Oblivion Abandoned What Made Morrowind Great


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I often say that Morrowind is my favorite game of all time despite it having some of the worst gameplay mechanics I’ve ever encountered.  Every action in the game is based on a dice-roll system; an attempt to ground Morrowind in the classic RPG genre that the previous Elder Scrolls games were largely defined by.  This means that, especially at lower levels, combat essentially consists of repeatedly clicking on an enemy until an occasional hit registers and continuing until the bad guy falls over.  The luck based system is also applied for any kind of magic, to the point where attempting to cast a powerful spell might require you to cast it fifteen times before being successful.  Picking a high-level lock will break lockpicks until either the lock finally opens or you run out of lockpicks completely.  These relics of a lost genre are incredibly frustrating and often just plain boring, but it’s unfair to use these mechanics to claim that Morrowind isn’t fun as a whole.  In fact, I believe they’re emblematic of what makes the game so damn great.

RPGs originally existed as a kind of create-your-own-adventure board game, in which the players build their own characters, choose their own actions, and create a story of their own by playing the game and rolling the dice each turn.  The Elder Scrolls series is a more simplified video game version of that, which seeks to let you create your own character, but provides an already-existing story to adventure your way through.  Despite its obvious differences from the board game, the original Elder Scrolls games were meant to recreate that RPG experience, dropping you into a world in which it was up to you to explore and have adventures in.  Bethesda built their world with an almost Tolkien-like amount of care and detail, creating a full cast of gods and demi-gods, races with race dynamics, languages, politics, history, and of course a massive landmass to explore (especially in the case of Daggerfall, which was ostensibly the size of real-life Great Britain).  This attention to the world was what most people played those games for: they wanted to get lost in the lore and the setting, to explore every available corner of the massive fictional continent, and to feel like they were truly crafting their own unique adventure.


I believe the dedication to this experience is what made Morrowind remarkable, and I think Bethesda started to lose their grasp on providing that experience with its sequels, Oblivion and Skyrim.  To me, Morrowind was not the first game I played that allowed me to go wherever I want and do whatever I want in an open world, but it was the first game that really felt like that world was actually worth exploring.  It was full of people to talk to, books to read, dungeons to discover, items to steal, and large expanses of land to get completely lost in.  Perhaps most importantly, it was dripping with atmosphere.  The giant silk striders’ long, whale-like call echoed between buildings, trees, and mountains.  It rained, and the thunder followed flashes of lightning with a fading, rolling rumble in the distance.  In the Ashlands, storms of ash caused NPCs to shield their eyes, caused shop banners to wave in the wind, and spread the Blight disease in its wake.  And all along, the sometimes-triumphant, sometimes-emotional, sometimes-haunting soundtrack of Jeremy Soule followed your travels.  Walking around Vvardenfell was an experience like no other, a feeling of exploring a completely alien world with detail far exceeding any other game that I knew of.

When screenshots started coming out of the next Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, I was overcome with excitement.  I actively searched for every scrap of information, browsing the Bethesda forums every day.  As each piece of information got released, I started to worry a little more.  The world looked, quite frankly, boring.  The developers were bragging about a new technology they were using to create the world, called SpeedTree, which generated the landscape for them to later go over and edit by hand and add custom elements to.  This worried me.  What about the handcrafted world that helped make Morrowind feel so special?  Was SpeedTree going to able to create the tangled vines of Telvanni cities, or the long-reaching lava-flow valleys branching from the volcano in the center of the island?  Every screenshot that came out showed an environment made up of familiar-looking forests, fields, and castles that could easily be found in our own world; on Earth.  The completely foreign feel of Morrowind was abandoned, even down to the creatures inhabiting the land.  Instead of Guars and Scribs, we got wolves, bears, and deer.  Instead of Silt Striders we got an exciting creature called a “horse.”  I was disappointed, but I wasn’t about to give up on the game just because they took a more familiar approach to the world.
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Then, details started coming out about the playable demo that journalists were given access to.  The compass on the top of the screen not only pointed out any objects of “interest” nearby, but also gave you a great big arrow telling you exactly where to go to complete your quest.  This small development choice alone represented everything I hated about Oblivion. By giving you an arrow showing you where to go, the developers had accepted that the destination was the focus, rather than the experience of getting there.  The whole concept of adventure was abandoned.  This was backed up by the implementation of “fast travel,” which allowed the player to simply teleport directly to their destination instead of trekking through the world.  To me, this was Bethesda saying that the act of travelling was a waste of time, or boring, and that you might as well skip straight to “the good part.”

