Because in real-life, I’m fighting the fluctuating but constant feeling that I’m either being gaslighted by society at large or that things are utterly bleak and hopeless, and in the U.S., we’re experiencing so much social and political upheaval ramping up to an election with potential results that, frankly, terrify me, I’m going to use this space to babble about a video game that shaped how I write and what I write about.
That game is Morrowind.
Look at those graphics! Look at those giant bug critters! Look at those…people with eldritch horror tentacles ripping their way out of their faces…hm. Y’know, in the original low resolution on an old 90’s block screen, you didn’t quite get the visual horror of these guys that modern high resolution retexturing mods give them.
Anyway, this video game was THE video game for me, though as a kid, I had issues with sticking to a choice and playing a character for more than six levels, along with just not quite getting what I was supposed to be doing. So, as a kid, the guidebook was my bible. Like, really, I carried the guidebook around at school and when the glue in the spine crumbled from so much reading, I put the pages in individual protector sheets and stuck them in a binder. I also read a lot of the in-game lore books, since I was mostly restricted to Seyda Neen, Balmora, and maybe Ola Oad or Aldruhn if I felt particularly daring. A few times I ended up in Sadrith Mora, but since I usually didn’t play a character long enough to unlock the levitation spell, I couldn’t go past the entrance halls of the Telvanni towers.
A few years ago, I bought the game and played it as an adult and…yeah, well, the graphics haven’t aged all that well and the combat is absolutely nothing like subsequent games (Oblivion and Skyrim). But! As an adult, I was able to, 1. commit to one character and 2. finally understand how to read directions. Because there are no map markers in Morrowind, and occassionally, the directions are wrong. After many, many years of never getting beyond the first major quest in the main quest, I finished not only Morrowind, but Tribunal and Bloodmoon, the two expansions.
It also gave me the opportunity to truly appreciate how much of an indelligable mark this game made on impression proto-writer me, particularly in how I approach worldbuilding.
Morrowind has a steep learning curve, and it explains very little beyond the basics. Once you click past the tutorial, you are on your own (unless, of course, you have a guide). Instead, it immerses you entirely, and once you start scratching at the surface of the worldbuilding, you realize…it’s layers. Layers upon layers, and some of those layers are in direct contradiction with other layers, but both are, sort of, true. The sheer amount of reading available in this game is utterly staggering. Though the lore books average maybe four pages, there are hundreds. And, unlike subsequent titles, most of the game’s dialogue happens in dialogue boxes, with a single notable exception. Little is voiced. (But the little that is…oh, the sound of an Ordinator saying, “We’re watching you. Scum.” will forever be immortalized in my memory. Along with, “Mournhold! City of light! City of magic!” and “Wake up. There you go. You were dreaming. Now, what’s your name?”)
But the worldbuilding is so, so rich, and the quests and characters are some of the most unique in the Elder Scrolls series (excepting Elder Scrolls Online, only because that game is truly massive, and it does its fair share of callbacks to Morrowind, but I’ll get into it more later). And so much of it is conveyed with little explanation, forcing you, the player, to fill in the blanks and dialogue with it while the local fauna is trying to kill you as you run for your life under the canopies of giant mushroom trees. And if, like me, you’re one of those players who, when you stumble across a secret or uncover another layer of worldbuilding, you squeal in glee and treasure it like the shiny nugget it is, this game rewards you, and often. It encourages multiple play-throughs, simply because you are going to miss details, and every time through gives you something new.
Yet, it also plays a lot with the mutability of truth. Of how much perspective plays a role not only in history, but in how history unfolds in the present. And the importance of leaving just a bit of mystery, just a few questions unanswered, because it’s in those spaces that you let imagination proliferate.
So, basic rundown of the core concept of the game. By the emperor’s order, you’ve been pulled out of prison, stuck on a boat, and shipped to the very alien landscape of the island of Vvardenfell in Morrowind, one of the two eastern-most provinces of Tamriel. At first, you are an imperial agent who gets cast in the role of the Nerevarine, the reincarnation of Nerevar–an ancient Dunmer hero–and a sort of Dunmeri messiah figure. But, the further along in the story you go, the more tests your character passes, and it starts to become clear that you might actually be the Nerevarine, not just an impostor lookalike. Which coincides with the rise/reawakening of Dagoth Ur, the fellow behind the eldritch horror tentacles and, possibly, Nerevar’s murderer.*
I say possibly. Because it’s also possible he was murdered by his own allies, Vivec, Almalexia, and Sotha Sil, who subsequently ascended to a mortal godhood and became the Tribunal. And even though you have the opportunity to talk to, well, two of the three (Vivec and Almalexia), you’re never given a clear answer as to what happened. How did Nerevar die? It’s unclear, and depending on the interpretation, all perspectives are true due to a dragon break. But even without the dragon break, it’s fascinating to hold up the pieces, the snippets that different characters give you, and see how they fit together. What overlaps, what doesn’t? And that approach, that uncomfortable “knowing but no knowing” is a fascinating technique that I notice I often use in my own work. What’s truth? Subjective. Different people have different takes, different theories, even when they were witness to the event.
Also, judging by the content of Dead God’s Bones, I also really love to engage with the idea of mortal gods. Oh, and when I do utilize the chosen one trope, it’s almost always the “you look like the chosen one, you’ll do” and the character becomes the chosen one through a “fake it till you make it” approach (or never becomes the chosen one at all). Which has similar parallels to Morrowind’s approach.
