Better Folklore through Alchemy

For my birthday this past October, my girlfriend bought me a copy of Skyrim for XBox.  For those not familiar, Skyrim is the latest installment of the ‘Elder Scrolls’ series of open-world role playing games set in a Dungeons and Dragons-informed mythic backdrop.  It’s a standard RPG, where the player roams around an open and expansive landscape leveling up their various skills and slowly acquiring better gear (like enchanted weapons and armor) all while engaging in quests that either drive the main story-plot forward or add a bit of color to the already imaginative universe on display.  I love these types of games because they allow a kind of freedom of movement and exploration of the map that strict narrative driven games often lack.  Maybe I don’t want to slay the dragon right now.  Maybe I need to go help that homeless guy in town find his old battle helmet from a bygone war, or perhaps I want to go hunting for ingredients to make more healing potions.

But something began to occur to me as I was wandering across the vast mountain ranges scattered throughout Skyrim’s map looking for said potion ingredients.  (My character was an Orc who liked to brawl hand-to-hand combat style, thus necessitating the need for a well stocked healing potion supply)  The ‘high medieval’ background of the game contained a surprising amount of rationalistic and enlightenment based underpinnings that helped to support what I would call the ‘Medieval+’ background common to many similarly-themed RPG’s.  Everywhere the player goes there is evidence of a society deeply under the influence of ‘liberalistic’ ideals, be it through the plethora of books found all over Skyrim’s ludic universe (this despite the lack of *one* printing press) or, of particular focus for this post, the use of Alchemy as a pseudo-science to validate ‘folkloric’ herbal knowledge.

Photo via SegmentNext

I want to use this post to explore what I mean by ‘Medieval+’ and especially look at how Skyrim treats the idea of knowledge reconfiguration and validation in the use of herbs to make more potent potions.  In doing so I will be referencing the work of scholar Kapil Raj, who studies how ‘modern’ knowledge is collected, transmitted, and reconfigured at the local level.  Rather than saying that modern designers have put their own biases and views into a supposedly ‘medieval’ game, I will argue that the systems and procedural rhetoric of Skyrim actually embodies a thoroughly ‘modern’ mindset that helps justify the positivistic setting and integration of the ludic universe into the player’s modern setting of play.

In his book, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900, Kapil Raj argues that our contemporary concept of what defines the ‘modern’ is inherently tied to the Western European experience with enlightenment ideals and rationalistic inquiries.  However, if one extends their scope beyond that of knowledge making in Europe, there are several examples of how ‘modern’ knowledge is actually the product of local environments in distant locales far away from the European setting.  For example, medicinal knowledge may have been certified (through print and scientific acceptance via professional societies) in Europe, but if we trace where that knowledge originated then we are presented with a much bigger picture that must, by necessity, include fakirs, merchants and various other indigenous agents that European intermediaries utilized in gathering said medicinal knowledge- especially in locations like South Asia where such knowledge would be invaluable for the age of sail.

While Raj notes that more recent works studying the creation of knowledge focused on enclosed spaces like laboratories or museums, his ultimate conclusion is that we should study other spaces, outside of these enclosures, if we want to fully map how “localities constantly reinvent themselves through grounding (that is, appropriating and reconfiguring) objects, skills, ideas, and practices that circulate both within narrow regional or transcontinental- and indeed global- spaces.” (21) Knowing this, we can begin to analyze how Skyrim handles the creation and certification of knowledge through its use of the ‘Alchemy’ system, in addition to the other general qualities of the ludic universe that constitute the ‘Medieval+’ setting required for this knowledge transfer to feel appropriate to the player.  Given that Skyrim takes place in a fantastical setting, it is all the more curious that traces of the ‘modern’ can be found in these play-mechanics.

But what exactly do I mean by ‘Medieval+’?  I broached this topic, first, on Twitter, and the responses I received made for very intriguing debates/insights.  Here is the Sorify I created detailing this discussion:

Then, a week later, I once again discussed what ‘Medieval+’ means on Twitter and received a very astute response from the Culture Ramp account:


This statement accurately goes to the heart of what qualifies a video game setting to be ‘Medieval+’.  Just as Raj noted that we often see the birth of the modern in a European setting, so too do players see in the world of Skyrim a sort of idealized ‘European’ precursor to what we envision as ‘modern’.

