Morrowind: A Retrospective

Spit it out, Outlander, I haven’t got all day!

Morrowind. My god. Morrowind was freakin’ awesome back in the day. Morrowind is still considered the best of The Elder Scrolls, better than all the rest, and in some cases it probably is. In the modern age of “simplified” Bethesda open world games (see also: Fallout series) I thought it was worth taking a look back at this goliath of gaming to see whether or not it really was all it was cracked up to be.

I actually first rented a copy of Morrowind from the local video shop, whose name I’ve forgotten – yes, back home here in Australia they did rent out PC games. I took it home, downloaded a no-CD crack (ah, the days of casual software piracy) and promptly had my mind blown. This was a game unlike anything I’d played up until then. I had no idea what the hell I was doing or what was going on, but that made it all the more exciting. I could walk around in total freedom – go wherever the hell I wanted, talk to a massive number of NPCs, get promptly destroyed by Nix Hounds, and choose a character build that ultimately didn’t contribute to my playstyle at all. It was awesome. It was a massive world for me to explore.

Also, it was the first game that made me truly appreciate what pixel shaders did. That water!

But damn, does it have some problems. And it seems that we’ve forgotten that, standing in the Shadow of Nostaliga, comparing them with the modern Elder Scrolls games. Was it really as good as we all thought?

What Morrowind Did Right

Morrowind’s world building was fanastic. The setting itself is incredible and fantastical. Oblivion is borning by comparison – Oblivion is a sort of mish-mash of Western European late Medieval styles that just seems like what we’ve all seen before. Quite… traditional, I guess you’d say. Skyrim is a little more fantastical, with its Nordic crypts, dragons, and Dwemer ruins, but it’s still a familiar sort of place. Morrowind has big mushrooms, swamps, barren ash landscapes, and all sorts of other crazy shit. Its visual style is distinct – you can look at it and go “Oh hey, that’s Morrowind!” and everyone’ll be like “Oh yeah it totally is!”

The care that went into building the world extended into the Telvani houses in Morrowind – their structures don’t feature stairs all that often, because they’re wizards and can levitate, so why bother with them? Imperial forts look suitably imposing and like they’d actually function as forts. The unique Dunmer buildings look the part, as do their small ancestral tombs, and their plantations. The hollowed out Silt Strider carcases that house the Ashlanders fit in with the lore and are aesthetically awesome. You just don’t get that with the newer TES games.

The freedom the game offered you was incredible, too. There’s no limits – you can kill anybody you want. You’ll break the game – which causes a message saying that you can “choose to stay in this doomed world” or restart – but it won’t stop you. You can even kill Vivec – a god – if you’ve got the strength. There are no quest-essential characters. On the one hand, it seems a little ridiculous, and there’s no warning that who you’re about to kill will render the main quest terminally incomplete. But on the other – well, you can do whatever you please, that kind of freedom is intoxicating.

Magic was also much, much better in Morrowind. Although Skyrim and Oblivion made magic less clunky to use, it’s also much less powerful. A decent mage character in Morrowind is effectively unstoppable – a veritable demigod, as one might expect. In Skyrim, a high level mage isn’t anywhere near as strong – in fact, magic in general is a difficult path to follow unless you also run around in heavy armour… which Skyrim does a very poor job at penalising you for.

In general, Morrowind just feels more fun to explore, and more alive in some ways. The fact that it uses text dialogue means that characters can be more unique – there’s no expensive voice acting, it’s all just text. There are more unique characters and more things to talk about. Although this does lead to a fairly major problem (which I explain below), it did help with the immersion somewhat.

What’s Now Outdated

Morrowind has a lot of issues which do not endear it to modern players. There are two in particular that I think pose an issue. One is a matter of personal preference thoough.

Firstly, the combat is awful. It was weird back in the day, and it’s plain disconcerting today. Morrowind was a stat-based game – you could be standing right next to your enemy, but whether or not your sword connected was determined entirely by statistics and dice rolls. Your shield hung loosely at your side, unless the dice roll said that you successfully blocked with it. The total disconnect between what you visually saw (this was a first person game, for the most part) and what actually happened looks atrocious today. It’s absolutely ridiculous to be right up against an enemy, swinging your sword and not landing a hit. It makes absolutely no sense.

