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So. This game was a classic that everyone was talking about. And, as will happen to games in a fast-paced consumerist society, once everyone started talking about another game, this one ended up in the bargain bin. Knowing it had had a good press, I bought it. Short of memory, I bought it from another bargain bin later, this time without glossy booklet. A third time, I saw the collection: Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, in another bargain bin but decided I didn't want yet a third Morrowind CD. I had at that time been ill for months, and didn't know yet how chronic that illness was to become. Due to nightly gastrointestinal discomfort and the inability of the Dutch to SHUT UP well before 00:00, especially in thin-walled buildings where their voices carry, I ended up installing a few games to keep my mind off abdominal mutterings and my ears covered against Dutch jabbering. The games included Morrowind. I was rapidly hooked.

I researched this game online and found some much-needed fan-made game improvements as well as something called "companion mods", nearly all of which needed the expansion packs Tribunal and Bloodmoon. The bargain bin was revisited to fish out that golden oldies collection. Alas, it was gone (and I'd just about dug to the bottom of the bin) but what I did find was the Morrowind Game of the Year edition, or GOTY as the fandom calls it, which included the two expansions. Which meant: yay! Companions! (I have a thing about companion mods.)

This is an RPG. It has races, classes, stats, levelling, monsters, treasure, no dungeons to speak of, but a 3D world with a 360-degree view, horizontally and vertically, of which every inch can be explored, and plenty of quests. More quests can be added, since, to extend its lifespan, this was an open-ended RPG, one to which fans could add content. Because of its (limited, as the gamemakers probably underestimated the fans' enthusiasm) editor, it can be, with the ingenuity of Morrowind modders, made into something like a sim. The gamemakers' intention was to make a game where you could do just whatever you liked (with consequences, of course - crimes are punished, and some actions will wreck the plotline), add your own quests with an editor once the in-game quests are done and even, if you chose, ignore all the in-game quests altogether and live as a virtual bandit or hunter-gatherer. Something so close to creating a private virtual reality had to become enormously popular, and it did. The character design is extremely ugly, but with the Better Heads and Better Bodies replacement, it's like playing The Sims 2, only you don't have to buy a whole new computer to install it, and, through the persona of the main character, you are one of them, and can interact with the others. This has led to Sims-style mods where the main player can romance and marry any one of the NPCs and even have babies. It has led to my own favourite type of mod: companions, which has the double advantage of Sims-style interaction and allowing the "band of adventurers" aspect of RPGs back in, although companions, being NPCs, will not level on their own without fan-made scripts. And this is a good place to add that the long and complicated scripts of modding fans contrast sharply with the simple little scripts made by the developers. This game engine is less complicated than the Maxis-made one, chiefly noting what time it is, what the weather is (one bit of realism missing from The Sims), how many monsters you've killed, and how much loot you've amassed; NPCs don't have to eat, drink or sleep, and neither do you.

You are now in Seyda Neen.

Central to all games in the Elders Scrolls is lore. This is important enough to deserve italics, and a paragraph of its own. Generally, RPGs use standard ingredients of D&D, especially when it comes to classes, races and abilities, but the Elder Scrolls games, even though they use these standard ingredients, detach them from their roots and brew them into something completely different. The Dark Elves, for instance, or Dunmer as they call themselves; when I think of dark elves, I think of drow, but Dunmer are obviously not drow. They are not creatures of the night, but a mutation of High Elves, sprung from misuse of a certain dwarven artifact. And dwarves are Dwemer, of House Dwemer, suggesting, since the Dunmer are organized in houses, that the Dwemer are also a mutation of High Elves. As are orcs ("Orsimer"); but Tolkien, the inventor of orcs, suggested as much in his own works, so that, at least, is canon. Within the lore of the Elder Scrolls, orcs are no more evil than other ethnic groups, and their armour is actually superior. The humans in this game come in several varieties, and the human races and cultures are a mixture of ancient and contemporary, the dominant human culture clearly mirroring the Roman Empire in the process of colonizing Europe. These differences, and the intrusion of sordid human history into a D&D reality, constantly makes me go "no no, this is all WRONG!" but it grows on me after a while. The foundation for this lore was laid in the two non-open-ended games preceding Morrowind, but now, with the possibility of fan-made content, it is open to adulteration, and I understand why modders so earnestly want to preserve and reinforce this fragile universe, and keep out both classical RPG lore and anything that would suggest the makers of this epic game are twentieth-century programmers who watch TV and eat pizza.

