Skyrim: A master-class in historical simulation

Analysing the clever uses of history in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Bookshelves holding readable books in The Elder Scrolls V: Skryim

he Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is almost a full decade old. Praised to the heavens upon its release in 2011, many recent critics accuse it of being ‘a mile wide and an inch deep.’ Sure, they argue, there’s plenty of places to go, people to meet, and factions to join, but they all feel shallow.

There is one area, however, in which Skyrim still stands head and shoulders above most other open-world role-playing games: its in-game books.

Skyrim has over 300 books for the player to discover and read (excluding letters and journals) — some of which are carried over from previous instalments in the series. There are histories, religious tracts, polemical texts, travel volumes, poetry collections, novels and even a few smutty pulps. Cumulatively, they offer a whole extra dimension of narrative background for lore-hungry players.

As an historian, I am particularly impressed by the clever use of historical narratives and debates in these books. In creating Skyrim’s in-game histories, the developers clearly believed that books can be more than simply a vector for the conveyance of esoteric lore; they can also be important environmental story-telling tools that shed light on the distribution of power, skills, and resources in the game world.

Take the in-universe authorship of these books, for instance. Skyrim takes place in the northernmost region of Tamriel, a fictional continent historically dominated by the Cyrodilic Empire, which is locked in civil war with a separatist movement called the Stormcloaks. The Cyrodilic capital, the Imperial City, is the centre of Tamriel’s cultural and literary resources such as educational institutions, libraries, book stores, museums, and newspapers. It therefore makes sense that most of the history books the player might come across would be written by scholars from these Imperial institutions rather than local vernacular outlets.

The Nords of Skyrim primarily perpetuate their history through oral and bardic vectors. This creates a fascinating spatial divide between Nordic and Imperial narratives: If you want to know more about the Nordic side of the story, you go to a tavern and listen to the bard. If you want to hear the Imperial side, you search through bookshelves.¹

A bard performing in a tavern.

The developers understood that the Empire’s dominance over the written word could be used for propagandistic purposes. Some of the Empire’s library of texts, like A Brief History of the Empire and A Short Life of Uriel Septim VII, while written in a pseudo-objective syntax, are dripping with bias bordering on hagiography. Others, like the Report of the Imperial Commission on the Disaster of Ionith and The Talos Mistake, are skilfully-constructed official histories that shift the blame for political or military disasters away from the Emperor. These are both highly believable applications of historical narrative that parallel real-world scholarship. The player quickly learns that every book in Skyrim has an agenda.

Skyrim’s developers also successfully construct authentic historiographical debates between authors. In The Dragon Break Reexamined, the author, Fal Droon, blames ‘scholarly inertia’ for the continued popularity of disproved historical myths concerning Tamriel’s first emperor; another historian, Haspeth Antabolis, bemoans the emotional attachment of the ‘literate middle classes of the Empire’ to Marobar Sul’s fantastical volumes on the history of the Dwarves (which can also be found in-game). Again, these are believable professional grievances that add depth to the lore.

Many books do not specify which sources the authors rely on. It is heavily implied that most of them use textual sources held in official archives, for example, but others profess to having performed first-hand research by living among the peoples in question, particularly where those communities are indisposed to the written word. One such historian-archaeologist-anthropologist hybrid can be encountered in the Skaal village in the Dragonborn expansion pack.

Tharstan of Solitude in the Skaal Village.

The Skaal are a shamanic tribe of hunter-gatherers on the island of Solstheim, an icy northern clime similar to that encountered by Viking settlers in medieval Greenland. There the player can find Tharstan, an historian and author of the book Children of the All-Maker, a sympathetic account of the Skaal’s customs and beliefs. If the player asks him whether the Skaal mind being studied, he responds:

Well, not so far. They think I’m a bit strange, but they seem to tolerate me. In fact, they’ve been very accommodating. Hospitable, even. They seem happy to talk about their traditions and history.

This short remark points to an interesting backstory and begs questions about how Tharstan first introduced himself and his objectives to the non-metropolitan Skaal. It also explains Tharstan’s enthusiasm to work with the player — a fellow outsider. He asks the player to accompany him to a Nordic tomb with relevance to his work, where a series of puzzles and draugr (zombified Nords) await. We therefore get to experience first-hand the research methodology behind one of the world’s many readable books.

Another historian can be encountered in one of the cities of mainland Skyrim — Markarth. Calcelmo is author of Dwarves: The Lost Race of Tamriel, and the player can directly assist his research into the ruins of a great Dwarvern city lying underground.

Calcelmo in Markarth.

Calcelmo is an aloof figure who is initially rude and dismissive to the player. He refuses to grant entry to the ruins he is excavating or to his private Dwarvern museum unless the player offers help in clearing out the ancient mechanical sentries that are disrupting his work. He could be seen as an exaggeration of the stereotypical real-world archaeologist — jealously guarding his discoveries from prying eyes and academic poachers. Precisely the type of individual one might expect to find near the entrance to an ancient city in a world where artefacts are not protected by modern heritage laws.

If Tharstan and Calcelmo represent a hands-on archaeological/anthropological approach to historical research, Urag gro-Shub of the College of Winterhold is a more recognisable representation of an historian — a stuffy library-bound scholar. Urag, an Orc, is the librarian in Skyrim’s only magical institution, and serves as its go-to authority on magical history. His library is his baby. Damage his books, he tells you, and he will ‘have you torn apart.’ The player can receive quests from him to find rare and lost books which are themselves readable (though written in an illegible language). As a character, Urag is a reminder to the player that, no matter how many in-game books they read, there will always be esoteric knowledge beyond their reach. After all, a few hours of reading is no substitute for a lifetime of study.

Urag gro-Shub in the Arcanaeum (library) of the College of Winterhold.

For all the criticism leveled at Skyrim for being ‘a mile wide and an inch deep,’ the game’s historical books and characters display remarkable breadth and depth. The developers thought carefully about how the game’s factions might try to exploit and control historical narrative to advance their intrerests, meaning every text has a subtext for keen players to interpret. They also created interesting and believable historian characters whose work the player can discuss and contribute to.

In this regard, ten-year-old Skyrim still stands as a gold-standard for historical simulation in the role-playing genre.

Notes

  1. Bards in Imperial-controlled towns will sing songs favourable to the Empire. This co-option of indigenous culture for non-indigenous purposes is a tactic used by real-world colonial authorities.

Historian of modern Britain, popular culture, and queer identities. PhD student, trans activist, and Quaker from South Wales. She/her pronouns.