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Achievement hunting on Steam is serious business. While Valve's storefront might not have Xbox's Gamerscore or PlayStation's Trophies, there are still plenty of PC gamers who appreciate the way Steam achievements challenge them to play games in new and interesting ways. Then there's the satisfaction of knowing you're one of just a small percentage of players who've explored every nook and cranny, maxed out every stat, or earned every gold medal a game has to offer.
The thing is, a lot of Steam achievements are kind of boring. Kill 10,000 enemies, hit level 99 in every class, finish the game on Ultra Nightmare Hardcore difficulty—most of the objectives feel like they've fallen straight out of a free-to-play MMO's quest log. Even the rarest achievements are often little more than tedious grind fests, requiring you to play 500 online matches in a multiplayer game with no active player base, or fight alongside a game's developer when that developer has long ago moved onto their next project.
These achievements aren't particularly fun to earn, let alone read about. But buried in Steam's massive catalog of games are some truly obscure, brutally difficult achievements that less than 0.1 percent of players have managed to accomplish. These are achievements worthy of the name. Most of us will never earn them, but we can dream.
Devil Dagger - Survive 500 secondsTotal Owners: 236,000 Completion Percentage: 0.1
For something you could complete in the downtime between Dota matches, frantic FPS Devil Dagger's one and only achievement has managed to defy 99.9 percent of players for well over a year now. That might seem odd given how simple its requirement sounds: all you have to do is survive for 500 seconds. I mean, I do that all the time. See. That last 500 seconds? I just survived that.
But yeah. Surviving Devil Daggers is a wee bit tougher than running out the clock in real life. Despite the game selling for a mere fiver, just 0.1 percent of players have managed to avoid croaking for the 8 minutes and 20 seconds necessary to snag the 'Devil Dagger' achievement. Watching replays of those runs is equal parts mesmerizing and depressing, making it painfully clear just how amateur my own skills are. I could probably spend the next year playing nothing but Devil Daggers and still not come close to the graceful death-dealing of players like the world-record-smashing bowsr. When the apocalypse hits and the whole world goes to hell, I'll be the redshirt incinerated in the first ten seconds.
Not so Bad - Survive the End Times Total Owners: 1.4 million Completion Percentage: 0.1
Crusader Kings 2, champion of the grand strategy genre, is full of intricate, multi-layered achievements few players have managed to unlock. From installing a female ruler in the five baronies of the Orthodox Pentarchy, to trampling the Pope with a horde of elephants, over a dozen eclectic achievements are currently sitting at a completion rate of less than 0.1 percent.
The one I want to shout out, though, is the 'Not so Bad' achievement awarded for surviving the End Times. Ostensibly, you unlock this achievement by surviving the rise of the Prophet of Doom and the Black Death he's convinced will destroy humanity. A Crusader Kings player going by the username Xolotl123 on Reddit, however, inadvertently earned themselves the achievement due to their investment in high-quality hospital care and their imprisonment of the Prophet for disturbing the peace. The Prophet then hanged himself, but not before sending the player a letter that read: 'If you are reading this letter, I am with God, or with Lucifer..., if so, then you were right. If not, then I was right.'
I've not had the time to play Crusader Kings 2, but after reading this story, I think I'm going to have to clear my schedule. Any game where you can avert the End Times through hygiene is a winner in my book.
Bringing a sword to a sword fight – As an American soldier kill an Axis soldier wielding a Katana, with a Katana. Stick it to Tojo – As an Allied soldier, kill 100 Axis soldiers with a bayonet. Total Owners: 2.7 million (unreliable due to free weekend) Completion percentage: 0.1 - 0.2
Rising Storm's focus on historically authentic, asymmetrical WWII combat means that, naturally, American soldiers do not spawn into the battlefield with katanas. In order to get one, you have to defeat a Japanese soldier who's carrying one. And in order to get the "Bringing a sword..." achievement, you then have to pick up their katana, find another Japanese soldier with a katana, and then defeat them with the weapon of their ancestors. It's a hard scenario to concoct in an FPS where rifles and grenades are the preferred way to fight.
MEAT.BOY SMELLS - Get a perfect in 1-1 using only a game pad.Total Owners: 311,00Achievement percentage: 1.6
Heresy! An achievement that requires ditching the holy mouse and keyboard for a filthy gamepad? What does BIT.TRIP BEAT take us for, console players? Everyone knows a good M+K combo is the only way to play. Sure, it makes driving games a bit twitchy, and performing combos in third-person action games can be tricky without analogue sticks, and fighting games don't always work so great, and stealth sequences tend to be a little wonky with WASD…
Okay. So maybe gamepads aren't that bad. Still, locking an achievement to a specific piece of hardware is a surefire way to tick off achievement hunters. The BIT.TRIP devs found that out the hard way with the game's, which required players to beat a level using Razer's short-lived Sixense motion controller. to 'SIXTH.SENSE' drove the devs to delete the achievement from Steam completely, which technically makes it one of the rarest achievements out there. Not quite as rare as a game with motion controls that don't feel like total garbage, but still…
Games are meant to be played—we usually take that much for granted. It's a little odd, then, when a game actively encourages you not to play it. Odd, however, is what The Stanley Parable's all about. I mean, one of the game's endings involves running back and forth between two buttons for four hours. And that's not to mention the pointed commentary on the nature of free will and the human tendency towards obeisance. Like I said, odd.
The Stanley Parable's weirdest elements, however, are definitely its achievements. In addition to an achievement simply entitled 'Unachievable' (paradoxically earned by 3.9 percent of players), there's the 'Go outside' achievement that tasks players with not playing the game for five years straight. Since The Stanley Parable released in October 2013, no one can legitimately earn this achievement until October next year. Of course, that hasn't stopped some unscrupulous Steam users from setting their computer clocks forward to unlock the achievement early.
