Monday, June 29, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part VIII - A Return to Morrowind

OK, I'm having fun again.

At the foot of Ash Mountain. In a different time, in a different era, (and on a different platform) my younger self stood before a similar volcano and dreamed of heroic deeds.

Funnily enough a large part of this is because the Daggerfall Covenant is getting so badly trounced in my current campaign of Thornblade that power levelling to VR14 wouldn't achieve anything anyway. Even if I was the baddest TESO player alive with the best gear, pro skills, superhuman twitch reflexes and zero latency sitting on the level cap - and I'm none of those things - it wouldn't make a whit of difference. There are not enough Covenant left in this campaign to stop the yellow juggernaut. I've also noticed that I am climbing the Emperor leaderboard while NOT playing, which means that the people ahead of me are abandoning the campaign for greener pastures and thereby increasing my rank. I was wrong about all the other campaigns being dead, incidentally - the other 30 day Azura's Star campaign is fiercely contested with each faction making a spirited showing. I just picked a dud, apparently. Still, it seems universally acknowledged that DC is the weakest of the three factions across all the campaigns, and the pitiful state of DC is best illustrated by the fact that <Vehemence>,  a prominent EP guild, is re-rerolling DC in order to stop the rot and restore balance to the Force.

A comparison of activity within the five North American campaigns during US peak time. This sample was taken Friday evening US time (26 June 2015), and it shows that all the campaigns with the exception of Thornblade are still active and well-populated.


Another comparison, this time this sample was taken on Saturday evening US time (27 June 2015).

With the pressure to level off my shoulders I can stop fixating on attaining VR14, and stop to smell the roses. Questing has become bearable, even fun again, thanks largely in part to the fact that I've finally completed the Altmeri Dominion and opened up the Ebonheart quest hubs. Morrowind is my favourite Elders Scrolls title followed closely by Skyrim, and so the opportunity to explore the lands which I had become intimately familiar with in single player titles was something that appealed to me greatly. I could have wept with joy when I first entered the Stonefalls zone and saw the netches floating amongst the giant mushrooms and the guar grazing peacefully in the fields of Morrowind. I paused to take a selfie with an unimpressed Ordinator guard near the Temple of the Tribunal, delved deep into a kwama mine amongst the kwama warriors and the scribs, battled some nix-hounds and alit, and stood stock still in an ash storm beneath the shadow of a great volcano. Ash Mountain dominates the geography of Stonefalls, and its brooding presence took me back (or forward?) to another time, where a younger man with an X-Box walked the footsteps of the Nerevarine, united a people, and set them free from the false worship of the Tribunal.

Who would have thought that I'd be so happy to see a floating jellyfish?

I played Morrowind over a decade ago, and it was my entry point into the world of the Elder Scrolls. I spent hours in that game, with just me and my controller, wandering the island of Vvardenfell, learning its history and culture and listening to the beautifully atmospheric ambient music composed by Jeremy Soule. I have played the subsequent titles of Oblivion and Skyrim, and even though they represented advances in technology and virtual storytelling, Morrowind will always still be my first love. It didn't have voice overs or Radiant AI, but it did its world-building the old-fashioned way - through reams and reams of written text, and through exploration of the world around me. I don't know exactly when the lore of the game "took" with me - when I first started the game all I was interested in was building my character's power. Back in the day jumping improved your Athletics skill, which meant that everywhere I went I was doing my best Mario impersonation, leaping, skipping and bounding with every step. It paid off in the end - once my Athletics was 100 I was dashing across the roof tops of Balmora like Batman, clearing alleys and streets in a single bound. Then I found out about flying, and that culminated with my avatar learning, crafting, and finally imbibing a stack of flight potions and taking wing a la Superman. Do you know that there is cloud cover in Morrowind, and once you break through you will find yourself floating above a fluffy sea of white, with the sun your only companion in the skies? Then there are potions of underwater breathing, and the expeditions into the coastal waters around Vvanderfell. I would use the Aquaman reference, except for the fact that I think he is the laughing stock of the DC Universe. Nice power, Aquaman. I wish I could breath underwater and talk to fish. Not.

Guar roam and play in the fields of Morrowind.

The lore did get to me, in the end. Reading was a great inconvenience at first, but gradually as I explored the story seeped into my consciousness. Environment has a language all of its own, as does music and ambience, and my initial reluctance soon gave way to a yielding acceptance of the virtual world around me. I knew I was hooked when I found myself hoarding books and stashing them in my avatar's home in Balmora. I still remember my home in Morrowind - an unassuming dwelling stuffed to the rafters with books, weapons and armour of all shapes, makes, and sizes. There were repositories for gems, food and potions, and the various alcoholic beverages of the game were stacked in order on one of the shelves. My library eventually encompassed all the tomes within the game - I can recall ransacking the Great Library in Vivec City for a particularly obscure and rare work to complete the collection.

Riding through am ash storm takes me back to the hours I spent in Vvardenfell.

