Skyrim Memories, Part 2: Digging in to the Backstory

In almost 1,200 hours in Skyrim, I have never played a Khajiit, Argonian, Orc, or any kind of Elf.

I don’t know what it means. I’ve just never had the urge to play a non-human. I have played an Imperial, a Nord, at least twice as a Redguard, and several Bretons.

A screenshot from Skyrim shows a Windhelm guard almost, but not quite, holding the hand of a Breton woman in thieve's armor.
“Is this guard trying to hold my hand?”

From a lore standpoint – oh, maybe I should explain that further, what it means to say something like “from a lore standpoint”?

The Elder Scrolls universe started out as a Dungeons and Dragons type of universe, with elves and orcs and humans and magic, but as it’s developed over the years, it has built on its basic Tolkein-esque High Fantasy foundations and has acquired an extensive and deep history.

Who Lives in Skyrim?

The basic humans have become several different races with their own cultures and special abilities. Nords, warriors from the cold wastes of Skyrim. Bretons, who are courtly and full of intrigue and may have a bit of Mer in their background. Redguards, desert nomads with a penchant for piracy and smuggling. And Imperials from the great human Empire at the starry heart of the continent of Tamriel.

The elves have differentiated into the Mer: Altmer, haughty, proud, and more than a little oppressive towards everyone else; the Dunmer, a reclusive culture that worship their ancestors and a triumvirate of demigods; the Bosmer, cannibalistic carnivores who live in mobile giant tree cities. And the Dwemer, who tinkered with magic and science and who conducted an experiment a thousand years ago that probably wiped the entire race out in a single swift mystical extinction event but left their ruins and artifacts laying around everywhere.

And then there are the “beast races”, the Orcs, the cat-like Khajiit, and the lizard folk Argonians, each with their own culture and history and spot on the map to call their own.

Environments Tell Stories

Shortly after becoming immersed in the game of Skyrim, I discovered that there was a lot of backstory I was missing, and, like any new fan, I would spend hours prowling the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Page and Elder Scrolls wikis, and read posts and threads on the Reddit group TESLore. Timelines, famous historical people and places, demigods and demons. It was endlessly fascinating to me, and the more I learned, the more I realized it was all reflected and expanded by material I found in the game.

So many books. In the game. If my character found a bookshelf, each book on the shelf could be opened and read. Some were in-universe fiction. Some were in-universe history. Plays, journals by explorers. Even erotica. It can all be found, read, collected. Some would start off quests of their own, tracking down a powerful weapon or rescuing trapped adventurers.

Bethesda, the company that writes and produces the games, is an expert in what they call environmental storytelling. In a dungeon you can find a journal that fills in what someone was looking for, and then a little further on, you find a body, killed by an unforeseen trap just inches from achieving their goal, and a story, with a beginning, middle, and end is told, economically. And this kind of thing happens over and over and over again. Without leading your character along specific path, you gain insight into the living world you’re adventuring in. It’s beautiful, and beautifully done.

Meaning From Small Scenes

One of the first examples of this that I found in the game, on my first character, was near the starting tutorial area. My character, out exploring, found a path that lead up from the road into the woods. The path led to a small underhang on a cliff face, with a statue of Talos, the founder of the human Empire who was worshipped as a god, and a shrine. And laying around the shrine were bodies labelled “worshiper”, dead, in pools of their own blood, wearing simple clothing, unarmored, weaponless.

Alongside those bodies is an Aldmeri agent, in his distinctive dark purple and gold robes, also dead. On his body can be found a note titled Thalmor orders, which explains that the Thalmor are rooting out, arresting and executing any Talos worshippers they can find. The note is signed by Elenwen, an ambassador who shows up later as a real NPC during the middle stages of the main quest.

A screenshot from a game shows four dead worshippers and a dead Thalmor agent at the base of a shrine to Talos.
The massacre of Talos worshippers

One dead Thalmor, four dead human worshippers, and a motivation gleaned from a small notes.

A player seeing this scene can make a choice. They can just loot everything and move on; those robes alone are worth a couple of hundred gold pieces. They can feel empathy for the worshippers. They can side with the Thalmor and feel disgust for the humans who think a mere man can rise to godhood, clearly a heretical thought. All of those choices are open, none of them have any direct benefit or effect in pure game mechanics. To a role-player, though, the scene gives a chance to insert their character into an ongoing narrative, and expands on the feeling that the land of Skyrim is a living one with lots going on.

Building Character

What did I do the first time I saw this scene? I can’t remember but I probably looted everything and moved on, tucking the note away to save it for my collection. But it moved me, and I felt a tiny bit of sympathy for the dead worshippers, and it motivated me to look more closely at this whole Talos crackdown. I was still new to this world and history. I didn’t know enough.

My reaction the next time I saw it, however, was through the eyes of a different character, a Nord who was returning to their homeland to fight the fascist Aldmeri Dominion and their Thalmor agents. I had a visceral reaction to it, and it shaped my new character’s story, motivating her to join the Stormcloaks under Jarl Ulfric in Windhelm, taking a side in the civil war tearing Skyrim apart.

Skyrim, more than any other game I’ve played, encourages that kind of role-playing. That’s the standard that leads people to put hundreds and hundreds of hours into playing.