Ludic Linux

OpenMW (& Morrowind)

Why they're both amazing

There’s a certain type of gamer. They played Morrowind at some impressionable time in their lives and fell in love with it. They spend their time on forums and in chat rooms trying, any time it’s mentioned, to convince people that Morrowind is the greatest game ever made and, importantly, why it’s so much better than Oblivion and Skyrim. They wander like hungry ghosts, craving an understanding they never see and dying a little more each time someone says “yeah, sure, but the combat was better in Skyrim”.

Occasionally they meet another like them and feel an immediate bond, a kinship with this person. Until their new friend reveals that they were a member of House Telvanni. Dirty slaver wizard scum.

OpenMW is an implementation of Morrowind’s engine that allows us to play the greatest game ever made on Linux. It’s an amazing free software project that faithfully recreates the original game while adding in a few conveniences like per-character saves, widescreen support and an FOV slider. Version 0.37 was just released and you should install it right now and play Morrowind; here’s why…

Short trip, long trip, you decide

Morrowind’s more than a game to me, it’s a place where I spent a good 18 months of my life in the early 00s and have holidayed in, now and then, ever since. I feel more loyalty towards Great House Hlaalu than I do to my actual real-world country. What I’m trying to say is that when you play Morrowind right it consumes you.

It’s a hostile place. You step off the prison ship in Seyda Neen after telling Jiub your name, you answer a few questions in the Census and Excise office and then you’re cast out into the world with little idea what you’re doing there, why you were released from prison or what to do. If you’ve been paying attention you know that you should talk to Caius Cosades in Balmora, but you don’t know who, where or what that is.

You might notice the giant flea-thing just outside of town and decide to go see what it is. At this point you notice that your movement speed is sub-glacial, you’ll try to toggle running on then realise it was on and now you go even slower. You can jump about a centimetre off the ground, doing so exhausts you entirely. You might encounter a rat or maggot on the way to see what the giant flea-thing is and, if you do, it’ll probably kill you. You’ll swing at it with the dagger you stole from the Excise office but after a series of Miss Miss Misses the rat will get the best of you and you’ll die. I hope you quicksaved.

The wail of the silt strider means you're nearly home

Later on you’ll be running like the wind, leaping over mountains (or flying, if you prefer) and dispatching Dremora and Ascended Sleepers with a single blow.

The spider-web journey between those two points is Morrowind.

Move along, scum

Vvardenfell (the island in Morrowind where the game takes place) is the frontier. Imperial law and influence is tenuous and the island is rife with conflict.

The three Great Houses - Hlaalu, Redoran and Telvanni - all hate each other (respectfully). The Mages Guild and Theives Guild hate each other. Hlaalu loves the Empire and the Empire Hates Telvanni because they are slavers, as does the Twin Lamps (the slave-freeing organisation). The Mages Guild hates Telvanni (and vice versa) because they are wizards. Similarly Redoran and the Fighters Guild hate each other since they both have a martial bent. Nobody dares hate the Morag Tong, Vvardenfell’s legally sanctioned guild of assassins. The Tribunal Temple and Imperial Cult are at least distrustful of one another, the Tribunal is pretty distrustful of anything Imperial. The four Ashlander Tribes - Ahemmusa, Erabenimsun, Urshilaku and Zainab - hate everyone who’s not an Ashlander (though other Dunmer a little less). The three Vampire Clans - Aundae, Berne and Quarra - hate each other and all non-vampires. Everyone hates Fargoth.

In case that was hard to follow, here’s a handy chart that goes into a bit more detail.

There’s a reason for that big list of factions. Actually, two.

The first is to allow me to point out that they are all playable factions with, in most cases, substantial questlines. Making a startling contrast with later games not just in terms of their number but also their depth and diversity.

The second is that all of these political and cultural tensions make Morrowind feel alive. More than that, it feels like a place that was living for millennia before, and is largely indifferent to, your arrival. It’s complex, nuanced and cohesive - it all makes sense. Of course all the Ashlanders’ furnishings and tools are made from gourds, beetle shells and chitin - that’s all they have access to. Of course the Dunmer of Vvardenfell have a wary respect for the Ashlanders, who still cling to the old ways and ancient customs, and of course the Ashlanders disdain other Dunmer for turning their backs on true Dunmer culture. Of course everyone eats kwarma (like very large ants) eggs; did you see any cattle?

Under sun and sky, outlander, we greet you warmly

You are entering a living place, not a play put on for you like in later games, you are not the centre of this world. As a now anonymous someone put it on Reddit several years ago:

Morrowind was a separate world. It did not feel like a playground built for you. Think about how the games start. Five minutes into Oblivion you’re trying to save Patrick Stewart, before you can even control your character in Skyrim a dragon attacks. In Morrowind you walk out of the office with 87 gold and a packet of orders you can ignore. And you really can ignore it, in Skyrim there are dragons flying around and if you want to develop your character’s shout abilities you need to fight them. In Oblivion there are gates spawning everywhere, and if you want the powerful sigil stones you have to go in. The quest system was structured differently as well. If you join the companions in Skyrim you have this magical experience centered around you. The college of winterhold is the same way, and the quest line for the thieves guild could probably be a stand alone game. There’s also the civil war going which, for whatever reason can’t get underway until you arrive.

Oblivion and Skyrim bash you over the head with it, LOOK AT HOW GREAT YOU ARE, YOU ARE A MIGHTY WARRIOR FOR EXISTING IN OUR WORLD. The guards’ responses are tailored, the enemies scale, the world is centered around you. Morrowind exists and you are fortunate enough to experience it. Even through the main quest they are pretty clear that you’re not special, just no one else had been able to complete the trials. No one gives a fuck in morrowind, and the adventure isn’t in completing some task that the developers lay out for you, it was in discovering the world. And the fast travel system in the game make you discover the world. The greatest quest I have ever done in any video game ever wasn’t fighting dragons or assaulting hell itself, it was this one.

tl;dr: You exist in morrowind; skyrim and oblivion exist for you.