The depth of the lore in Morrowind is demonstrated by two things. The first is the inclusion by the game makers of an obscure and terrible disease called porphyric haemophilia, otherwise known as vampirism. The early stages of this affliction is easily remedied by a simple cantrip or a common potion, but the cure for the fully developed version of this malady can only be found through diligent research and study. Pursuing this course will open up a hidden world of nightwalkers, with their own societies, safe houses and lore, all of which is completely optional and unrelated to the main game. The second is the fact that the texts within the game are not unified and cohesive, but are contradictory, conflicting and divergent, thus opening up the possibilities for subversive readings and alternative interpretations of traditional texts. In fact the search for truth is the game's leitmotif - the received wisdom of Tribunal doctrine is gradually, inexorably and irrevocably revealed as a lie, and you are instrumental in unravelling the central mystery behind the façade.

Swapping stories with an Ordinator. They don't appear impressed.

Morrowind would seem terribly dated now by today's standards, and the magic which captivated me would leave the current generation cold and unmoved. That is the job of the newer versions of the story, and that is why Oblivion and Skyrim follow the same tropes, albeit with better graphics, better AI and voice acting. The Hero of Kvatch and the dovakhiin are cut from the same mold, but for me Morrowind was my personal doorway to the world of the Elder Scrolls. If it worked for me with Morrowind, then it can also work for thousands of Elder Scroll neophytes stepping into this universe for the first time with subsequent titles bearing the Elder Scrolls brand. This is also the source of much of the anger directed at TESO - the fear that the MMO would fail in what some have come to see as the series' sacred duty to induct new believers into the Elder Scrolls universe.

No other MMO does ambience like TESO. The rumble of thunder, the patter of rain and the crackling of lightning along with the stunning vistas can transport you to another world. Where the hell is everyone else though?

In a way TESO was put in a no win quandary - they were forced to create a game whose central trope was to make the player believe that they were the hero of the age in a setting inimical to that convention. Massive multiplayer games are notoriously good at reminding us that we are not special - there is always someone better geared or more skilled, or has more time and money to devote to the game. Such an environment is anathema to the fundamental tenet of the Elder Scrolls. In trying to reconcile this dichotomy Zenimax has created one of best single player MMOs in the market - a megashard world in which the player quests mostly on their own. The problem with single player MMOs is that they are competing with sleeker, specialised single player titles like The Witcher, Dragon Age and single player Elder Scrolls titles who can devote their whole budget to customising their experience without having to worry about pesky things like server load, lag spikes and other players.

Arriving at the Temple of the Tribunal in Mournhold, the capital of Morrowind.

None of that matters to me anymore. Freed from the strident demands of levelling I can ease my foot off the accelerator, and let the environment of TESO take me back to one of the seminal computer role-playing game experiences of my life. For me it is a chance to see the lands of the Dunmer again - to meet the various members of the great houses of Hlaalu, Redoran, Telvanni, Indoril and Dres once more. To meet the Ashlanders again, who hold faith to their older and more primal Daedric gods and whose stalwart stoicism will be vindicated in the future. To see the Ordinators maintain the faith, and to see the Temple perform good works in the name of a religion which ultimately proved to be misbegotten. And most importantly, to see the Almsivi - the Tribunal itself, the living gods of the Dunmer - to see them once more, in happier times before the onset of hubris, apathy, ennui, indifference and madness. In TESO the Tribunal are still at the height of their power - Dagoth Ur, previously thought slain at the hands of Nerevar, will not reappear to challenge Vivec, Sotha Sil and Almalexia for another 300 years (2E 882). The events of Morrowind do not take place until the end of the Third Age (3E 427) seven centuries after the period in which TESO is set (2E 582). Given the meditations on the paradox of time in Elder Scrolls lore, it seems fitting that the older me is experiencing the younger era of Morrowind now, while the younger me walked the footsteps of the Nerevarine 700 years later in the future over a decade ago. Arriving at the capital of Mournhold again after visiting this city 13 years ago in Tribunal, I felt the thrill of coming home to a place familiar but different. I know that nothing the developers have wrought here will ever compare to the wild flights of fancy engendered in my mind by the simple words used to such great world-building effect in Morrowind. But it is a real place to me, as real as any I have walked on with my own two feet, and it makes me happy to visit it one more time outside the halls of my own memory.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this beautiful paean to one of the greatest virtual worlds ever made. This is, perhaps, my greatest regret in missing out on ESO: the chance to visit Morrowind once more, in a different time, potentially with friends. (There aren't any guilds made up entirely of TESIII fanatics, are there?)

    There's just something magical about TESIII that brings out the poets in us. I leave you with this little piece I've admired for years (the most recent comment is mine): http://bit.ly/1GN7AzW

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    1. If such a guild exists I have yet to encounter them in my travels. Hell, I meet maybe one or two people per zone thanks to the way the game is instanced in non-Daggerfall lands.

      The forums of Tamriel Foundry and Zenimax are interesting hang-outs for people interested in Elder Scrolls lore, however - there can be some quite esoteric discussions in their respective lore sections. The last one I read was a spirited debate as to whether Nedes are the ancestors of present day Nords, or an entirely different subset of humans native to Tamriel.

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