The third game in The Elder Scrolls series offers respite from a grim reality.
There are these battles you fight with yourself. Many of us are fighting them now, as a tiny bright thing requests our attention amidst all the grimness. A game or movie comes out—new threads in a story you've followed for years—and you're not sure if you're allowed to enjoy it. If you should.
By now there are plenty of people bristling with well-intentioned platitudes. Advising that looking for the good, for things you enjoy, is right and necessary. "Yes, even now," they'll tell you. But it is difficult to jump onboard when you know you don't have it that bad.
But what are you supposed to do when you are moved by something good in times that are bad? Unexpectedly so? I found myself asking this with January 31's announcement of the newest expansion for Elder Scrolls Online (ESO). Yes, they are calling this is a full-on expansion—not just DLC but a full 30+ gameplay hours, comes-with-a-statue-if-you-order-the-deluxe-edition expansion. Where are we off to, this time?
I am not one of those Morrowind-or-bust Elder Scrolls fans. I know many of them, and I've heard their reasons for placing Morrowind at the pinnacle of their Elder Scrolls experience: the uniqueness of the world, the amount of writing (as has been noted, there is a lot more room to talk when you're doing it in easily-compacted text files, versus voice work).
The main plot, even, has its ardent defenders. They praise the game for its intricacy: the politics of political factions, houses Hlaalu, Redoran and Telvanni. They pine for the mushroom trees, the ash rain, the plethora of giant insects roaming above and below-ground. [Editor's Note: In fact you can hear me doing that right here! -Austin "Morrowind is the Best One" Walker]
And I enjoyed Morrowind, don't get me wrong.
But I'm leery of arguments comparing the installments of the series because all of the Elder Scrolls games since Morrowind—yes, including ESO, which I've played since beta—give me what I want: an open, gorgeous world to escape into. What it comes down to for me is how much I needed to escape, and Morrowind came out when I was only in high school.
That period wasn't so bad. Certainly not compared to my lonely time living abroad (when I sought Oblivion), or the creeping sense of failure that accompanies the mundanity of postgrad adulthood (when Skyrim offered the allure of agency). When your fondness for each game directly depends upon how much you wish to escape your non-game life, arguments about the varying merits of each title seem pointless.
I wasn't expecting to have much of a reaction, then, when the announcement of the next ESO expansion came out. Reddit hypothesized that this time the focus would be on Vvardenfell—the volcanic island micro-continent featured in Morrowind.
Data mining unearthed an expanded map in the latest patch—one which included Morrowind—and the consensus was that this would be the nostalgia-rich expansion that had been desired for so long. Okay, cool, I thought. Cool that there is an expansion, and cool that the big Morrowind fans get their heart's desire. I knew that they exist in large numbers, and I'd be as pleased as the next person to see an influx of people on the servers, enthused with new content.
But… that callback.
There is a six-note callback in the middle of the expansion's trailer where they start the Morrowind theme. It doesn't quite go so far as to play the full and fondly-remembered motif. They cut it off and return to the action, and players of the game are, quite deliberately, left off-balance. Where are the final notes? Will they play them, or have they shunted that old score aside for something new? Were we mistaken, thinking that was where this was going?
Above: the Morrowind expansion trailer for The Elder Scrolls Online.
When they finally sweep into it, though—with a pan-up of the land whose tattered map still adorns my wall, Red Mountain smoking in the center—my heart swelled.
Is that okay? Am I allowed to feel that? I don't ask that with a curl to my lip either. Things are terrible. I don't know that it's fair to retreat, in any way. Even if, logically, one has to, to regroup and return restored. Even then, I'm not sure that it's fair. I'm not sure it's fair to be swept away by a fanfare.
But I am swept away, and I'm taken back to Morrowind. Where, a long time ago...
...I discovered villages scattered across the swamplands west of Balmora. Villages that felt like villages, rife with gossip and local drama, hung thick with moss and choking vine forests. Forests that echoed with the eerie calls of giant long-legged insects with their husks hollowed out, so they could ferry you from place to place. Their seeming loneliness, at their far-flung posts.
...I tiptoed into a scorched Telvanni manor house with a rising sense of dread as one singed journal page after another, scattered about the estate, hinted at the terrible events that had occurred there—then ran like mad when the demons poured out of the basement after me.
...I ducked into every "cornerclub," following up every murmur or scrap of parchment, to see if I could join the nefarious and secretive Camonna Tong: a powerful society of isolationists and nationalists, who I'd hoped I could join and change from within. I tracked quests halfway across the sometimes-boggy, sometimes-dusty continent to try and find someone, anyone, who would let me in. And no one would.
Because in Morrowind, you were always cast as an "outlander." And you stayed that way, no matter what good deeds you did, no matter who you impressed. (A fact that, today, in the light of Trump's immigration ban and the protests that followed, carries extra weight.) You were always an outsider, and denying you that sense of belonging felt perversely, frustratingly accurate. You don't always get to belong. Even as kids in high school—as I was, when Morrowind came out—everyone learns that. Someone is always going to tell you no, and mean it.
Maybe that's why I went abroad, after college. Some deep-seated belief that stamped-on-your-forehead otherness would make for a better, more interesting person. This was not true, but I was young and didn't know any better. I never had to be the other before. But though I learned this the hard way, I was able to flee my otherness. First into Oblivion, then back across the sea, where no one would point and laugh and assume I didn't understand what they were saying, or that I must have deserved it when policemen stopped me, or when hands pawed at me.
I always had that escape, though, into the worlds of Skyrim, and Cyrodiil, and Morrowind. That flight. And I care more about this promise of a kind of return than I ever thought I would.
I'm no more deserving of this new Morrowind now than I was of the old one. These times are not good times. Should I regret that tightening in my chest when the theme I so well remember plays? Should I tamp it down and bury it? It seems like I should. Like I'm supposed to. Like it's a little obscene, to be moved by music in a game.
Maybe it is. I kind of want to hide my anticipation. But I also want to feel the presence of something good in the world—even if it isn't this one.
And I haven't felt that for weeks.