Of course, I wasn’t the only one expressing concern about the quest marker and fast travel system, and eventually this prompted Bethesda themselves to respond to the matter by saying both of these mechanics can be ignored and turned off completely in favor of the more classic Morrowind-style approach.  But we already knew they were planning to fully voice act all of the NPC dialogue in the game.  Were we supposed to believe that they provided enough information for the player to find these quest objectives after turning off the compass?  In the end, my fears ended up being correct: the dialogue was brief and to the point, not bothering to expand upon the characters or the world, and certainly not giving any information about where you needed to go.  They just put a marker on your map and you were on your way.

http://puu.sh/ctoYq/758ef1739d.jpgSome of my fondest memories of Morrowind are of getting lost trying to find things in the world.  Instead of placing a marker on your map, the game might give you a set of instructions that say something like “head east until you reach a group of three rocks, then follow the Foyada (“lava-river” in the ashlander’s language) and the tomb will be a dome-shaped structure on your left.”  You had to really explore the land to find what you were looking for, and although you may get lost, you would inevitably stumble upon something interesting during your trip.  In Oblivion, you hop on a horse and ride in a straight line until you find what the arrow is pointing you towards.  Not that you’d gain much from paying attention to the world around you, what with the land being generated by a computer and most of the landmarks looking generic and uninteresting.

To many, these complaints will sound trite and nitpicky.  These are the people Oblivion and Skyrim are designed for.  They don’t care about the design of the world, or the immense amount of care put into its lore.  They just want to level up, to complete quests, to gather treasure and kill monsters.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but those things aren’t what I fell in love with while playing Morrowind.  Those aren’t the things that made Morrowind so special.  They are, however, the things that made its sequels successful.  So it goes.

About the Author

SkippySigmatic

meme master

37 Comments

Schlichter

I feel the boom in popularity that videogames that happened moving into the ps3 and xbox 360 era helped in a major way influence developers to “dumb down” their games. Since videogames have caught they attention of the mainstream audience, many working nine to five jobs or dealing with stressful things like school, developers changed how there games work by having the player get rewarded as fast as possible for doing as little as possible. The problem now is the player has been trained or spoiled, and expects to be rewarded quickly. Devs have kinda dug themselves into a hole and are stuck making a game like this for fear of not selling as many copies or getting bad press about their game for being “confusing” or something. I’m sure Todd (Tod? Todd? I don’t know) Howard as his team would love to make the game you way you thought Oblivion was going to be, but when you got a family to feed and an audience that expects a certain game from you, you gotta do what you gotta do, right? What worries me now is when the people who grow up on these “dumb downed” games become the next big developers and the sense of adventure or real accomplishment is completely gone. That’s just what I think though.

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Painpillow

I totally agree with you, but considering indie devs, and some AAA devs as well, put out games like Wasteland 2 and Dark Souls, I think there will still be games with the “smart person with time to put into a game” in mind, even in the far future.

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SkippySigmatic

Dark Souls filled me with hope because it really took me back to those early days of playing Morrowind and uncovering the world.

Schlichter

I was going to also say why you said about indie games and stuff. I just thought my post was long enough and didn’t wanna add more. You gotta good point though!

