Notes on Morrowind II - A Response to the "Skywind" Redesign of the Seyda Neen Lighthouse: How inconsistent architectural details paint a complicated history in Vvardenfell

on Wednesday, September 16, 2015
This "Notes on Morrowind" series of posts will be brief remarks on small topics related to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Game of the Year Edition (dev. Bethesda Softworks, dirs. Todd Howard & Ken Rolston, 2003 [original game release 2002]) for PC rather than a holistic game analysis. All posts refer to the unmodded, version 1.6.1820 of the game played with maximum graphical and AI quality settings, a 1280x960 resolution, and all other settings at their defaults.

The Elder Scrolls series has prompted the creation of thousands of user-made game modifications ("mods"), and this community-driven development has become so prominent that it has become a major identifier for the franchise and selling point for the PC editions of the games. One of the more notable collections of mods are those by the TES Renewal Project (retrieved 2015-03-17). This team produces mods that recreate older Elder Scrolls games within the game engines of relatively newer Elder Scrolls games. For example, they host (although they didn't originally create) "Morroblivion," a mod that attempts to recreate Morrowind within the game engine of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. "Skywind," which is under active development, attempts to recreate Morrowind within the game engine of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

The off-kilter Seyda Need lighthouse.
As others have noted (retrieved 2015-03-17), such endeavors are less like recreations and more like complete reboots or reinterpretations, owing at least in part to the dramatic changes in game mechanics that they represent. As such, it should be obvious that they neither act to historically preserve of the games nor do they act as replacements for any purposes the original games serve. Nonetheless, as with similar projects for other games (e.g., Black Mesa, retrieved 2015-03-17), it is common to see online recommendations that players new to the Elder Scrolls series wait for "Skywind" to be released to "play" Morrowind, and perhaps even the developers of "Skywind" see the project as serving this purpose to a degree. Aside from the aforementioned problems with this line of thinking with respect to changed game mechanics, I want to highlight another type of problematic whitewashing of past game releases that occurs as a result of these sorts of projects and their desires to adjust the graphics of past games to present standards. To be very clear, when I call these issues "problems," I do not mean that it is a problem that projects like "Skywind" or Black Mesa exist in their present forms; I merely mean that these issues are problems for understanding the historical context of their source material when a large portion of player-base assumes a one-to-one mapping of the two texts. Really, I am just attempting to illustrate that these remakes are distinct texts by different authors that require new criticism relative to their source material. I'll illustrate this phenomenon by focusing on one small change to one particular building in "Skywind."

Interior bracing of lighthouse.
One of  the more memorable buildings in the game world of Morrowind is the Seyda Neen Lighthouse (retrieved 2015-03-17). Though not particularly notable from the perspective of the game's narrative, it is one of the first distinct buildings that the player is likely to encounter upon beginning the game because of its position in the starting town and its involvement in two minor quests. The lighthouse is peculiar for its architecture. It is built with simple, rough stone braced by interior wooden beams, and strangely, it is apparently off-balance and misaligned. The portion that houses the lighting element at the top is substantially off-center compared to the bulk of the structure, and the exterior stone staircase adds a further element of apparent instability because it hangs awkwardly off of only two sides of upper-half of the structure. Taken alone, this strange design might not be considered especially notable, but the lighthouse has the additional peculiarity of not matching any of the other architectural styles in the town or, indeed, the rest of the game. The bulk of Seyda Neen is populated by architecture in the style of the Imperials, who evidently colonized the region relatively recently, along with a handful of poor, makeshift wooden huts for underprivileged locals. The lighthouse, however, stands alone.

Imperial buildings near lighthouse.
The developers of "Skywind" recently detailed their redesign of the lighthouse in a blog post (retrieved 2015-05-18; redesign image backups: 1, 2, 3, 4). Citing the architectural inconsistency, they propose that it seems most likely that the lighthouse is of Imperial origin within the games narrative. This assumption, along with influences from other lighthouse designs, is used by the "Skywind" developers to create a new version of the lighthouse that visually matches the Imperial architecture of Seyda Need, and they thus homogenize the buildings of the region in their reinterpretation of Morrowind. It's worth noting that all graphical assets used in a project like "Skywind" are redesigns, but some assets are redesigned with different goals than others. For many, or perhaps most, the goal is to recreate the assets by guessing what the original designers would have done had they merely had access to more powerful graphics processors and memory. This approach involves inventing new details that are below the polygon or texture resolution thresholds of the source assets. It is a rewriting of the game's narrative only by addition, in that it tries to avoid editing the parts that were put into place in the original text. But other redesigned assets, such as the Seyda Neen lighthouse, have different goals: they are disagreements with the original designers, and they are active, deliberate rewritings of the narrative presented in the game.