I'll mention the classes and abilities first, because these are not so important to lore. The abilities are many but fairly standard, extra specializations being added like "Security" and "Speechcraft". The classes are also an expanded version of the kind of classes one may expect of an RPG game (of course, something as non-lore and Tolkienish as "ranger" is missing) but they are really a combination of abilities, and players can combine existing abilities to create new classes, even as part of the in-game character creation process. I especially noticed combinations of the originally incompatible fighting and mage classes: Spellsword, Nightblade, Battlemage. The classes are also abused to organize NPCs: Slave, Noble, Commoner and Merchant are all classes, though the player can't choose them. But then come the races. There are ten of them. There are soundbytes for greeting, attack and "mumbling to oneself" situations, and every race has its own soundbytes, further characterizing that race.

To start with the most obvious: Redguards are simply African Americans, bringing Oprah and Bill Cosby into a medieval white-people setting. They don't bother with surnames. Bold and colourful, with cornrows, small afros or straightened Michael Jackson hair, they don't quite use language like "yo, I'm gonna bust yo ass" but it's close. A soundbyte that made a deep enough impression to be repeated on a newsgroup is the female Redguards' "I like wat I see!" which comes discomfortingly close to the famous Fargoth greetings. Bretons, another group that wouldn't really fit in a classic RPG setting, are French, and obviously "ze wussy Frensh", speaking meticulous British, which is funny as the French and British have long been enemies, and the real Bretons, who are Celts, hate the French for oppressing them and their culture. Beside this Celtic race, there is the Germanic race of the clearly pseudo-Scandinavian Nords, the males of which speak with a Scottish accent (which is incorrect, as the Scots are Celts, but I guess a Swedish chef accent just wouldn't have been right) while the females, to get the idea across that they can pack a wallop too, sound like all-American cowgals. Because a Scottish accent in women just makes them sound frigid, I presume. Hmm, considering they come from the freezing-cold Skyrim, that might be appropriate. Skyrim sounds like a reference to the old Scandinavian belief that the world is flat and ends at the line where sky and sea meet, and that it is possible to sail over the world's edge. Nords don't have surnames, but they usually have descriptions tacked to their name: Eydis Fire-Eye, Sjorvar Horsemouth, Radd Hard-heart. They are hostile towards all elves, but especially Dunmer, with whom they've had territorial squabblings. Which is ironic, since the whole concept of elves comes from Scandinavian mythology: next to the Aesir and Vanir, the greater gods, the "alf" and "swartalf" (black elf) races were lesser gods that inhabited the forest. To the Scandinavians, however, elves were on the same level as trolls: tricksters and baby-stealers, so the enmity has a real-reality historical basis. The Imperials, finally, are obviously the Romans, negotiating, subjugating and colonizing, their enormous empire constantly in danger of crumbling, and the skooma and moon sugar they try so hard to banish recalls opium, against the use of which harsh laws were passed. Their names are either Roman or fake Roman and sometimes quite fitting, as with Crassius Curio ("Strange") and the warrior champion Miles Gloriosus. Their accents are imperiously British.