Cheating to not play a game? I guess some people will do anything for their sweet cheevos.
You can do a lot of things in the 8760 hours that make up a single year. You could play 105,120 matches of Rocket League. You could marathon the entire current run of The Simpsons—all 617 episodes—38 times over. You could hitch a ride on a rocket and fly to Mars, with enough time left over to plant the seeds of an interplanetary rebellion.
You could also spend every one of those 8760 hours playing Garry's Mod in order to unlock the 'Addict' achievement. And when I say playing, I don't just mean booting up the game and letting it idle in the menu. You have to be connected to an active server for your time to count. Unsurprisingly, the hefty investment involved has kept the achievement's completion percentage at just 1.8 percent, even with achievement hunters over at AStats devising strategies for minimizing the resources used by Garry's Mod so you can leave it running in the background while you tend to other tasks.
I have to wonder, though, how many people left their computers on while they were working or sleeping solely to unlock this achievement? At a modest estimate, 8760 hours' worth of electricity would cost roughly $210 USD, which is a whole lot of money for a single achievement. Kind of puts all those pesky microtransactions to shame, doesn't it?
DLC scenarios Total Owners: 995,000 Completion percentage: 0
Speaking of money, Train Simulator boasts some of the rarest achievements on Steam, but that's not because they're brutally difficult or stubbornly obscure. Heck, the achievement descriptions make it pretty obvious what you've got to do: the 'It Works For Dogs!' achievement reads 'Awarded for completing scenario [RailfanMode] Barking. It's not like the game's unpopular either, with nearly a million owners on Steam and a median playtime of a respectable 7.5 hours.
No, what makes Train Simulator's achievements so rare is that fiendish friend of ours: DLC. Train Simulator is notorious for having the most expensive DLC on Steam, with its total value currently sitting at $6254.43 USD. Worse, Train Simulator ties many of its achievements to its DLC, leading to a wealth of 0 percent and 0.1 percent completion rates across the board.
But that $6254.43? I'd want a real honest-to-god train if I was forking over that much cash. If it was anything like Train Simulator, though, it'd probably lock out the train whistle as premium DLC. Steam whistle: only $0.99 per toot!
Artifact Archaeologist – You personally retrieved all Eight Artifacts! Total Owners: 4.7 million Completion Percentage: 0.2
A whole lot of people play ARK: Survival Evolved, and yet even the most common of its seven achievements has been earned by less than 5 percent of players. But while 95 percent of ARK players haven't defeated the game's first Ultimate Life Form, 99.8 percent remain vexed by its toughest achievement: 'Artifact Archaeologist', rewarded for retrieving every Artifact in the game. It sounds simple enough, but this is where ARK's nature as an Early Access game comes back to bite it on the rump.
According to the achievement description, there are only eight artifacts in ARK: Survival Evolved. This isn't true. There are 14 artifacts in total, 10 of which can be obtained through normal play, 3 which are locked to the Scorched Earth DLC, and one which can only be spawned through a console command. For a game that has already seen its fair share of controversy, ARK has left quite a few achievement hunters pretty disappointed. Still, at least they can take solace in the giant bees that have just been added to the game. That's something, right?
Dragonrider - Tame and ride 5 dragons Total Owners: 11 million (unreliable due to free weekend) Completion percentage: 0.8
I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you've played Skyrim, or at least heard enough about it to understand the game's premise. You're the dragonborn, you need to save the world from an evil dragon, yada yada yada. In short, the game basically revolves around dragons.
How, then, is the achievement for riding dragons so rare? Only 0.8 percent of the millions of Skyrim players have tamed five or more of the mythical creatures and taken to the skies, which makes exactly zero sense to me. Who wouldn't want a dragon as their personal chauffeur? It's not like you'd have to worry about anyone jacking your scaly pal; any thief foolish enough to try would be charred to a crisp before they could shout Fus Ro Dah. I guess Skyrim players are just too busy getting busy and fighting Macho Man Randy Savage to spend their time becoming certified dragon pilots.
Rare Specimen – Send the Hidden Hat to Xen. Total Owners: 500,000 Completion percentage: 2.1 percent
Hats are all the rage these days. I have it on good authority from my stock broker that the hat economy is only going to go up—and that's coming from a man who wears a top hat, so you know it's legit. My wardrobe is already full of baseball caps, bowler hats, fezes, and beanies, just waiting for the day when my fabric fortune will be ready to claim. The only thing I don't quite understand is why my broker keeps mentioning Dota. Eh, never mind. I'm sure it's nothing.
Video games, it turns out, are just as keen to cash in on the hat craze. Black Mesa, the fan-made recreation of the original Half-Life, adds in the 'Rare Specimen' achievement that tasks good old Gordon Freeman with locating a hidden purple top hat and lugging it all the way from the Black Mesa Research Facility on Earth to the alien dimension of Xen. It might not sound that tricky, but apparently Gordon's more interested in trivial things like saving the world instead of securing his future in the hat economy--only 2.1 percent of players have carried the top hat all the way to its new interdimensional marketplace.
Wait, that gives me an idea. What if I started selling digital hats instead of physical ones? Ooh, I think I'm onto something here. I better stop typing before someone beats me to the punch…
Without bagels, I’d probably live to be 100 years old. But I have regular access to bagels and sourdough loaves and this sandwich bread always in my house called Birdman that’s covered in seeds and I don’t know why. I eat the stuff so fast I’ll be surprised if I make it to 50.
