Novelisations are great for fleshing out stories. We’ve seen it in film since the early 1900s with Les Vampires and King Kong, making them nearly as old as the medium itself, while games have not only novelised their main stories, but expanded on worlds and characters with written spin-offs. During the early years of movies, novelisations were perfect because older films weren’t readily available at home – you couldn’t grab a DVD and stick it on before bed, so they kept the stories alive.
Retro games are no different, as many are trapped on old, expensive, and inaccessible hardware. Gaming hasn’t adopted this idea of preserving its stories through novels, but it should. Not every old game is going to be easy to remake, and not every old game will be recognisable if it is remade, but their stories are worth telling again.
Daggerfall has five different endings and each is canon, even if they contradict each other. That’s because of the Dragon Break, a convenient plot device that made everything that could happen, happen. It’s a globe-trotting adventure, but every modern Elder Scrolls bar Online has limited itself to one province. Then you have Morrowind, which is built around vague directions and purposefully untrustworthy characters, leaving you to puzzle together the story yourself – its world would be much smaller with a compass and quest markers.
Neither would be the same games in the modern day, but a novel can capture the tone and essence of each. Morrowind is full of horrible people treating each other like dirt, passing the buck as they wait for the world to end, whether that’s through Dagoth Ur becoming an immortal and laying siege with a golem powered by the heart of a god, an asteroid finally hitting the capital, or the volcano in the middle of the island erupting. No wonder everyone’s a nihilistic asshole, refusing to give you clear instructions. That could fuel the smaller moments, as the despair and confusion of being stranded in this new world, all alone and surrounded by selfish and hostile people with little care, becomes a part of the Nerevarine’s journey.
Beyond that, novels can breathe new life into a world. Daggerfall is procedurally generated, so everything looks the same. There’s no depth or uniqueness, each city a copy of the last, with giant sprawling fields in between that are empty and barren. A novelisation could make each city its own character, adding to each province’s culture by unpacking the smaller details. What goes on in the back alleys? How does a Daggerfall Keep differ from an Orcish stronghold? What secrets do the ancient crypts the Worm King’s subjects lurk in hold? These are all things we don’t get to see, but could in a novel that has room to explore without the restrictions of tech.
I love Morrowind’s world. It’s a far cry from the high fantasy of Oblivion and the generic Viking culture of Skyrim, drawing from Egyptian mythology and Arabic cultures, with alien fauna like giant mushrooms dominating the land. There are no horses, so Silt Striders – giant bugs – carry people to and from cities, and the Dunmer are coated in a permanent layer of ash because their ancestors scorned the Daedric gods so many now worship. Daggerfall’s actual world is less interesting, mostly because of the tech limitations and the obvious high fantasy inspirations like The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, but its story is one of TES’ most bonkers. You’re tasked with finding a missing letter sent to the Emperor, only to find that several high profile people, from the leader of necromancers to the Underking, are vying for control of an ancient Dwemer artificial god. And they all succeed, even if none of them do.
These stories are TES’ most experimental, but so many TES fans have never experienced them. That could change if only they were made readily available with novels, something so many other games already do. Reducing them to nods in later games or summaries in in-game texts is hardly what they deserve – they could easily be fantasy epics in their own right.
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