Morrowind and Miasmata: walking tours of fictional islands

Miasmata's map and compass
Miasmata’s map and compass

Played Miasmata today for the first time, and had some loose thoughts about islands and slowness and learning terrain in fictional landscapes. Morrowind is still one of my favourite games and the one that I know best, and every time I move house significantly I tend to fire it up out of some deep need for a familiar space. I didn’t notice I did this till the Sydney move, when I didn’t feel properly grounded till I’d managed to get the PC set up and then walk at starting-character speed from Seyda Neen to Balmora, for the thirtieth time or so.

Morrowind doesn’t have fast travel, or regenerating health or mana. Depending on your character choices at startup, you’ll start at a level where you have difficulty defeating even the weakest of enemies, and going up against bandits or other human attackers would be impossible. There are travel networks – boats, silt striders, the Mages Guild teleportation system – and some spells that will teleport you to the nearest shrine or temple. And one that lets you set a waypoint then port back to it.

That’s enough to let you navigate and move quickly between major cities, but most of the time the things you head out to do are in the wilderness, in the areas that those systems don’t reach.

That creates a world that demands time, exploration and slow discovery. If you want to experience all the different parts of the game you will have to walk the same paths many times, growing accustomed to the geography, finding shortcuts as you go. With no way to port back to town to pick up supplies then pop back to where you were, you have to plan your trips based on how remote your destination is, what supplies you might require, where you pass through on the way, which tasks you can do together to save travel time.

Your quests are not marked on any maps, so you find yourself leafing through journal pages to find the descriptions that will take you where you need to go. North-east of Vivec into the Daedric shrine Ald Sotha to find the flower Roland’s Tear growing on the east side. South past the Dwemer ruins and take the second road heading west to Malacath’s shrine.

Later Elder Scrolls games let you fast travel between landmarks, which promotes a completely different engagement with the landscape. Instead of carefully plotting your caving trip to make sure you can survive it, weighing up the wisdom of leaving your course for an unexpected dungeon, you can wander off-track however you like and take on new challenges knowing you can simply teleport back when you’re done. You find new locations not through landmarks and directions but through a marker on a minimap and then charging directly towards it, detouring to unlock new locations so you can teleport back next time and have a shorter distance to walk. You rarely walk the same path twice.

Let’s be clear: this is, for most people, a vastly less frustrating system; Morrowind now feels antiquated without fast travel, and Miasmata a little old-fashioned. But it has its drawbacks too. For one thing – despite its limitations, alchemy in Morrowind is a more satisfying skill than in later games. The gathering of ingredients is a natural part of travel: I am walking south of Balmora towards Hla Oad for a quest, so on the way there will be cornberries to make Restore Magicka potions and corkbulb root for Restore Health.With fast travel, gathering relies on serendipity and snapping up what’s there, and much of that synergy is lost.

I’m not too far along in Miasmata yet, but it shares a lot of design similarities with Morrowind in the way it slowly opens up deep knowledge of its landscapes to the player. Like Morrowind, it is an island, though a much smaller one. Islands are different metaphors to walled cities or vast plains: they’re exciting and exotic, sometimes dangerous and sometimes unexplored but always distinctly separate, finite and bounded spaces that seem knowable, understandable, if you put in enough time. Proteus takes advantage of this, as do GTA3 and Assassin’s Creed 4. On one hand it’s a simple way to gate locations and avoid invisible walls; on the other it’s a canny way of making self-contained worlds. Morrowind’s and Proteus’s are about uncovering, exploring and making known; Miasmata’s is also about those things, but it adds in being cut off, having no escape, being trapped.

Miasmata’s map is manual, and if you don’t know where you are – if you are in the woods with no landmarks visible – then you are lost. You can find maps that fill in blank spaces for you, but if you don’t have a map then you must start to triangulate your location using the landmarks you do know about to help you. Location in Miasmata (as in Morrowind, as in survival Minecraft, as in Dark Souls) is a resource, something that can be lost, something that requires significant player effort to maintain.

The game forces you to husband resources before you make foraging trips, plan your proposed routes carefully, make sure you can carry back everything you might find, think about timing to avoid being stuck in the woods at night with no light. So it’s sensible to keep to the paths, so you know where you are and where you are going. But your objectives, the flowers and plants that hold the cure for your mysterious plague, are generally off the beaten track. Leaving the path is a gamble you must make.

I learn cities by walking them. Two months after we moved to London I decided to walk all the Tube lines in segments as long as I could; tendonitis meant I only got about a third of the way through, but by that time I already felt much more like I owned the city. You can walk it, so it’s yours. You see the details, the shortcuts, the things you miss on subways (which are basically fast travel with really long loading times). You know the bones.

There’s a quest in Morrowind, a pilgrimage, in which you visit a priest in Vivec, the largest city in the far south of the map. You take a vow of silence, which prevents you from using any of the transport systems because you can’t speak to pay your fare, and you must travel to the Sanctus Shrine, at the absolute north edge of the map. There are some things you can do to make the journey shorter, using teleportation spells or spending significant time first to restore a semi-secret transportation network that doesn’t rely on speech. Given the choice, though, I would always rather walk.