In videogames, bread often gives you health instead of slowly seeping it away, a beacon of hearth and health. It’s been this way since the earliest games, and as technology became more capable of producing detailed environments and uncanny human likenesses, so too advanced the fidelity of the loaf. But the evolution of bread didn’t happen in a straight line. Diverse genres, art styles, and game engines shifted the purpose and priority of bread throughout the ages.
To get a clearer picture of how game bread has or hasn’t evolved, we’ve taken a look back at its implementation in some best games ever made to some of the most obscure.
As one of the earliest depictions of a hamburger bun, BurgerTime did a decent job. And it should have, given the name. Notice the inference of sesame seeds on the top bun and how the light diffuses on the bottom bunk. Early pixel art set a high bar for bunwork.
A decade later, the burger genre fell out of vogue and fantasy roleplaying games stepped into the limelight. Ultima IV didn’t feature bread in a major way, but was an early example of inventory art, proof that you didn’t need the latest in computer graphics to make a great loaf.
As a preteen, I went to a Catholic church camp even though I’m not and have never been Catholic. I ate the body of Christ even though I wasn’t supposed to and my friend Brian chastised me after the fact. He said I needed to get confirmed first and that I broke some kind of holy rule. The bread was just a thin wafer, like a sugar cone without the sugar, and maybe the aftertaste of it was a taste of hell itself. Jesus Matchup’s brown lump captures my disappointment exactly.
Pixel loaves hadn’t evolved much between Ultima IV and Ultima Online, but for one minor detail that changed the bread game forever for a few months. Ultima Online’s bread features a small blemish, giving the impression of a bite or piece ripped away for light post-adventure munching. The loaf went from inanimate prop to inanimate prop with history.
Whether Thief should commended or condemned for its early attempt at modeling a 3D loaf is beyond me. All I know for sure is this: that’s a log.
You may know Steven Spielberg for his hit films like E.T. and Jurassic Park, but did you know his name was once he probably had nothing to do with? Someone’s in the Kitchen! isn’t just good reason to call the police, it’s a bad point-and-click edutainment game with one hell of an opening theme song. Also, you make a sandwich in it while a demon toaster—who is going to kill me, I saw it in a dream—judges your creation. The bread looks like my little brother sat on it, and is a shade of yellow I’ve only ever seen in bathrooms built in the 70s. Clearly, the late 90s weren’t great for game bread.
Even the modern masters of 3D bread had to start somewhere. In Morrowind, Bethesda drew inspiration from something other than felled trees and instead turned their eye to the sky, probably. I’m guessing here. They managed to suggest bread by texturing a footballish shape with what look like photos from the visible surface of Jupiter, a perpetually storming gas giant.
Just two years later an MMO, known for prioritizing multiplayer features over looking good, managed to bake bread that an Orc could tolerate. While the left loaf looks like a water chestnut, the precise angles and light divots up top are a convincing enough illusion. The right loaf, except for it’s undercooked coloring, nails the shape. And the inner texture marks a defined border between crust and light, fluffy inside. I’m tempted to throw some mayo, lettuce, tomato, and a bit of thinly sliced night elf meat on there just looking at it.
Maybe Bethesda should’ve prioritized bread resolution DLC over horse armor. At a glance, one out of ten times I’m going to say that’s bread. The other nine times I’m going to say that’s a large misshapen potato. I lived in Idaho for a while. Got invited to a ‘Baked Potato Party' and yeah, they get that big.
While 3D game bread moved into potato territory, Recettear reaffirmed that pixels were still the way to go. Its depiction of Walnut Bread takes a good squint to make out, but when you get up close, the shades of gold and brown and white light diffusing on the outer crust nearly flash the entire baking process on the back of your eyelids. “Walnuts, soft dough and a bit of sugar…” do more than an extra dimension ever could.
I’d flake on a guy who thought it’d be a good idea to dip that twisted loaf in some red shit too. And look at that distribution! I’m not sure what’s being distributed, but half of that isn’t even bread, it’s Dark Brown Stuff. Jesus, man. We should never be able to see inside the bread if the tech isn't ready and can’t simulate a good bake.
Star Baker goes to Todd Howard this decade. Look at the fidelity of this loaf. A nice rise, detailed textures, and I can nearly hear the muffled tip-tap from the even bake. Forget adventure and the snowcapped mountaintops and vampires and dragons—like a toilet in a Tarantino movie, a good loaf is the keystone of any open world.
Well regarded for its wild redstone contraptions and horrifying monuments to pop culture, Minecraft’s bread has been largely ignored, and for good reason. You’re one of the most successful games of all time, and a brown lump is the best you can muster? I’ve felt more love radiating from an old hotdog bun.
You can tell this was made in a bread pan, small specks imply the bread is airy and light, you can summon it whenever you like, and nearly every humanoid creature will eat it. It’s a crude child’s drawing, sure, but Scribblenauts built put time into simulating natural, albeit simple, bread world behaviors. Consider it this immersive sim, the System Shock, of bread. Place it in the world, and the world reacts to its presence.
Source: David Miles on YouTube
If one game knows how good its bread is, it’s Bioshock Infinite. If you were to press pause and inspect the 3D baguette, it’d be possible to nitpick small design decisions, like texture resolution, flour distribution, and grain density, but because the bread is sandwiched with context—the dancing bread boy and his believable reaction to owning a baguette inside a big patriotic amusement park city held up by balloons that Ken Levine imagined using his brain, his very own personal brain—it doesn’t feel out of place. Realism is helpful, certainly, but the game world needs to feel alive, like a natural home for bread above all else.