And, for DGB at least, I often channel the visual, mm, texture of Morrowind and, to a certain degree, Oblivion. Less so Skyrim, not sure why. I often wish I had the ability to convey truly alien creatures the way visual media–such as games, movies, or art–can do. Writing is filtered through the reader’s perspective, and so such things require a different kind of building to maintain clarity. Sometimes, I wish I could drop a reader into a landscape like Vvardenfell the way Morrowind does but, alas, my skill is not yet high enough. But I can try, to some extent.
Still, I so very much enjoy building massive worlds to only show the surface, inviting a reader to scratch and see what’s underneath. Or, in the case of short fiction, since short fiction is limited in word count and what can be explored, setting up the illusion of great depth of worldbuilding. I strive to give just enough hints, while maintaining just enough mystery, to engage my readers’ imagination, and invite them to piece things together and fill in the blanks for themselves. Mostly because I want to recreate that experience that Morrowind provided me, but for someone else.
Also, as a side thing, I still haven’t found a literary equivalent of this game. I’m always on the hunt for suggestions, though, so if you’re familiar with Morrowind and have read something that channels the same spirit, please suggest?
Remember how I mentioned this would relate to ESO? Right, so when I bought ESO and started playing it for the first time, I hadn’t realized that the version I got came bundled, original game plus the Morrowind chapter. The game started, there was a tutorial thing, I did it because, er, ESO has a bit of a learning curve too, if you’re used to TES games. Anyway, tutorial over and…I’m in Seyda Neen. More so, I am on that DOCK, the one from the beginning of Morrowind and…the music is playing, and it’s reminiscent of the original soundtrack, to the point that some things are direct covers of the original, and…oh, the feels. So much sentimentality going on. And then I start walking and run into this thing:
And went, “What the hell is that? And what are those?”
Apparently, the in-game explanation for why this Vvardenfell’s flora and fauna look a little different (beyond developments in graphical capabilities and changes in aesthetics due to different development teams) is that ESO’s Morrowind is a little under a thousand years prior to the events of TES III: Morrowind, and things change. Notably, things change a lot if your island is an active volcano and only gets more active, and covers your land in a fine dusting of ash. Which actually makes a lot of sense. One of my critiques of the Elder Scrolls universe is that, between games, there often isn’t a huge visual difference, though hundreds of years may have passed. Beyond Vvardenfell, the entire architecture of Mournhold is different which…also makes sense, seeing that in a hundred years or so, it’s going to get razed.
TES in general has a thing for reoccurring characters, and ESO is no exception. There are a lot of references in ESO’s Morrowind to TES III: Morrowind (similarly, Skyrim’s Dragonborn expansion references a bit, though not quite as thoroughly).
I have shamelessly bought the Ald Velothi bug-style Redoran house in ESO and have, also shamelessly, decorated it to be as Morrowind-reminiscent as I could, with a few nods to the Clockwork City because, second to Vvardenfell, it’s by far my favorite area. Also, Clockwork City gave that denied chance to speak to Sotha Sil, seeing that events of Tribunal make that rather impossible. He’s…interesting. Philosophical but also very meta, very sideways-aware he’s an NPC. It’s an interesting conversation.** Vivec is Vivec, and by the end of the Vvardenfell chapter, I was questioning just how much I was charismatically manipulated into certain actions. Hmmmm… And Almalexia is…slightly less insane. But, also, roped me into saving her temple and then gifted me with a lamp? It felt a little anti-climactic, but also very fitting.***
However, since I’ve now cleared Vvardenfell, Clockwork City, Stonefalls, and Deshaan, I’m off to Shadowfen, which is very much new territory to explore, given that there hasn’t been an Elder Scrolls game set in Blackmarsh since Arena, but that’s set on/in all of Tamriel, and Daggerfall is as far back as I’ve gone so far.
In the meanwhile, I’m looking forward to Skywind, and fan-made port of Morrowind’s intellectual spirit into the Skyrim engine. They are making their own models, they’re making their own textures, they’re building Morrowind from the ground, up, but using Skyrim’s more modern infrastructure. And I absolutely cannot wait. This is the game that’ll woo me away from ESO, I guarantee. My grand-plan is to, eventually, play Skygerfall (the Daggerfall main quest remake in the Skyrim engine, a mod that’s already released), then Skywind, then Skyblivion (the Oblivion recreation in the Skyrim engine, much like Skywind), then eventually, replay Skyrim and actually do the main quest without taking a year break in the middle. And, depending on how the release schedule ends up, maybe being able to then play The Elder Scrolls VI.
And thus brings a close to my long, rambling ode to a game near and dear to my writerly heart. If not for Morrowind, I certainly wouldn’t write the way I do, and I wouldn’t be fascinated by the concepts that I am. Or, er, quite as obsessed with worldbuilding.****
After writing all this, I do find myself craving a new playthrough. Hm. (Wait for Skywind, I tell myself, wait for Skywind.)
* I don’t feel like this is a spoiler, since this game was released in 2002.
** There’s some a few references to what ends up happening to Sotha Sil peppered around in the dialogue. He apparently has defense measures set up for three potential, and possibly only, threats to his life. One is himself. Another is an angry daedric prince. The third is Almalexia. Very much a “Hah!” and “Oooh…” moment.
*** Also, fun and somewhat weird thing, but if you start playing in the Morrowind chapter, then go back and wander into Mournhold, you’ll run into a familiar face from Morrowind…who’ll have no idea who you are, because ESO is designed to go chronologically for character development, but being an MMORPG with multiple expansions, doesn’t guarantee a player will meet that character at the start of their arch.
**** It didn’t fit in the essay, so this is postscript, but the Elder Scrolls universe also plays, at least worldbuilding-wise, with cultures which aren’t based on a good vs. evil dichotomy, which is rare in high fantasy. A reoccurring theme within the Elder Scrolls is more an order vs. chaos, which is fascinating.