Skyrim is a game about words.
Full disclosure up front: I am not a big fan of Skyrim as a game. I don’t really want to play it, I never really thought it looked interesting to play, and despite owning it on two platforms (how the hell did that happen), I think I’ve sunk maybe fifteen minutes into the game itself. The opening few minutes of Skyrim are so fantastically badly made for getting me engaged I have found it actively more interesting to put the entire game in a box and kick the box down hill.
The game is definitely an ‘important’ game of its generation, a sprawling and vast play space full of not-quite-procedurally-generated-in-that-way nooks and crannies to explore, and its bigness can make it challenging to talk about it in terms of what it’s, well, about. And how much can you trust my opinion on regarding what matters about the game, since I have not, as I said, played it, and do not want to?
I’m going to take a shot anyway.
I say that Skyrim is a game about words, but what kind of words do I mean? I criticise the opening for its use of words – it introduces a half-dozen proper nouns, without meanignful context. It tells you these words are meant to be important, and it uses that importance to drive your situation. You were involved, in a thing, with those people, in the place. Does it mean anything to you right now? Not if you don’t know what those words mean.
Then you learn the meaning of the words, and you’re accused of treason, of having the wrong allegiance in a war, a crime that is itself imbued with power because of the weight we put on that word. Then you make your way out, are bestowed with an important name, another important word that you are given in another language, and begin the task of aquiring other words, the words of the Dragon’s Speech, all in a quest to find the words that let you fight the dragon-god that represents the end of the world. Alduin even criticises you for daring to use those words, that you are not worthy of them, because you do not understand the words you use.
Skyrim is a game that was, when it first launched, proud of the sheer volume of writing involved in it. It is full of books, and those books aren’t just little tokens with summaries, but actual objects with text in them, text you can read or not read. Some books give you power. Some books give you unique insight into things. There are stories and lore and names and central to all of it is that for all the shouting and stabbing, in the end, what makes this game matter is words.
Word I – Shibboleth
This is a word that’s really well known to people who took notes during sermons, a beloved term amongst the actually doctrinal Christian. The story around them is that at one point, the Tribes of Israel had to identify groups of people based on where they grew up, for reasons that were definitely about spies and not at all about racism, and so they asked them to pronounc the word ‘shibboleth.’ The idea was that only people in the in group could pronounce it right, and lords, there’s a lot of uncomfortable things bound up in that story.
Since then the term shibboleth became part of the Christian lexicon to refer to an incontrovertible sign of who someone really is that they can’t help show you. Shibboleths are things invoked often by the kinds of Christians who just mysteriously have very firm, very negative, opinions on borders and immigration.
There’s a similar idea that was popular in England during World War 2, where native German speakers had difficulty pronouncing the English word ‘squirrel.’ How true that idea is isn’t something I can speak to, but it’s the same idea.
There’s also a third, much more concrete version of this. There’s this Vietnamese name – a very common one that we romanise as, Nguyen. Now, I can’t pronounce that correctly. I’ve tried a lot, but it’s very hard to even tell what I’m getting right or wrong. There is a foundational component of the way my brain handles words, the way I’ve been trained, that lacks the tools for this word.
The idea under all these is the same: The way you relate to the language you use is part of who you are. Or, simpler, there are Words that show who you are.
Word II – Legomenon
It’s not a word that explains itself, but the term legomenon is a word we use to refer to rarely used words. Specifically, the word is used in the terms Tetrakis Legomenon (a word used only four times in a body of text), Tris Legomenon (a word used three times), Dis Legomenon (twice), and hapax legomenon (once).
I learned of hapax legomenon from the Bible, the story of Shamgar, son of Anath. Fans of my work (are those real?) may know that I wrote a short story about this character, about how stories that are told differ from the stories that are lived. In the Bible, the story of Shamgar is barely two full verses – it just mentions that Shamgar killed a lot of people, and he did it with an ‘ox goad.’ The word used in the Bible for an ‘ox goad’ is literally the only time that word shows up, which for a book so full of pastoral stuff is a bit weird.
Now, it’s possible it’s just a slang term or a unique version of a story or a loan word or whatever. When I conceived of the story I liked the idea that the word for it was unique because it wasn’t clear what the thing was.
Skyrim posits the idea that the language of dragons is something inherent to them. That dragons just naturally use this language full of power, and that for everyone else, it is something they have to try and learn. You learn these words by finding word walls, specific locations, then you activate those words with dragon’s souls. These words are not redundant either – you will find each one of these words, once.
Then, each word will change you.
This is something language does to you and often in ways we don’t think of as having happened at all. You might not have known the term hapax legomenon before just now, and you might not think you’ve changed much. But if you didn’t, there’s a clear dividing line; you before knowing, you after knowing. What’s different? Not much, but now there’s something different.
The words you know change who you are.
Word III – Lacuna
In English linguistics we have this term to refer to something that’s a missing word that the rules of the language allow for. We call the gap a lacuna, a space where a word can be, but there isn’t really one. Sometimes this is because the word is so old we forget it, like effable. Sometimes it’s because a more common word is doing the same job, like thief making the word stealer unnecessary. Despite the way the language works allowing it, calmity isn’t a word and calmness is.
Where your language has gaps, you have limits on what you can talk about. You have limits on what you can be. One area this becomes obvious, for example, is how English doesn’t have a common gender-neutral word for ‘aunt or uncle.’ It doesn’t have a common word for ‘assigned male at birth.’
I grew up in a space where words were controlled. Some words were hidden and some words were never defined. These gaps in our language were made, were punched into the surface of my reality, in the hopes that not having ways to talk about these things or think about these things, we could keep these things from being true. We were taught some ideas were profane, that knowing some words was a kind of sin, and that thinking some thoughts was as bad as doing them.
In Skyrim, by keeping the words separate, by creating gaps in the words that exist, the game can control what you even think of as possible. At some point playing this game, you find a word that doesn’t relate to anything else you have, doesn’t interact with the words you already have, and you’re suddenly presented with a word that creates gaps.
Words can tell who you are.
Words can change who you are.
And words show you where words could be.
Skyrim is a game that cares about words. It’s full of words. It tells you stories about words and it changes you through words. That’s a strong idea, a good soul for a game to have – and I say that as someone who had to learn a lot of new words, words that helped me shape who I am, and what I wanted to be. I may not like Skyrim, and may think it’s over-wrought, indulgent nonsense that flatters its own self-important, tedious lore, but I can certainly recognise how important it is to spend your life seeking the words that let you choose who you are.
Originally I wanted to make this script over just over the introduction of Skyrim, that little cart ride. Like it’d be really funny, to me, if this entire script plays out with me talking over that introduction in one endless, endless loop.