Damn! All this time and I haven’t told you about H. Rider Haggard. I suppose I should do that. There are three books that, reasonably, I could expect you to have the patience to sit through (unless, like me, you particularly like Victorian adventure fiction. If you don’t you might get irritated pretty quickly). They are King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain, and She. Let’s just start with Mines, shall we?
I suppose this week I’m a bit late, but still I’m here! I mentioned on Twitter earlier that I’m prepping for a presentation – really a roundtable – on comic books and SF. If anything comes of it, expect to see something next week about it, but for now I found enough time to do a regular old post after all. Given what’s on my mind, let’s talk about Dial H by China Miéville.
OK, this is late, sorry about that. I wanted to try to beat this damn thing – I’m playing Mass Effect. Yes, the first one. No, I haven’t played it before (if you don’t count an abortive weekend trying the Xbox version that went so poorly I sold the game back to Gamestop). I am at the end, actually in the last mission, but I thought probably I should write this up before it’s Thursday in my time zone, at least… So SF and gaming? Right?
So I recently found my Morrowind disc that I bought long ago in undergrad. Er. After I pirated it. So, on the plus side, I guess I prove the internet adage that pirates eventually spend money on stuff? Well, anyway. Trying to play it didn’t go so well – I wanted to try out the massive visual overhaul mod, but I had to have Tribunal et al installed as well. Uh, I don’t have those. So, ok, bust. But it got me thinking. Like a lot of players of The Elder Scrolls series, I have a special place in my heart for Morrowind. Why? Seriously, if you think about that, it’s not an easy question to answer.
I’ve actually been playing TES games since Daggerfall, God help me. It was already old when I got it, but so was my computer, so it was one of the only games I could play. I remember making it to town once, the capital city I mean, joining the Fighter’s Guild to have a place to sleep, and going to the palace cause I knew I had to at some point, but I couldn’t find the quest hook so I went back to my dorm. Uh, except unbeknownst to me the ghost of the murdered king roamed the city streets at night. Until maybe Silent Hill this was the scariest moment I’d experienced in a game. I really, seriously had no idea he was out there. He tore me up, but I got away. And if you know anything about my opinion on horror, you know that just made it worse. Because I had to run across town, juggling my endurance meter so I didn’t fall over. I made it, moments before the guild closed up for the night. Jeez. But after that it was being lost in the countryside, because it was all featureless and boring, and that’s about all I played.
Morrowind we’re skipping, obviously, since I’ll get to it in a moment, but suffice to say it improved the 3D aspect of the game and got rid of the awful “swing your mouse to swing your sword” mechanic. Oblivion was good, man. I guess no one really argues about that. I played it on the Xbox, which I suppose didn’t help my immersion, but it was still deep. The immersion, I mean. I did most of the stuff in it, I think. I went through way too many oblivion portals, crafted a full suit of magic reflecting armor. But, and this is an external thing that started to get in the way, I found out too much from the internet. My own fault, I know. I did pretty well with Skyrim, but I still had to look stuff up.
Which gets us to Skyrim, doesn’t it? I liked it. I like the combat – I don’t mean I think it’s not awful, I mean I actually enjoy it. I don’t know, to this day, why people dislike. In fact, let me know if you don’t like it, but please explain why. I’m genuinely curious.
I’ve written about Skyrim before, so you know, pretty much, my response to it. Since that post I have finished the rebellion story. I should have done that before the Alduin fight, I think. Oh well.
So, what about Morrowind there? There’s nothing wrong with any of the games (even, given when it was made at least, Daggerfall). So what the hell?
Well, Morrowind, I think, kept me off balance. Even as I leveled up and knew what I was doing it was still weird as fuck. Part of that is the difficulty – one of the familiar refrains online is that each TES game is easier than the last. That’s not necessarily bad, but I do vividly remember sneaking – full on, keeping to shadows in sneak mode sneaking – to get past the Daedric ruins because the monsters there were too fucking strong. And some of them would chase me, man. I did a quest to deliver a daedric heart and one of those lizard daedra things appeared when I handed it over – I survived only by keeping a table between it and me while stabbing it when I had a chance and healing constantly. That’s exciting, man. That’s fantastic. Other than the weird ghost-brother fight in Skyrim (which I beat by crouching behind an altar and slinging arrows over it every so often) I can’t think of a fight like that since that game. And, to be fair, the ghost brother fight wasn’t as frightening, even though I actually died once doing it.
But more than the difficulty, Morrowind was strange. The people seemed to know it, too. The delicious post-colonial undertones in the setting made it so both foreigners and natives to Vvardenfell knew the geography and culture was “weird,” even though, of course, it isn’t weird at all to the natives. So no matter the race the player picks, everything is strange. Cities are built in the bones of creatures we never see – do they still exist? Could I run into one? Mages live out in the middle of nowhere (I mean it, too – I found that asshole once and had to cheat to get back to him, I couldn’t get back to his cave). Hybrid creatures roam the countryside. Giant fleas ferry people from town to town. Crafting was as free as it could be within the TES system (yes I know “the” appears twice in that phrase). I remember one dungeon, because the master skill trainer in illusion or enchanting, one or the other, became aggressive to me when I walked in the room at dungeon’s end. I didn’t have a save to go back to, so I had to hit him with my calming knife, train with him, and hit him again cause the one hour training session was, of course, far longer than the amount of time one could enchant a weapon to calm anything or anyone. That was odd. I was stabbing the guy training me. I think I had to heal him, too, to keep him alive. Eventually I killed him when I trained enough.
I also took the pants off every humanoid npc I killed, and left them, neatly folded, next to the corpse. Because they dared to stand against me. Changes in the gui made that too tedious in later games.
Is this mostly bitching and sad, old man reminiscing? Sorry about that. My point is that, between intentional and presumably unintentional stuff, Morrowind was a hallmark of weird gaming. It glitched. It clearly hadn’t been tested enough to catch the ways everything would interact with everything else. There were spears, even though I never used them. At least I knew someone, somewhere, could if they wanted. I could enchant a belt to give me a telekinesis ability with a radius of 10 feet, and use it to steal from merchants while standing in the back of their tiny shops. It felt like a different world, a place, dirty and lived-in and strange. That’s what fantasies are supposed to do, right? Show the audience places in some way incomprehensible? Or at least different? I’m not saying the later games don’t do that, not at all, but Morrowind dislocated the player from the world, rather than just showing a different one. That’s some good stuff. Where else does anyone make you kill anything with a cursed dinner fork?
You know a game’s great when really good creepypastas show up about it, and Morrowind has one I like a lot.