Bread is only monstrous when left to mold, and Team Fortress 2’s Love and War update bottles the essence of in a cute, tragic short film. There’s little purpose to the bread in-game aside from a few dough-themed items. Personally, I interpret it as a commentary on the state of game bread as nothing more than a simple prop and HP potion skin, new ideas and advances left in the pantry to rot. I see you Valve.
As a goofy physics playground, I Am Bread is fine. I do take issue with how controlling a slice feels like maneuvering a heavy sponge. Bread isn’t heavy and sandwich bread isn’t durable. One fall off the table and it’s over, usually. I Am Bread forgoes natural bread behaviors for the sake of a joke, but I’m not sure we’ll be laughing when our kids start to think they can wash the dishes with a sandwich.
Everything about The Witcher 3’s world feels hand-placed. Small villages, big cities, and even monster-infested caves are brimming with life and purpose, but in order to maintain such a sprawling illusion, nearly all props and people are static. NPCs sit in the same place spouting the same lines and props like bread just sit there, looking delicious, but forever out of reach. What an awful game.
After setting a new standard for 3D loaf work in Skyrim, Bethesda dropped the atom ball in Fallout 4, spending more time on the bread box than any bread at all. Modders came to the rescue again, modeling slices, sandwiches, and adding recipes any old ghoul could follow.
Karnacan bakers know how to bake bread. Lovely rise, nice crust, but a bit low res I’m being honest. Eating it gives you a small dose of HP, but the animation is a simple swipe-and-swallow maneuver. It’s pan for the course, and not much else. In 2016, it’s a good bake, but it’s not a great bake.
How far have we come, really? From BurgerTime’s advanced bun art to Dishonored 2’s simple dark loaf, videogame bread feels without a sure destination—a lumpy mass that needs more time to prove. Perhaps the future holds loaves we never could have imagined, or abominations, such as virtual reality pumpernickel that virtually tastes like sourdough.
Will Call of Duty: WWII pay proper homage to the history and show families turning their nose up at National Loaf? Maybe someday we’ll spend as much money on naan as we do on spaceships in Star Citizen. All we know for certain is that bread will be there, a short roll for every dodge roll and an abundance of biscuits to crowd every RPG inventory.
I’ve got a piece going up later today about my thoughts on the closed beta for The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind (short answer: I like it lot more than I’d expected to), but I wanted to write a little too about why the original Morrowind, aka The Elder Scrolls III remains a high watermark of roleplaying games for me. Why it’s a place I forever yearn to go back to. … [visit site to read more]
Poor Eoki just can't catch a break. I first saw the hapless Argonian huddling in a corner of a dirty island hut where we'd been stashed as newly captured slaves, and he followed me when I leapt into the surrounding waters in a daring escape alongside an assassin. And now, here in Sadrith Mora, hugging the eastern rim of the island of Vvardenfell, I find him in chains again. Four times he tried to escape after our escapade, and four times slavers drug him back. Now he's stuck toiling for Telvanni mages who bought him for a discount and don't give a damn for the Ebonheart Pact's ban on slavery.
I offer to free him myself, but he says he's going to be all right. He knows someone, you see—a fellow Argonian slave named Sun-in-Shadow who happens to be pretty handy with magic herself. It's more than mere trust: he's smitten with her. And now Eoki's pleading with me to go help Sun-in-Shadow with whatever she needs to rise through the Telvanni ranks and free them both.
This is the questline that captured my heart and attention in the closed beta for The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind. Others had me chatting with demigods and helping with the construction of the cantons of Vivec City, but it's this one that best shows what to expect from this new expansion. It's this one that shows ZeniMax Online gets Morrowind, while at the same time demonstrating that it's not hobbling itself with nostalgia.
The laziest MMORPGs think all you need for a quest is some reason to run out and kill or fetch a few things, but Morrowind shows Elder Scrolls Online in healthy maturity, mixing moving conversations like these with puzzles, pickpocketing, and the occasional pun. Long stretches went by when I didn't even pull out my weapon at all, and I can't say I minded much. Even better, all the tweaks the ZeniMax team has made over the last couple of years have finally left the game feeling about as "Elder Scrollsy" as an MMORPG possibly could.
Yet it'll never fully be able to shake off that disconnect between the expectations of the singleplayer games and an MMO. One of the first things I have to do after chatting up Sun-in-Shadow is steal an awful love poem a drunken dark elf Telvanni sent to a local wood elf—which is bad because dark elves are massive racists, mm-kay?—and now he wants it back lest she blackmail him. (And truly, it's criminal stuff, infected as it is with couplets like "O Ethrandora, I do adore ya" and "Your smile is so sweet like the sweetest guar meat.")So, massive Nord named Isleif the Unwieldy that I am, I venture into her private office to pickpocket her. It's, well, awkward. Ethrandora shows not the slightest apprehension as this tall stranger dawdles in her quarters, inching up and waiting for her to look away before rummaging in her pockets. There's a justice system in Elder Scrolls Online these days, but I can't help but think the guards would have already been on me in Skyrim. Heck, the whole time I kept expecting another player to burst in and shatter the illusion further. Anyway, I get the poem back.
"Hide the ink when next you drink," my character tells the Telvanni. It's not Shakespeare, but there's much more wizardry in that rhyme than in anything the dark elf scribbled.
The pickpocketing weirdness is a trifle. I'm grateful enough that Elder Scrolls Online lets me pickpocket and read bad poetry in the first place rather than just sending me out to kill a bunch of guars for their sweet meat. And anyway, action isn't far behind. Sun-in-Shadow soon sends me to the Daedric dungeon of Zaintirasis, where I have to steal some saint's finger bone before the rival Redoran clan gets it.
