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Elder Scrolls Online and the bird of paradise

19:0002/05/2014Posted by D+PAD Staff3 Comments

In 1526 a rain-soaked Portuguese captain, Dom Jorge de Menezes, shouted hoarsely into a monsoon wind, pointing at an island in the distance: a safe haven for his small but plucky vessel of exploration and the men on board. Days later, after some rest and respite, he named the island ‘Papua’ on account of the hair of its inhabitants (papua meaning ‘frizzy’ in the Malay language), and a new land edged its way onto European maps.

In May 2012, Bethesda Softworks LLC announced the release of Elder Scrolls Online. The game takes as its starting point the land of Tamriel, a large landmass in the fictional world of Nirn, about which little is known.

The people of Tamriel are diverse: Its hominid population made up of talking lizards, talking cats, elves, orcs and a variety of human races. The races are typically characterised by boons and shortfalls. The Redguards are ‘athletic’, the dark-eyed Bretons poetic and passionate, while the Nords evoke a bluff and blond-haired gusto.

The images and ideas of the dominant culture often filter the ways in which people approach the new. And the oceans of ‘the new’ are in perpetual discovery by the conquistadores of the modern video-gaming scene: Developers opening up possibilities, taking to the waves on technological platforms in a state of constant renewal. The Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game genre, in this way, comprises a new territory; albeit one first discovered in the early 1990s. Certainly the land of Elder Scrolls Online poses an undiscovered land, as a new set of interactions and experiences emerge from a new population (the players) that begins to interact with the mechanics of the game and the technology on which it rests. A culture will be created completely anew.

The land of Papua was claimed for the Spanish Crown in 1545 and, since then, the land has struggled beneath a neo-European yoke. The colourful plumes of the indigenous Bird of Paradise became popular in Europe as adornments for hats and the bird was hunted close to extinction. Many myths grew up about the bird, prompted by depictions of the east given in accounts such as ‘The travels of Sir John Mandeville’ and ‘The Alexander Romance’. The pseudonymous John Mandeville fleshed out the legend of the phoenix. Although he claimed to have located it in Egypt it was for this creature that the bird of paradise was initially mistaken. The creature was later believed to have originated in the ‘Terrestrial Paradise’ – the Garden of Eden as purportedly witnessed by Alexander the Great – and from this belief the name by which it is now known arose. The assumptions of western Europe were applied to the radically new, and so it was incorporated into that culture’s world picture.

Games such as Elder Scrolls Online can be said to comprise a vast untapped potential of sorts, and one which the explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries may have had trouble understanding. In the same way, however, we see the myths and simplifications of our dominant culture being hastily pasted onto the worlds and behaviours of the new. On a surface level Elder Scrolls Online (as with its predecessors) is characterised by a patchwork of Tolkien-esque tropes underpinned by a theology making more than a passing nod to the Lovecraft mythos. But in other senses the ideas of 21st century western culture have also been mapped across. The dubious ‘characteristics’ of the human races in Tamriel, for example, can be seen to reflect a range of knee-jerk prejudices redolent of our time. The free market, in Tamriel, is as much a part of the world as the weather systems.

Perhaps, though, this is all missing the point. The land of Elder Scrolls Online is, of course, only being discovered in a spurious sense. It is being developed by a software company, the main motive of which is to turn a profit. Video games have often looked to appeal to the highest number of people in the shortest amount of time, so perhaps it is unrealistic to probe and poke at the worlds filled out within them. Maybe, though, the next generation of such games might be more rewardingly explored with awe and a sense of wonder, and in the hope of discovering something genuinely new.

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