Form is Content — The Lost Game Mechanics In Morrowind
I have been spending quite a lot of time this past month thinking about writing. In writing, so many philosophies proliferate about what “good writing” is, what the difference is between fiction and “literary” fiction, and over the years there has arisen a great many literary theories that have brought about awakenings and disruptions. I will not try to educate too much on these theories, but I would like to take all this thinking about literature I have done and try to apply it to video games. Recently I have entered a rut in video game playing, and instead of wallowing in that mood, I thought I would try and analyze just what it is exactly I am looking for. And so at last the two cases became one case, and now I believe my problem circles around the idea that “form is content.”
I say “my idea” because it seems like video games are doing just fine without me. Few people seem to be totally dissatisfied with the medium of gaming, if only for the reason that people keep playing them. I understand that “playing” is not the same word as “enjoying,” and maybe, like me, you also happen to be a person making it work with games you’d rather not be playing. All those fans of games like Destiny or other massively multiplayer games likely have a better claim to that idea than I do. For now, I find it so bizarre that many of the games I grew up on have little to no place today. One may suggest that this can’t be true. If anything, sequels to video games is ALL we play, so surely some intellectual property made the leap from the 2000s to the 2020s? There are those to be sure, but many of these titles have changed so drastically from their predecessors that they can barely be recognized. I do not play the Assassin’s Creed series, but one wonders how many assassinations in a traditional sense actually take place in the recent Valhalla? Will Halo Infinite include a grapple mechanic? And there are those deep in the recesses of gaming who may love the original Demon’s Souls, but find this newest update from Bluepoint Games to be irksome. Are we to shrug our shoulders at how change destroys as much as it creates? Do old gamers like us have a leg to stand on when it comes to a changing and cheapening climate?
I think we do, but it takes some great work by gamers to critique in a way that gives us that sure footing. I have been spending plenty of time watching YouTube content creators like PatricianTV and NeverKnowsBest who have done just that, particularly for one of my favorite games of all time, The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. Most of their work elevates the conservatism over the series into something like effective condemnation for what is actually happening to the Elder Scrolls series. Both have taken deeper looks at the recent titles, Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim, in order to produce comprehensive opinions that, though much longer, help to educate gamers on how to put a language to their discontent. In that guise, I’d like to help take some of their points and broaden them by applying the “form is content” mantra from literature into gaming. To do so will require some explanation first from book reading, before applying them onto the immersive worlds of gaming, in particular the Elder Scrolls series.
Form in Painting and Writing
Form and content as ways of separating art is not a new idea, and certainly did not come from me. Form exists as the material that makes up the image or the story. In painting, we could say that form is color, shape, line, light, and other facets that all paintings need and few paintings share. That is because the idiosyncrasies of the painter often govern how the form differs from one another. A Jackson Pollack is no Rothko, though both worked in Abstract Expressionism. A Jackson Pollack is definitely not a Monet. The content arises from form, and is the subject-matter of the painting. Picasso’s Guernica relies on cubist forms to bring out the notion of the fragmentation of total war that arose from our industrialized fighting in the 20th century. In order to wonder if the Mona Lisa is in fact smiling, a painter must produce an illusive face. It is not that either of these two facets of painting exist independently, but they both rely on each other to produce something we might say is “cohesive” even if the painting is the most postmodern collection of styles and substances.