Even here Elder Scrolls Online adds variety to the MMO template and captures some of the spirit of the original Morrowind. To even get into the Daedric ruin, I need to solve a puzzle involving bowls and skulls left by followers of the unpredictable trickster Daedric lord Sheogorath. It frankly stumps me for a bit. It apparently stumps me less than other people, though, because a player with the delightfully beta-appropriate name of Nord-Warden-Test starts following me and mimicking my every move. Finally, the riddle clicks in my head and the lock clicks in the door. We're in.
Down into the dungeon we go, Nord-Warden-Test and I, slaying imps, skewering frightening floating eyes wreathed with tentacles, and plucking holy finger bones. I'm playing as a Warden myself, the new druid-meets-ranger class that comes with the expansion. It's what I've always wanted out of ESO, right down to the Aragorn-as-Strider style costume the class comes with. None of ESO's existing four classes ever really appealed to me, but I love the nature focus of the Warden, and the way I can call ghostly versions of Morrowind's famed cliff racers down on foes. I can shield myself in ice, do decent healing, and even summon a bear. There's a lot of outcry in the community right now about how ZeniMax weakened every other class in preparation for the Warden, but right now I'm loving it.
I bring the finger to another mage who's impressed by Sun-in-Shadow's initiative, and they agree to raise the clever Argonian up a rank from slave. But not without some reluctance.
"Lift one of these beasts up and a thousand more will follow," one of the Dark Elves says. Had to sneak some racism in there. Typical Dunmer. Typical Telvanni.And now Sun-in-Shadow wants me to buy some land with all of her gold. Poor Eoki, busting his scales on some construction project in a swamp, laments that she didn't just buy his freedom, but he accepts it. And so I'm off again to Vos, a tiny village nestled in the northern expanses of the vast island.
Ordinarily I'd need a map, but I knew where to go. This, after all, is Vvardenfell, the setting of one of the finest RPGs ever made, and the expansion's aimed largely at us who knew it well. In the early 2000s, beholding Morrowind's mushroom forests and complex social structures felt like a revelation, leading me to wear Morrowind shirts around my graduate school campus in the hopes someone would notice and share my joy. I'd say my awe at the breadth of its imagination largely put me on the career path I'm on today.
I know the poetry of its place names—Balmora, Ald'ruhn, Hla Oad—as well as I know the streets of my own hometown. Ordinarily the early hours of an MMORPG thrive on pure discovery, but riding through Vvardenfell here feels a bit like coming back home after years of absence. My adventures with Eoki and Sun-in-Shadow wisely take me all over it, whether it's in the Telvanni manors built into the hollows of skyscraper-tall mushrooms or the shadows of a volcanic mountain threatening the surroundings. Those surroundings are beautiful, too, even if they're crafted in that spindly, overlong style ESO prefers that I've never grown accustomed to. The play area of Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind mirrors the exact dimensions of the original Morrowind, but it far exceeds the original in detail, whether it's in the lush trappings scattered about a Telvanni mage's tower or the ornate mosaics lining the walls of the cantons in Vivec City.
With such a strong legacy, Morrowind is the most logical point for a first expansion—there's little doubt about that, and it's stuffed with callbacks like the little registration hut in Seyda Neen where The Elder Scrolls III starts off. My time with Eoki and Sun-in-Shadow shows that this isn't merely an attempt to cash in on nostalgia; the quests I've gone on capture the essence of what made Morrowind great without retracing its steps.
Every book, every conversation, every building reveals a reverence for the lore and a keen desire to show this unique fantasy vision at another point in time. So far, it's an expansion I want to sample to the last drop. Best of all, if you're totally new to Elder Scrolls Online, you can kick off your adventures with a Morrowind-specific tutorial from the very start and jump into its adventures without having to worry about the core game unless you wish.
Hang in there, Eoki, we'll get those chains off you yet. Or so I hope.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind is out on June 6 for $40.
Everybody remembers the Oblivion Moment, yeah? It's been repeated in so many open-world games that even if you haven't played Oblivion you've had an Oblivion Moment, whether it was a Fallout 3 Moment or an Amalur Moment. It's what happens when you step out of the tutorial zone and get blinded by the dazzling light of the world you're free to explore, like a baby alien emerging from a human chest cavity. In Oblivion you've slogged through a sewer dungeon to get The Moment. You've earned it. You finally kill all the damn goblins and get to stand outdoors, on the shore of a rolling river. Across the water you see crumbling stone ruins, a bandit camp, and endless greenery leading off into the draw distance.
But you probably turn around at this point. You have that urge to go left instead of right at the start of a level, whether it was instilled by Pitfall! or Metroid. That's what I did, and behind me rose the white stone of the Imperial City. Bugger the countryside—that's where I went. For hours I walked the streets, talked to beggars, met the head of its Thieves Guild in a graveyard, and interrogated a suspicious merchant named Thoronir who had a face like a shiny punchable brick. They were good times.
Too soon, I had to leave. Questlines kept sending me to towns with unlovely names like Chorrol and Skingrad. Oblivion and games like it don't want you spending too long in one place, because you'll start looking at it too closely and realize that there aren't that many people for a city of its size and start asking uncomfortable questions. There are 194 citizens and 119 guards in the Imperial City. How much crime do they think people commit?
Living in the Imperial City's great, though. The shack on the waterfront is the cheapest home in the game and also the best. Sure, it's a fixer-upper, but the fact it's small means everything you need is in a single room and you can swim to it from a nearby fast-travel point even if you're wanted by all 119 of the city's guards.
