Illustrated by Kelly Doherty (She/Her)
[Ever heard of “Skyrim”? Played it? The third Elder Scrolls game, “Morrowind,” is its grandaddy. Actually no, it’s the weird uncle. The quirky gay uncle. And speaking of quirky gay uncles – but I’m getting ahead of myself. MASSIVE spoilers follow, to say the least.]
I lurk along the southern canals of Vivec on my way to the Temple Canton — it’s the largest temple in the largest city on the island of Vvardenfell. It’s a miracle I manage to find the Temple, even after having a few dozen days of tromping around the city under my belt. But I’m there, bounding up flight after flight of stairs until I’m standing in front of a ridiculous Level 100 locked door. Temple of Vivec, prepare to be infiltrated.
Being places that I am not supposed to be tends to be the norm when I’m playing “Morrowind.” Often it’s not so much me being a sneaky little bastard as it is me genuinely not knowing where I’m supposed to be; but this time, I am being a sneaky little bastard. I’m just barely level 20 and definitely probably should not be sneaking into this Epic-Temple-With-Endgame-Content. But hey, I’m curious. ‘Cuz, get this, the temple isn’t named for Vivec because that’s the city’s name. That’s the name of a divine being who not only heads the local religion but also supposedly lives here, in the city of Vivec. (Erm. . . sounds a bit full of himself, but he did save the world according to totally unbiased and trustworthy Temple doctrine, so I guess we can cut him some slack.) So my very stabby little player character and I are interested in seeing if there’s some way to summon him to the Temple, orrrr . . .
[brief pause for lockpicking] [I break the lockpick] [I reload my previous save and try again]
Or Vivec himself is literally just floating cross legged there in his half-naked glory. As if I haven’t overstepped my plot boundaries enough, I casually walk up to him and initiate conversation, upon which Vivec immediately says: “You have come uninvited. I have nothing to say to you.”
At this point, my shame reaches a level at which my internal “oh SHIT” alarm overpowers my rabid hunger for lore, and I reload an earlier save. Not that any of that would have actually impacted the game — some people go straight in to take out Vivec quite early on — but I can’t bear to have that be my first canonical interaction with one of the so-called Living Gods.
I returned to Vivec some few hundred in-game days later, absolutely built and overpowered, and made a much more respectable first impression, if I do say so myself. By that time, I had also begun to detect queer undertones supported by several wiki binges, and the glorious lore dump I received from that “first” encounter only served to strengthen my queer interpretations of the game.
The blurb for “Morrowind” on Wikipedia describes how it’s an open world, role-playing game set in the Morrowind province of the continent of Tamriel. The main quests pit your character against the semi-immortal volcano man Dagoth Ur. But here’s my take on the overarching forces driving this game:
“Imagine a game with a metaphorically (and potentially literally) trans main character; a divine bisexual, trans, and intersex frenemy; and a lifetime-transcending homoerotic relationship with the final boss. And all of that’s supported by canon. Wouldn’t that be great?
Yeah, it would be. And it is. It came out in 2002.”
For the sake of time and space, I’ll stick to breaking down the queerness of Vivec and the main/player character, henceforth called the Nerevarine. Even in just the Morrowind proper, there’s an obscene amount of content to cover — I’m talking hours and hours of poring through Reddit posts, blogs, and wikis. The Elder Scrolls canon is living and incredibly convoluted. “Morrowind” was released in 2002 — that’s 20 years of additions, clarifications, and reworkings through subsequent Elder Scrolls games, one of which (Elder Scrolls Online) is still getting new content.
If it’s not already obvious, I’m a bit fixated on Lord Vivec in particular — he’s the aforementioned “divine bisexual, trans, and intersex frenemy.” To my delight, someone else has recently written about the queer divinity of Morrowind’s Tribunal, which is the set of three Living Gods, including Vivec, that are the focus of Temple religion. The thesis deals more broadly with the queerness of divine figures within “Morrowind,” referencing not only Vivec but also his “sibling-gods,” Sotha Sil and Almalexia, and the older gods known as “daedra.” It’s a great piece of work.
Much like his “sibling-gods,” Vivec’s queerness is partially shaped by his ascent to divinity and his association with the preexisting daedra Mephala, who has no true sex and is sometimes depicted with male and female genitalia. However, unlike the other two members of the Tribunal, there’s direct evidence of Vivec’s queerness in action.