Painting is an easier beginning to the discussion of form and content, but it might at first glance seem harder with writing. Isn’t all writing simply content? Well, not exactly. There are content words, but there are also function words, simple words like prepositions and conjunctions and gerunds and all sorts of ways of using infinitives and articles that make up the form of a writer’s writing. In fact, a great deal of our writing, the majority even, is made up of these function words. It is one of those aspects of reading that we have forgotten. If you are reading this right now, you are likely literate enough to glide over these functional words without a second thought. A toddler must reconcile simple techniques like phonemes, to more complicated aspects of writing like vowel digraphs and irregular vowels. But for adults, we become so good about function words that we forget them entirely. This allows us to focus on content words.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
-Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address
Looking at this famous speech, when we consider the amount of proper nouns, those which conjure a particular subject-matter, we find startlingly little. The repetition, the lack of contractions, the brevity of the speech in the face of the massive lives lost at Gettysburg, the use of those same religious leaning words seen in our Bibles as signposts, like “shall” repeated over and over again, that is where our American truth lies. The alliteration of “poor power” and “world will” helps to spur along our steps in between that repetition, and the transitions of words like “neither” and “nor” and the prepositional phrases collect a massive authority. “For us” and “to be dedicated” and “to the unfinished work” rather than “new nation” or “Liberty” are the moments that matter more.
So, if writing is largely made up of function words, it stands to reason that many special writers focus not on what is happening in the story, but in how the story is told. For many writers of bestselling fiction, there is a verisimilitude to the writing that is comfortable for how familiar it is to other writing, whether it is journalistic, or action-packed, or riddled with big verbs that express a great deal of emotion and heartache. When certain readers are looking for escape, they want that spectacle. But when it comes time for discussing what is literary, we have the dual problem of trying once again to pay attention to how the story is told, which our minds have gotten so good at avoiding that we almost have to unlearn. The truth of the matter is that many books we call literature are ordinary in their word choice.
Several established living authors, the ones I love today, often discuss the phrase I am about to try and explain to you now. Karl Ove Knausgaard is careful to mention, whether it be as part of the “Why I Write” series with his contribution Inadvertant or in a Louisiana Channel interview, that literature is “making a space to say something meaningful.” That space does not necessarily arise with what we assume to be content, i.e. the plot, characters, the story, or the dialogue. No, it is the form of the writing, what kinds of words are used, how long or short the sentences are, the pressure of the vocabulary, in particular the verbs, and how often adverbs are included.
When one stops to think about this paradigm shift, it becomes a little more obvious. Many of the stories since antiquity are simple human tales. Of war, betrayal, love and passion, yet it is the method in which it is told that produces beauty or resonance. When David heard that his son Absalom was killed by his own soldiers, he wept. “Would God I had died for thee!” he says. The King James Version exceeds many other translations for its beauty in the telling, thanks to the painstaking effort of those who translated the Bible from the Latin at their own peril, and who burned alive before having the translation adopted as THE work of Christendom a short time later. Nobel winners and Pulitzer prize winners and National Book Award winners will occasionally offer strange situations to their readers, but more often than not, what is strange is their style.
Style may seem like an invisible entity, but it is everything in literature. All we have to work with is the flattened words inked on parchment, arranged linearly for the conversion to thought for the reader. So form, what words are used, MUST therefore be the content in some way. The best writers out there, the ones we force history to keep track of, are the authors who were able to make the content of the book rise up from the text, and exist somewhere in between itself and the reader. No one reader has read Moby-Dick and felt the same thing as another, for the reason that the book’s intimidating density swirls with metaphor, existential questions, and comparisons between whale and world, that cannot be avoided for long. The mind MUST produce meaning, and it has no choice but to be different than one’s neighbor.
Form in Gaming
We have spent a great deal of time with form and content. Video games have their own form as well. For the enlightened, the code of the game is the ultimate form. Sean Murray of Hello Games (the makers of No Man’s Sky) has said in talks and interviews that he loves maths, and is most interested in game engines. This is a man who is obsessed with form, and as a result is one of a handful of game makers I follow. Engines produce outcomes that cannot occur in other engines. Sure, there are game developing tools like Unreal and Unity that try to streamline the system for those apprentice artists, coders, and engineers, and there is plenty that is good for gamers in democratizing the medium. But before I move on, I feel I need to say that a game’s engine determines, at times, its content. One recent example would be the move to the Frostbite engine for Mass Effect: Andromeda. What kind of game did THAT make? One that had better combat perhaps than any other previous Mass Effect game, but one that also broke the storytelling beyond repair.
