Many moons ago, when I was still a low-level character and in the youth of my virtual adventuring, I made myself at home in the nooks and crannies of Vvardenfell. Upon my arrival to Balmora, I sent some unlucky shopkeep shuffling off this mortal coil and claimed his house for myself (I could still pinpoint its exact location after almost 17 years). The clueless inhabitants never got wise to my heinous crime, and I’d continue to stuff the humble dwelling with my ill-gotten gains for many hours.
When I eventually found out that whatever faction you join will build you a private residence late in the game, my still-growing brain was entirely blown. My very own place, and not even a single murder required? I oversaw construction of my residence with trepidation and impatience, clasping my precious contract in sweaty palms, and fell in love with it as soon as I lay eyes on the completed complex, the Indarys Manor.
Enough time has passed that I can admit my much-anticipated new build was not exactly a luxury resort, and not even much of a home: built on dead ground in the middle of a volcanic wasteland constantly enveloped by storms of ash, with creepy-faced buildings, a central manor shaped like an angry croissant, and low walls that did little to keep out the main pest of the desert, the winged Cliff Racers… it makes for a somewhat depressing sight.
It wasn’t enough.
Soon my needy teenage ego demanded a more imposing structure, befitting my grand virtual status, and so I tried my hand at the TES Construction Set, the first and last editing tool I’ve ever used extensively. With it, I expanded the manor with an additional periphery of walls and towers and began turning it into a real stronghold. I also plopped down a whole garrison of men-at-arms to do my bidding for good measure.
I began strutting around my manor like a king, inspecting every last patch of ash in my gloriously empty, dead domain. The garrison, wandering about aimlessly like broken wind-up toys, didn’t recognize me as their better, but that didn’t matter (Morrowind is a game that demands suspension of disbelief in many respects).
Just like real humans, video game protagonists have a habit of hoarding crap they don’t need. My Morrowind adventurer, who spent far too much time treasure hunting and had never heard of Marie Kondo (does the 5th complete set of Daedric armor really spark joy?), quickly amassed a museum’s worth of objects from all over the isles.
The chamber I’d used to store all my armor, stacked right up to the ceiling in physics-defying piles, soon spilled out into the main hall. In my bedroom, I surrounded myself with my favorite finds as well as piles of the most rare and valuable books. At one point I spent hours decorating the roofs of my houses and towers with the hundreds of pearls and precious stones I’d found on my forays. As a silly joke, I even spelled out my own name on a roof entirely in diamonds. I remember being pleased enough to take a screenshot (sadly long lost along with all my old save files).
Looking back, the whole enterprise appears like some unholy convergence between a brilliant game that gave players’ fantasies room to breathe (especially those with far too much time on their hands) and a semi-obsessive need for escapism. The now-resplendent Indarys Manor, hidden away in a dark corner of a virtual world, was a home away from home, a refuge from the usual trials and tribulations of teenage life. Its walls may not have done much to keep out the Cliff Racers, but they certainly kept the real world out, and there was something calming about tinkering and building, arranging and sorting my virtual possessions. It felt like tending and cultivating my own miniature garden in the middle of a grey desert. Like some low-res Robinson Crusoe, I built a sort of domestic fantasy in the most unlikely place imaginable. Unlike him, of course, I was stranded of my own volition.
The TES Construction Set and my manor awoke the part of me that would spend dozens of hours building castles in Minecraft years later. There’s a key difference though: the pleasure I derived from Morrowind was all about being rather than building, about permanence rather than transience. In the end, it was less about continuously building a huge, impressive construction, and more about inhabiting what was already there and engaging with the countless small things it contained.
Not many games manage to create a sense of persistent space and “being at home” in a made-up world as well as Morrowind did. Playing The Long Dark, and claiming a hut in the Mystery Lake region, I was recently reminded of my precious sand castle. Returning from expeditions and carefully laying out your finds on tables and shelves for future use, or just for show, is a strangely satisfying ritual that few games offer. Outside, a blizzard was howling while my survivor was sitting next to a fire, and I was pleasantly reminded of all the wild ash storms from which I’d been safe inside my Vvardenfell stronghold.
Eventually I grew tired of my once-beloved manor, and used the Construction Set to build a cozy cottage on a tiny island far away from monsters, quests and the adventurer’s life. There was a small boat right in front of it with a hatch that would teleport you to the coast and back again. I retired, so to speak, and put my worn weapons and battered armor away. I moved on from Morrowind soon after.
But not before cracking open the Construction Set one last time. For my final act, I built a secret passage in my cottage that led to a giant underground colosseum. Which I then filled to the brim with the most ferocious creatures in the game. It made sense at the time. But who knows what strange things lurk in the minds of teenagers.