See, there’s this whole set of in-game texts called “The 36 Lessons of Vivec.” Whether they’re entirely accurate — or even logically feasible — is a matter of contention, because they were written by Vivec after he became a god. This means that, first off, they’re filled with all kinds of metaphysical, time and space tomfoolery. Second, they’re super biased in favor of himself and his own views of how historical events played out. This guy allegedly killed the once-leader of Morrowind immediately before becoming a god, so he had a lot of propaganda to spread. Even so, you don’t have to read too deep into the subtext to realize there was some (delightfully) queer nonsense going on.
For starters, Vivec is referred to as “mother-father” and “sister-brother” multiple times through the “Lessons.” This is in contrast to the other two gods of the Tribunal being strictly referred to as “sister/mother” or “brother.” Vivec socially and spiritually oscillates between the masculine and the feminine quite regularly; while he primarily uses he/him pronouns, there are a few moments where Vivec is referred to with she/her pronouns. At least once, the “sister-brother” label was reversed to be “brother-sister.”
That in itself is enough to signify some sort of nonbinary identity in my book. However, Vivec also physically and biologically embodies multiple sexes at once, hence the intersex label. He is described as having male genitalia through the rather obvious metaphor of “comparing spears” with an ancient daedra; yet Vivec also literally carries and bears the children of the very same daedra.
There is an alternate, yet not entirely conflicting, interpretation of this same “Lesson” as well. One could read Vivec as transmasculine in that he takes (read: bites off) the daedra’s “spear” and uses it to alter his own “spear.” (I mean . . . props to him for that innovative gender-affirming surgery, but couldn’t be me.) Either way, this “Lesson” lends credence to Vivec’s bisexuality, because he marries the male-gendered daedra at the time, but he had also had a relationship with his (not related) “sister” Almalexia at some point.
Honorable Queer Mentions:
The player character, aka the Nerevarine. They are the reincarnation of the Lord Nerevar, legendary leader of ancient Morrowind and old friend of the Tribunal. Nerevar was a guy, so depending on the player’s choice of gender, the Nerevarine can be read as literally trans. But I’m of the mind that the entire journey of the Nerevarine is trans-coded, a journey of constant becoming. Someone on Reddit made a phenomenal post that sums up this idea and it ends with the iconic line: “Each event is preceded by Prophecy. But without the Weird Gay Stranger, there is no Event.”
Dishonorable Queer Mention:
Remember the quirky gay uncle from earlier? That’s “Uncle” Crassius Curio, the living embodiment of the Depraved Bisexual who will request rather icky favors from both male and female main characters in return for his aid.
After my dives into Deep Lore, all of the queerness of “Morrowind” felt inherent. It was always there when I was playing and thinking about it. So whenever I remember, “oh, this game came out in 2002,” my brain shorts out. How could something with this much queer lore have developed such a strong, devoted fanbase in the early 2000s when the gamer demographic was (supposedly) made up of mainly cis, white, straight young men?
The answer is twofold. One: those stereotypes about the gamer demographic were likely largely overstated. Sure, that demographic was who games were being made for and advertised to, but it wasn’t just straight white cis dudes playing the games. Two: honestly, the lore was mostly implicitly queer. In order to know that Vivec was intersex/trans/nonbinary, you had to take the time to read the in-game texts. In order to know he had sex with a daedric prince, bore his children, and bit his “spear” off, you had to read the in-game texts. So it’s quite likely that the queerness of “Morrowind” either went under the radar of many people or was brushed off as “quirky god shit”.
Content warning: outdated language in the following paragraph
I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to make any arguments as to whether “Morrowind” has “good” or “bad” queer representation (other than Crassius Curio, who is undoubtedly very bad representation). I mean, from my perspective, it’s an awesome kind of queer rep because it took me entirely by surprise and was entirely entangled in the lore. Yet unfortunately, the game also uses outdated terms like “hermaphrodite” to refer to an intersex character (specifically “the union of male and female, the magic hermaphrodite” — kind of iconic, but also questionable). Certain depictions of queer sexuality are situated in dubiously — or non-consensual — contexts. So, yes, definitely, video games have come a long way in twenty years where they’re now able to show healthy queer relationships and trans characters.
But on a more theoretical level, it’s interesting to see what can happen when you read queerness into a story of attained divinity, or reincarnation. What would this look like if done more explicitly and unapologetically, specifically for the queer community? Almost sounds like a good idea for a thesis, or a novel . . . or maybe even a video game.
Author: Brenna Connell (She/They)
Artist: Kelly Doherty (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Min Kim (They/Them), Bella (She/They)