Skyrim Obsession: Installation III: Narrative

Posted: September 17, 2013 in Academic, games, gaming
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The narrative in Skyrim is wonderfully complex. There are three narrative layers consisting of quests the player can choose to complete or not; the story created by the player’s actions in the gamespace; and narratives contained in objects such as books, diaries, and notes the player can choose to read or not read.

Undoubtedly a quest-based game, Skyrim’s main story arc is to defeat the dragon, Alduin, who has returned to Skyrim  to destroy the world. As the main character, you have the privilege of being the Dragonborn, a figure foretold in ancient prophecy. You get to speak in the language of dragons, and your power is the only way to defeat Alduin. This is not the only arc, however. One of the major sub-plots of the game involves warring factions that are on the brink of civil war over the power structure of the country. On top of this, there are literally thousands of quests, each with their own story.

Though games as a whole are beyond any traditional type of narrative such as the novel, the quests can be identified and related to them. To borrow Henry Jenkins’s terminology, quests are enacted narratives.  More specifically, they are spatial stories that can also function as micronarratives, which

[privilege] spatial exploration over plot development. Spatial stories are held together by broadly defined goals and conflicts and pushed forward by the character’s movement across the map [. . .] so that obstacles thwart and affordances facilitate the protagonist’s forward movement towards resolution. (124-125)

What is key about micronarratives is that they invite “intense emotional impact” and “shape the player’s emotional experience” (125). From a proceduralist perspective, each individual quest—each micronarrative—can be seen as a sort of unit operation (a process) that creates a more complex system (an arrangement of interlocking units), which is the overall story of the main character. The quests signify a breaking down of time and space that are then re-constructed to form a whole, or what Ian Bogost calls a Configurative Literary Space (159, 160). This suggests that Configurative Literary Spaces are not only enacted narratives, but also embedded narratives, wherein “the game space becomes a memory palace whose contents must be deciphered as the player tries to reconstruct the plot” (129). If the player is the director of her own experience, then playing in an open-world adventure RPG means that the story of the main character must be totally constructed from the narratives already embedded in the game. Quests, however, are not the only way to accomplish this. Any action the player takes in the game is a construction of the main character’s story.

Other than quests, there are also books, diaries, and letters that can be obtained throughout the game, and these constitute a pre-structured, embedded narrative. Many of the books explain the myths and history of the culture.  Some are written in tight poetic structure, while others are written in prose. Interestingly, some of the books the player can read are about events the player might remember—if she played them—as quests from previous Elder Scrolls games that have made it into the recorded history of Tamriel. According to The Elder Scrolls Wiki, there are over 820 pieces of readable material. Some of this material can be found while spelunking through dungeons for one quest or another. One example is a quest in which the player is directed to obtain an ancient and famed weapon. If the player reads the book found in the dungeon right before the boss battle, the player can learn about the bosses she is about to fight.  According to the book, the draugr (think ancient Norse berserker zombies) were once lovers.  One became ill and the other left to seek a cure.  When the cure was administered, the lover who found it was bitten by a snake and died, causing the lover who received the cure to commit suicide. Their story is finished with the player’s discovery of their tomb: they were buried together, they fight the main character together, and they die together for a second and final time. The book operates as a pre-structured, embedded narrative because it is placed as a prop in the mise-en-scene of the dungeon, waiting to be discovered by the player (Jenkins 126).

The narrative elements of Skyrim reveal much about the culture of the gamespace, making the gameworld more believable. These elements allow the character to create their own story out of the fragmented narrative units scattered across the map and embedded in the gamespace, creating memories and initiating emotional responses. As an author of experience, the player functions as an archivist of the gameworld, affecting the environment and creating a unique history. This is true even of multiple play-throughs, making open-world adventure RPGs like Skyrim extremely re-playable.


Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. (154-164). Print.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. (118-130). Print.


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