Dunmer shacks near lighthouse.
As I've previously noted, Morrowind is deeply concerned with the nature of history. It is interested in the contrast between the small changes in the world observed in daily life as contrasted with the vast changes to the world that occur on larger historical timescales, and it frequently highlights how these changes are deallt with in memory, prophecy, politics, and historical record. The remnants of history are everywhere in Morrowind, evident in the damaged landscape, the racial tensions perceptible in dialogue, the texts in books, and even in the architecture, which is our primary concern in this post. Seyda Neen  is a key port controlled by the Imperials, and the Imperials have a vested interest in asserting their control in Morrowind, a once-foreign land that is now part of the Empire. This attitude is suggested by the uniformity of the bulk of the buildings in the region: their architecture asserts Imperial dominance over the land and the local culture. The player thus sees this dominance immediately upon beginning the game: the Imperials are self-evidently far more powerful that the player and seemingly in control of their surroundings.

Close-up of lighthouse fire.
But upon exploring the town and its surroundings, the player just as quickly discovers that the reality is more subtle than that. Seyda Neen is not a bastion of Imperial dominance. The swamp creeps in on all sides, the first resident of Seyda Neen that we encounter doesn't get along with the Imperial guards (retrieved 2015-09-16), and the most important building in the town, the lighthouse, is the one that cannot be made to submit to Imperial design sensibilities. It raises the question of why the lighthouse's architecture was never wrangled under control by the Empire. Perhaps the lighthouse predates Imperial control of the town, and they could not afford to ever take it offline for fear of interrupting port activities. Seyda Need certainly predates the Imperial presence, as indicated by information seen elsewhere in the game (retrieved 2015-09-16) and in The Elder Scrolls Online (retrieved 2015-09-16), so perhaps the lighthouse does, too. Or perhaps it has become a symbol for local denizens, and the Imperial colonizers lack the cultural clout to unseat its cultural significance - maybe that is why the structure has an alternate name, the Grand Pharos (retrieved 2015-09-16). Or perhaps the bizarre architecture is mere Imperial failure to build a stable structure in the unstable swamp, resulting in structural reinforcements being added haphazardly over the years. The precise history of the building cannot be determined from the information presented in game, but the unusual structure nonetheless raises questions which teach the player about the subtleties of history and power structures within the game. Indeed, the questions surrounding the building can lead players to construct quite detailed speculative histories (retrieved 2015-09-16) and related fictions (retrieved 2015-09-16) about that locale.

Alternate view of lighthouse.
The messiness of the environment is thus one of the great strengths of Morrowind. That occasional incoherence allows the game to both teach the new player about the nature of the world into which they have stepped, and to explore themes of history and memory, time and change, politics and power, in more depth than a more easily digested and less ambiguous game world could. Alterations of the sort undertaken by the "Skywind" redesign of the lighthouse reduce the impact of these themes. In a sense, such a redesign fulfills the in-game goals of the Imperial characters in Seyda Neen, because it gives them complete dominance of the land. The player is no longer prompted to question the implicit histories presented by the game, but instead the player is encouraged to accept the status quo presented by the characters that they encounter.

Alternate view of lighthouse.
The lighthouse at Seyda Need is a remarkable illustration of the caution we must exercise when critically discussing projects like "Skywind." With any one small change, the thematic implications of a text are altered, so no remake or remaster of a game can be used as a one-to-one replacement of its source material in critical discussions. The lighthouse is one among many details in a game as vast as Morrowind; as critics, we should spend more time reading how the small details function with games, and we should be cautious of growing as prescriptive towards them as the "Skywind" developers have.


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