That concludes the human races; then there are the pure, golden-skinned High Elves, or Altmer, who are to the Imperials what the Greeks were to the Romans, "ha, we are the truly civilized ones, you copycatted everything from us", and whose accents are higher-class British with that touch of superiority and terminal boredom with the banality of the world. Elves refer to themselves as "mer", as opposed to "men": the humans, and "beast": everything else, and so the "correct" (according to Elder Scrolls lore) names for the three elf races are Altmer, Dunmer and Bosmer. Further mention is made of other primitive and sometimes hostile elf races, but they are not playable races. Descended from the regal Altmer are the Chimer or "changed ones", later to become the grey-skinned Dunmer, who live in Morrowind, consisting of the island of Vvardenfell, where the game is set, and a circular strip of mainland around it; Vvardenfell is dominated by a volcano spewing disease-causing ash. The Dunmer are socially split up into the clan-like Houses, and the equally clan-oriented but much less organized Ashlanders who still live according to the old ways, the ancient nature of their beliefs and habits emphasized by their Sumerian-sounding names. The situation of the Ashlanders has parallels with that of the native Americans, so it's not surprising they hate foreigners of all makes and models, but xenophobia and chauvinism is as typically Dunmer as their dark skins and gloomy dispositions. Not to mention the "dark" voices: the female voices are simply deep, but for the male voices, "gargling rocks" (a description from a funny forum thread) nicely covers it. The person who did those soundbytes must have been a heavy smoker. Such a dry raspy voice does not lend itself to expressing emotions, especially friendly ones, and Dunmer men trying to sound friendly just come across as obsequious, which is all the more reason to preserve a grim, dignified demeanour. Under their arrogance and hostility, however, Dunmer are as down-to-earth and silly as everyone else, whether they're sleeping around, desperately trying to get a woman interested, praising the personable nature of their packguar or indulging in their pillow fetish. What makes them icky to other races, although they think it only normal themselves, is their habit of enshrining the bones of their dead ancestors for protection, which they adamantly insist is not necromancy. Whether House or Ashlander, they generally have a first name and family name, probably to reflect the great importance of family, and, as a touch of realism, the same names and family names appear on different NPCs, to indicate how families can spread, and names be recycled. The Bosmer, finally, are elves as elves are popularly thought of: small woodland dwellers who know how to handle a bow and arrow. Living in symbiosis with plants, they are staunchly carnivorous, and would rather eat each other than anything vegetable. They are small (though the gamemakers forgot to shrink the females) and have squeaky voices to emphasize their smallness, which for Bosmer males has provoked a reaction of "gaaayyyyy!" from a certain type of fan. Like the Nords and Redguards (and like the Altmer, for that matter) they have no use for surnames; as with the Altmer, their names have a "Tolkien elf" ring to it, further setting the Dunmer apart from their fellow elves.

Fargoth with Better Heads, Better Bodies and Better Clothes.

Lastly the beast races, which probably includes the orcs, or "pig children", despite their possibly elven descent: any self-respecting RPG must have at least humans, elves, orcs, a half-reptilian race and a half-mammalian race, and in the world of the Elder Scrolls, the last two positions are filled by the Argonians and the Khajiit. In this world, orcs are not small and deformed, but big and burly. They may be brutish, but no more so than Redguards or Nords. They take pride in their ability to endure suffering, not inflict it, and don't consider themselves inferior to anyone else. Their skin colour is light green, their voices are the kind of deep that indicates large physical size, and their names, following the pattern of "grmgrm gra-burble", suggest the guttural nature of orc language. The cat people or Khajiit, main users of the forbidden drug moon sugar and its distillate skooma, are "beast races" in the technical sense of having quadruped hind legs and walking on their toes. Their voicebytes sound like cats trying to speak English and purring whenever they encounter an "r". Being "animal", they are very simple types, don't bother with surnames and don't recognize property rights; if they see something they like, it's theirs. Held in as low esteem as the Khajiit is the other technically speaking beast race, the lizard-like Argonians, and the Dunmer abduct both to use them as slaves, but Argonians are, as opposed to Khajiit, civilized, restrained and quite intelligent. (Khajiit are clever, which is not the same thing.) Their names are exotic and often translated, like "Hides-His-Eyes" and "Skink-In-Tree's-Shade". A typical Argonian is Huleeya, the history student, Morag Tong assassin and, as he puts it, free Imperial citizen, who maintains his calm and dignity when pushed around by a gang of racist Dunmer, who he could very easily have killed. Another is Im-Kilaya at the Argonian mission, who helps escaped slaves flee the island, and tries to improve Dunmer attitudes towards Argonians by behaving impeccably himself. Argonians speak slowly and ponderously, and remind me of the Chinese actors in "The Last Emperor" who all spoke English with Italian accents to make it clear to the audience that they were foreigners.

