Every girl I date seriously must eventually pass a test. It happens at a certain point in every relationship I have; by then she basically knows what she's getting with me, including my tendency to get weirdly obsessed with things. The bands Titus Andronicus and Belle & Sebastian, for one thing, or Game of Thrones. I'm tattooed with 16-bit Mario, a Dark Souls bonfire, and my dog Ricky. Etc. But if she hasn't picked up on that part of my personality, she'll see me in full when I show her my stronghold in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
Nowadays I play a million games for a few hours apiece, but back in the day my friends and I would play a single game, like Super Smash Bros. or Halo, for months or years straight. Morrowind was a solitary obsession, but it lasted just as long, from the time I was 13 in 2002 through much of my high school years, until about 2006. My dad had just died of a heart attack and I was more than ever finding comfort in video games. Maybe that's why the island of Vvardenfell grabbed me so completely, or maybe Morrowind was really just that good. Either way, I was hooked.
During that roughly four-year period I logged hundreds of hours using multiple characters, and while Morrowind is an absolutely gargantuan game, I eventually ran out of quests to complete and caves to explore. And that's when things got weird.
Progress far enough in Morrowind and you'll eventually gain your own "stronghold." It will be different depending on your faction, and I always chose Great House Telvanni rather than Hlaalu or Redoran. House Telvanni is led by powerful, ancient wizards, and they grow tower strongholds out of magic mushrooms instead of building them. There was never any other option for me.
The tower, located in a remote, ashy basin called Uvirith's Grave, is named Tel Uvirith in the Telvanni style. Most players will cast a teleport spell and return to this base whenever they need to offload some loot, and Tel Uvirith is handsomely equipped for that purpose. The blueprint includes a foyer, guest room, reception hall, dining area, and bedroom, all littered with chests and wardrobes in which to stash treasures and equipment — not to mention the multi-level dungeon, complete with a lava pit and a mysterious "perma-corpse" that never moves and can hold unlimited items for you.
That's fine for most players, but I made my stronghold into something more. This was role-playing at its finest: I fancied myself, through my white-haired Dark Elf avatar (even then I went by Rogue Cheddar), a powerful and mischievous sorcerer. As leader of Vvardenfell's various guilds and factions and defeater of the demon Dagoth Ur, the game's story and side quests completed, all I wanted to do was party. And I had the ultimate party pad.
One of the unfortunate side effects of the advent of realistic-ish physics in games is that the things you put down in Oblivion or Skyrim never seem to stay in place. Not so in Morrowind, and I covered every surface with the detritus of my imaginary rager.
Lanterns, candles and torches floated magically in empty air. Skooma pipes and moon sugar, the island's most illicit drugs, littered the tables and the shelf-like mushrooms growing in the dungeon. Every unique piece of armour or weapon I ever found, from the ever-burning swords Trueflame and Hopesfire to the fearsome helms known as the Daedric Faces of Inspiration, Terror, and God, was on display inside. All the alcohols of the region, from sujamma and flin to mazte and the rare Cyrodilic Brandy, were available for my guests to partake of.
And what guests I had! Like many role-playing games, Morrowind features spells that allow you to turn enemies to your side for short periods. And like most things in any Elder Scrolls game, these "command" spells were easily exploited. I gathered the realm's most powerful beings to my home, enchanting them with impossibly strong incantations and luring them over volcanic wastes, perilous swamps and Daedra-infested mountains to my isolated tower.
That was probably the strangest and most impressive aspect of my obsession. Morrowind had a robust spell creation system, but only by severely exploiting it could you hope to craft enchantments powerful enough to snare the game's highest-level creatures and NPCs. Even then, some, like the warrior-poet and god-king Vivec, could only be commanded for a few seconds at a time. It took infinite magic (and patience) to continuously re-cast the spell, inching backwards across miles of treacherous in-game geography while my "guests" followed, while also casting intermittent speed and levitation spells so they could walk faster and avoid the many rivers and lava pits along the way. I don't remember the specifics, but it must have taken dozens of hours to get them all there.
My guests included every resident of Vvardenfell whom I envied, admired, or feared. The ancient life-creating wizard Divayth Fyr stood in a foyer watching one of the game's awkward strippers — lured there by my adolescent brain from Desele's House of Earthly Delights in the far-away town of Suran — alongside the brooding Dremora Lords Krazzt and Anhaedra, the curious vampire Mastrius, and Goris the Maggot King. Vivec, omnipotent (well not quite, it turns out), alien, and floating cross-legged and serene, watched all.
In the dungeon the merchant scamp Lustidrike (a less-cute Dobby) peddled spirits to Ra-Gruzgob, the orc who thinks he's a cat, Big Head the crazy lizard man, and M'Aiq the Liar, a funny character who's made cameos in other Elder Scrolls games. Vedam and Orvas Dren, the Duke of Vvardenfell and his younger brother, conversed with the vampire queen Dhaunayne Aundae while the dancer Caminda gyrated alluringly (read: disgustingly) nearby.
There were more: the naked barbarians Hisin Deep-Raed, Botrir, and Hlormar Wine-Sot; benign but impressive elemental atronach spirits of frost, storm, and fire; Creeper and the talking mudcrab, two other unlikely merchants; the corpse of a bandit named Luven, who for some forgotten reason earned my ire and paid the ultimate price; and the mystical White Guar, a unique beast who resided in a separate guest house because he wouldn't fit through the tower's entrance.
I've been using the past tense, but in truth they're all still there, waiting. It's the party that never ends. My obsession with Morrowind has faded, but I still think fondly of the game. I don't think any Elder Scrolls game since can possibly compare, and it's amazing how many of the oddball names and places in this article I recalled from memory.
But since I've never figured out how to salvage my Morrowind saves off my original Xbox, every so often I take the big, ugly, black box off the shelf, blow the dust off, and take a lady on a tour. It's a nostalgic trip for me, and a potential eye-opener for her; this is what I'm capable of at my weirdest. So far none have run out of the room screaming, so I guess I'm doing something right.