Skyrim: Special Edition is a mess. It’s full of glitches, and even if the base game offers interesting stories, the remaster misses the mark. The Elder Scrolls can do much better. In fact, it already has. Let’s take a look at the series at its best. Let’s talk about Morrowind.
People often praise Morrowind for intricate systems and its bizarre, vibrant world design. The main story can get lost in all the exploration and faction quests. But the story is actually Morrowind’s most important contribution to the series. It all comes to a head in one moment during the finale.
Be warned, there will be spoilers.
In Morrowind, you play as a prisoner sent on a quest to fulfil an ancient prophecy. Local legend claims that the reincarnation of an ancient elven general named Indoril Nerevar will return to the land to cast out evil. When you arrive on the continent of Vvardenfell, you find it ravaged by a plague. The source is Dagoth Ur, the one time adviser and confidant of… you guessed it, Lord Nerevar.
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Nerevar and his generals. The Tribunal Temple preaches that Dagoth Ur betrayed Nerevar by refusing to hand over magical tools that granted godhood. They claim that Nerevar died fighting him. Other accounts say that his advisers were the betrayers and Dagoth Ur fought against them.
The bi-gendered god Vivec was one of Nerevar’s generals.
To rally forces against Dagoth Ur, the player must be acknowledged as his reincarnation. They carry out various deeds and complete quests until local tribe chiefs and leaders of the Temple declare they are the second coming of Nerevar. Throughout this, the player never learns whether they are the reincarnated lord or not.
Eventually, you confront Dagoth Ur. He asks if you truly are Nerevar reborn. This moment is the moment that makes Morrowind great. There are a variety of answers to the question. You can declare that you are Nerevar. You can claim to be a loyal agent of the Empire. You can claim to be your own, self-made hero. Or you can say that you don’t know.
I guess I am the reincarnation? I dunno. Gosh.
Consider Skyrim. You are the goddamn Dragonborn. You have magic that no one else has. You are the legendary hero who will slay all the dragons. In Morrowind, it’s possible that you are some schmuck who got really lucky. The ancient prophecy might be little more than a lie or local superstition. And even if that were the case, it still might not matter.
This is getting into esoteric lore territory, but there’s a concept called “mantling” in The Elder Scrolls. The saying goes: “Walk like them until they must walk like you.” In completing the main quest, it is entirely possible that you acted like Nerevar so fucking hard that you became him regardless of the truth. Even when you make a choice to say that you are self-made, it might not matter.
RPGs often eschew ambiguity in favour of quests with clear villains and understandable motives. Ghaleon wants to be Magic Emperor and rule the world? We need to stop him. Valua is going to take over the world? Plucky sky pirates will save the day. These stories are emotionally resonant but that often comes at the expense of feeling reductive or elementary.
Dagoth Ur is also trying to build a giant mech. Don’t ask.
Morrowind doesn’t do that. In a single moment, the game’s narrative becomes infinitely more complex. The writing leverages intense metaphysical concepts that cast further doubt about the story. These rich underpinnings and bold player choices never survived the transition into Oblivion or Skyrim. The setting was sanded down, and the beautiful ambiguities were thrown away.
The Elder Scrolls often deliver grand stories of unambiguous good and evil. Armies clashing against each other, demon lords fighting bastard princes and dragon invasions. But the series works best when it plays with well-known fantasy tropes. Subverting the notion of the chosen one and undercutting the player’s journey as a hero was a bold decision. It helps make the setting interesting, complex and mysterious.
All it took was a simple dialog tree.