Monday, 4 June 2012

Why I wanted Morrowind for my 13th birthday

There were two main reasons I wanted Morrowind for my birthday eight years ago:

1) My best friend said it was good, and his taste in games has always been excellent. He introduced me to the Oddworld series and Little Big Adventure, after all.

2) My school friends and I were hyped about a game called Fable, which had not come out yet. It was going to be the greatest game ever. I assumed Morrowind would be the next best thing to play while I waited. Over time though, I’d realise Morrowind is many times more ambitious, memorable, and plain better than Fable.

Days before my 13th birthday, I sneaked into my mother’s room, stole the bag containing Morrowind from the top of her wardrobe, and snuck* back to my room to play it. It wasn’t pure excitement that made me do this. I was also scared of being disappointed by my birthday present, because it was only a ‘placeholder’ while waiting for Fable.

As it turned out, I didn’t like Morrowind that first afternoon.

At the beginning of the game (as in all Elder Scrolls titles) you are a prisoner; this time on a ship. When the ship docks at Morrowind, you are released there for mysterious reasons. When your character moves up the ladder from the dark cabin onto the deck, it is meant to be a moment where you say wow. But I thought the characters looked silly, like cardboard cut-outs scattered over the sludgy landscape. Some people say it looked amazing at release, but I was playing two years later.

I took the disc out of my Xbox and put the game back on top of my mother’s wardrobe with guilty disappointment. I had made her waste £15 on a birthday present I no longer wanted.

However, back at school, I began talking about the game with the friend who had recommended it. By that time I’d found Balmora, the game’s first proper town. My character trudged there through swamps and a mountain pass; I hadn’t yet discovered the silt striders, giant flea-like insects which shuttle your character between locations.

As my friend and I discussed the game more, he helped me overcome the confusing beginning. My initial bad impression turned into an obsession with the game and its world.

Below are some of the reasons I became so taken with Morrowind.

1) It’s not very pretty. I began to see the game’s ugliness, which put me off when I first played it, as a kind of rough beauty. The game world feels as if it has existed hundreds of years before you ever set foot there.

I can see why some people like to download modifications to change the way Morrowind looks. They want higher resolution textures, for example, or prettier faces for the characters you encounter. I have tried these mods; after a few minutes of play, I want my old Morrowind back. Bethesda created a world with a very unique look. The starting area is called the ‘Bitter Coast’ for a reason.

2) The weather cycles. It’s late evening. As you walk through the wilderness, the setting sun turns the landscape yellow. You’re headed towards a fort in the distance for some shelter. As you run over a bridge and past twisted trees, the screen lights up with a flash of lightning. There’s a clap of thunder. The sound rolls around the landscape, and rain pours down as you enter the fort’s courtyard.

This game actually made me pay more attention to the weather in real life. That sounds silly. But in the same way a well-written description of food can make you crave, for example, a cooked breakfast, Morrowind’s thunderstorms made me savour their real-life occurrences. You can almost smell the damp earth.

3) It doesn’t go out of its way to help you. I’m sure many have been put off Morrowind because it doesn’t make much of an attempt to settle you in.  Other players argue that the game does, in fact, tell you where to go. The guard at the Census and Excise office sends you to Balmora, to give the mysterious package to Caius Cosades.

But that isn’t the point. There is a difference between being told where to go and knowing how to get there. The mysterious town of ‘Balmora’ seems very far away when you’re new to the game. You’ve just been dumped in the tiny seaport village of Seyda Neen, and no one is in a hurry to tell you where to go next.

Admittedly, this feeling of being lost and isolated seems like a minus. The reason I like this aspect of the game is probably more to do with the fact I first played it when I was 13. Back then, I excitedly discussed its intricacies with a friend. If I played it for the first time now, the lack of clear directions would probably put me off.

Despite this, there is a lot to be said for Morrowind’s atmospheric experience, the feeling that you are a ‘stranger in a strange land’. Instead, most modern games point the way to go with floating arrows and dialogue boxes.

There is a fine line between creating atmosphere and making players feel bored and frustrated, and Morrowind comes close to crossing that line at times. Still, the experience is worth it if you have the patience.

4) Again, the atmosphere.

There are hundreds of unique books to read. Hidden stashes of moon sugar to stumble across. Scary tentacled monsters on the loading screens to be terrified of running into in-game. A number of funny secrets and unnecessary things to discover, such as a hermit lizardman who collects forks.

If you haven’t already tried the game, I can’t say whether it will hold up for you. If you feel lost, there isn’t too much shame in consulting the internet for directions, especially when the in-game ‘journal’ doesn’t properly record where to go next.

I feel very nostalgic about Morrowind, but I’m not sure I’ll ever play the game again seriously. It’s a big time investment, and I’ve already put a few hundred hours into it over the years.