The big city is the place to be in so many RPGs. Almost all the good bits of Baldur's Gate II happen in the city of Athkatla, a city where almost everything is legal except unlicensed spellcasting, and that’s what all the cool kids are doing. When we reminisce about Planescape: Torment it's Sigil we think of, a city built on the inside of a giant floating doughnut, not Curst, a border town we visit way too late in the game to care about.
In the city there's something to find around every corner, and while in the wilderness there are impressive sights—the cliffs of Skellige, the mountaintop views of Skyrim—there's a lot of trekking to get from one to the next. In Sigil the Smoldering Corpse Bar, Ragpicker's Square, and the Brothel For Slaking Intellectual Lusts are all just a few screens apart.
Thanks to the unrealistically low population numbers necessitated by processing power, video game cities cram their interesting characters close together. In the shifting tectonic city of Anachronox, from the game of the same name, you're never far from Whackmaster Jack and his brawling lessons or K'Conrad the floating informant. But eventually you have to leave Anachronox and travel to a spaceport full of scientists, then a world where everyone is obsessed with the democratic process. Neither is nearly as interesting. It's like when Final Fantasy VII makes you leave Midgar behind, or Mass Effect boots you off the Citadel—you swap a location that seems full of possibility and bigger than it really is with places that end up shrinking your conception of the game world.
While RPGs are fixated on their progression from the small tutorial area to the big city to the wide world beyond, open-world games that aren't really RPGs (though they borrow some of their mechanics) have no compunction about putting all their effort into a detailed city you can't leave. Most of the Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row games, Sleeping Dogs, L.A. Noire, and a couple of the more recent Assassin's Creed games have concentrated on making ridiculously detailed cities for crimes to happen in. Now imagine the kind of effort put into those games poured into an RPG which traded detailed vehicle physics and shooting for dialogue choices and branching questlines.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was the closest the GTA series came to being an RPG. CJ could be personalized in more ways than just a new haircut and had stats that controlled how good he was at driving or running, as well as how chubby or muscular he got. My CJ and your CJ might have had different amounts of stomach flab, different girlfriends, different levels of respect with the gangs, and access to different fighting styles. But San Andreas was also the GTA that pushed you out of the city, forcing you to abandon Los Santos and its gang wars for the much less interesting San Fierro and then an airfield where you had to spend hours gaining a pilot's licence. When GTA became an RPG it followed the genre's lead by making you leave the city—and suffered for it.
Of course, there have been attempts at RPGs set in and around a single city before. Dragon Age 2's energetic haters and fans have been furiously skimming over the previous paragraphs waiting for a mention of it. But though Dragon Age 2 limited itself to the city of Kirkwall and its surroundings, it infamously recycled so much that it felt thinner than the previous, larger Dragon Age instead of feeling more compact and detailed. Kirkwall was a city with only one warehouse in it, though it must have been a pretty good warehouse since every other covert meeting and gang war took place there.
Dragon Age 2 wasn't the first fantasy RPG to limit players to one city and cop flak for it. Way back in 1989 the D&D game Hillsfar trapped characters in a city like Athkatla where magic was banned. And apparently so were levelling up and the turn-based combat of the other D&D games. There has been an RPG that made a single-city setting work, however: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Its night-time Los Angeles is made up of hubs representing Downtown, Chinatown, Santa Monica and Hollywood, each with a different atmosphere, each a different angle on the city of angels.
Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines only works the way it does because you're a predator and the city's your feeding ground. It needs to have its dark alley with a guy pissing up against a wall, its multiple nightclubs, its believable parking lots, because those are places you can feed. Because those things make the city a perfect setting for vampires, Bloodlines had to pull off what other RPGs haven't. It was focused, able to evoke one place in a layered and hyper-detailed way. Even . Every hangout felt meaningfully distinct, even though two of them were goth clubs—one a kind of warehouse space, the other a converted church.
That's what can happen when games stop chasing the goal of bigger meaning better, of trying to give us entire countries or even planets to ramble across and then having to repurpose the same story ingredients like they're stretching out last night's leftovers. In the city small distinctions can matter, even if it's the difference between the cafe you like and the one across the street you don't like. Spending time in one place makes us imbue it with significance if it does even the littlest things to earn it.
Games benefit from significance. A quest to save a place stops being item three in the journal when that place is the bar your favorite busker plays at. Finding out there's a fortune hidden in a building might make you want to steal it, but if the people who own it have a life beyond that you think twice. Characters who aren't just job titles and sleep schedules, shops that aren't just inventories and price lists, and locations that have as much personality as the people in them. How often do video game cities even bother naming their streets?
Now imagine a fantasy RPG with a level of detail equivalent to that of Bloodlines' Los Angeles or GTA's Los Santos. Taverns to hang out in, carriages to catch from place to place, markets to visit, and so many characters to talk to there'd be no reason to leave except for that one quest in the abandoned hotel outside of town. Or a futuristic version in a city with neon signs, hovercar traffic, late-night sushi bars, and sirens always wailing in the distance.
Maybe Cyberpunk 2077 will be that game, but even if it isn't, I've got my fingers crossed there are more people out there willing to overlook the reaction to Dragon Age 2 and try a one-city RPG again. I've had enough Oblivion Moments now.
We've republished this feature in celebration of Morrowind's 15th birthday.
Vvardenfell is about half the size of Manhattan. You do laps around the island for hours, picking up incidental sidequests from the flawed populace holding on to their lives in musty townships like Balmora and Vivec City. This was a big deal in 2002. The Elder Scrolls toyed with open worlds before in the roughly 62,000 square mile procedural generation of 1996’s Daggerfall, but this was the first time Bethesda packed 100 hours worth of handmade design onto a beaming landmass and set the player free as soon as they stepped through the harbor. It might look quaint from the vast Imperial drama of Oblivion, or the treacherous hikes and dense hamlets of Skyrim, or, hell, the fully realized continent from The Elder Scrolls Online, but it was Morrowind where a generation first got their taste for the studio’s distinct, freewheeling fantasy.