SkippySigmatic

I certainly understand why Bethesda went the direction they did with Elder Scrolls, but it’s a real shame. Most of the changes were probably made with good intentions, like “hey we shouldn’t make the player walk everywhere,” but they forgot that walking everywhere should be part of the fun. In general I think developers should focus more on making the boring parts of their games FUN, rather than just skipping them altogether.

The only thing that I think was a result of laziness/limitations was how plain the world of Oblivion is. Using speedtree was a crappy decision, especially since the area was supposed to be a lush jungle from the lore.

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Shillington

These past years gaming had become more of a shore for me. I’ve enjoyed streamlined MOBAs and online FPS such as BF3 where only years earlier I fell in love with Warcraft III’s variety of custom maps and TF2’s stupid hacked maps. I didn’t understand that this was due to games shifting focus from the experience and towards the achievement : these past 5 years I’ve been repeatedly feeling the need to rush through a game, to complete it without thinking too much about the ambiance, the experience that were to be lived.

I think that thanks to your post I’ve finally understood the difference between AoE2, Warcraft III and Starcraft II, LoZ : OOT and Assassin’s Creed (even though the first two of the AC series were quite focused on the experience IMO), and I finally put words on why I enjoyed the last installment of the X-COM universe so much. Thanks !

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Schlichter

I loved AC 1 and 2. After that though shit going old reeeeeal quick

Jarvar

Lets say that the first big game for me was Oblivion. I’ve played games years before, but lets stick with it. I loved the game, as i did get lost in the quests, but the marker really was offsetting. I thought about how the npc-guides-you-with-words would be more immersive (i’ve rarely used the fast travel at least on 1st playthrough), although i didnt know that morrowind already done that. When i did found out and as a fan(?) of series i wanted to try it out, and i did, i really tried several times. But every time the combat just pushed me out so much. I guess Oblivion spoiled me or at least set a different expectation. After reading your article i would like to give one more try, i knew these were the good things i just could never get to them :)

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SkippySigmatic

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who started with Oblivion and was able to go back and play Morrowind. I don’t blame you at all, it ages terribly and has always been a bit of a chore. Similarly, I can’t go back and play Daggerfall or Arena.

Interesting though that you thought the quest marker was offputting, most players probably don’t think twice about it.

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Painpillow

I got into TES with Skyrim, hell I hadn’t even heard of the series before the E3 trailer which got me super hyped. And even after playing it, then going eagerly to both Oblivion and Morrorwind for 50-ish hours and even trying out Daggerfall and Arena, Skyrim still provides the best overall experience to me. Morrowind’s world is definitely incredible, but Skyrim just feels like a more interesting and varied place to explore, especially with the DLC and mods. And while you raise a good point that the objective marker is a sad but necessary addition, it didn’t stop me from making a simple trip from city to city a lengthy zig-zaggy journey through all manner of places. I did find those places with the help of the compass, which in afterthought did make the discovery a tad less exciting (some places aren’t marked on the map however so i did sometimes get pleasantly surprised). Quests however, would’ve been a lot more rewarding if the game didn’t just flat out point you to where, say, EVERY quest item was.
Fast travel is also an unfortunately necessary addition, mainly designed for people who don’t like exploring the same places over again, or just don’t have time to play the game too much, so FT let’s them get to the “best parts” faster. However, the game isn’t designed so that you NEED to use FT, quite the opposite. The random encounters make traveling worthwhile, and you could easily take a slightly different route and end up finding a couple of new places. Plus climbing High Hrothgar again and again doesn’t sound fun, so the FT system is definitely welcome.
Oh shit this is really long. Guess I’m just trying to say Skyrim let me have an adventure in an interesting world while sadly having mostly very linear quests. However, many of them were good, especially the Daedric ones, but linear to a point where the only roleplaying I did while doing them was in combat. But outside them, while I did small tasks or explored, I felt I was playing a different character each playthrough. It required a lot of talking to myself at times but If I had someone to talk to in character I would play D&D, right? Speaking of talking, the fully-voiced thing? I felt Morrowind’s people were just encyclopedias AT TIMES, while Skyrim’s NPCs had more of a personality, with less dialogue, unfortunately.
TL;DR Skyrim’s (firstly Oblivion’s of course) new systems like the compass and fast travel made the experience less exciting, but I can’t say they made it anywhere close to not exciting, except maybe in Oblivion, which is a game that did have a pretty bland world because of the CG system.

