their way around a forge, and some of the weapons still crackle with enchantment after generations of abuse, and that’s to say nothing of the strange runes he’s seen embedded on these structures. He’s certain he’ll learn something interesting if he keeps pushing through the darkness and braving the traps.
One other thing that playing a Redguard has done, relevant to my writing, is it’s gotten me out of my own head and into other cultures. Within The Elder Scrolls, the Redguard are typically portrayed as pre-Islamic Arab tribesmen, with many NPCs playing up the fascination with curved swords. If you look at the character creation options, however, there’s a lot to play around with and I ended up basing my guy on something more like a Moorish swordsman with some elements of the Ayyubid dynasty mixed in and trying to incorporate the Yokudan religion (which itself is like a weird mixture of bushido, hindu and dervish sword dancers).
This has necessitated a lot of research so I can properly get into the mindset, which left me with a bunch of notes I can incorporate into my own, uh, actual writing when I’m not throwing my free time into the void that is sandbox gaming.
I figured that a smith is probably not going to fare as well in a nomadic area so he probably would have come from one of the coastal, metropolitan areas of Hammerfell. Probably Old Hegathe, an area that had once been colonized by the Dwemer and one of the few regions outside of Skyrim and Morrowind where their technology is still buried but reachable. It also provides some cool ties to the Dark Brotherhood once they pop up, since they originally show up in texts from Hegathe and may have originated there before becoming an international organization.
Knowing what I do about the overall Skyrim plot, I think he’s going to build up a grudging respect for General Tullius once he realizes the old wolf is still a worshiper of the forbidden god, and that he only wants to crack down on this civil war nonsense so that the Empire can start preparing for a massive counterattack on the Dominion, which may draw the forces of Hammerfell back into the old alliance and renew those bonds.
Plus I refuse to believe anyone can play Imperial and not come away loving the General. He’s one of my favorite NPCs in the series and an example of how to write a really good character with three faces: the one he presents to the world at large (by the book officer), the one he presents in private (secretly admiring of the Nords and their rites and rituals even if he doesn’t want to admit it), and the one he is (a Talos-worshiping badass who just wants to steamroll these dumb, racist elves and get back to serving the throne). Don’t worry, General Tullius. I won’t let the Dominion take your eye.
In lieu of a book review today I’d just really like to point people towards this article that Kai Ashante Wilson wrote this week: The PoC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction. I have a huge amount of affection for Wilson’s work; Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is one of those books that changed the way I look at fantasy writing forever and something I have recommended at least twice to all of my friends, and the recent followup A Taste of Honey is something I want to write about in more depth next week, I’m still kind of processing the density of ideas he puts forward in the story before I speak about it beyond “it blew my mind, go read it now.”
I’ll try not to regurgitate the text of the article here and steal his words, but it’s all about coded regional, ethnic and class-based dialects and accents and how they can work for or against people in publishing. He ran into some real problems getting his work published originally because so much of it is… well, in his words, unashamedly black. It’s a dying earth society where PoC are the only ones around featuring a queer black transhuman with powers that put him somewhere between a god and a genetically engineered space marine, who has to shroud himself in mysticism and constantly hammer his own dialect down into something more easily understood by the commoners he has signed up to escort through dangerous jungle. Having a cast of characters who talk like lyrics from a Mobb Deep or Nas song felt jarring in a way that made me step back and question my preconceived notions and realize that it was only jarring because it was new, not because inserting contemporary dialect into a fantasy story was at all out of place. There’s plenty of stuff I read prior to that where I wouldn’t have batted an eye at modern slang because it was slang I grew up using or listening to in heavy metal.
It’s a really, really good article by itself. Definitely aimed at PoC but useful for anyone who wants to try writing outside of their comfort zone and incorporating dialect without making it come off as absurdly racist by tying characters’ ethical levels or intellect in to the slang they use. It reminds me of some of Nisi Shawl’s best essays in that way, particularly her Writing the Other manual.
Last time I will post about it, if you enjoy my word vomit on this blog and have a little cash to throw around, we’re coming to the end of our first week on the anthology and it’s stayed buoyed remarkably high in the rankings with even a few reviews right now. The feedback and word of mouth has been really great so far, more than enough to justify the months spent working on it (it’s a self published anthology, I know it’s not going to be a blockbuster hit and if I come away with getting money for a big bottle of spiced rum while Chris buys himself some fancy new boots in exchange for sharing the weird shit that pops into my head, then I’m happy) and we have a few more days to try and solidify it in that first-week boost that starts recommending it to people who read similar books on the market. This is basically tied in to reviews; if you review it and another author as 5s, when people go to that author’s stuff they might see us pop up and vice versa.
For those of you still reading it, I really hope you’re enjoying it.