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The Brilliant Accident of Morrowind

My memories of playing Morrowind are particularly vivid. I don't know that any other game is remembered the same way as Morrowind for me. I feel like I lived there, I went through something, I experienced something. For example, when I was still pretty new to the game, I ran out of money. Well, I guess I wasn't that new to the game, because I'd managed to get out of Balmora. Balmora was one of the first cities a fresh player will go to. The main quest points you there, but you also kind of end up going there by default. Originally, when I tried going outside the starting town, wildlife killed me. When I tried to go into a cave near the starting town, some guys killed me on sight. When I tried to steal some stuff I could use, guards killed me. So I walked up the hill and paid to have some guy and his giant louse carry me out of that town to Balmora. Clearly there was nothing for me here.

When I arrived, I followed the only guidance I'd been given: go find some dude in Balmora. I found the guy's name on a door and walked into his house, expecting to be given purpose and direction. I was greeted by a shirtless man in rags in a mess of a house full of drugs and drug paraphernalia. He told me he was a secret agent for the government and I was, too. He told me I had to go get some box I had no idea about. But he told me another guy in the Fighter's Guild knew about it, so I ran over there. That guy told me where the box was: in some "Dwemer ruins". Right. I'll go do that. Clearly that's what I'm supposed to do. On my way out, I asked around the Guild for a job, because I'm pretty good at fighting in video games. They told me some lady is really stressed about some rats eating her pillows, so I could go do that. "Nope!" I said. "I'm a secret agent!" And I walked out.

But when I tried following the road to the ruins, wildlife killed me. Little crabs that lived in mud by peaceful rivers slaughtered me. Weird little bug creatures paralyzed me then scooped my flesh out of my body with their tiny jaws until I died. Just about anywhere I tried to go outside of the city had something that immediately chased me down and murdered me. "Fine," I said. "I'll go save that woman's pillows and get some money to kill the jerky wildlife around here. Clearly that's what I'm supposed to do."

I entered her house and sure enough, there were rats and pillows. I unsheathed my axe, expecting this to be a quick and easy job. Seconds later, I was standing on top of the table in the middle of the room, which I had mounted in panic as the rats mauled me. I jumped towards the door and clicked on it, never touching the floor and thus exposing myself to a vicious death.

This was the city that taught me that I wasn't playing other, easier, balanced games. This wasn't a shooter where I always had the tools to destroy anyone I saw. This was an RPG. And that meant the lowest form of life doing the least important things could still shred my dick. I wasn't a hero. I wasn't as good as a partially clothed, possibly delusional drug addict. I wasn't even as badass as a few rats. I couldn't even protect pillows.

Much later, after I had gotten some money and killed particularly small, helpless wildlife, I attempted to travel. I saw a few cities, paying for passage on Silt Striders (aforementioned huge land lice). I ran into a bit of bad luck, however, and I ended up spending my last coin traveling to a place called "Gnisis". I hadn't been there, so surely a new land would be my ticket to success and riches. I come to find out that I am stuck in a town that, as far as I can tell, primarily harvests "muck". And there's a mine where they harvest eggs of some asshole creatures that (surprise surprise) kill me on sight. And the eggs aren't really worth shit, either. Super.

In my poverty, I resorted to crime. Gnisis was filled with shitty little huts that held one person and their total assets, which always amounted to a bunch of ceramic houseware. I tried to just steal the clay pots and cups and whatever, but invariably they caught me, and when I tried to escape guards beat the piss out of me or sent me to jail. But I discovered that I had become strong enough as a character to kill one unarmed, muck-farming NPC. It was a struggle, and I may have had my lights punched out once or twice. But Morrowind had dumped on my chest for too long for me to feel any shame. I had discovered my vocation: I would go into a hut, violently murder its sole occupant, load every single thing I could find into a sack, then go into the next hut and repeat. Eventually, I sold enough ceramic goods to the local merchants to get out of Gnisis and continue my adventures.