The quest referred to at the end is part of the Tribunal Temple quest line and involves a silent (you are not allowed to talk to anyone in-game) pilgrimage to a place at the other end of the island. Depending on how fast your character can move, how much they’ve discovered of the travel network and what sort of magic they have access to, this could take hours. An hours-long walk, in silent contemplation, from one end of the map to the other. What modern mainstream game would have the courage to do that?

You flatter me with your attention, outlander

As much as being a place to which you go, Morrowind is, through your actions, represented by the interaction of complex, emergent systems. Combat is more numerically complex and involved than in later games with far more weapon choices (Spears!). The magic system consists of a great many spell effects that can be combined into spells by the player in endless combinations. Want to make a spell that calms someone, steals their life, summons a skeleton then teleports you to the last place you marked? Fine. Want to enchant that spell onto your trousers? Fine. Want to make it permanent-effect? Fine. Morrowind doesn’t dictate what you should and shouldn’t do, it gives you freedom to find out for yourself.

Want to fly everywhere? Fine. Want to jump so high that you will die on landing? Fine. Want to make a spear so powerful that it will kill a god? No problem.

Each piece of armour and clothing that you wear (and you can wear a lot at the same time: shoes/boots, trousers, skirt, shirt, left glove/gauntlet, right glove/gauntlet, left pauldron, right pauldron, cuirass, greaves, helmet/hat, robe and a shield) can be enchanted with any spell effect you can fit on it and these spell effects can, with some hard work, be made permanent. This allows for a staggering degree of character customisation beyond what your skills and attributes afford.

I'm far too pretty for helmets

The travel system hits that perfect sweet spot between convenience and immersion. You can’t just click on the map to return to a previously-visited location in Morrowind. You’ll use silt striders, boats, Mages Guilds (they will teleport you, for a fee, between them), possibly Propylon Chambers in ancient Dunmer strongholds, Almsivi/Divine Intervention (teleports you to the nearest Tribunal temple or Imperial shrine, respectively) and mark & recall (allows you to mark one place at a time and then recall to that place). Any given journey may involve some or all of these methods and you have to keep track of it and decide which to use yourself, the game won’t help you. Journeys, thus, feel like journeys and the game affords you every opportunity to get constructively distracted without making you walk (or fly) everywhere.

And getting distracted is half the point. Exploration is a huge part of Morrowind and, unlike in later games, is rewarded. Sometimes with strange, mysterious sights or awesome spectacles (a Viking Nord burial in the caves deep beneath an otherwise unremarkable tomb, a giant magical fence, a huge meteor suspended above a temple and used as a prison, a city housed inside the carcass of a giant crab) and sometimes with a new weapon or item. And, also unlike later games, that weapon or item is likely to be powerful, valuable or both. It’s common to find something, even at high levels, which you’ll actually want to use or wear.

Why walk, when you can ride?

The third member of my little Tribunal, alongside place and system, is narrative.

The narrative of Morrowind is not the story the game tells to you, it is the story you tell using the game. This story is woven from your actions, the interplay of the systems you engage with, intersecting with the lore of the game’s world, its culture and the events that transpire as you complete quests. Each interaction will reveal a little more about the world and you’ll fill in your own understanding piece by piece. How thoroughly you engage with this is entirely up to you, you can ignore it completely or you can read any of the game’s many books and gain as-complete-as-possible an understanding of the metaphysics, theology and mythology that underpin the game’s narrative.

Stupid Telvanni houses where stupid Telvanni live

This may come as a shock to players of Bethesda’s later games but the main quest in Morrowind is really good. It encompasses events spanning millennia and touches on the nature of divinity and prophecy, the War of the First Council and Battle of Red Mountain, the curse that transformed the Dunmer into the Chimer as they were abandoned by their gods, the creation of new gods through the theft of divine power, the disappearance of the Dwemer and the betrayal (or teaching, if Vivec is to be believed) of Lord Neverar.

And the nature of Vivec.

Vivec is the most memorable character I’ve ever encountered in a game. Not for what he says or does — all he does during the time in which the game takes place is float in his temple and talk a bit. But for what he is and for his role in events during the preceding centuries. Is he a god? Chimer? Dunmer? Warrior poet? Liar? A hero? Villain? The murderer of Lord Indoril Nerevar? All of those? He is the magic hermaphrodite, the martial axiom and the sex-death of language, that’s for sure. And since this is Morrowind, you can kill him if you like.

Vivec then reached out from the egg all his limbs and features, merging with the simulacrum of his mother, gilled and blended in all the arts of the starwounded East, under water and in fire and in metal and in ash, six times the wise, and he became the union of male and female, the magic hermaphrodite, the martial axiom, the sex-death of language and unique in all the middle world.

36 Lessons of Vivec, Sermon 8

Ok, well I’ve done my best. I can see it in your eyes - you don’t believe me, you don’t understand that Morrowind is the greatest cultural achievement in human history. It’s fine, it’s ok, you’re clearly not the one the prophecies spoke of. I’ll keep looking. N’Wah.

And I’ve not even mentioned CHIM.

You need the game’s data files to play Morrowind in OpenMW. You can get Morrowind on Steam and in the usual other places. OpenMW should be in your distro’s repositories, if not you can get it from their site.

Here’s your quest reward for making it to the end:

Header image is copyright of Jedi-Art-Trick, used with permission.

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