Friday, November 15, 2013

Fulfill an Ancient Prophecy in Vvardenfell

In the waning years of the Third Era of Tamriel, a prisoner born on a certain day to uncertain parents was sent under guard, without explanation, to Morrowind, ignorant of the role he was to play in that nation's history…

So begins the grand adventure of the epic role-playing game, Morrowind, released in 2002 for PC and XBOX by Bethesda Softworks. I originally played the XBOX version when it was first released, and can remember, when the somewhat somber and reflective opening theme music began, and the above quote whispered its way across the screen, thinking that this was going to be a unique experience. I was absolutely right about that assessment–of all the worlds I've ever visited, Vvardenfell captured my attention and imagination for the longest period of time.
A merchant with books available for sale, or for pilfering,
if you've got the skill (and the nerve) to do it.

Unlike many video games, Morrowind has a much more "literary" quality to it, due in part to the over 300 actual books that are scattered about the land and readable by the player. If you added up all the in-game books, it is said to equal the amount of content in six standard-size novels! Most of the books are found in bookstores, homes, temples and come in the form of serialized installments, so you get, for example, "The Biography of Barenziah" volumes 1-3. So if you're following the story, it's fun to come across the next volume. Kind of like it's fun to read a trilogy in real life!

Another crazily fun thing to do in Vvardenfell is steal stuff! I love to play thief-type characters, and Morrowind is definitely a game that rewards this playstyle. If you gain enough skill in sneaking, you can move around, virtually unseen, and take whatever items you need. You can also train up your security skill and become an expert at lockpicking, which will allow you access to even more precious items. There are, of course, consequences, for getting caught. But if you play your cards right, these will be negligible, and you'll be sitting pretty like Smaug on your big pile of phat loot!

Great attention is paid to continuity between what you read and hear about, and the actual people and places you encounter in-game. For example, you might meet someone in the game with the last name Hlaalu, realizing you've read about their ancestors in a book somewhere, or even paid a visit to a tomb of one of those ancestors (and possibly robbed it!). 

Maps this beautiful are rare in video games.
These days you're lucky if you get a map at all!
The Light Side:

The culture and architecture of Vvardenfell has a truly unique feel, somewhere between the traditional medieval European look and a more nomadic, or "desert" style. There are even some truly fantastic dwellings that are encountered later in the story that I will not spoil for you. Suffice to say that the weirder elements of life in Vvardenfell are elegantly and seamlessly integrated with the rest of the design and the story. Even the mode of public transportation between towns, giant, flea-like creatures called silt striders, seems perfectly natural. When you want to go somewhere, you have to plan your route, just as you would in real life. The game comes with a printed, hand-drawn map of the world (amazingly detailed, a work of art in itself), which, along with the in-game map, aids you in planning your adventures.

The artists that created the world lavished attention on the textures, "painting" them by hand, rather than having a computer randomly generate them. This attention to detail shows, everywhere, especially in the fields and forests, where you'll find bright patches of all kinds of flora. These can be picked and used to create potions.

Realistic day/night cycles present an ever-changing backdrop, with brilliantly colored clouds during the day and twinkling stars by night.

The Dark Side:

There's always someone standing between you and your goals.

Naturally, the game is not only about wandering around admiring the scenery. There are numerous places scattered about the land where trouble can be found and gotten into. Smugglers' caves, full of loot (and angry smugglers); tombs of wealthy nobles; strange temples to even stranger gods; gloomy, underground hangouts of deranged cultists–these are only a few of the places you can go to test your mettle, and acquire the ever-important equipment you'll need on your journeys.

There are also ruins scattered about, remnants of a race of people called Dwemer who disappeared, en masse, leaving their mechanical creations behind. This is one of the stories you can follow and discover more of by reading the aforementioned books.

Your Role:

The approach to the story makes Morrowind truly unique. Unlike many role-playing games, your progress through the story feels entirely natural. The quests nudge you along, almost without your even realizing it, through the main story. Even the side quests seem to support and complement the direction in which you are already going. This makes for a very satisfying visit to a fictional world, and a feeling that you are, in fact, woven into the tapestry of the story itself.

Depending on the quality of your personality, as well as what you've achieved, the citizens of Vvardenfell react differently towards you in different situations–some hostile, some helpful. There consequences for breaking laws, as well as ways to get away with breaking laws if you're crafty enough. You'll meet many different kinds of people of varying races, and have the opportunity to join many groups and guilds, gaining assistance and experience as you aid your new group in various matters. The main story is riveting, especially if you can steel yourself not to look any of it up online. Gradually, the dawning of what is at stake begins to take shape, along with your own role in it, making for a real "page-turner" feel.