I leveled up. I learned magic. I bought armor and weapons. I could kill things! And I started to complete quests. Much later, I returned to Gnisis. "The queen of these things what fart out the eggs we harvest is sick!" the citizens told me. "Go get a scroll from a notable town-person and use it on the queen and we'll pay you!" Easy enough! I walked to the part of town he was in. I opened the door to his house. It was completely empty. Totally bare. I walked around the fire pit in the center of the hut and lying there was a dead body. I had been here before. This man was an important part of the town, and I had murdered him for his clay crap. And, more importantly, I now had no idea how to get those scrolls.

There is a lot of talk about consequence in games, but I've never experienced as much consequence as that moment. I was thinking the other day that it's a shame that stuff like that hasn't happened in an Elder Scrolls game since then. But it occurred to me: it totally can happen in Oblivion and Skyrim. I'm just as capable of killing NPCs that are important to small quests. So what was the difference? Maybe it's that way because I've specifically never wantonly murdered NPCs in a video game again because I remember that hut in Gnisis. Or maybe I'm just better at playing Elder Scrolls games.

But I think it's more than that. Morrowind put me in a crappy, overwhelming situation and left it up to me to get out of it. The world was what it was, and what I did to it affected it. In Skyrim, the world is affected by me, but by my level, not what I do. For the sake of gameplay balance and accessibility, it has a clear, linear path of progression that you walk to the endgame. I still could murder NPCs for their worthless household items, but Skyrim never makes me feel like I need to. It never has me looking around, searching for a way to surmount the odds. I love Oblivion and Skyrim, and I think they are great for different reasons than Morrowind. But the way the Elder Scrolls games have changed over the years have followed the trend of the game industry of being a controlled and managed player experience. That's great and I have hundreds of hours of fun with it. But I still miss Morrowind. I miss being in a world that I can poke and prod.

All of the combat in Morrowind became a joke when I discovered I could enchant boots so that they would give me constant levitation and enchant a helmet with health regeneration. Most enemies in the game couldn't hit me in the air, and if any did, I just got my health back anyway. That is not proper balanced gameplay in any modern sense. But that's part of why Morrowind is so great. You could discover something about the gameplay that had real impact. Things were hard, but one day you could break all of the rules in your favour. Everything is a discovery in that game, so everything is a story.

I got a piece of armor as a reward from a quest and the guy told me, "Don't wear that, or the guards will get pissed." I assumed he meant somebody would speak sternly to me, or it would be a crime I would go to jail for. I was used to that. I put on the armor and went about my business. I talked to a guard, and sure enough, he was pissed. He tried to kill me. I ran out of the city. Surely that would blow over. Nope. I spent the entire rest of the game fighting my way through the guards every time I wanted to go to that city. Any time I had to go to that city, I had to be prepared to sprint through the place with every law-enforcement agent who saw me chasing me with the express interest of beating me to death. And that's just how the game was forever after. You couldn't fix that. The world of Morrowind was what it was, and it wasn't really designed with your interaction in mind. You could press on it in a certain way, and it would react how it would naturally react. It didn't really care if you didn't have a good idea of what the reaction would be, or if it really fucked up your shit.

Even the crappy directions the quest-givers gave you were an experience that led to a story. I hated the ashlands because I'd spend hours wandering around in an ash wasteland with ash blowing in my face trying to find a little door buried somewhere in these hills of ash, following directions that just said, "Go north a bunch and it's somewhere east next to the ash". I hated that place. I hated the people who lived there. They were stupid, ash-sucking dicks. I think that sort of thing would be stamped out in a modern game. But a negative experience is a real experience. There were places I liked and didn't like; there were people I liked and didn't like. Like the real world, the world of Morrowind was what it was and I had opinions about it. I affected it with my interactions with it, and it affected me in turn. The world of Morrowind is designed as a video game, of course, but the way I interacted with it was accidental, and that was the secret sauce.

Skyrim is still more fun than most video games ever are, and it stays that way for hundreds of hours. But somewhere between navigating a dungeon exactly the way it was designed to be navigated, killing enemies designed to fight me at the level I'm at, and getting treasure I was designed to get (randomly selected designed treasure is still designed), a part of me still longs for the days when I roamed free in Morrowind.