It has been said that everyone’s favorite Bethesda game is the first one they play, as if stepping into that freedom for the first time is far more powerful and resonant than any prospective gameplay upgrades or graphical bumps. There’s probably no better proof than the community at Tamriel Rebuilt—a mod that’s been in development since Morrowind’s original release date.
According to legend, The Elder Scrolls III originally intended to include the complete Morrowind province, similar to Oblivion’s Cyrodiil and Fallout 3’s D.C. metro area. Limitations of processing power (and a desire to not rely on randomly-generated content) forced Bethesda to limit their scope to the gloomy island of Vvardenfell. Those scrapped plans were an enormous tease for players who fell in love with the island, so a fraction of the community took it upon themselves to complete that original, ambitious vision. 15 years later, it’s still not finished, and a group of amateur developers are still cooking up textures, models, and characters, stretching out the country a little bit further.
Joachim Haimburger started on Tamriel Rebuilt in 2005 at the tender age of 15. Today he heads the mod as a lead designer while studying to be a construction draftsman. This project has been a major part of his life for over a decade.
"I must admit I don't know the exact date [when Tamriel Rebuilt started]; I don't think anyone active in the project now does," he says. "None of the project's original members are still active, and quite a few of the current active members joined within the last two or three years. I think the main reasons people work on Tamriel Rebuilt are due to being inspired by the impressive work done by those who came before them and simply enjoying the process of working on the project."
That’s a sentiment echoed by a lot of people involved with Tamriel Rebuilt. The mod has taken on a mythic quality. When you step through the community’s incarnation of Morrowind, you’re traversing ground that was implemented by a legion of forerunners who were just as obsessed with this game as you.
"It's pretty cool to see where we came from. I do remember following the various releases of Tamriel Rebuilt and being interested in the project years ago, but naturally to me a lot of the stuff made before 2014 or so is "the old part of the mod" and the newer stuff is more personal because I actually worked on it," says Lauren, a modder who’s been actively working on Tamriel Rebuilt since the spring of 2015. "People usually ask, ‘when will you be done?’ and we don't have an answer for it, but we already made and released—in a completely playable state—so much. Our released content is the same size as Vvardenfell! That's nuts."
Work is usually assigned in a weekly meeting on Discord. The community settles on a major implementation project—like the overall look and aesthetic of a new area—and the diligent workforce stakes their claim of what they’d like to work on in the forums. If you page through Tamriel Rebuilt’s massive, sprawling "Asset Browser" subforum, you’ll find reams of doodads, NPCs, sound effects, and prospective quests authored by specific members of the labor pool. Lauren tells me that the assignment process is straightforward, because most people attach themselves to something that stokes their passion.
My favorite example might be the fan-penned literature for the incidental books you find stashed across a Bethesda continent. Tamriel Rebuilt intends to fill in the blanks of Morrowind as honorably and dutifully as they can, so of course there will be the Mysteries of the Worm.
Obviously generating a ton of original assets for a constantly-expanding universe like Tamriel Rebuilt isn’t easy, but everyone I spoke to involved with the project maintained that they don’t borrow content from other games—though they do share work with other The Elder Scrolls expansion mods. Part of that comes down to copyright claims.
"Bethesda historically has really frowned even on using assets developed for one of their games in another," says Atrayonis, a lead developer who’s been around the mod since 2005.
But you also get the sense that a blatant, easy plundering would double-cross this project’s soul. Why take a shortcut when it’s been in the oven for over a decade? Nobody involved with Tamriel Rebuilt is thinking about a release date. This project is a religion, and the rapture is far away.
"Tamriel Rebuilt is a volunteer project and work progresses only as fast as the available hands can do it. It takes a while for things to get made simply because there aren't so many of us actively working," says Lauren. "As well, technology marches on, and so many of the things that were done back in 2004 and such will at some point in the distant future get some more polish, once we're finished making the rest of the mainland, of course. So long as there's some of us around, we'll try to keep updating and polishing things."
For a long time a major part of Tamriel Rebuilt’s appeal rested in the fact that it was the only way you could experience the Morrowind mainland in a game. That started to change in 2014, with the release of The Elder Scrolls Online and its patchwork implementation of some of the province’s more notable locales. On June 6th, Zenimax Online will release The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind, an expansion that will introduce the island of Vvardenfell to the world—unleashing a hungry playerbase into a 1080p incarnation of the redwood-tall mushroom stalks and fire plumes they first explored 15 years ago.
It seems strange to commit so much effort on a mod when Bethesda themselves are doing the work. Is there really so much to gain in building Morrowind when Skyrim, Cyrodiil, and whatever’s next is waiting? The members of Tamriel Rebuilt have never pondered that question, because to them, that 2002 version of Vvardenfell represents a Bethesda that doesn’t exist anymore.
"I played and enjoyed Oblivion and occasionally still play Skyrim, but basically neither game had the same depth of culture and environment. Not once did I feel like I was exploring an alien world in either game," says Lauren. "Naturally, those two games run better because the engine's been updated, and naturally they come with gameplay improvements too. But that feeling of exploring an unknown world was gone."