Contrast that to modern TES games (except for TES Online, I guess) where you have an active role in participating in combat. You block manually. You attack manually – and if you’re up close, you hit – or if your aim was off, you miss. The stats impact combat but the player’s actual actions matter too – which is important for a first person game. This is vastly superior to Morrowind’s combat system – it feels much more fun to play for most people. I have no doubt that some people adore that old clunky combat system, but I think most people are happy to leave it behind. Your input matters in the newer games – in Morrowind, it didn’t – only the stats mattered.

Secondly, the reliance on text for “dialogue” resulted in the most ridiculous “conversations” ever. Ask someone for the time in Morrowind, and they’ll read you a monologue on the nature of time. People ultimately just spew information at you – it’s all exposition that doesn’t reflect a natural conversation. They’re more like lexicons, talking libraries that respond to a few key words. Characters deliver monologues in response to keywords – you occasionally get the chance to respond though, converting it to a relatively one-sided dialogue. I love reading text, I don’t have an issue with that – but a lot of it is totally unsolicited and doesn’t make any sense in the context of dialogue.

This exposition is like a sledgehammer to the face. Given that the game world includes loads of books and notes and other ways to pass this information on, it’s curious why Bethesda’s writers chose to shove it into long-winded dialogue boxes. It doesn’t even remotely look like dialogue most of the time. Now, I still think this is preferable to the voice-acted works of the later games, because it offers up the chance for more information and better diversity amongst NPCs. But it wasn’t used properly in Morrowind. Wading through lines of nonsense to get to the point isn’t much fun. If you want to see a game that does this properly, play Planescape: Torment. Very little voice acting (only for key characters, which makes sense), but it reads like an actual dialogue. I talk, they talk, we talk. It’s not like I’m reading TESwiki.

What Doesn’t Matter

There are a few miscellaneous points that I think don’t really matter in the long run:

  • Consoles didn’t ruin the later games in terms of story or quests etc. Morrowind was also released on the Xbox and had a fairly decent port. They could have easily (and cheaply) implemented the best parts of Morrowind in the console versions without any issues. Even Oblivion had a leveling system similar to Morrowind. The only argument here is that the UI got much worse – and that is directly the fault of the consoles being a lead development platform.
  • The levelling system in Morrowind and Oblivion (in terms of progression) I think is inferior to Skyrim. Skyrim gives you much more freedom to level up, rather than forcing you to stick with your major skills per the older games. The levelling system for monsters/loot is bullshit though, bring back the old Morrowind style!
  • The “You might not be the Nerevarine” argument. Some have cited this as an example of how in-depth the writing is – that you might just accidentally fulfil all of the criteria to be the Nerevarine. But it’s not supported by the writing – by the simple fact of performing said acts, you fulfil the prophecy and are the Nerevarine. That’s how all of the lore works as noted by the Elder Scrolls themsves – any prophecy may be true even if one contradicts another, but once a thing happens, it becomes fixed and the truth. So, by taking that path, you are the Nerevarine. There’s no clever writing.
  • The “sense of urgency” in games is irrelevant. Some people like to remark that Skyrim’s main quest has a sense of urgency, but you can abandon it at will to go do whatever you liked. Morrowind had the same mechanic but attempted to explain it away by telling you to go do other things while a character did some other shit/until you reached a particular level. The reason why open world games do this is because having a time limit invariably pisses more people off. It’s not fun to decide to go do a side quest, only to come back to the main quest and find out that the Imperial messenger has gotten sick of your shit and left the provence, leaving you with no way to complete the main quest (see also: DAGGERFALL).

Where to from here?

Morrowind is one of my favourite games of all time. I love it. Skyrim is still a good game. Do I think Morrowind is the better experience overall? Well… yes, I do, but only just – and only if you can tolerate how old it is. And the only reason I pick Morrowind is because its game world feels alien, while Oblivion and Skyrim could take place anywhere in Europe for all the difference it makes. But the most commonly cited reasons for why Morrowind was better are nostalgia at best. Morrowind’s text dump is absurd, and I say this as someone who would prefer that we go back to the days before full voice acting was mandatory. It simply wasn’t that good.

Hopefully Bethesda reconsider a few things with the next Elder Scrolls game – and make it slightly deeper in terms of lore and characters. If we removed voice acting, we’d get that depth we crave. I think people will tolerate it these days. Until then… there’s always Morrowind!

 

 

 

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