Take, for example, the process of collecting herbs and turning them into potions.  In Skyrim, there are dozens of herbs and ingredients the player can come across during their varied journeys; mountain flowers, troll fat, and even butterfly wings are just a few examples.  Each herb or ingredient has four ‘properties’ (damage/restore health, resist shock, improve smithing, etc.) that are, at first, unknown to the player.  By eating the herbs and ingredients players can learn the first of four unknown properties, yet to learn every property requires using that herb or ingredient in the creation of potions via Alchemy.  Essentially, the deeper knowledge locked within the herb or ingredient cannot be known- in fact, will never be revealed- unless the player moves out of the folkloric knowledge world of herbalism and into the pseudo-scientific world of Alchemy.

In doing so, Skyrim asserts that engaging in the more ‘enlightened’ practice of Alchemy is the only way to take folkloric knowledge and purify it into a more productive and useful potion.  Even more telling is that the game forces the player to use specially designated ‘Alchemy Labs’ in order to facilitate this knowledge transfer- a clear parallel to what Kapil Raj identified as an ‘enclosed’ knowledge making space.  The procedural rhetoric used in making a potion- first collect, then taste, then head to the lab to learn more- not only further reinforces the ‘Medieval+’ nature of Alchemy in the world of Skyrim, but also clearly places the making of ‘modern’ knowledge in a context removed from the true source of that knowledge- the land of Skyrim itself.  As characters level up in their Alchemical skill they can brew more potent potions from the herbs and ingredients they find, creating a cycle that serves to further obscure the ‘locality’ of the herb or ingredients knowledge in favor of the more ‘modern’ Alchemy lab.

Raj noted a similar phenomenon in the examination of the Jardin de Lorixa, or Flora of Orixa (a specific part of the Indian subcontinent), a collected set of folio volumes written by Nicolas L’Empereur in the 18th century on the subject of various plants found and their economic/medicinal uses.  Even though the volume was found in Paris, it’s origin dated back to the late 1690’s and was originally completed in Bengal before being shipped to the European continent.  Raj found that L’Empereur traveled to India in the late 17th century as a surgeon for a French trading company and while there conceived of the Jardin de Lorixa as a means to help the French utilize the foreign ecosystem’s unique plants for medical treatment.  To build his compendium, L’Empereur translated local herbal texts while also dispatching gardeners to scour the countryside and bring him back samples.  He even consulted Fakirs, religious ascetics of the region, for knowledge on unknown plants or treatments.

While quite impressive in it’s final form, the Jardin de Lorixa never caught on with European intellectuals and L’Empereur died a poor man.  Raj concludes that the medical text floundered not because the knowledge contained within was faulty or of little practical value, but rather because a high level Parisian reviewer, Jussieu, saw the text as helpful only in identifying which foreign plants held similarities to native species in France.  Without Jussieu’s explicit certification, the collected knowledge in the Jardin de Lorixa served little more than to act as a paperweight.

Returning to the use of herbs and ingredients in Skyrim, a similar parallel can be made between L’Empereur’s Jardin and the Alchemical process found in the game.  A player can travel to every remote corner of the game world and track down the most elusive herbs or ingredients, but in the end if this knowledge isn’t utilized at the Alchemy lab (the enclosed space of certification) it literally becomes a collective, burdensome paperweight.  From the ‘Medieval+’ perspective of the game, the potion is the ultimate valued product- not the herb or ingredient itself.  If we look to the larger metaverse of the ‘Elder Scrolls’ games, of which Skyrim is but the latest addition, then the role of potions takes on an even more homogenizing effect.  The player may find unique herbs or ingredients, but they all ultimately go into making identical potions found throughout the worlds of Skyrim, Oblivion, and Morrowind.  The procedural rhetoric involved in alchemy acts very much like a ‘Medieval+’ Jussieu, seeking folkloric knowledge only for its equivalencies and not for its own unique merits.

While this is only a brief examination of a skill subset in Skyrim, it does raise the question on how video games handle the idea of knowledge transfer in other procedurally driven play-mechanics.  If you have other examples, please leave them in the comments field below.


  1. I have similar issues with tech-trees in Civilization and other turn-based strategy games, where you’re explicitly studying a very specific thing, to give you very specific bonuses and technology.

    In other words, you’re developing technology you don’t know about yet, as if research is a series of check-boxes that you just need to spend enough time on. (c.f. the Civ IV tech tree, where even Art and Religion are bowed into a technological progress quest:

    In contrast, I find the herb-gathering science in Skyrim (and its predecessor, Oblivion), quite refreshing – you never quite know when you’ll come across a new herb, and what properties you’ll discover in experimentation (although, I admit, it does start to devolve into rub everything against everything else).

