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The Elder Scrolls: Why Does Every Game Start With A Prisoner?

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  • The Prisoner And The Hero
  • What Is The Prisoner's Role In The Elder Scrolls?

Why do we start every single Elder Scrolls in a prison? Game development is part of it — starting completely fresh is perfect from both a role play and gameplay perspective. However, there’s plenty of in-game lore regarding the Scrolls themselves, reincarnation, and mythical, destined figures that explain the prisoner's role. It’s a lot to take in, so let's dive into this slightly confusing bit of Elder Scrolls mythos.

“The true contents of an Elder Scroll are malleable, hazy, uncertain. Only by the Hero’s action does it become true. The Hero is literally the scribe of the next Elder Scroll,” as writer Michael Kirkbride puts it. If you’ve played any of the games’ main stories, you’ll know what an important role the Scrolls play. They tell of great events in the past and future, often helping to frame and guide the present. However, something that might not be immediately clear is their fluid nature. They change. That’s partly why they’re not so easy to read, blinding the ill-prepared and resulting in entire schools of scholars opening. The Scrolls aren't just magical books from ancient civilizations, depicting what will come and documenting what went.

They’re ever-changing, and there’s a reason why. It’s all about the Hero’s own agency — the capital ‘H’ is on purpose. There are ‘heroes’ and Heroes, the former of which can be anybody who does something heroic while the latter is a proper noun to describe the legends of the Scrolls. The Hero can decide to forgo their role. They aren’t destined to do what the Scrolls say. They can disregard their journey like a player deciding they don’t want to do the main quest. For the Hero to have agency and free will of this caliber, they must be the Prisoner. Sotha Sil, one of Morrowind’s living gods, stated:

The Prisoner wields great power, making reality of metaphor. The Prisoner must see the door to their cell. They must gaze through the bars and perceive that which exists beyond causality. Beyond time. Only then can they escape.

The Prisoner And The Hero

The Hero and the concept of the Prisoner are intertwined. The Hero can only exist because of the Prisoner’s capability to see beyond the confines of reality, to break free from their mental constraints. The cell's bars and the tied rope are literal and metaphorical. On the one hand, it’s breaking the fourth wall. The Prisoner is literally the player seeing outside the boundaries of the game, understanding that they are the only conscious vehicle able to progress the story.

As for in-universe, what this all means is that the Prisoner as a concept is tied to the idea of the Hero because they are nothing — they are a void. Male or female, Khajiit or Argonian, good or evil, life or death, the prisoner isn’t any of these things until they are imprisoned. They are born in prison. That is the moment where their empty vessel becomes conscious. From nothing, they can only make reality from the metaphor. Maybe they will choose to be good, maybe they will choose to save the world, maybe they will turn the tide of a war. "Maybe" is the vital aspect of the Prisoner. Sotha Sil says as much, “Maybe. The word I covet above all others. Hold to that word, my friend, and never let go.

The Prisoner is the Hero of the various Elder Scrolls. They are one and the same. This is why Uriel Septim historically has sought after and had visions of the Prisoner. That’s why the opening of Daggerfall sees you speaking to him, while he sends the Hero of Morrowind’s story to Vvardenfell. He even recognizes Oblivion's protagonist from his dreams. He understood the importance of the Prisoner, putting into motion the various Hero’s journeys in each game. Granted, he’s dead by the time of Skyrim, so he plays no role in the Dovahkiin’s own birth. But, by sheer happenstance, Alduin’s interference sets them free, allowing for them to become the Hero and start their own journey. Coincidence, or carefully enacted prophecy?

The Prisoner is the Hero reincarnated throughout history, constantly reborn to fill that role. But the Hero doesn’t have to die for that spirit to be reincarnated. The player from Morrowind is still alive and exploring Akavir, while Oblivion’s might be Sheogorath. It’s the spirit of the Hero that is being reborn, the same spirit that was birthed with the Elhlnofey, an ancient species of et’Ada — the primordial Altmer (High Elves).

For context, there are four key roles at play: the Rebel, the King, the Observer, and the Prisoner. Magnus was the Observer, Auri-El the Rebel, Lorkhan the King, and the Elhlnofey the Prisoner. That archetype has, throughout the ages, been reincarnated time and time again. Who plays the other roles is often up for debate, with many arguing that Talos or Vivec act as the Observer of Morrowind’s events.

Whatever the case, these key roles are repeatedly filled with the Prisoner falling to the player character, the Hero. The purpose of the Hero is to stop whatever threat arises, whether it’s the Sixth House, the Oblivion Crisis, or the World-Eater’s return, but there’s more to it than that.

What Is The Prisoner's Role In The Elder Scrolls?

Whether they mean to or not, every Prisoner has deactivated a Tower of Nirn. An excerpt from the unlicensed texts known as the Nu-Mantia Intercepts (penned by Morrowind writer Michael Kirkbride) reads, “They are magical and physical echoes of the Ur-Tower, Ada-Mantia. Ada-Mantia was the first spike of unassailable reality in the Dawn, otherwise called the Zero Stone.” These towers can literally bend and alter reality, and many speculate that the ultimate goal of the Prisoner is to undo reality itself.

In Arena, we destroy the Jewel of Fire, deactivating the Staff of Chaos. In Daggerfall, the Numidium (or the Brass Tower) implodes. Both are Towers of Nirn. Morrowind sees the Heart of Lorkhan being unbound from the Red Mountain, which is yet another. In Oblivion, Martin Septim destroys the Amulet of Kings, deactivating the White-Gold Tower. The only one that’s truly in question is Skyrim’s, the Throat of the World. Did slaying Alduin deactivate it? That's for the next game to answer.

The Prisoner, at any rate, is tied to these Towers and their constricting nature. Perhaps that is the true role of the Prisoner. They are not meant to be a hero in the morally good sense, but to untether reality.

The Prisoner is the Hero, a part of the four-way enantiomorph started in the Dawn Era, and they serve to break down reality by destroying the Towers. Meanwhile, they enact the prophecies foretold in the Elder Scrolls. The Prisoner isn’t just a neat bit of game design that gives us a fresh start with each game — it’s cosmic-level, magical fantasy. That’s how much lore is tucked away in the seams of the Prisoner archetype alone, so imagine what the rest of the Elder Scrolls’ world is like.

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