The Games That Made Us Gamers: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

“The Games That Made Us Gamers” is a series of special-edition retrospectives running throughout the week of this year’s Celebration of Games. The BnB team and fellow guest contributors are sharing their origin stories as they look back and remember the interactive experiences that turned them to the world of joysticks and keyboards.

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Vvardenfell is a big, scary backwater.

Annoying Outlander

Throughout my many years of adventuring across the Vvardenfell island district of Morrowind, I only know one thing for certain: no one really likes me. From farmhouse to village to town to capital city, the indigenous dark elf (or Dunmer) inhabitants all refer to me as “outlander” with varying degrees of vitriol, and that’s before they break out the “s’wits”, the “n’wahs” and the “fetchers”. In a toilsome world with its own long list of grievances and internal instabilities, I am merely a bothersome foreigner who asks too many questions. How have I survived so long in such an inhospitable place?

I first witnessed Morrowind in action at school of all places. During downtime before an evening study period, a fat Russian acquaintance of mine had opened up his laptop and was prancing about a ruined demonic fortress, flattening angry beasts with a warhammer and rifling through chests and barrels for potions, swords and suits of armour. I didn’t particularly like him. But when I discovered that this was for no reason other than his own enjoyment and that he could, in fact, journey to the other side of the country at his own will,  I spent the next hour looking over his shoulder as he explored caves, temples, towns and mountains, picking up a few quests at a local guild and thieving gold from a local merchant along the way because, y’know, he felt like it. I knew instantly that this was the game I wanted to play more than anything else in the world: I wanted to be there.

A few months later, I was. In fact, I was a prisoner – released and sent away on the orders of the Emperor, no less – stepping out of a boat and into the dock of the village of Seyda Neen. My first vista was the most memorable: directly ahead, a bustling community with thatched cottages and shacks; to my left, swampland draped with vines and littered with algae-soaked tree stumps; and to my right, foothills, and a seemingly docile giant flea. Just what was this place? Hurried through customs and given a package to deliver to some chap in a place called “Balmora”, my Imperial ranger self was set loose upon the world.  “Good luck”, the game told me. I needed it.

Bloodmoon's undead draugr, my second most terrifying enemy after the Bonelord. *shudder*

And so I adventured and adventured and adventured over days and weeks, then months, then years. I have played Morrowind more than any other game I own, but I have still failed to complete the main story quest. It’s not that I can’t, it’s just that I haven’t got around to it yet. There’s almost too much to do. I’ve created so many characters and embodied so many roles that I couldn’t possibly count them all: I’ve been a crusader, clearing caves and shrines of bandits and vampires; I’ve taken up the mantle of a master spellsword, combining destructive magic with blade; I’ve scouted every square inch with bow and arrow and lived off hunted game and wild fruits; I’ve sunk daggers into the backs of the good and the wicked as a noble and ignoble assassin; I’ve avenged, murdered, given, stolen, explored, settled, brought hope and wreaked havoc. In the world of Morrowind, I have existed in an entirely new realm.

The seat of House Redoran, Ald-Ruhn is a city made from the carapaces of long-dead giant crabs.

How Do You Like Morrowind, Outlander?

To this day, the staggering amount of environmental diversity contained within Morrowind and its two expansions, Tribunal and Bloodmoon, boggles my mind.  I dread having to travel into the island’s interior, for there lies the terrifying, sparsely populated ashen wastes of Molag Amur and Sheogorad, choked and infested with twisted plants and untamed creatures, and regularly made impassable by disorienting dust storms. As an impressionable thirteen year old and intolerant of anything remotely creepy, these were places I simply did not go. And don’t get me started on those damned ancestral tombs.

Morrowind’s magical world of impossible imagination deeply stimulated my young mind. Vvardenfell was an isolated Imperial frontier in the middle of nowhere, backwards and primitive,  home to grumpy wizards living in mushroom towers, cities made of monstrous crab shells and a plague-spreading volcano. It was an old world, an ancient one, and if you chose not to respect it – like walking too far up the wrong road or misstepping into a particularly cursed dwarven ruin – you would surely perish. I lost myself in the rich lore and culture of the dark elves; I had been sent to an island under jurisdiction of the human Cyrodiilic Empire, but beneath the surface of calm lay a simmering cauldron of millennia-old factionalism, where Dunmer “Great Houses” warred with each other for land, political influence and the precedence of their own customs and privileges, but all did their best to hide the shame and impotency of foreign occupation; meanwhile, the country’s official religion of the Tribunal, a trinity of three living gods, was riven by discord, competing with the beliefs of the Imperium, dissident priests and animalistic ancestor worshippers.

To call the history and culture of the dark elves “complex” is the understatement of the Third Era, and that was before you had investigated the backgrounds of the thousand NPCs or read any of the hundreds of in-game books full of tales of the other, unseen provinces. While many deemed such lore impenetrable, to me, this was an entirely unprecedented fantasy universe: Morrowind was my Dungeons & Dragons, an interactive epic that had me enthralled and agog on my first foray.

The Royal Guard of King Helseth in the Tribunal expansion sport the most stylish armour ever forged. Ever.

Wealth Beyond Measure, Outlander

Morrowind has brought more than just fond memories of boyish adventure. Within days, my friends knew all about my exploits in Vvardenfell, and within months, we all sat about empty classrooms and study halls sharing ideas for our own quests, characters and towns: The fantastic mod tool, “The Elder Scrolls Construction Set”, allowed us to alter a game we loved with our own personal touches. How could it possibly get better? Simply put, Morrowind inspired a new creative nuance to our friendships – few games can claim such a special, private feat.

The bright, comparatively happy world of successor Oblivion did not compare to the darkness of Morrowind. With its paved roads and endless forests, it was too sterile, too familiar – where were the Ashlander tribesmen, the silt striders, the bizarre, warped beings of Red Mountain? Though immensely attractive and mercifully less clunky with its responsive controls, the heart of the Empire had no internal strife to match Morrowind’s, no sense of isolation, nor was its main narrative pivot remotely engaging. I enjoyed it, of course, but not on the same level.

2003 was something of a videogame renaissance for me, then. Though an avid gamer for nigh on a decade before that, here was an experience so enthralling that I felt I was a part of it – it was exactly the sort of nourishment my spongy adolescent mind craved. “Bethedsa are world-builders”, I thought, “I wish I could to that.” And thus began an entirely new adventure…

(P.S. I still sprint past those ancestral tombs.)

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