See, with all these blogs going up about the community's various favourite games, I thought I'd try something a little different. A piece on my most unfavourite game of all time. Morrowind. The high point of the Elder Scrolls franchise. The great white hope of western RPGs. The fantasy sandbox by which all others are measured and found wanting.
Now just to be clear, an unfavourite game isn't a game I think is the worst ever, or that I think should be held to some objective standard of general shittyness. I think Oblivion is a far worse game than Morrowind, for one thing, and there are games more broken and buggy than either games out there to be experienced. A game like Bubsy or Superman 64 can be unredeemingly awful, yet take up the same amount of space in my brain as Latin, or Gamelan music, or Thatcher/Reagan slashfic. Morrowind, however, sits on the shag carpeting of my mind like a craggy turd, its mere presence leaving a smell it's impossible to shake off. It's a game that I have tried to get into no less than five times. I have bought it twice, installed every mod known to man, and spent countless hours trying to pierce its chitin shell to find the sweet meat underneath. I have wanted nothing more than to love Morrowind, and on some level I still do. There's something about the idea of Morrowind which is amazing, something I really want to get into and lose myself in... but everytime I've tried, I've found myself utterly underwhelmed by the entirety of the experience. Each time I've tried to get into it, I haven't managed to get more than a few hours into the story, yet collectively I've probably spent a dozen hours or more in the game. I've spent less time in Arkham City and Metal Gear Rising, games I enjoy munreservedly, than I have wandering the swamps of Vvarvendell, waiting for the next crab or rat to get the jump on me.
What is it I don't like about the game? In a word: everything. As soon as I fire the game up, every facet of the game's structure sets my teeth grinding, wishing it could be less arduous. The game presents you with a huge open world to explore, but your character walks with all the speed of a tectonic plate. You can sprint, but your stamina bar is so low that anything more than ten seconds spent running will bring your character back to a crawl. And if you get attacked by antyhing, then the best of luck to you, as you've rendered yourself too knackered to properly put up a defence. The game promises you a giant setting to explore, then makes the very act of exploring as tedious as it possibly can. You can fast travel, sure... but fast travelling around the map requires money, and that's the one thing you don't have when you're first starting out. For the first section of the game at least, you're faced with either going penniless, or slow marching it from town to town, city to city, sort of like one of the Canterbury pilgrims, but with an infinitely more boring story to tell:
" A tale of woe I shallen tell thee/Of a prisoner's endless misery/That whilom was kicked from humble boat/And cast asunder, with nary a groat/Nor raiment, food nor arms to bear/No horse to ryde, no humble mare/Left to walk the lonely road/Attacked by rats and crabbes and toads/Till pon a chance he saw the lights/Of a friendly city in the night/He marched his feet with greaten haste/And was struck down by one of the cliff race"
If the combat was great, then that perhaps could make up for the general tedium of exploration, but it's not. The combat in Morrowind is legendarily broken, which is what makes the experience even more frustrating. You slog from Point A to Point B, hoping for something to add a little spce to proceedings, then when a monster jumps you, you're left to realise that even the spice in this game is a bit bland. Everything is done on dice rollls, yet you're left to swing and flail like you're doing the Time Warp at a LARP convention. I like combat in RPGs/ I like fighting monsters, and getting stronger by defeating them. I like swinging swords and casting fire spells. But somehow, Morrowind takes the basic primal appeal of swinging a sword at a giant troll, and makes it a game of chance where all the numbers are rigged against you. Combat in Morrowind isn't something to be experienced, it's something to be suffered for wrongdoings in your past lives. It's penance for a life lived in sin. It's nothing but punishment, with not even funny animations to give it some kind of humour or levity.
And this is the thing: if the story was better, I could endure dodgy gameplay. I've played through JRPGs that had less-than-stellar gameplay to experience a ripping yarn, and can overlook mechanical defects if the themes and drama make up for it. But Morrowind doesn't do that. It does the one thing I absolutely hate in fantasy and sci-fi games: throw a load of lore at you, and expect that to do most of the story. Now, I hate lore. I hate it when a game throws encyclopedias of made-up nonsense to wade through, and calls that a valid trade-off for some good characterisation or emotional writing. I like my fantasy fiction to have the basics of narrative down, like characters and arcs and ideas bubbling away under the surface. Making up a load of backstory, then dumping it into the game to be waded through like fish guts on the deck of a trawler, has no appeal to me. But that's where the meat of Morrowind's story lies: going through endless bloody books, flicking through scrolls, scanning journals for anything interesting or entertaining. I like fantasy settings that are well realised, don't get me wrong, but I also like some immediacy to proceedings. I don't have an endless amount of spare time, and if a game is going to demand so much of my attention, I want something other than backstory and lore to work with. Give me a great story, or great gameplay, but give me something to get some immediate feedback from.
On every level that matters, Morrowind goes against everything I enjoy in games, be it its approach to narrative, or the broken fundamentals of its gameplay... and yet, for some utterly inexplicable reason, I still want to like it. Love it, even. There's something about the idea of Morowind which I want to be in love with, something about the idea of getting lost in a world of giant mushrooms and weird insects that fundamentally speaks to me. This says just how much I want to like it: I bought the game as a teenager on a Sold Out software disc, then when that disc disappeared, I bought the GOTY version, even though I already knew I didn't like the game. Maybe it was the idea that the expansions could fix some of my problems with the game, maybe it was just the basic idea of wandering alone in a fantasy world, but I bought the game again, installed it again, fired it up again, and within three hours was utterly confused as to why I had done it. Even now, writing about Morrowind, I can feel the urge to fire it up once more, install some graphics mods, and go exploring. And I know what would happen if I did: I'd start a new game, marvel at how nice the new texture mods and graphics tweaks look, and get bored of the game before the evening was done.
No other game has this effect on me. There have been games I've hated, and never played more than once, and there have been games I've loved that have taken up hours upon hours of my free time, but never has a game had quite the same love/hate relationship with me. It's like meeting a woman, and falling in love with the idea of her, rather than the reality. I know that Morrowind is a broken, buggy mess that has nothing of what I look for in games, but I just can't quite quit it. It's stuck in my conscious like a splinter, irritating and impossible to remove. I have many games that I would consider as my favourites, but no games has ever had the singular success of so resolutely being my unfavourite: a game I want to love, but which I cannot find a single thing to love. Other people love Morrowind more than words, and that's absolutely fine. I would never begrudge anyone the hours of enjoyment they've got from exploring Vvarvendell and all its mysteries. On a subconscious level, I may even be slightly jealous. The sort of joy those gamers have got from the game is exactly what I want for myself. It's why I refuse to get rid of my discs, why I eye the game up everytime it goes on a Steam sale. Morrowind is the bad first sniff of cocaine that still leaves me itching for more. It's that bad LSD trip which leaves my brain on the floor, yet still has me wanting to return to the psychedelic realm. It's a tick that sticks my psyche with its mandibles, grabs on, and is then impossible to shake loose.
Fuck it, I've still for the disc in my drawer. What harm could one more reinstall do...