My Modern Life: Some Sap's Blathering About His Relationship

I just got the Christmas gift I bought for my girlfriend.

I met her on a dating website, and I had found her by randomly plugging video game names that I really liked into the keyword search, which in this case was Civilization. I don't judge women by their interests in video games, but women tend to judge me by mine, so I thought it was a decent way of finding someone appealing to whom I could also be appealing. I found some awkward way to talk to her, and she responded, which meant she wasn't immediately turned off by my waist-length hair. Hooray!

We met in person in a mall, because a surprising amount of people are apprehensive that internet people are plotting to knife them. I have never really had any concerns about it, and I can only guess as to the reason(s): I act sensibly on the internet, I am aware of the (low) statistical probability of being harmed, or maybe I am just gormless internet knifer fodder. Who can say? But the point is a mall has a lot of people, and that makes people feel safer. I don't know how much safer that actually makes anybody, but I am not an unhinged internet stabbing enthusiast, so it really doesn't matter anyway.

So I talked with her for a few hours, and things seemed very promising. She crapped on Christianity in our first conversation, and she wasn't immediately repelled by my rabid obsession with the American Civil War. I don't go around accosting people with Civil War trivia unprompted, I assure you. I at least wait until someone unwittingly wanders near the topic, like talking about Confederate flags, or slavery, and then you're fucked.

We spent more time together, and then she invited me to her birthday shindig, where she and a bunch of friends get together in a field and get drunk. I hate meeting people. It is an unpleasant thing to do. I recognize the importance of it, and see it as necessary, but that has nothing to do with how it makes me feel. This was a person I didn't even really know all that well yet, and now I could spend a whole night meeting a bunch of people who at least knew her, and maybe everyone else too. Oh, and I'd get to meet her parents, too, because it was their place. Oh, and I don't really drink. I was sure I was not going to have a stellar time, but I wanted to learn about her and be appealing to her, so I went. Maybe I'd be wrong; maybe I'd have a great time, even!

As I expected, I mostly got to sit and be scrutinized as to why I wasn't talking at all by people who, as all friends do, talked incessantly about topics and people specific to their group that are inscrutable to an outsider. And then I got to have a hangover. But what I'd learned is that not only I did indeed like her, I liked her friends, and I liked her family. And when I like someone, that tends to be a permanent, lasting thing.

And something grew up out of that. We became a couple, and I constantly learned about her, which in turn meant I learned how much more I liked her. I could list simple adjectives, but, I guess as is natural for any lovesick chap, I feel like they don't do justice. They're not specific enough; they don't convey the magic I see in her. But the point you can well gather is that she nestled into my heart, and I was fond of her being there. It was the best feeling in the world, because here was someone I respected, loved, and admired, and who was, like all of the very best people, so unique and complexly blended that I could never had imagined such a person, and she liked me, too. That last part was the very best part.

I felt inspired. Surely I was at the start of something great. I did not know where my future lay, but surely she would be there, because I wanted her there. We had conversations about what we wanted in life: she wanted a family. I have never wanted children, but I often think about parenting and what I would do as a parent. I was honest about this. But that, I felt, was a long way off, and there was no point in ruining a good thing over an unknown. And as the relationship grew, I was less certain of what I wanted and where I would go. Things that never were appealing were changing. Thinking about having a family with her doesn't scare me at all. I have contemplated it, and it seems pleasant to me. Suddenly, I didn't know where things would go, and I reveled in that. It did not matter, because it would be with her, and that was better than anything I could imagine.

A group of friends of mine had rented a house for a week at the Outer Banks last year, and they were doing so again this year. I thought this was a great opportunity. There is something about that place that touches me in an inexpressible way. I have not been there often, but the smell, the air, the feel, the look of the place burrows very deep in me. Now I could be there with a bunch of my stupid friends and someone who I felt strongly about.