    1. Author

      Civilization is another great example of the positivist attitude and assumptions being imported into a game-play mechanic. I think on some level, it’s hard to avoid this sort of model in video/computer games given their dependence on creating narrative through black-box design and the assumption on the part of the game to provide the framework and ‘storyline’ for what the player can accomplish. But it certainly is worthy of critique, as other authors here at Play the Past have addressed with their posts on ‘natives’ and use of slavery in such games.

      I think the herbal/alchemy system in Skyrim is different than than the tech-tree in Civ, but some of the same issues you elaborate with Civ still exist. The game comes programmed with what herbs will make a ‘damage magicka’ potion, for example, and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable design choice for an RPG. The underlying beliefs, however, are very intersting and worthy of deeper analysis, of which my piece above is only one small part.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  2. Woah. Talk about reading waaaaaaaaaay too much into something.

    The developers wanted to create a system in which the player could choose to craft potions/poisons for free, rather than spending money on them. Instead of raiding bandit camps for gold on a singularly combat driven way to achieve all of your goals, you can take the pacifist route of wandering through nature, taking in the sites, gathering ingredients and taking them back to make potions to help you in combat or just to make money without having to kill dragons or bandits or citizens or whatever.

    This is an RPG, not a knowledge transfer sim.

    Otherwise, impressively well-researched article.

    1. Author

      William- thanks for the comments. Let me see if I can address the points you’ve presented.

      I don’t think I’m reading too much into the game- while my argument may be on the ‘meta’ level of understanding the game-play mechanics underlying Skyrim, I think there are some interesting cultural narratives and larger understandings behind the role of modern knowledge making inherent in the design. As you highlight above, Alchemy can be used to play the game in an entirely different manner than just ‘hack and slash’ to gain gold, and if this mechanic can be used to give the player varied forms of playstyle I don’t think it’s too far of an extension to examine the deeper implications such a system presents.

      Skyrim may be an RPG, but this in no way negates that the game itself is built upon commonly understood narratives of progress that take knowledge acquisition as a central concern. In many ways, Skyrim *is* a knowledge transfer sim. You can ‘learn’ more from ‘professionals’ that embody certain skillsets. In order to optimize your playstyle, you have to ‘learn’ (upgrade or level-up) skills that are essential to that playstyle. My Orc, for example, had to kill many, many enemies before he could learn all the skill perks in the One-Handed category. If you look at how your character learns the various ‘shouts’, then you can see an entirely different ‘knowledge transfer’ system at work- that of the ‘divine’ inspiration model.

      Skyrim may be an ‘entertaining’ product, but that doesn’t lessen the potential for deeper examinations. By analyzing how folkloric knowledge is treated in Skyrim, I’m hoping to demonstrate this potential exists.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

      1. Having cut my teeth on Wolfenstein3D, Doom, and Quake, I play Morrowind and its successors as FPSs, not as RPGs. Whatever knowledge I accrue through play simply opens up new abilities and inventory items, as if they were picking up a rocket launcher or a health restore pack. When I read a book to gain skills, I open it and close it. When I have a quest to finish, I see the path from questgiver to quest completion as a level, like E1M8: find the keys, open the doors, get to the switch, and collect a lot of stuff along the way.

        But there are other systems that have learning relevancy to me. By stacking books, I have makeshift shelves built out of my personal library. By arranging items in whatever house I’ve stolen or occupied, by placing glowy candles and using boxes to hold my stuff in categories, I learn tips and tweaks on how to arrange and keep my own room clean IRL. I will keep multi-part books, and read and re-read them in-game when I find another part, to feel like part of the lore of the universe. I stand and watch the sun rise or set, or the clouds move overhead, as I used to gaze at the skybox in Unreal or the distant misty mountains of Phobos in Doom.

        And then I go back to using my Daedric Axe summoned by a rat’s soul in my pauldron, because really, who wants to lug one of those around all the time?

  3. Very well written essay! I enjoy the concept of organic evolution in game design, and agree that a black-box mentality can be hurtful to games. The Civ tech-trees example makes it very clear that there is room for improvement and innovation, much like Spore promised (but failed to deliver). Thanks again for writing this. 🙂

    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words, Hunter. Glad you enjoyed reading the piece.

