Setting the Scene
When it comes to tales of the unsettling, the best stories are often the ones that just might be true. This is the case whether the subject is gaming or things in our everyday lives. If we can't just dismiss the story, it has a much greater impact on us. Stories like the tale of Pokémon's "Creepy" Black version, or of horrible depraved lunatics lurking just behind the next bush get under our skins because we don't know for sure that it's not out there. Of course, there's always that nagging thread of doubt that tells us, "It couldn't really be true...could it?" and it's that doubt that really gets to us, isn't it?
Just this once though, I want to break a cardinal rule of storytelling and violate my own rule about never giving it away. I'd like to tell you a story about something that influenced me very strongly and helped form the truth-seeker and storyteller I was to become. It was my introduction to the surreal and mysterious, my first encounter with Lovecraftian horror. It opened a world of possibilities to me So, for just this once, I'm going to push back the curtains and put aside any doubt. Just this once, let me tell you straight out, this story is one-hundred percent true.
A Gaming Obsession
From the moment I saw it on console, I fell in love with Morrowind. The Elder Scrolls III was the first game of its kind that I ever saw, and though it never replaced RPG classics like Final Fantasy VI and my all-time favourite, Chrono Trigger, in my heart, it became my standard in many ways for what the perfect 3D game should be. I loved its wide open world and the freedom to make any character I could imagine.Every part of the game amazed me. In the years since, I've played many other games in a similar vein, and even other Bethesda RPGs like Fallout 3 and Oblivion have failed to compare to the sense of wonder and bliss in the pure act of experiencing a world that I felt when I was playing Morrowind.
Of course, I eventually got ahold of a PC, and the Gold edition of the game. From there, it was just one conversation for me to discover the infinite possibilities of mods. It was like the doors had been thrown open and a light shined through onto me, illuminating a world of endless choices. I played with good mods, bad mods, and mods that just weren't for me. I even became something of a mod snob, delivering scathing and (I later realized) sometimes unfair reviews to the ones that didn't meet my standards, but dispensing 10/10 ratings to my absolute favourites, on top of glowing praise. Eventually, I tried my own hand at modding, though most of these efforts never saw release. Of those that did, one was a rebalance of another mod that did little more than make a sword more available, and include an optional version that made it a shortblade (as I felt a rapier was more a rogue's weapon), another was a low resolution marble texture for the Hlaalu buildings, made because I wanted something more prosperous looking, but hated HD textures. The last wasn't truly made by me, but was my concept. It added the abandoned ruins of a Legion fort called Barrowmoth inside the ghostfence, and was intended to be part of a larger mod, that would have introduced a major city at the foot of the Ghostgate itself, called Nerevar, with its own main and side quests, though this never came to pass - Nine willing, I may "get the band back together" and finish the city of Nerevar "expansion" some day...
Throughout all this, there were two mods that made a permanent place in my load order. Two mods which influenced me in a big way. Two mods that were...different...from the others. Call them "fringe mods", because they exposed me to a paranormal side of Nirn, and taught me to appreciate what lies outside of the world we see.
The Illuminated Order of InvisiblesThe first of these "fringe mods" was Illuminated Order by C.J. Devito & LDones. It was amazing for many reasons, not least of which the subtle ways it involved the player, and slowly pulled the game world and the real world together. I don't want to give too much away, because really, spoilers would just take away from what an amazing mod it was. The general plot, however, begins when the player follows rumours of a mad necromancer that swears they will soon attain immortality. Slaying the necromancer, the player learns that a mysterious benefactor has given him information on where to find the required elements to become an undying lich, the most powerful of all undead spellcasters. As they investigate further, the player is recruited into a secret society, the mod's titular "Illuminated Order of Invisibles".
In the course of working for the Order, the player is sent to some of the most exotic and unlikely locations that can be imagined. Rising through the ranks and travelling from one hidden sanctuary to another, they learn a great many secrets, and grow in power in ways that they could scarcely imagine. They will meet vampires and wererats, uncover ancient curses, ghosts from other worlds, and things no man was ever meant to know. They may even discover the secret of lichdom at last, and transcend their mortal form, but the choice is ultimately theirs to make. Believe it or not, though I knew a little bit of the works of H. P. Lovecraft before Illuminated Order, it was seeing his work alongside Jabberwoky and the writings of Aleister Crowley (if I recall correctly) in the Order's secret library that truly made me fall in love with his works.
Lothavor's ChildrenIt was fortunate that I fell so in love with Lovecraft, because the second of my precious "fringe mods" was felt even more heavily inspired by his works. The mod, titled Lothavor's Legacy, started out more innocuously than the first. Called on by a scared fisherman to seek his lost brother, you are put ashore on a supposedly abandoned island. Once there, you discover the island's other inhabitants, eight youths to represent men and mer, each with hauntingly bright violet eyes. Life on the island seems idyllic...but of course, things aren't always what they seem. You quickly learn that some dark forces are at work as you seek the lost man. Some force binds you to the island, and you in fact begin to suffer physical harm if you try to leave. So, you are left with no choice but to investigate, seeking answers to the island's mysteries in the hopes less of completing the task you were given, and more simply to break the curse and escape, trapped with the eight "children" and a monstrous being that quite literally haunts your dreams.
As for Lothavor's Children, well, that would be telling...
It was definitely the harder of the two to set up. It had been designed to be played a specific way, and it didn't play nicely with a number of other mods. I had to sacrifice some things to run it, but I never complained. Kind of surprising, since this is actually a mod I never even came close to completing. The mod was was more puzzle than combat focused, which suited me fine. However, it also had some very complex scripting, particularly in the behaviours of the Childeren, who were designed to be more lifelike than normal NPCs. In my most "successful" attempt, I made it to a crypt dungeon wherein the spectres that inhabited the mazelike tomb would constantly taunt the player, while traps blasted them with spells. I won't reveal the secret of the tomb, but it awakens a great power in the player. Sadly, on that playthrough some of the complex scripting had broken, and I was left trapped in the crypts, even after checking a strategy guide to see that I had the right answer...because, yes, Lothavor's Legacy is so hard it comes with multiple difficulty settings and a strategy guide.
The Lasting Effects
I must have played those two mods dozens of times. Some day, I'll reinstall Morrowind and play them dozens more. More than anything else, the Illuminated Order and Lothavor's Legacy mods taught me to love horror in games. It was thanks to them I read Lovecraft, and thanks to them I would later play an obscure little game for the Gamecube called Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem and...
...but that's a story for another time.