*apparently both 'sneaked' and 'snuck' are correct English, so I used both!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Good day, yesterday

Yesterday I read my work for the first time in public, for the Creative Writing Day Soiree at Roehampton Uni. A few hours before, I found out I had a short story published in the "Chaos" issue of Stimulus Respond magazine. This made me feel slightly more ready for the public reading!

Thanks to Leone Ross and the editorial team for organising the Creative Writing Day.

The workshop held for the speakers last week was particularly helpful. Leone advised us to use the tone of voice of "a bedtime story". The reason for this is because it is a comforting tone, yet engaging and playful: it has a psychological draw for much of the western world, who have grown up with bedtime stories. Anyway, the advice seemed to work!

Now to finish off a few essays, and do some more writing...

Friday, 2 December 2011

A Head Full of Blue by Nick Johnstone

My review of Nick Johnstone's memoir, originally published on Goodreads:

The thing that struck me most about this memoir are the brilliant metaphors and similes, which make the reader feel sensations from the viewpoint of an alcoholic. Here's one for example, when author Nick Johnstone is ravenously thirsting after a glass of champagne:

"I could hear its tiny bubbles breaking and shattering like crystals falling on a stone floor."

Or this one, when he imagines himself drinking the forbidden champagne (as a former alcoholic):

"[...] the champagne [scorches] my throat and oesophagus and then that wonderful calm like a rusty old anchor being dropped into the ocean in slow motion."

I sometimes find metaphors and similes too "reaching", but only about once in this book I found a metaphor slightly contrived. Nick Johnstone uses them so well, he really makes the reader feel his images viscerally. Certainly the closest I've come to seeing from the point of view of an alcoholic.

This book is life-affirming (yes, that old book-review cliche)- but in a morbid kind of way. It's very concerned with death, almost obsessed with it. It isn't until the last few pages that there's much positivity. There are flashes of it every so often, but as soon as Johnstone hints at something positive in one of his vignettes, he ends it on a negative note. For me, this narrative rhythm became quite repetitive and predictable.

All in all though, a very well-written memoir, but a depressing one, all about human frailty.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Writing as an envelope

I recently read Zadie Smith's essay on David Foster Wallace. This got me thinking about doing an entry on a certain attitude to writing which Wallace totally believed in- writing as a gift to readers. There won't be much structure to this, just some things I've been thinking about recently.

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein asks the aspiring writer to think of writing as an envelope. "It is a mistake to fill the envelope with so much detail that little or nothing is left to the reader's imagination", he says.

So both Stein and Wallace share the idea that writing should be a kind of present to the reader, an envelope packaged with care, rather than a simple display of talent. And of course, Wallace was against solipsism- instead believing that writing should be a conversation between writer and reader.


Another thing I've been thinking about: learning to write is confusing. There is so much different advice. We are told both to be specific- to show and not tell- but also warned against including too much.

Some of Stein's advice for writing is to follow this equation:: 1+1= ½. He explains that “[...] if the same matter is said in two different ways, either alone has a stronger effect”. One detail, the best detail, will suffice.

Perhaps the best advice on this, though- which I’ve heard from numerous writers- is to trust your readers.

Sunday, 10 July 2011


I've been reading Goosebumps recently. Weirdly enough, I'm now reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar which is a bit of a melancholic jump.

What got me reading Goosebumps though, a 90s series of books for kids that were meant to be a bit scary, was this blog. It's a funny look at the whole series. I like the bits at the end of each summary such as the Great Prose Alert. Weirdly enough the book I was fondest of as a kid- One Day at Horrorland- is the one the blogger is harshest on.

The blog hails Be Careful What You Wish For as the best in the series. I didn't read that one when I was younger, so ordered it from Amazon.

The prose is pretty clear, which I guess it should be for children. It has simple, weird scenarios- such as "What would you do if you were the last person in the world?". It got my imagination going, something which a few of the adult books I've read recently haven't managed to do.

Note: each of these posts will be under 200 words, kind of inspired by Twitter's use of a word limit.

Edit: I no longer follow the 200 word limit. I just think it made my posts almost confusing in their brevity... hm...

Saturday, 9 July 2011


I started this to try out a different mode of writing.

Also, I'll be starting my 3rd year at uni soon, and one of my chosen Eng lit modules is Poetics of Surveillance. We'll be reading books such as 1984, and- I think this is a requirement- keeping our own blogs as a surveillance of our own studies.

I guess this is a practice for that- but this blog will deal with the Creative Writing side of my life.

The name for the blog comes from Bukowski quote I liked. I can't remember where I found it:

"We're all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn't. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing." - Charles Bukowski