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.