As the race descriptions already indicate, for an RPG, which is generally about killing for treasure, the NPCs have a remarkable amount of personality. An implicit part of the player's quest is discovering the "lore"; Morrowind's history and culture. This "lore" is not packaged in one single textbook, but comes in many snippets, and through many different and sometimes opposing viewpoints. Any race typically gets three descriptions: the flattering description from members of that race; the very negative description from non-members of that race, especially if they're Dunmer; and a fairly neutral description from "Savants", people of learning who act as walking encyclopedias. As partial as the races are the various "factions", like races but culturally defined, some of which the player can join: the Guilds, cults, Dunmer Houses and other organizations. An especially funny faction is the Camonna Tong, the national Dunmer crime syndicate. As well as simply being criminals, and in competition with the Thieves Guild which is of Imperial origin, they are jingoist Empire-haters and think they are Morrowind's salvation. (They're brutal killers, and most of Morrowind wishes they were gone.) Although they claim to hate the Thieves' Guild for being Imperial, the vicious enmity between the Great Houses of the Dunmer, none of which are Imperial, and between the settled Dunmer and Ashlanders, show that one really doesn't need to be a foreigner to earn a Dunmer's hatred. And, as subjugated provinces of the Empire go, Morrowind was lucky; instead of a defeat, the Tribunal, the three elves elevated to divinity and worshipped as patron saints by the Dunmer Tribunal Temple faction, arranged an armistice. The Dunmer are allowed to keep their sacred laws and customs, including the practice of slavery. To make it funnier still, House Hlaalu, the supposedly Imperial-friendly clan, is really a big cover operation for the Camonna Tong. The former head of House Hlaalu and now representative of the Emperor in Vvardenfell, Duke Vedam Dren, is losing sleep keeping all the factions out of each other's hair, and, as if that wasn't enough, his brother is the head of the Camonna Tong and his daughter a member of the Twin Lamps, a technically illegal organization that wants to abolish slavery. The righteous and honourable House Redoran, then? Its leader is a bully who's done some shady things. Redorans hate outlanders (what the Dunmer call anyone not of their race or culture) but they've erected a fort out of noblesse oblige for a captain Darius, and the garrison stationed there is mostly orcs. House Telvanni, the clan of wizards who think might is right? One of them is batshit insane. Speaking of orcs, the most memorable orcish character is a Sharn gra-Muzgrob, who greets the first-time visitor with "PLEASE leave me alone. I CANNOT think with all these interruptions". Of course the most memorable character of the game is the first one the player meets on the way out of the office: Fargoth, the Bosmer who produces some hair-raising greetings if he likes you well enough. He seems to be universally hated for this, and who knows, there may be self-help groups for Fargoth survivors out there. What I'm trying to say is: there are no goodguys in this universe. There are no badguys. There are just a lot of little people trying to manage, who are often different from what they think they are or what they seem or pretend to be, and who are mostly enormously biased. Although this is an RPG, where technically you can kill anyone (even the god Vivec) for loot, I think they're darlings and can't bear to kill any of them. Not even Fjol.

Morrowind humour

Also part of the lore is the local fauna and flora. There are some existing plants and animals (heather, wolves) but most of it is made up. Animal and plant ingredients are used for that other standard part of RPGs, magic. In this case, any ingredient, however solid, can be made into a magical potion. A daring case of stretching lore to breaking point is the "netch ranch", which fortunately does not feature cowboys, as netch are airborne dry-land jellyfish, and not really "herd"-able, especially the "betty netch". The island of Vvardenfell is split up into different areas, each with its own environment harbouring its local wildlife. Because I don't like any form of imperialism, I planned not to report to Caius Cosades (the Imperial spymaster who pretends to be just a drug addict, and gratifyingly enough doesn't give a hoot about the Empire) but to become a faction-free virtual survivalist out in the wild. And that can be done; the game allows for it. But joining a faction doesn't mean that much; it's mostly a way to get money without fear of arrest. The Houses are mutually exclusive, but otherwise, the player can join all factions, even though the Tribunal Temple priests will not be pleased if the player also joins their rival, the Imperial Cult. There are also many faction-free quests, like helping a lady in need who just happens to be a bandit, or saving a lost biologist from vicious kagouti. Of the factions, the Thieves Guild, which I thought was a no-no, is one of the ethically better choices; the Mages Guild is iffy, the Fighter's Guild has been corrupted by the Camonna Tong and the Morag Tong, despite its high standards, is really just an option for players who want to indulge their blood-lust. Of course the best reason to join a faction is for service discounts and meeting amusing characters; the player can refuse missions, and they generally don't have a deadline.