Published by

Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

3 thoughts on “Morrowind and Miasmata: walking tours of fictional islands”

  1. Isn’t Dear Esther almost literally a walking tour of an island? Might be worth looking into, even if it doesn’t quite match the sort of gameplay found in Miasmata or Morrowind. I’ve heard it described as an audiobook tied to a walking simulator, but I’ve also heard the same platitude leveled at a lot of recent experimental games (Gone Home, Stanley Parable). I can’t really comment on them though, as I’ve not played them myself yet.

    I’m more a fan of action sandbox games – Assassin’s Creed, Arkham City, Prototype – all of which have either no or very sparse instant travel points. Instead, the travel itself is reasonably fast by nature. While they lack the diverse and sprawling terrain of an island setting, the gliding and leaping over rooftops and the urban architecture feels comparable to me. Perhaps the common overlap of interest here would be Just Cause 2 – a sprawling and vast island game, with a fast-travel system, but often so much more enjoyable to just hookshot and glide your way over, taking in the terrain as you go. Gliding is a much faster pace than the walking of the “frustrating” and “antiquated” Morrowind, without forfeiting the visual and interactive experience for loading screens and cutscene animations. Scaling snowy mountains and then leaping to glide all the way down, then on over to deserts and cities alike, remains joyous in spite of the multitude of drivable vehicles or the teleporting helicopter at your beck and call.

    I suddenly recall The Secret World, and the island of Kingsmouth. While TSW is an MMO and succumbs to all the foibles of one, musing on your post reminded me of jogging across the Lovecraft-Poe-and-King inspired rainy island, with its myriad of secret societies, cursed ships and haunted schools. For such a densely-packed theme park of horror attractions, it was surprisingly easy to just wander off the beaten path and engage in quests out of the way, or in entirely unexpected orders. Egypt’s hidden valley had similarly impressive design, albeit with a less diverse theme. The story there though was excellent, and well-presented, allowing you to speak to the various guardians in any order and really get a feel for their personalities and behaviours. Both felt like their landscapes had been designed with wandering and non-linearity in mind, but perhaps were restrained by the “level curve” that zones off all non-sandbox MMOs. Notably, neither had precise maps, but tourist maps with oversized features and scribbled notes, or blackened parchment with near-illegible diagrams. A number of investigation quests don’t have objective markers either, instead relying on your knowledge of terrain or places you’ve visited prior. The only fast-travel were the gates back to the hubworld, one per map, and the smattering of respawn points. Admittedly, some players did abuse the self-kill “debugging” function to rapidly teleport about the map via the spawns.

    Honestly, in terms of transportation and world interconnection, Dark Souls remains the best case study – even once you do unlock sparse ‘warping’ shortcuts, the world retains its integrity. While wanderlust is less easy to indulge within Lordran’s corridors, caves and bridges, the interconnectivity of the Berg, Basin, Garden, Parish – everywhere seen on this map (, really, and a few more underground – continues to astound me. I wish I had more to say about it, but really, it’s hard to put into words how a game with no internal map can imprint its locations and geography so brightly onto the mind. I haven’t properly sat down and played it in some time, and yet I can still backroute my way to the second bell in my mind, and recall the locations of most equipment, without having had to obsessively memorize it. It just occurred naturally in a single pass of the game.

    I feel that game navigation and “world design”, rather than “level design”, is sorely under-appreciated by both players and developers, and has been for quite some time – those games that do create fulfilling worlds are definitely worth both celebrating and studying. Making a truly functional world goes beyond mechanics, aesthetics and narrative, and requires thoughtfulness and care in all elements of design. As you pointed out, even a simple new mechanic for the sake of alleviating frustration – fast travel – can have far-reaching impact on both the depth of the navigational experience and seemingly unrelated systems like alchemy and crafting.

    Apologies for the wall of text! I really appreciated this post and it got me thinking. And to think I nearly posted this as a Facebook comment before noticing the blog’s actual comment system… anyway, I’ve forwarded this onto a friend of mine who actually played Morrowind, so he’ll likely get even more out of it than I did. Thanks again!

    1. Cheers for the huge reply! Definitely agree with you about world design. I wanted to try and tease out some of the reasons why Morrowind & Miasmata play so similarly while, say, Oblivion feels so different, and I think so much is down to travel systems and the way they change the player’s movement through the world. And the way that affects repetition, too. Worlds have to be much deeper if your players are seeing them slowly over and over again, which tallies with what I hear about Dark Souls.

      I have to admit I haven’t played Dark Souls half so much as I should have. It’s the sort of game I ought to love, but just never quite got to the point of falling for it before the frustration felt too much. That’s partly to do with not having as much time to spare as the game needs, I think.

      Dear Esther, though, yes, definitely shares the same sort of wandering. But like Proteus it’s much less directed, much more wandering and much less purpose. You’re trying to uncover information out of character, rather than gathering things/info in character, so that wandering feels much more player-directed, I think? If that makes sense? TSW’s coordinates system for some of its puzzles is brilliant for the other sort of directed meandering, with a goal and a purpose dictated by the game rather than the player. But because of the MMO-curve you mentioned it doesn’t require much in the way of resources, at least early on, so bits of Kingsnorth feel more like overt gating systems than organic things growing out of the landscape. Almost the precise opposite of Proteus, I guess.

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.