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SkippySigmatic

It’s always been said that everyone’s first Elder Scrolls game is their favorite. You call fast travel and compass markers necessary, but are they? From an economic perspective, maybe, because lots of players would put down the game after getting frustrated, but if people didn’t need them for Morrowind there’s no reason to need them for Oblivion/Skyrim. And yes, lots of Morrowind’s NPCs were walking talking encyclopedias, but at least they gave tons of information about the world as opposed to the three lines you might get from the last two games. I think voice acting horribly limits the games, and god damn it they need better and more voice actors, or at least someone managing them who knows what they’re doing. To me the NPCs in Skyrim are just as stiff and uninteresting as most of Morrowind’s. And yeah, finding things during your adventures that are pointed out on your compass ruins the whole experience of discovery for me. In Morrowind, it never felt like the developers actually intended you to find those caves and ruins; it felt like they were just put there and you happened to stumble on them. It felt unique.

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Painpillow

It makes sense to think that if we didn’t need a compass or markers in Morrowind, why would we now? Well, we don’t, but the majority of the audience “does”, as in, they don’t actually want to put effort into the game. As another person posted, the AAA market has catered too much for the low attention span -types of people.
On voice acting, I guess having everyone voiced makes the game more coherent and more realistic/believeable, or they feared people just expect fully voiced games nowadays. One possibility could have been that, if you want to learn more about the lore or generally learn more about the world, you could read in-game books, right? Sadly, neither Oblivion nor Skyrim added that many more books to make up for the lack of dialogue, maybe because the devs didn’t believe people liked reading (again, they only considered the majority)?

SirBreton

My feelings almost exactly… Though I actually really like the whole dice roll system in Morrowind ( and perhaps it’s just my love of pen and paper rpgs talking). Failing to land almost all of your hits in the beginning is hilarious! Morrowind’s complex skill system just feels so much more rewarding than Skyrim’s over simplified, jack of all trades system. When you actually take the time to level up a skill and can finally actually do some serious damage, it’s so satisfying and worth the challenge. Hitting level 100 in a skill in Skyrim just doesn’t feel like such a big deal in comparison. And without any major/minor skills, leveling up your character is so easy. There’s no incentive to specialise, your just naturally good at everything.

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SkippySigmatic

The dice roll system does provide some good moments, but it can be REALLY frustrating and you’re still just clicking on people until they’re dead. I agree that the sequels’ combat is unsatisfying; I think that is largely a result of their completely fucked up level-scaling that I neglected to mention in the article.

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SirBreton

God, the level-scaling in Oblivion was complete bullshit. Anyway, awesome article! I look forward to the next.

Rolling_Ruedo

You make me want to try out Morrowind now, since it sounds like it doesn’t have some of the issues that I had with Skyrim (specifically a lack of interesting areas). But should I play through it with the “Morroblivion” mod to avoid the dice combat, or try to slug through the original?

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SkippySigmatic

There’s no good answer to this question. It is an old game that has not aged well at ALL. I don’t know what state of completion the Morroblivion mod is, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it. If you really want to play it, download some kind of compiled modpack that fixes glitches and improves the graphics. Modders have done some pretty impressive stuff. Just make sure it isn’t final fantasy faces.

