Roger Caillois, possibly one of the most well-known theorists of human games and play, famously wrote that “play is ruined by the nihilist” in his book Man, Play, Games (1961). What he was getting at, in a nutshell, is that any game is an inherent agreement to play by the rules as the game outlines them. In chess, the opponent’s King could be toppled at any time—it would only take a reach across the board, after all—but each player agrees that this is not to be an action taken. The rules of the game become an agreed-upon set of rules for the world while the players are playing the game.
Nihilism isn’t something that can be easily brought across in mainstream game design. There’s something about nihilism that goes against the notions of crafted space that AAA design so famously holds dear—to the nihilist, play is an obstacle. To the nihilist, play is a series of rules, a barrier to a free space where the nihilist can frolic unperturbed. Conventional AAA game design sees nihilism as an insincere gameplay mode, something that disobeys the rules of the game-as-creation.
And yet, there is joy in the action. There is always joy in the simple action of breaking a rule, in the strange, taboo sense of achievement that it brings. And where else, where more harmless, than the digital? Caillois was writing, surely, about more analog forms of gameplay—boardgames, children’s fantasy-play, forms of interaction with rulesets where the rules are more malleable and the magic circle of play more loosely defined. To Caillois, the action of rule-breaking for nihilist purpose was a simple one, betraying the ideals of the game in service of one’s personal catastrophic satisfaction.
Videogames are a bit different. The term “verbset” is tossed around in design-centric circles; it’s a term that originates in ‘90s-era point-and-click adventure games, where the player’s set of actions to interact with the world were most often laid out on the screen as a series of verbs. It was direct. Explicit. In this game, you could PUSH and PULL, in another you could KICK or TALK. The verbset governed the way that a player existed within the world. Verbsets, like level or encounter design, form a part of the gameworld, and what the player “can” do is governed by which actions they have available to them.
The early 2000s saw the dawn of open-world gaming, a term used in reference to the vast, explorable spaces of a gameworld that came in sharp contrast to the more modular and walled-off worlds that prevailed in earlier, level-based game design trends. With the advent of more powerful technology, games could finally approach the mythical ideal of an entire universe—or, at least, an entire island.
Skip forward to 2003. A game called The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is released by Bethesda Softworks. Morrowind, a high-fantasy adventure, is the third in a series of action-RPGs developed by Bethesda and the sequel to 1996’s Daggerfall. It was released to quite a bit of critical acclaim, and when I played it a few years later, it quickly became one of my personal favorite games.
Morrowind, as with many Bethesda titles, includes within it the ability to access a limited programming console. This is a feature of the game’s engine, something that began as a quirk of Morrowind’s “Gamebryo” engine and continued to be supported in later iterations on the same engine, including in 2015’s Fallout 4.
The console serves a myriad of purposes. Accessing it from within the game allows a player to modify properties of their own character or of other entities in the gameworld. One can warp their avatar to any area in the game, gain supernaturally enhanced abilities, or skip entire sections of the world. It is, in a sense, the nihilist’s dream: a simple, easy-to-access method to completely circumvent the designers’ intended usage for the gameworld.
The console, for my young self, was an entry into a whole new way of playing games. While the notion of nihilism was something that I generally dislike in more straightforward storytelling mediums, my experience with Morrowind was so shaped by the worldbending ability of the console that it became inextricable in my mind from the rest of the game. The game was unbroken, the game was breaking, the game was broken. All in one keystroke.
Another unique aspect of the console in Morrowind is the way that it ties into the game’s lore and story. For a discerning—or mildly obsessed—player such as myself, the esoteric writings in the game about spirituality and the religion of the island of Vvardenfell often hint at the players’ ability to bend the world to their whim, as a god would. And if I was a god, I was a nihilist god.
Or was I? After all, the console was in the game, and referenced in lore. Is it nihilism if I am still playing “in the rules”? I might be disobeying the storyline or the intended progression path, but I wasn’t doing anything that the game did not allow me to do. So where does this leave the player?
As a participant, as they always were.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been as obsessed with Morrowind as I was when I first picked it up. But it lingers, as many experiences do, in my mind. Morrowind was a game that, intentionally or not, shaped the way that I engage with videogames. It showed me that I, the player, was not necessarily the most important actor in the gameworld, unless I harnessed all the tools that the game gave me. The aroma of “player-first design” still soaked through the experience, but it was woven in more smoothly than many modern AAA blockbusters. It was a game that showed its seams proudly, and let me pick at them to the point of almost fully unraveling them. Nihilism didn’t ruin Morrowind’s play—it was designed into it.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet, game developer, and editor of Deorbital. You can find him on Twitter @videodante.