      Interesting thought re: black-boxing of video/computer games- I usually tackle board games, and one ‘advantage’ they possess over their digital counterparts is the relative ‘openness’ of the design. Players can see how the game model works and spend more time learning the intricacies, instead of trying to decipher the ‘black-box’ itself. But I made this comment at the Connections Wargaming conference this past summer, and Rex Brynen (who co-runs the awesome PaxSims blog) mentioned that figuring out the black-box model was akin to the process involved in conducting historical research. You have documents and artifacts whose meaning isn’t at all clear individually, but the slow process of evaluating the sources and gathering enough data to assemble a coherent narrative is remarkably like figuring out the ‘black-box’ found in many digital games.

      I think the job of critical analysis is to probe these models and figure out the implications involved in their operation.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  4. William, rhetorical analysis studies how rhetoric works. In other words, you study what using a particular phrase or medium _does_ socially or how it colors how the hearer/reader/player understands or views something. (We understand that the same piece of rhetoric is often perceived differently by different viewers, but that doesn’t lessen the value of pulling apart some of the messages inherent in the rhetoric.)

    You’re probably right that the game developers probably did not think about the rhetoric at this level. They likely had a lot of competing priorities in designing this system, and “fun” and “interesting” were likely at the top.

    But a rhetorical analysis, like the effect of the rhetoric itself, does not have to have anything to do with authorial intent.

    When Sarah Palin made her infamous “shuck and jive” comment about Obama a few weeks ago, she may very well have _not_ meant it to be racist. She might have just thought, “Those are the words that describe the kind of evasive and deceptive wordplay I’m hearing from Obama’s campaign.” (Never mind that she likely thought it a lot less eloquently, and I’ll let you judge to what level Obama’s campaign was truly evasive or deceptive.) But the history of the words “shuck” and “jive” (and the phrase together) created a noticeable (and notable) racist rhetorical _effect_, regardless of her original intent.

    Now, that’s a stark example, one with a clearly negative effect. I think Mr. Antley does a good job in his article of _not_ judging the rhetorical effect of Skyrim’s alchemy system as purely negative or positive. But he seems to make some interesting points that it very clearly builds in a modern Western medical perspective, that high-grade medical knowledge and manufacture can/should only be found in a space (lab) set up for high-grade medical research and manufacture, and that the products of such a space are inherently superior to the raw ingredients. I think you could debate whether the raw ingredients really justify Mr. Antley’s label of “folk medicine” (since, after all, folk medicine often involves some transformative process as well, whether is grinding powders, making poultices, or just brewing tea). But there’s no arguing that Skyrim’s system causes players to conclude that lab results are superior to non-lab results. There are echoes there not only of 17th- and 18th-Century European alchemy, naturalism, and the scientific revolution, but also of 21st-Century high-school chemistry, university research, and Big Pharma.

    This doesn’t make the system _wrong_ by any stretch, especially as it’s part of a product marketed primarily at first-world Westerners. This vastly simplified lab research and manufacture echoes how we think medicines and other chemicals should be made (or how we think they are made, depending on our level of understanding). But it does make them interesting to think about.

    I just wanted to note that I was pleased to see a first step at constructing a history of similar crafting systems. One of the worst dangers of rhetorical analysis of games is a lack of context.
    I remember in college I had a guest media studies prof in one class who started telling us about this game she had just seen the other day (she wasn’t a gamer, but a friend had shown her) called “Dynasty Warriors.” She claimed that it portrayed Asians as “cunning and devious” _because it was a strategy game_. (By that logic, are the zerglings of Starcraft similarly devious?) Her complete lack of knowledge of the genre, indeed, of the entire medium, about which she was speaking (let alone the history of that particular series, its developers, or the historical characters represented within) completely undercut her argument.

    In rhetoric, context and history can be very important, so making an analysis without studying that context and history can be very problematic.

    All that is to say that a large number of games have had a number of raw-material-gathering/crafting systems. They’ve become standard in MMOs. I think Mr. Antley is more inclined to see the raw materials as “folk medicine” in Skyrim because a) they can be used in their raw form, whereas raw materials in many games cannot, and b) they are more biologically themed.

    Would harvesting hides (in-game), then taking them to an assigned space (a tannery) to produce a refined product (leather) constitute a Western dismissal of folk knowledge (assuming, say, that the hides could be worn as-is for lesser benefit)?

    I will acknowledge that the requirement of crafting yourself but in a particular space seems to be somewhat unique to Skyrim. I believe most MMOs let you do your crafting wherever (portable anvils!), for convenience sake.
    Numerous other RPGs (including JRPGs and action games like Ratchet & Clank) required you to go to a particular space to get a particular item created or upgraded. But in those instances, you were taking the item to a shop or specialist NPC who actually did the work for you. So it is unclear whether it was the space that really mattered or the expertise of the shopkeeper/crafter.

