Imagination, not intelligence, made us human.
In his Foreword to The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the late Sir Terry Pratchett writes, "Imagination, not intelligence, made us human."
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Most people know Pratchett as the author of Discworld, the famous fantasy series about a flat planet balanced on the backs of four elephants. However, what many people don't know is that the knighted author was also a massive fan of video games - so much so that he actually worked on mods for Oblivion, most of which were spearheaded by a Morrowind modder named Emma.
After making the transition from Morrowind to Oblivion, Emma sought to create a companion for herself. This resulted in the creation of Vilja, a Nord alchemist designed to keep Emma company as she traversed the world of Oblivion. While Emma originally created Vilja for personal use, even voicing the character herself, she eventually released her to the public with the help of fellow modder Charles "CD" Cooley. Vilja received a lot of admiration from avid players, but a particularly intriguing email titled "Praise for Vilja" came a few months after Vilja 1.0 launched.
"The first letter from Terry arrived in March 2010, only three months after the original release," Emma told Eurogamer. In this message, Pratchett mentioned how enamoured he had become with Vilja, specifically mentioning his appreciation for the way in which she would acknowledge small gifts such as strawberries. "He also praised the modding community as a whole, mentioning how impressed he was by the effort put into mods, and how much he enjoyed using them."
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Emma didn't know if this was the real Terry Pratchett, but she responded anyway and the two struck up a regular correspondence. Pratchett gradually started to make small suggestions of his own based on his experience with Vilja. "He described how he had been exploring goblin caves with Vilja, and how he wished that he could study the goblins without having to kill them," Emma said. "The day after, I made him a 'goblin peace amulet' to make the goblins non-hostile and allow him to explore their dungeons without having to kill anyone." As it turns out, the reason Pratchett was fascinated with goblins in the first place was due to research he was conducting for his 2011 novel, Snuff.
The pair's continued correspondence inspired Emma to work on more mods linked to Vilja. After Pratchett expressed his desire to give Vilja a flower for saving his character's life, Emma started to work on the "Give a gift" function. "Terry actually named most of the 'special items' that you could give away," Emma said. "He even managed to put in a bunch of easter eggs for Snuff."
Eventually, Pratchett even started to write dialogue for Vilja based on his exploration of the goblin dungeons of Oblivion. This led to a regular contribution of voice lines for Vilja from Pratchett, to the extent that the majority of Vilja's Thieves Guild dialogue can be attributed to him.
"Terry always had a very humble and polite way of suggesting things for Vilja," Emma said. "I always felt that I was in charge and never that he was taking over. I always felt inspired by his ideas and loved to try to make them come true."
Together with Charles, the three worked on the "Packdonkeys" mod, which allowed players to purchase up to four packdonkeys from the Chorrol Stables. Pratchett delighted in the fact that his donkey, Chico, kept stealing carrots and getting him and Vilja into trouble with the Imperial Guard. The more involved he got, the more invested he was becoming. Vilja was no longer just a companion mod - she was a person who kept growing as he, Emma, and Charles worked on her.
One of the most important features that was added to Vilja was the lead-the-way function, which Pratchett had specifically requested to help with his Alzheimer's. "By that point Terry was already having serious trouble with his memory," Charles told Eurogamer. "The sort of short-term memory functioning needed to navigate the game world was a particular problem for him."
Charles and Emma worked particularly hard on implementing this function, which enabled Vilja to lead the player out of the dungeon they were in. However, this wasn't an easy task. "Since I knew there was a real need behind that request I kept thinking about it," Charles said. "Eventually, I realised that another Vilja feature moved a special marker around to track when she changed locations. Once I had that insight, combining the two features at the technical level was fairly easy." Once the function was operating properly, Pratchett could simply turn to Vilja and select the "I'm lost!" option whenever he got stuck in a dungeon, which would prompt her to lead the way out.
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"Later, we expanded it so that whenever you as a player got tired of deciding, you could ask Vilja to take over and decide where to go next, and she would pick her choice randomly," Emma said. "And the lead-the-way-feature became very popular among other players, too. Finally they had a companion that they could walk side-by-side with and who knew where she was going... well, sort of." Vilja went from a normal companion to someone who would notice when you hadn't played in a few days - thanks to another mod - and someone who could take control of tricky situations and escort you to safety when times got tough. From conducting alchemy tests in the house Emma built for them in Aleswell to chasing Chico the donkey halfway across Cyrodiil, Pratchett and Vilja shared many adventures that influenced his life, both creatively and at home.
In fact, Pratchett invited Emma to the launch party for Snuff in October 2011, which was held on a steamboat on the Thames. As mentioned earlier, Snuff is the Discworld novel that Pratchett partially based on his experiences in Oblivion's goblin dungeons. He invited Emma along as she had played a huge part in his writing of Snuff thanks to the goblin peace amulet. However, it was here that Emma realised just how much of an impact her and Charles' mods had had on Pratchett. "I think Oblivion and Vilja must have been in Terry's thoughts quite a lot at this time," Emma said. "Maybe because of the goblins in Snuff, but also because it turned out that many of his friends knew a lot about both the game and Vilja."
Both Charles and Emma remember their experience with the world-renowned author fondly. "For me, the interesting part wasn't that we were working with a world-famous author," Charles said. "But that we were working with someone who truly appreciated the virtual person we were creating and that what we were doing was making his life a little better."
It wasn't because of Terry's status that they were helping him. In fact, Emma wasn't even sure who he was when he sent that first message. They helped him because he was passionate about something they had worked hard to create, and because he wanted to help them make it better.
"Honestly, although I knew about Terry's illness I never thought of him as someone who was ill," Emma told us. "The things I added to Vilja that were originally for him, I did because I enjoyed and because it felt so natural. It would be totally unfair to say that I was helping him - he was helping and inspiring me all the time, and I think we both had a lot of fun with figuring out new things for Vilja to say and do."
Thanks to the efforts of Emma and Charles, Pratchett could enjoy his time with Vilja in Oblivion even after his memory started to fade. And all the while, he played his own part in helping with Vilja's development. Together, the three of them found happiness in helping each other to help Vilja grow, and she continued to flourish as they continued to make her less of a companion and more of a person. As I mentioned at the start of this piece, Pratchett once wrote, "Imagination, not intelligence, made us human." Imagination made Vilja more than just a mod for Pratchett, and the beauty of that can't be overstated.
Terry Pratchett image credit Myrmi [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.