It was the best time of my life. I loved being around her, and I wanted that to last forever. She couldn't stay the whole week, and as I stood next to her car saying goodbye, I knew a very special part of my life was at an end. I don't know how that sounds to anyone else; I've done my fair share of sneering at what I saw as overly-emotional dribble. Perhaps people expect something grander or rarer. But that is how I feel. Enjoying another person's company is the point of life, to me, and those days I felt that more than I ever had before.

After I said goodbye to her and watched her drive off, I walked inside and stood at the door, feeling an emptiness well up inside me. She was gone, and I would rather have gone home with her than spent more time with my friends. I had to blink a few times to clear my eyes, then I went upstairs and declared that I was going to drink my sissy alcohol (I think beer is yucky) to distract myself from my girlfriend leaving, because that sucked. I proceeded to drunkenly get into arguments about everything I could think of, and then drunkenly babbled about how great my girlfriend was.

Fairly soon thereafter, I proposed that we should play Minecraft. We'd already played Civilization together, and Minecraft seemed like something neat for us to experience and share together. I work overnight, which makes it very hard to see me, and I am very conscious of this. We saw each other regularly on weekends and Mondays, but this was a way we could be together during the rest of the week, too.

It was better than I expected. I dug out a little mine and had a very utilitarian base of operations. She improved it into a little video game home. I built a lighthouse and a wheat plantation. She bred a herd of cattle. I explored and mapped the wilderness. She crafted and cooked and decorated and made all sorts of stuff for me to log in and go "Whoa, cool!" at. I secretly built a railroad that would take her straight to an NPC village. We left sappy stuff for each other. A complex of months of shared experiences grew up around this little hole I dug. I am sure our little Minecraft place looks simple and unremarkable to the experienced Minecraft player. But to me the place is something special. To me it feels like a manifestation of a growing closeness; it is a record of emotions.

The end of November came. I started to agonize over the approach of Christmas. She clearly is someone who likes sentimental things, and I have a hard time with that stuff. Maybe my past experiences are to blame, but I always dread failure in that regard, and failure preceding the end of the relationship. But then an epiphany. I remembered reading an article about the dudes what make physical figures of World of Warcraft avatars making Minecraft shit into physical figures. I checked it out, and I could get a little physical version of our Minecraft home for about $50. I popped into the Creative Mode, put our initials and a heart in the grass, and ordered it pronto.

About six days later she said we needed to talk. My heart sank. It wasn't the full-on breakup talk, but it was almost worse. She didn't know if she even wanted to be with me. She wanted a family. I wasn't aspirational enough, my job wasn't good enough, she didn't get to see me enough, she didn't want to be making more money than me, I was stagnant, we were stagnant, and I didn't like change. And I didn't want kids, and that was a problem in itself anyway.

I will happily deal with many problems just to be with the person I love. But I need to feel something in return, and watching what I want so badly die a slow death, culminating in a conclusion that I'm not good enough isn't something I'm keen on experiencing. She clearly did not feel the same way about me as I did about her, and the idea of being with me in the future scared her. She was crippled with indecision, but I felt I saw things pretty clearly. It was time to end it.

So this Sunday we are supposed to say goodbye to each other. I just cannot be around her or maintain contact with her; it will hurt for much longer without much purpose. In a way, I intend for it to be the last I see of her. My memory is happy and hopeful, looking out at a beach sky, and that's how I want to keep it.

We are also supposed to exchange Christmas gifts, since we already bought them. Today the Minecraft thing I bought got here:

No Caption Provided

I cried a bit when I saw it. I don't know how I should feel about that. I don't really know if it's any good as a gift, or if she'll like it. I guess I shouldn't still care about that. I don't know. All I am left with is self-doubt and a vast feeling of emptiness. I ran our Minecraft server, so those files are still sitting on my computer. It kind of freaks me out, honestly. Unless I delete it, this digital record of time and the feelings associated with it will exist forever. No one will build on it anymore. Nothing is left to do with it but walk around and remember.

But, so the point of this is that it occurs to me: how crazy is our fuckin' life these days? I met a girl on the internet who I found because of video games, then I had a video game thing with her, and then a company I heard of on the internet took my money to make part of that into a real physical thing. That's fuckin' nuts.