She’s not wrong. It’s funny how a generation recognizes The Elder Scrolls by its subdued European fantasy. Tall, gleaming castles, regal elven ruins, a player-character with the power to speak dragon. In Morrowind, a meteor called the "Ministry of Truth" hangs over Vivec City, which the populace repurposed as a jail for dangerous criminals. Bethesda still occasionally touches on that strangeness—the Shivering Isles and the twisted Daedra keeps come to mind—but generally, that side of The Elder Scrolls is treated like apocrypha, the part of the universe reserved for DLC.
"Personally I don't really consider our version of Morrowind more authentic than Elder Scrolls Online, just more authentic to the version of Morrowind Bethesda was trying to portray in The Elder Scrolls III," says Haimburger. "Bethesda has made significant changes in how it has presented Tamriel and its denizens between all of its games, and I don't really see that as a bad thing. I liked The Elder Scrolls III’s Morrowind the most, but Bethesda's concept of what 'Morrowind' is changed during the course of that game's production, and was different before then, and changed afterwards. Putting it optimistically, Bethesda's approach lets people pick what interpretation they like best, and I hope Bethesda comes up with an ever better interpretation later down the line."
On the Tamriel Rebuilt website, you can find an entire section dedicated to how their interpretation of Elder Scrolls lore has diverged from the mainline games. It’s winding and pious, but also kind of beautiful. "The Elder Scrolls games, and with them the lore have moved on, in multiple directions, and Tamriel Rebuilt moved in their own unique direction as well," it reads. "Charitably, the projects are building on what we think made Morrowind great. Uncharitably, we are isolationist grognards stuck in their outdated playground."
They are holding onto their canon, their themes, and their tone. They are holding onto the moment they first fell in love with The Elder Scrolls. And they aren’t ever leaving.
Previously in this column, somehow not taken up by the industry as of yet, I suggested that the word ‘quest’ was being somewhat damaged of late by the fact that it can be anything from ‘Kill the Great Red Dragon’ to ‘bring me some orange juice.’ I advocated a system where instead, tasks were split between two basic categories – what used to justifiably be called ‘quests’, and the more prosaic ‘shit to do’. I realise now though that I missed an important third category, World Quests, named because scattering mostly pointless crap everywhere is much easier than actually filling an open world.
I will admit to a certain wateriness in my eyes when I heard the music. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was and is, I believe, almost more a state of mind than it is a roleplaying game. A strange and desolate place, built upon a foundation of distrust, it is almost aggressively lonely. As an RPG, the precursor to Oblivion and Skyrim is all over the shop, but that never mattered because it was a place to disappear into. The mist, the mushrooms, the menace. The music. Elder Scrolls games since have been playgrounds first and Other Places second, and I don t know how they can go back now.
Going back is exactly the plan. Morrowind is a standalone expansion-cum-relaunch of The Elder Scrolls Online [official site] (ESO), Bethesda s massively multiplayer spin-off of the series that gave us Skyrim. It’s due for release this June and I’ve taken a look.
Valve's for their work did not survive contact with the PC gaming community. When the proposal was announced in April 2015 with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a pilot game, it was met with a mixture of opposition and praise that Valve called "a dump truck of feedback." The plan was in just four days.
To some, the notion of paying modders was contrary to the spirit of modding. Many suggested a donation scheme for Steam Workshop modders as an alternative to traditional pricing. Others, including themselves, made the case that revenue sharing was long overdue for a group of creators that had produced beloved work over so many years.
"We underestimated the differences between our previously successful revenue sharing models, and the addition of paid mods to Skyrim's workshop," Valve's Alden Kroll wrote at the time. "We understand our own game's communities pretty well, but stepping into an established, years old modding community in Skyrim was probably not the right place to start iterating. We think this made us miss the mark pretty badly, even though we believe there's a useful feature somewhere here."
Almost two years later, Valve is speaking again about paying modders for their work. In a roundtable interview at Valve attended by PC Gamer and other press on Thursday, Valve's Gabe Newell expressed the company's intention to take a second crack at paid modding on Steam at some point in the future.Responding a question about the topic from editor Jeff Grubb, Newell talked broadly about the importance of Steam producing useful information for creators about their work.
"In a sense you want to have really good signal to noise ratios in how the gaming community signals to developers 'Yeah, do more of that.' Or, 'No, please, don't release any more of those ever.' And [modders] create a lot of value, and we think that … absolutely they need to be compensated, they're creating value and the degree to which they're not being accurately compensated is a bug in the system, right? It's just inserting noise into it," said Newell. "You want to have efficient ways so that the people who are actually creating value are the people that money is flowing to."
This language is stronger than the mostly apologetic blog post Valve left us with ("We think this made us miss the mark pretty badly, even though we believe there's a useful feature somewhere here"), and it makes clear Valve's commitment to bringing back paid mods.
Newell continued to acknowledge that Valve's first attempt at monetizing modding was painful for the company. "The Skyrim situation was a mess. It was not the right place to launch that specific thing and we did some sort of ham-handed, stupid things in terms of how we rolled it out," he said. "EJ [Valve's Erik Johnson] basically said we just need to back off of this for now, but the fundamental concept of 'the gaming community needs to reward the people who are creating value' is pretty important, right? … the degree to which Valve helps contribute to efficiency in the system is one of the ways in which we're adding value to the system as a whole. So, you know, we have to just figure out how to do it in a way that makes customers happy and that they buy into it, it makes creators happy because they feel like the system is rational and is rewarding the right people for the work that they do. Does that make sense?"
Newell didn't elaborate on what Valve would do differently in the future, but it'd be surprising if this eventual second attempt was tied to a big game with a heavily established modding scene such as Skyrim. "[Skyrim] gave us a ton of information. But there was also a little bit of 'That burner is hot. Maybe we wait awhile before we put our fingers on that burner again.'"