    Side note on the twitter comment, “As class ability, tied to professionalism.”:
    Early D&D was pretty much _all_ class-based, rather than skill-based. Even what we now call “races” like Elf and Dwarf were just classes. So classes at that point were _not_ linked to professionalism, but rather more intrinsic. They were who you were. What you could do was because of that identity, not really because of years of professional study. Elves could craft potion because they were elves. That’s practically defining potion-crafting as folk medicine, as Elves are basically an ancient forest-dwelling “folk.” Clerics could craft them because their gods allowed them to channel divine power through them into the bottle of goop. Likewise for magic users, except their magic did not have a divine origin.

    Lastly, I just wanted to say that as soon as I read the conversation of potion-crafting’s history, my mind immediately jumped to a few games, including _Star Ocean: The Second Story_ for the original PlayStation. In that you could turn raw materials into everything from delicious meals to forged documents. It’s just one of many, many games that let you do this kind of thing, but I think it was notable for its system’s diversity depth.

    _Eternal Darkness_ for the Gamecube might also be relevant as its cthonic magick system allows users to “craft” spells by combining colored “runes” or glyphs. As with _Castlevania: Symphony of the Night_, you could find recipes/instructions for powerful spells over the course of the game, but it was just as possible to discover them yourself through experimentation.

    All three of these games let you “craft” directly wherever you happened to be. In the first two, this was done through the pause menu. In Castlevania, the spells were the result of particular fighting-game-like button combinations during normal play.

    1. Author

      Justin- thanks for the substantial comments. Quite a bit to digest here, so I’ll try to stick to the high points.

      You are quite right that I’m taking some liberty with the use of ‘folk medicine’ in this context. My background is in Russian culture and history, and many ‘folk’ healers used mixing/brewing techniques in addition to various ‘incantations’ to create their own ‘potions’. You are also right on that Skyrim places superior value in the alcemical process.

      Thanks for the other examples of craftiing systems. My original intent was to cover Skyrim and some aspects of the D&D universe, but it became obvious early on that just focusing on Skyrim would be plenty for one post! If I did a follow-up, I would definitely want to look at how D&D models ‘validation’ of knowledge. Your point about classes vs. skills is good and addresses another aspect of this argument I didn’t touch upon- that being the issue of ‘innate’ knowledge vs. ‘acquired’ knowledge. I need to pour over the various manuals and guidebooks in the D&D universe in order to make this happen, but I do think there is something to investigate.

      Thanks again for the great examples!

  5. Strong work on this article. I’ve got a couple of related points:

    First, is that Alchemy is the only skill in Skyrim that you can ‘metagame’. For instance, if I know that Salt and Deathbells can be used to make Slow potions, I can have my character create these without knowing the recipe or without skill restriction. Spells require the character to purchase the spell before use, Enchanting requires finding and disenchanting the item, and Smithing requires perks for other materials. Interestingly, skill was pre-requisite for using second, third and fourth properties in potions in Oblivion.

    Second, I think that the idea of crafting loci has come through from MMOs. Has the discourse on crafting in the MMO affected offline RPGs? There’s probably a thesis in there somewhere 🙂

    Thirdly, Alchemy is a feminised skill in Skyrim. All three trainers are female, and the Alchemy shopkeepers in Solitude, Falkreath, Dawnstar, Morthal, Whiterun, Markarth and partially in Riften are female. Only Windhelm has male Alchemy shopkeepers. I think this is part of the ‘folk’ aspect of the skill- the medieval stereotype of cunning-woman. Note also that Alchemy is not taught at the institutional college of magic, but in the thieves guild.

    1. Author

      Matt- these are some *great* comments. The ‘metagame’ aspect of the alchemy is very interesting, and one point I totally missed. Same goes with the gendered aspect of ‘alchemy’ in Skyrim. From my background in Russian history, I can certainly affirm that many healers were female (although not exclusively!) and this, of course, has strong implications for how the folk knowledge is first accrued and then passed down, not to mention the impact on stereotypes modern viewers possess about the ‘medieval’ past.

      I think you’re right on to ask what impacts MMO designs/practices have on offline RPG’s. If I had time, money, and infinite patience, I would love to create a sort of grand genealogical analysis on design elements and their evolution/adaptation to differing game mediums.

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