The Elder Scrolls series is rife with this sort of historical revisionism. But let’s focus more on the most recent entry: the exceedingly popular Skyrim.
Skyrim sets the clock farther ahead than any of the previous four games. Four hundred years after the events of Oblivion, the Empire is no longer what it once was. The Imperial Legion and a band of rebels, the Stormcloaks, have thrown the province of Skyrim into civil war. Players who’ve been part of the Elder Scrolls series for a while might be intrigued to discover that they’re now a part of history.
The civil war itself can be viewed as a debate between rival factions over the historical record. The Stormcloaks consider themselves faithful to Talos – the oath that you swear to the Stormcloaks calls on Talos by name. But “Talos” is the divine name for the first Emperor, Tiber Septim, in whose name the Imperial Legion fights. The war between the two is a feud over the legacy of Talos – what would the god-hero of mankind wish if he were alive today?
Other examples abound. In the first four games, Stendarr was the Imperial god of righteous strength and mercy. In Skyrim, however, the Vigilant of Stendarr wander the countryside and hunt down Daedric cults. The Mythic Dawn were a secretive cult that slew the Emperor in Oblivion; in Skyrim, they’re a quaint historical memory, preserved in a museum in Dawnstar.
Even the stories of the creation of the world differ, with humans and elves having different takes, according to in-game text. This is something of a rarity in the fantasy genre. Even if the characters in The Belgariad don’t know how the world was created, the author does. Ever since Tolkien and The Silmarillion, consumers of the fantasy genre have come to expect a certain knowability in their fiction. There’s no alternate narrative that says no, Melkor was really trying to liberate the Elves from Valar tyranny by destroying the Two Trees of Valinor.
This isn’t to say that plot twists revealing deeper truths are foreign to fantasy video games. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is a prominent example, with a mid-game plot twist that throws all of the backstory into a different light. But that’s a very personal plot twist that tells you (the player) something different about yourself (the character). Elder Scrolls plot twists, such as they are, tend to tell you something different about the world a thousand years ago.
The Elder Scrolls series is also distinct in how much of its backstory is revealed through supplementary texts. You can make it through the entire game without reading any of the historical texts you find tucked on various bookshelves. Elder Scrolls is far from the only RPG to build out its universe this way, but I personally find the in-game text in Skyrim far more compelling than that of Dragon Age.
(In fact, the only series I’ve played that matches it for literary quality is Deus Ex, the latest incarnation of which I have on my shelf at home. I haven’t opened it yet, as I’m still busy with Skyrim)
I’ve written before about the next evolution in storytelling through videogames and I think the Elder Scrolls series is a forerunner in that direction. After games where none of your choices matter (platform games) and games where only your choices matter (sandbox games), we now have games where only your beliefs matter (interpretive games). You can play through the infamous “No Russian” level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 by either shooting civilians or not. The level ends the same either way: your character gets shot in the head. The only variable is you: whether the slaughter of civilians shocks you, thrills you or leaves you a desensitized lump.
Similarly, your choice to play Stormcloak or Imperial – or to even take sides in that fight at all – says more about your interest as a player than your choices as a character. Both sides have similar missions: rescuing fellow faction members, capturing forts, laying and breaking sieges. Both sides have opportunities for warriors, rogues or magic-users to cause havoc. While completing either quest produces different outcomes, the game world will still be largely similar. All that changes is you, the player.
There is no definitive text that says which side is right: whether the Stormcloaks truly have the right to rule Skyrim, or whether the Imperials are the only hope for peace and prosperity. You have to make that call on your own as a player. In doing so, you’re engaging in historical revisionism of your own. In the hundreds of years prior to the start of Skyrim, were the armies of the Septim Empire a force for good or oppression? Are the Nordic traditions a source of pride or a dishonorable throwback? Your answer to that question – and you can find texts in game to convince you of either – determines the side you choose.
The opportunity to reinterpret history, though not rewrite it, puts Skyrim (and the rest of the Elder Scrolls series) in a rare place among games. It calls into question the role of you, the person holding the controller. Are you a player in a game or the author of a narrative? Skyrim has enough sandbox elements that it challenges the historical definitions of a “game.” There is no stopping point: there’s a main quest that you can complete, but the action keeps trucking after you finish. The “game,” if we can still call it that, continues until you set down the controller, just like a manuscript remains stable until you pick the pen back up. And when your actions shape the course of empires – empires that are documented either in the words of people you talk to or in books you find lying around – there’s a strong drive to leave that manuscript on a solid ending.
(Anyone else play through Morrowind, then pick up Oblivion, hear a rumor that the Nerevarine had headed to Akavir, and say to themselves, “I did? Er, I mean, he did?”)
Of course, in a game that’s rife with such historical revisionism, your enthusiasm to direct the path of history might be dampened. Who’s to say how future generations will remember you? After all, everyone you meet in Skyrim mentions how the Third Era ended with the death of Martin Septim, the last of the Dragonblood Emperors. No one mentions how your Redguard clad in enchanted daedric armor took on an army of dremora and even got in a few good licks on Mehrunes &$#@ing Dagon. Perhaps the Elder Scrolls are meant to encourage cynicism, not optimism.
Either way, by presenting a world with such rich history and giving players extensive option to make their own path in it, Skyrim forces us to reconsider our roles as game players and storytellers.