Oblivion's connection to Discworld is a legacy worth celebrating
From The Elder Scrolls to Tomb Raider, Terry Pratchett had a profound influence on the world of video games.
^Stay tuned for the video version of this article.
I've been thinking recently, apropos of absolutely nothing, about the word “Legacy”. How it’s a particularly loaded word when it comes to authors, artists, filmmakers… any kind of creative, really. A prolific author, unlike the vast majority of us, leaves behind a body of work full of clues as to their real character: Terry Pratchett, for example, who is Britain’s best and most beloved author after Tolkien, published a bewildering 41 Discworld novels over a period of 32 years, almost exactly the latter half of his life.
If you’re currently doing some quick maths and thinking, that’s preposterous, that means he must have written more than one book a year at one point, then yeah, at the time it was a bit of a running joke. At his most prolific he was writing over 400 words per day, minimum, with an almost religious determination. Sometimes he would write significantly more. At that rate, you can knock out a novel’s worth of words in around six months. The trick is sustaining it: it’s astonishing to me, someone who writes a 1200 word script and then has to go and have a lie down for about a week, that he just wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and never stopped.
Of course, anyone can write 400 *crap* words per day, but Pratchett was knocking out some of the greatest works of satire, fantasy or otherwise, that the English language has ever been moved to produce. For a solid 32 years. That’s a ridiculous run. That’s a better streak than The Undertaker.
And yet, I don’t think the most important part of his legacy is the burgeoning body of literary work that he left behind, but rather the kindness and thoughtfulness of the man that they often reflect. The Sam Vimes boots theory of economic unfairness, which perfectly summarises how capitalism is a prison for the poor. The entirety of Equal Rites, which is in part about how generational attitudes, societal rules, and institut ional bureaucracy can all be damned if they get in the way of someone living their truth. And Snuff, in which the goblins of the Discworld universe, treated with nothing but contempt and cruelty up until this point, get properly fleshed out with a unique culture and religion, just in time for their Spartacus moment.
Which brings us to Oblivion: a video game that Terry Pratchett absolutely loved, where his experiences with the surprisingly complex culture of goblin tribes as simulated in Oblivion’s world inspired the writing of Snuff some years later.
His adoration for Oblivion, its world, its complex environments and systems which made sneaking around as a thief an absolute joy, is well documented. Of course he would have felt at home here, given its adherence to the fantasy trope of having a big and important school of magic making its home in the capital of the realm. His Unseen University would itself be depicted in three video game adaptations of the Discworld universe, but there’s something about walking around in the Arkane University in Cyrodiil, or indeed any of its streets and houses, that makes you feel oddly connected to the man. Like visiting Hampton Court, and keeping Shakespeare in your thoughts, there’s something magical in knowing that wherever you stand in the Imperial City, Terry Pratchett would in all likelihood have stood there too.
Even his love for Oblivion gives us some insight into his character, as he was particularly fond of a popular companion mod known as Vilja, a complex NPC follower designed to have a meaningful relationship with the player, in the form of conversation, gift giving, and being generally helpful while questing. Pratchett went out of his way to contact the creators of the mod to give thanks, and ended up contributing scripted voice lines to the character, enriching the original work. At his request, the mod was eventually designed with a feature that would help players navigate their way out of dungeons or onto the next objective, a feature which allowed him to continue enjoying the game even as his alzheimers condition made it difficult to navigate complex 3D spaces. The mod is still fondly used to this day, as is its Skyrim based sequel. If you want to find out more about this, the story was beautifully reported by Cian Maher over on Eurogamer some years back, I’ll put a link to that article in the description.
Pratchett’s legacy is entangled with the world of video games in some very profound ways – as well as his documented love of Oblivion and involvement with its modding scene, as well as the three classic point-and-click adventures that are directly adapted from his work, his daughter Rhianna, who is a brilliant writer and a national treasure in her own right, was the lead writer on the Overlord series and the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, which are both series that I absolutely love. Overlord being a genuinely funny video game which sends up a lot of the genre’s fantasy tropes, and Tomb Raider being a work that humanises Lara Croft in a way that I consider to be a very bold and successful change in direction for the series.
But above all I think his is a legacy which can be summed up as kindness. His belief that ultimately everyone should be able to live and die with basic dignity, with their choices and inner truths respected by peers and institutions. His tireless work as a campaigner for the right to die exemplifies this: his last few years on this planet were spent trying to change the law in the UK to allow assisted death in cases of terminal illness.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about separating art from artist. Phrases like "death of the author" and "no ethical consumption under capitalism" being thrown around as if they give license to act free of consequence or moral implication. Countless attempts to cast cognitive dissonance as some kind of virtue in an attempt to bypass the thoughtlessness, or downright callousness, of a choice that some are determined to actively make. I have some sympathy with those who might feel conflicted: I know what it’s like to have to let go of something you grew up loving because the creator, in their later years, turned out to have horrid views that you can't sanction. Views which, in the expressing, actively harm people you count among your family and friends.
But there are other songwriters out there. And there are other fantasy worlds to get lost in. Beautiful ones. Brilliant ones. Frankly, better ones. Other creators whose legacies are built on a foundation of thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit, whose view of the world is plain to divine from the texts they left us, who never betrayed the faith and trust that millions of us placed in them. Legacies which are, in a word, untainted, where the mental gymnastics needed to separate art from artist are simply not required in the first place.
And honestly, they’re so much easier to love.