A step up from that, and the one that will take up the majority of this section, is mechanics. These are the methods that a player uses to manipulate a game to serve a desirable function. These dictate the gameplay, as well as conform the world to serve the function in a way that is pleasing to the player. However, what becomes lost in that trade-off is very similar to the way it is very difficult to speak to those function words in reading. It may seem at first glance as though everything remains stable despite a new mechanic. But in reality, each one dramatically alters the way a game is played. What is more, the change is reciprocal.
In the Elder Scrolls series, an easy start to our critique of the later games, and a first step towards applying our new concept, would be to analyze a mechanic that most players easily recognize as a misstep in the series. In Morrowind, if a player wanted to “fast travel,” meaning to transport their character immediately from one destination to the next, rather than spend that time on foot, the player had a handful of options. Each of these options, whether it is on land with the silt strider, by boat, or through some teleportation with assistance from a mage, or teleportation by ourselves with the “Mark” and “Recall” spells, was embedded into the world. It existed as part of the way the world worked, and was just as important for storytelling as its function. In the later Elder Scrolls games of Oblivion and Skyrim, the player may instantly fast travel with a click on the map to any previously visited destination. What is worse, if it comes to major cities, a player may travel there without having discovered it at all, as was the case in Oblivion. NeverKnowsBest astutely described a scenario where the Imperial City, the flagship of the game, could be teleported to for the first time, rather than by foot. This kept the player from crossing the massive bridge that revealed the central tower, producing a scenic memory for the player in the future. Fast travel atomizes the experience.
One counterargument from all this could be, “Just don’t use fast travel.” But now that we know “form is content,” we know better. If it was that simple, there would not be the complaining from the Elder Scrolls fans of the past. In Morrowind, because fast travel did not exist from the inside out, from the player, the game’s island of Vvardenfell had to be meticulously crafted with space, geography, and nodes in between towns, because they expected a player to have to navigate. As a result, these nodes and towns are not equidistant at all, but present challenges that a player must cognitively interrogate before setting out. Does it really make sense to run past the Ghostgate that closely before journeying Northeast? Or should I take a boat to Khuul and hug the northern coast instead? And rather than have equally spaced out dungeons, as well as having many more of them, many of the dungeons and tombs or Morrowind, though fewer, are far more crafted towards an experience that aligns with story, place on the map, as well as a context for why it exists at all.
The Elder Scrolls series has suffered the same fate as Ubisoft worlds. We as gamers know to some extent that every game is only running the part of the map we happen to find ourselves in. But like, I suppose, No Man’s Sky, each selection of 500 meters feels very similar to other selections in Ubisoft and, now, Elder Scrolls games. We can be sure in Oblivion or Skyrim that random encounters may occur with NPC’s on the way to our destination, or that certain enemies may arise. Where cities are placed, where farms exist, where NPC’s wander in these places, seems not only similar, but totally devoid of the character and differences as Morrowind. Morrowind is described repeatedly as alien, but it is also alien in myriad ways. The differences between a Telvanni tower and the Redoran community of Ald’ruhn are so many as to make them feel like different parts of the map, because they are. Sure, there are different locales in Skyrim that makes the map feel somewhat variable. Oranges instead of greens, but it has no comparison to Morrowind. In simply making the first walk from Seyda Neen to Balmora, which is shockingly small in both Vvardenfell and modern day terms of game map size, one notices a distinct change from swamp to grassland biomes, one that would take Skyrim many more thousand square feet to pull off. It is not just believability that fast travel affects, but the density of spaces as well. Wouldn’t it be better, as literature has learned, to take a lesson from the density of poetry? The same holds true for the Elder Scrolls series. We have largely solved the problem of space in video games. There now exist games like Minecraft, which are so large as to make the concept of space redundant. What we need is a return to density. Players must demand smaller spaces with far more intention in what they represent, how it relates to itself, and how it creates aliveness for the player. Removing fast travel helps to realize that.
