How Enderal Plays With Player Expectations

Enderal, SureAI’s ambitious, mechanically dense Skyrim overhaul mod is not really a mod at all. At this point, it’s better described as a massive roleplaying game that uses Skyrim’s engine and assets to create a new world populated by its own cast of characters. It also tells a substantially darker, weirder, and more thoughtful story than Skyrim. And now, the complete edition of the game has been independently released on Steam. It’s a free download if you already own Skyrim, so there’s never been a better time to give it a try.

Yer a Protagonist, Harry

Enderal starts off with fairly rote story beats. After you miraculously survive drowning, you discover that you have fantastical magic powers and can see glimpses of the future. People very quickly start calling you “prophet” and expect you to thwart an apocalypse planned by mysterious beings called “The High Ones”. Typical RPG horseshit, but it’s frequently interrupted by unsettling dream sequences and plot threads that abruptly end without any closure.

The game never settles into a fully heroic tone, frequently taking horrifying detours both surreal and mundane. From Enderal’s first scene, you are plagued by recurring, guilt-soaked nightmares about your murdered family. When your adventures take you on a magic train through an abandoned underground temple, you stumble upon a mouldering corpse that looks exactly like you. Tealor Arantheal, the theocratic dictator of the game’s eponymous nation and heroic leader of your fight to stop the High Ones, admits to committing heinous fucking war crimes if you push him.

If you’ve played The Witcher 3 or any other dark fantasy game, you’ll be familiar with this aesthetic. It’s the old “special sword man kills the baddest guy and saves the world” plot we always get in games of this scope. And for most of its campaign, Enderal feels like it’s leading you through bizarre, dark territory to a familiar destination.

But when your plans come to fruition and you complete the ancient weapon meant to stop the High Ones, shit hits the fan and the game swerves away from the familiar. Spoilers ahead.

As it turns out, the apocalypse was never going to happen without this machine, and the High Ones — beings without corporeal form — needed you to build it for them. As you race to undo the machine, you speak one final time with your enemies, who have been taunting you the whole game. Maddeningly, they tell you the same thing they always have, but now you can recognize it as the truth. You were in over your head, your heroics were vanity, and your desire to be a savior will be the doom of humanity. But the High Ones weren’t just relying on any old human to catch a messiah complex when the world was imperiled. They chose you specifically — or at least, they chose the memory of you. You’re dead, after all.

Wait, What?

The only real power that the High Ones possess is the ability to create Fleshless, facsimiles of the recently dead that are made of that person’s hopes and memories. You drowned at the beginning of the game, and Arantheal froze to death hopeless and alone about a year ago. The body you saw? That was the real you. Your avatar in this video game is a lifeless vessel hurtling toward a predestined fate with no agency at all, exactly like your avatar in every other video game.

But the twist in Enderal isn’t just a Bioshock-style “gotcha, you were playing into the bad guys’ hand by playing this game” moment, it’s a vicious indictment of the kind of story players expect. Throughout the game, regular people without grand destinies tell you and Arantheal that you’re being reckless and rash. They beg you to slow your roll, but ultimately you’re both too powerful and charismatic for them to put up sustained resistance. You probably don’t entertain the possibility that these people might be right, because this game is about you. And you’re going to fix things by being a Big Damn Hero.

Confidants & Consequence

As you would expect from a game based on Skyrim, Enderal gives you countless choices when approaching problems in its massive world — but very few of these decisions survive the oblivion of the final chapter. The ones that stick, the choices that actually matter, reveal a tiny glimmer of light in Enderal’s bleak vastness. And there are really only two of them.

First, which of your hot, bisexual friends will you date? The dashing, PTSD-scarred rogue Jespar, and the idealistic, reliable murder-demon Calia meet up with you early in the plot, and Enderal devotes a huge amount of time to developing them and their relationships to you. You are Fleshless, sure, but unlike Arentheal, you trust people who don’t share your grand destiny.

Second, how do you deal with the consequences of your actions? When faced with the imminent destruction of Enderal, you have two options — the correct one and the “holy shit you missed the whole point of this game, didn’t you?” one. The first ending has you sacrificing yourself in order to contain the apocalypse to the country of Enderal, and sending your lover to safety with the knowledge of the High Ones’ true nature and the hope that they will be able to warn other nations. The second ending nukes the whole planet and grants you and your lover immortality. The plan is that you will hang out on the moon for thousands of years, and when humanity re-emerges you will descend as gods to lead and teach these new societies to learn from your past mistakes.

Having failed humanity utterly, you are given one chance to let go or double down on your selfish sense of greatness. After playing a hero the whole game, the only effective act of heroism you can truly perform is recognizing that your part in the story is done and giving someone else the chance to fuck up less than you did. You were never a savior, just a magical zombie dipshit who thought you knew better than everyone. And in a genre that is so fixated on telling the player how important and powerful they are, Enderal’s spiteful determination to humble its heroes is truly refreshing.