In Summary:

Worth Visiting Score: 10/10

If I could recommend one game to friends who enjoy fantasy novels, but are not avid gamers, it would be Morrowind. This is no button-mashing time waster, but an interactive fiction experience that draws you in and piques your curiosity to know more, just like a good epic fantasy should. Play it while you still can!

Technical Notes:

Morrowind is an oldie-but-goodie. Though designed for the original XBOX, Morrowind still plays on an XBOX 360 just fine, though the graphics are better if you play the PC version (provided that you have a good enough video card, which you probably do, given that this game is circa 2002). There have also been many mods created by users, via the kit provided by the developer, that give you more quests, more items, and more places to explore. Some mods also improve upon the already-gorgeous graphics, making the visuals even more immersive. These would only be available for the PC version.



Morrowind is © Bethesda Softworks LLC, a ZeniMax Media company

Monday, November 11, 2013

Arbonne, a Land Where Women Rule

A Song For Arbonne
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Published 1992
511 Pages
Historical Fantasy

Troubadours and their singers, called joglars,
are very popular throughout Arbonne.
When I began this blog and named it "Worlds Worth Visiting," I intended it as a travel guide through media of all ages, past and present, for those seeking a particular and, I fear, increasingly rare type of experience. Though it may seem strange for someone to be "reviewing" a 21 year old book, I'm doing just that with A Song For Arbonne, because it is such a great example of a world worth visiting: a brilliantly crafted setting, complex characters, a sense of epic grandeur and a story that completely immerses the reader from beginning to end. It is a romantic novel (though not in any way a "romance novel") that, though set in a fictional world, is strongly influenced by the traditions of courtly love, and the troubadour culture of the middle ages.

In A Song for Arbonne, the land of "woman-ruled" Arbonne is so beautiful and idyllic that it becomes like a character–one for whom I felt great sympathy. On more than one occasion, I felt my heart in my throat, wondering what was to become of her. It's not so much that I'm a fangirl for courtly love tales, but that Kay peeled back the curtain and revealed the heart of what is genuinely beautiful about a world that would value such ideals.

Women rule in Arbonne, a condition which
their neighbors the he-man-woman-haters club
to the north find intolerable.
Arbonne is a world of subtle magic and intrigue, with great emphasis on culture and history. The story is told from the perspective of a male mercenary from a neighboring country where women are treated like dirt. This perspective throws the observations he makes about Arbonne into even sharper relief, giving Arbonne an even shinier, brighter quality than it might have had if it had been described by a native of Arbonne. We truly feel like we are "visitors in an unholy (or holy) land" when viewing Arbonne through Blaise's eyes. His journey of understanding, and ultimately appreciating this more feminine world coincides with a war brought down upon the Arbonnais by his own people.

The writing style matches the theme: very descriptive, romantic, almost poetic. This author can put together some of the longest sentences that I've ever read, but they all seem to work and did not cause any speedbumps for me in the progress of the story. This is a special talent, making description not only feel relevant, but also evocative. It also did not feel like over-description. I would call it "pleasantly over-the-top", just like the Arbonnais themselves.

A Song For Arbonne might appeal to you if you enjoyed…

The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
I think Arbonne would appeal to Avalon fans not only for the beautifully crafted world, researched with painstaking attention to detail, but also for the theme of the sacred feminine, threatened by an emerging patriarchal dominance. Really, any fan of Arthurian legend will probably enjoy it, for the inspired feeling of high culture that Arbonne reflects. It reminded me of Camelot in many ways.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Though it is a much "softer" type of story than G.R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones on HBO), I think it might appeal to readers with similar sensibilities. There is a great deal of interpersonal and "courtly" intrigue here, but more attention is paid to the inner landscape of the characters. Though there are some notable villains, the heroes are just as interesting. There is a strong sense of hope and honor among certain people you meet in the story. Though I have enjoyed the Song of Ice and Fire, I find it depressing at times, and grow numb periodically from the endless violence. Arbonne, though not entirely free of violence, is a much lovelier and livelier place in general, where I ultimately felt more invested in the outcome of the story.


Personally, I enjoyed my stay in Arbonne immensely, and give it a Worth Visiting Score of 8/10, unfortunately knocking off two points only because I felt like it ended rather abruptly and left me wondering about Blaise and the other characters I had come to love. Oddly, it ended with the thoughts and reflections of a completely new character, one that I did not care about as much. Perhaps a sequel might be in order? I, for one, would certainly book passage for a return voyage!

Have you been to Arbonne? What were your impressions of this romantic land?