The next form that we should discuss is the differences between text and voice acting. How information is delivered to the player matters a great deal in a game like Morrowind or Oblivion, games where clearly the combat is not the central feature of the game, but worldbuilding. Voice acting may be easier on the player, but it is not better. When a person reads a book, or reads text, they do so in their own voice. This creates a link between the body of text and the artifact, whether it be a book or video game. As a result, it builds a kind of empathy for literature, but in games we could say it helps to build a world inside of the player’s mind. Voice acting has the words displayed to the character in siloed format, in a linear way from line to line, that lacks the context of something like Morrowind’s encyclopedic subject tab. It is the difference between, say, traveling to a destination, and traveling to Disneyworld. Disneyworld, though it contains many rides and whirligigs, is established for the patron, so there is hardly any discovery. Reading text is bringing ourselves to a place in a way that Disneyworld can never be.
But it is not just a difference in degrees of the relationship between player and game, it is also something far more intangible. People may deride Morrowind’s subject-based tabs as being sterile, but it excels in world building. At all times, because of this subject system, a player comes to learn of the many disparate problems of the Morrowind world. Corprus disease, the Red Mountain, Dagoth Ur, Imperial colonialism, as well as local squabbles. One might at first glance think that this is also true of Skyrim, but the amount of information, and where to find it, is not as universal. Each character only has certain tabs worth investigating for voice acting. That may be true of text in Morrowind, but the resultant cheapness of writing, compared to the robust cost of hiring voice actors and directing them to perform the lines with the right tone, means that far less is available for a player to scrutinize. When starting up Morrowind again recently, I found Seyda Neen to be bursting with personality, from many different characters, who offered rumors of disappearances and strange tales both up close and far away. To me, the sterility of voice acting is far more upsetting than anything the text can provide. It comes down to a question of what is better feeling as a sacrifice. As humanity has grown socially with speech patterns, do the stilted and rigid conversations of Oblivion and Skyrim outperform Morrowind? And furthermore (this is the better question) does voice acting better work towards what Bethesda hopes to make with their RPGs, which happens to be a robust and dense world? Hardly. The form of text over speech embellishes everything in Morrowind. Will a player read it all? Some might, most don’t. But knowing it is there provides so much for us to chew on.
The Elder Scrolls VI seems just as far away a project as when it was announced. On the one hand, the series could return to its arcane roots, as we already have a more accessible method for the world of Tamriel in the form of The Elder Scrolls Online. There, the quests are voice acted, and the combat is in the better context of a third person view, which allows for a wider understanding of attacks and outcomes. But for those dedicated to the singleplayer experience, Bethesda would do well to take the forms of their series that produced the most memorable roleplaying moments, and many of those center around Morrowind’s world. But the trajectory of these games would indicate, all things being a straight line, that despite the solvency produced by its purchase from Microsoft, we might see an even more drastically hedged experience. That the world might be “the biggest handcrafted world in gaming history” Todd Howard says, to the delight of fans who have no idea what they want. All skills in combat, stealth, and magic will be congealed into a massive grid of perks, producing constellations of tedium disguising themselves as meaningful growth. And while the gameplay offers itself to be upgraded the most, the compelling reasons for exploring the world will seem more difficult to defend. That is because Bethesda assumes that “content” is the word worth pursuing, forgetting that it is the form these experiences take that determine our response. It is the space in between the notes of music, it is the feeling from the player that matters more than what happens on the screen. Anyone who sees Morrowind now might speak to how ugly it is. But fans of the game know that its charm exists in the imagination, in that feeling as a child that I had of having to go to bed and not being able to sleep. The strange words I had to digest in middle school; Nerevarine, Sotha Sill, Almalexia and Vivec, the Daedric statues beyond the public eye either on the East at dawn or on the West underwater. If developers understood the stronger power of form in their workflow, perhaps there might be a future for the computer roleplaying games we came to love in the 1990s and 2000s. Until then, we dream.
Originally published at https://theroyleline.blog on May 30, 2021.