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PrinselijkCoder

I started out with Oblivion when I was…. 6 or 7 maybe? Me and my brother played tons of it on the 360, switching off. After some period of time we happened to rent Morrowind at Best Buy, not even realizing it was the predecessor of one of our favorite games.
We had a lot of fun with it for the time we had it. We didn’t know what to do and spent a lot of time sneaking around Imperial forts stealing weapons as well as often raiding Dren Plantation for it’s high level items. I also specifically remember dying from invisible enemies in blight storms which we eventually discovered were cliff racers, being dreaded thereafter.
We actually bought it awhile later, though we didn’t play much of it. But then I got a PC, and after awhile rediscovered it. I bought it and loved it, being a bit older and smarter. Despite all it’s flaws there was just so much charm and unending adventure whether I was checking out Solstheim at lower levels than perhaps I should have or flying into Red Mountain with a scroll of the windwalker.

After being fairly disappointed by Skyrim in various ways though still enjoying it, I finally rebought Oblivion on Steam after the 360 disc had broken years before. To my surprise I actually couldn’t really play it. I tried and just kind of got bored, and have yet to try again. As for the dumbing down of games these days in general, I have started to feel it’s effects myself. I have a hard time getting through the initial learning stages of complicated or old games, even though I play a fair amount of games with that reputation like Crusader Kings/Europa Universalis. Even Total War I only got into with tips from my friend and just kind of slowly playing bits until I got the hang of it. I don’t really know why, I just really don’t like not knowing what I’m doing in games anymore, which is unfortunate as those games are often extremely good.

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SkippySigmatic

That’s awesome that you guys still had a good time with Morrowind after starting out in Oblivion. Most people would definitely stop playing from the graphics alone if not the combat. I know what you mean about trying to go back and playing more complicated games with age; I’ve tried to play System Shock 2 a few times and I just couldn’t bring myself to learn all the little things.

And yes, raiding Dren Plantation is a must. Dat pile of cash.

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PrinselijkCoder

Strange, I’ve been trying to get into System Shock 2 myself over the past couple days.

Also, I just realized I said Best Buy and not Blockbuster. Poor old Blockbuster.

DutchVidya

I never played Morrowind, Oblivion was my first Elder Scrolls game. However I can see where you’re coming from Skippy. Even though the markers to quests and everything you see as being a dumbing down is optional in both Oblivion and Skyrim, the underlying decision to add them means the entire game suffers as a whole.

I remember back when Witcher 2 released on 360, and I played my first ever Witcher game. I remember at the time I wrote a piece on how it opened me to exploring for the first time. Now here’s the thing, The Witcher 2 still has quest markers, but everything else stays amazing. The decision to point players in the right direction did not mean the game suffered exploration wise or that the in game lore was lacking. Environments were still breathtaking and finding even the shops could be a task on it’s own, and that’s in a deliberately linear RPG.

I hate to mention a game in more than one post, but Alien: Isolation, whlst a step away from RPGs, has evoked in me the same things you raise Skippy. Yes I get pointed in the right direction, but nothing has suffered for it. Unlike Oblivion, which let these dumbed down features affect a whole game, Alien has not. Neither did The Witcher and neither did Dragon Age: Origins, or Mass Effect or any number of games I could mention.

I think, now that I’ve rambled this far, the problem is more with the developer, Oblivion was made with several key things in mind, and those decisions changed the entire game and every game since drastically. It’s a worrying thought.

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SkippySigmatic

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I do not think Bethesda is a good developer. I think they’re generally bad at making games. That’s not to say that even Skyrim, for example, is actually a BAD game, but I definitely don’t think it’s a well made one. Even Morrowind might not have been all that well done, it’s just that the stuff they got right was fantastic.

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DutchVidya

I think the thing is, and it’s not just Bethesda either, these games have no direct competition.

Do you want an open world fantasy RPG? Better go play a Bethesda game. There is little to no incentive to be better in any way.

TreeCactus

I completely agree with you, but it is nearly impossible to hate Skyrim and/or Oblivion. Yeah you may dislike them, but you can never really hate them, because they are just so much fun to dick around in. That’s what makes the Elder Scrolls series for most people.

