Now here’s a topic more people may know about – Bethesda Softwork’s The Elder Scrolls: a high-fantasy video game series set within the world of Nirn and its main continent Tamriel, in which nearly all the games take place. Now normally I’m a bit picky when it comes to video games I find exceptionally interesting, especially amongst the circle of the Role-playing game genre, but The Elder Scrolls stands out to me because of mainly one thing: the lore. Now since their first title, –TES: Arena – the initial world was laid down by the old Bethesda team members such as Ted Peterson,Vijay Lakshman, Julian LeFay and Chris Weaver; later members would come as the development for TES: Daggerfall, TES: Battlespire and TES Adventures: Redguard called for larger staff, but it wasn’t until TES: Morrowind that the scope really began to take off into the popular franchise that it is today. And it’s from Morrowind we come to encounter the work from Michael Kirkbride.
Now I can’t stress enough for fans or people who have played a TES game that Kirkbride isn’t the sole reason the games are as they are, that’s far from the fact, as video games are immense team efforts rivaling that of film production. So to praise one member for the result of the game would be unfair on all the other team members who toiled away on the project. No, Kirkbride’s work is more of a personal interest to me because of the way he brought a serious ambiguity and almost esoteric attitude to the meta-physical aspects of The Elder Scrolls universe. Don’t worry, I’ll try not to use those words too much.
What I like about Kirkbride’s approach to the world building of TES is the blending of mysticism and spiritual philosophy into the outer fringes of the seemingly concrete fantasy world. It works well for the kind of players – like me – that seek to explore the deeper aspects of the game, because with the physical depth, we are able to enjoy the richness of the open world setting alongside its plethora of characters and conflicts – but beyond that immediate presence we might begin to wonder about the world itself; the history; the science; the creation, why? This is where Kirkbride’s writings begin to entice us towards ‘the deep end’. Throughout much of TES:Morrowind, TES:Oblivion and TES:Skyrim you’re able to access a lot of in-game lore through characters, quests and especially books. And it’s these books that are an exceptional look into a world beyond the one you’re playing; books like Spirit of the Daedra and N’Gasta! Kvata! Kvakis! present to you a greater underlying narrative that is constantly being laid down into the foundations of the Elder Scrolls universe. Kirkbride takes this further with his development on some of the sketchiest parts of the universe: for example, the book Where Were You When the Dragon Broke? that was written in TES:Morrowind, was on part a response to the events of TES: Daggerfall in which multiple endings occurred due to Bethesda’s desire to facilitate player outcomes of the story, normally one of these endings would be declared canon and the rest dismissed, but what instead occurred was an in-game explanation known as ‘the Warp in the West’ in which all of these events occurred simultaneously. Where Were You When the Dragon Broke? is a development on this concept; the Dragon referring to the God of Time, Akatosh, and how the ending events of TES: Daggerfall were so powerful they disrupted the authority of Akatosh, momentarily breaking linear time. Now some of you would start to wonder that all this begins to feel terribly convoluted, it’s not what you remember in the main quests! And you’re probably right, delving into these texts probably invites a lot of confusion, and starts to undermine the solid foundations of the series’ universe. But to me that’s where half the fun is, because those who seek out these concepts will begin to see their presence within the surface levels of the game. Perhaps the most memorable concept of Time present within TES is within TES: Skyrim: in which you must expel the Dragon Alduin; if you had further done your research you would begin to recognise the terms ‘Dragon Break’ and ‘World-Eater’, that had been present in one form or another within the texts of the earlier games.
I really appreciate this sort of work on a universe like TES, where the scope is so daunting that to experience it all is only on the whim of the player. But the reward for undertaking such efforts enriches your experience with the game. The only issues I started to see, were with these lore texts written by contributors – including Michael Kirkbride – who had left Bethesda Studios, and the validity of their canon beginning to become a matter of preference and developer approval. I think the most glaring of these texts has to be the project, C0DA: an intended comic written by Kirkbride that takes place in the far future of the TES universe. The ambiguous and downright cryptic attitude to the narrative has led many people astray in terms of looking for an explanation (I personally haven’t given a read yet, as I was hoping to wait until I could enjoy it in the comic book form he had intended for it), however what I believe many have concluded is that it tries to explain the non-canon nature of the universe, making it easier for those to decipher their own reasonable interpretations of how the grand narrative is. This is something I find pretty interesting, not so much for the content but the idea of so much work and effort going into the narrative, I could dare even say it’s almost in reference to the grand religious texts of Abrahamic or Vedic traditions – the contribution of many to the greater narrative.
Anyways, I think it’s time to tone down. The short line is, I think the universe of The Elder Scrolls is a vast and complicated creation, and this in part can be attributed to the efforts of Michael Kirkbride and his many mystical revelations in the writing. I suppose I can only hope for those who played the series to maybe come back into it with a new appreciation for the world Kirkbride and Bethesda made. Also, for those who are familiar with the TES canon, be sure to check out some of his work on The Imperial Library, some of the extra writings on Vivec, Tiber Septim and Cyrus the Restless are quite interesting.