And, oh yes, there's the fine art of levelling: increasing your skills in such a way that you can raise a maximum of attribute points when you advance ten points in any of your character's major or minor skills. I don't give a hoot about levelling. Which just goes to prove that I don't really like RPGs, and that the success of this game comes from having something to offer even to people who wouldn't know what a hit point was if it bit them.

Update January 2011: spoiler follows. If you don't want the game experience ruined for good, don't scroll below this graphic.

Bye bye, Caldera...

I don't like the in-game books. Apart from notable exceptions like the sermons of Vivec and Crassius Curio's play, which are in a category of their own, I only read them to gather lore and get a better feel for the game world, occasionally wincing at both the casual cruelty and the clumsy "hack writer" style. Honestly, there is fanfic more elegantly written than this. Writing literature isn't just a matter of stringing words together, there has to be a sense of flow to it. Wuthering Heights, that staple of English Lit. classes, has that sense of flow. The average in-game book with a narrative does not. A lowlight is The Real Barenziah, which, to make it even stupider, seems to have been written from the subject's point of view, when it is supposed to have been the work of a biographer who could not have known what she was thinking and feeling. (Also, from the same work in an earlier game: silliest sex scene ever, probably written by a male and/or virgin, mercifully censored in the Morrowind game.) The only well-written book is The Ruins of Kemel-Ze, which is atypical in having both a first-person narrative and not ending in gruesome death. Funnily enough, the interviews with fictional characters, roleplaying exchanges between Sotha Sil and Divayth Fyr and the out-of-game comical story about a student association which has members from all countries, make an entertaining read. As long as the text is "online roleplay" style, it's good, but as soon as it becomes an informative and/or dramatized narrative, the hack writer takes over.

So I wasn't too interested in the Morrowind novels that Bethesda had planned, assuming them to be written in the same horrid style and, no doubt, with the same death quota ("at least one corpse per chapter, preferably a death that could have been avoided"). Still, I would like to know the contents for the sake of lore. The first novel is now finished, and the second expectation, at least, came true. Morrowind has been destroyed. That asteroid which Vivec saw fit to suspend over his city as a sign of his power, rather than landing it gently or disintegrating it, has come down, not only flattening Vivec City as expected, but, by some fluke of physics, making enough impact to destroy a wide circle of terrain roughly corresponding with the eastern, western and northern borders of Morrowind. The southern bit remains, and is overrun with Argonians eager for revenge. Morrowind's surviving inhabitants flee to Solstheim ("jewel of absolutely nowhere. Get out while you still can.").

When I heard about that, it was as if a similar hole had been struck in my chest, reaching from the solar plexus to the collar bone and from the left to the right side of my ribcage.

Apparently this was the standard reaction of fans, which the source of my information described with derision, as the destruction had been foretold by Vivec's own sermons, hadn't it? When Vivec loses his power - and if the game is played as intended, he will - then the rock comes crashing down. But, firstly, Vivec doesn't lose all of his power immediately, and in the game, the Ministry of Truth isn't even big enough, let alone far away enough, to even destroy all of Vivec City. Secondly, the happy reaction to the defeat of Dagoth Ur and the blue sky over Morrowind suggest a revival of its culture and the start of a golden age. Thirdly, Imperial Spymaster Caius Cosades, in his parting words, asks the player to keep Morrowind safe in the upcoming power struggle. Yet, less than eighteen years after the events in the next game, Oblivion, which in turn took place six years after the destruction of the Heart of Lorkhan (as checked in the timeline of the UESPwiki, which has been updated with the information from this novel; TVTropes puts it at forty years), the gameworld that players became so immersed in will be obliterated. I can picture players less soft-hearted than myself, raging: "I went to all the trouble of defeating Dagoth Ur - for this???"

The Bethesda company ("CasualCruelty'R'Us") has announced that in the second novel, maybe not everyone will die. It has also announced that the next game after Oblivion will take place in Skyrim. Which will, presumably, be overrun by hordes of pointy-eared dark-skinned refugees. My heart bleeds for them.

(Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out on 11-11-2011, full of bugs in the rush to meet that special deadline, and forcing its buyers to play it via Steam. And, yes, it is. They're confined to the Grey Quarters, while the natives rage against the Empire in a very familiar way. Welcome to Nord racism.)

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