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Schlichter

All I did in Oblivion was shoot arrows at people that couldn’t die but would fall over. After awhile their body glitches out and after pitting them down five or six times, the next time you shoot them they fly across town in whatever direction they were running. That and kill people while they sleepes , but that was it.

Chubbicus

Will you be playing Skywind once it’s finished development, or are you just gonna stay away from it? I’ve been trying to get into Morrowind, but it’s difficult moving away from Skyrim’s very fluid feel and amazing graphics to Morrowind’s clunky dice combat system. I feel like I would really enjoy the title, and perhaps, if Skywind is really any good (and damn it better be, the developers are taking their sweet time) can breathe a bit of new life into Morrowind for the new generation.

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SkippySigmatic

I wouldn’t keep my hopes up about that being finished. That’s a huge undertaking and I can’t imagine people staying dedicated to a project like that for very long. And even if it is, the quality of it will probably be pretty sporadic. It’s a cool idea, but I’m very skeptical.

Also I don’t understand why people are still calling Skyrim’s graphics amazing.

Chubbicus

Not really Skyrim’s graphics on their own, I just mean a modded to fuck Skyrim with an ENB and all the mods that make it pretty :p. I dunno, I just want to play Morrowind but am really on the fence about it’s combat and I don’t want to play it and dislike it, because the environments and shit like that just seems so amazing in that game.

Chubbicus

Honestly, if Morrowind had a bit more ground clutter and better faces/heads I would play it. I tried installing mods and I prioritized load order and all that for the ones I added, but it just CTD’d every time I launched. ;(

McDee

While you say they abandoned exploration in Oblivion with the marker-system, I still felt tremendous enjoyment just from walking around and looking at stuff, fighting what bandits were in my path.
Sure, there were few quests to find on my journeys between markers, but there were a few hidden wonders to see. Yes, they made the target a larger focus and it is obvious in how well all the dungeons and various caves are designed, comparing it to games at the time.
But what the targets also did is give me a job to complete, to gear up a little bit, and learn how things work before exploring the vast world the game held without having to hold your hand through it. This allowed players both new and old to enjoy it, even if they did dumb it down for the newer players.
At least by my observations.

As for fast travelling, fuck that shit. The game actively gives you a goddamned HORSE at the start of the game only to tell you that fast travelling is a thing and you should use it. I hated that. You’re given means of easy travel, so that you can easily look through every nook and cranny the world has to show you, only to learn that they’re not worth jack all in the long term. It’s bad game design.

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SkippySigmatic

I think there is a way to “lead” new players in a direction to help them learn early on without having the compass system telling them where to go. Hell, they already have the tutorial dungeon itself, and then that opens up looking straight at another dungeon that acts as a kind of introduction to the game. And to me, part of the charm of open world games is getting a bit lost at the beginning; not knowing exactly what you’re doing or where you’re going. You’ll learn the game without having to be told what to do. That’s the fun of adventure.

And I did enjoy Oblivion a lot, and found randomly wandering the forest looking for things to stumble upon a lot of fun. But when the compass points out 95% of the interesting things to find, it ruins the excitement of finding them to begin with.

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Leisdog

I think Elder Scrolls has a great universe, but it is a fantasy universe. Fantasy universes people tend to write more about lore rather than the culture. Fantasy rarely elaborates on the daily lives of peasants because there is usually a HIGHER QUEST in mind. Sure they’ll have smaller doors for the one dwarf village but that’s it. This takes less time and space, but it leaves out the factors that make the world feel alive. This is why I prefer the Fallout games (including both the originals, 3 and New Vegas) to the later Elder Scrolls. Fallout never fails to put in the little details like farms to show that this world could function as a society. Skyrim and Oblivion seem to assume you are just fast-traveling all over the place and never taking time to actually think “how is this city alive when it isn’t near any food/water source?”. Massive set-pieces do not make a world feel alive, small details do.

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