My Favorite Games: Morrowind

You’ve been having strange dreams, Outlander?

Featured image is taken from the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages wiki

The Elder Scrolls III was my first game in the series, and probably the first time I got completely engrossed in an RPG. I’d played Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy Tactics by that point, two games whose mechanics I’d loved, but the stories were overwrought and confounding.

I’d also played Might and Magic VI, and enjoyed it a lot, but I thought it was about as generic a fantasy RPG as you could possibly get. And I adored Final Fantasy IX, but it felt strangely like borrowing other people’s nostalgia — I could never shake the feeling of how all of it would be so wonderful and familiar to people who grew up playing JRPGs, but since I never did, I felt like I was kept an arm’s length away from being entirely absorbed.

But Morrowind hooked me completely: story, setting, mechanics, visuals, everything.

It’s extremely rare for me to finish any video game, much less super-long ones, but I felt like leaving Morrowind unfinished simply wasn’t an option. I had to see what happened. Even though the last third of the game is an extremely tedious slog through a volcanic wasteland in the middle of an ash storm, and I was tempted to abandon it so many times.

I’ve got two key memories of Morrowind that help explain why it made such a huge impact on me.

First was when I arrived in the town at the beginning of the game. It was mostly sticking to the “small RPG starter town” formula, but twisted the setting just enough to make it more interesting than the standard Medieval Europe. And then I turned a corner and saw a giant bug, attacking the town! I was only just starting the game; I shouldn’t be running into monsters this big yet! I tried to hide from it, until I noticed that it wasn’t attacking, and in fact it wasn’t doing much of anything. After a bit of exploration, I learned it was called a Silt Strider and it was the safe and mundane method of fast travel in the game.

The reason that was such a big deal is because it quietly and confidently rejected the familiar in favor of doing some novel and interesting world-building. As I mentioned, even RPGs that I loved could be guilty of going for the familiar instead of trying anything new.

At the time I played Morrowind, I was still freshly annoyed by two depressing comments on the state of the video game industry. One was an interview with Tim Sweeney about the creation of Unreal, and he casually acknowledged that they started the game without knowing whether it was going to be fantasy or sci fi, so they just kind of combined the two. The other was a presentation from the developers of Everquest about the making of that game, in which they said that they chose to stick to standard fantasy creature types and standard RPG classes because they didn’t want to confuse players with too much new stuff.

It was kind of infuriating, back when I still aspired to make the video game equivalent of The Great American Novel, to see developers who’d been given the opportunity to make something huge be so nonchalant about taking the safe and unimaginative route. Especially since there were so many people saying that video game writing and storytelling was at best amateurish when compared to other media.

So it was really neat to see such a big and relatively high-profile game being so confident in its storytelling and world-building. Yes, this stuff is kind of weird, but we think video game players can handle it. Which seems obvious when you look at video game history on the whole, but at the time it felt like we’d fallen into an unimaginative pit filled with the bodies of space marines.

The other formative moment for me in Morrowind was when I was sneaking around town, engaging in some light home invasion to steal ingredients to enchant my weapons and equipment. I was stealthily creeping from wall to wall when I received a notification that my stealth skill had gone up. I’d never played a game with the Elder Scrolls system of leveling up not by assigning points to skills, but just by doing stuff. The brilliance of this was immediately apparent, since I’d no longer be trying to role play a character I’d chosen at the start; the character would change according to how I wanted to play it.

By the end of the evening, I’d improved my acrobatics skill so much that I could leap from one rooftop to another with barely any effort. And I’d stolen so many valuable spell components that I could enchant my armor and weapons to be ridiculously overpowered.

That was my key takeaway from Morrowind: these were games that didn’t care about “balance,” because they’re single-player to their core, and because their storylines all revolve around the main character becoming some sort of super-powered uber-hero.

I’d been hearing about nothing but balance as the end-all of good game design: obviously, it had to be fair for multiplayer games, but even single-player games needed to have carefully gated areas of gradually increasing difficulty, or the player would quickly lose interest. It was obvious. So it was wonderful to see Morrowind feeling free to ignore all of that and essentially let the player do whatever they wanted.

I have to say I don’t remember too much about the difficulty of Morrowind, because I was enjoying the story and the interplay between the different systems. I can say that the next game in the series, Oblivion, didn’t work for me at all, partly because I didn’t care for the setting, but mostly because the flaws of “relative leveling” quickly became apparent. It seemed like I wasn’t very far into the game before I was running into random bandits in the woods who had god-like powers and some of the most elite weapons and armor available in the game. So I kept having these harrowing random encounters, followed by story-based boss battles that — because their difficulty was fixed — were a series of embarrassing anti-climaxes in which I’d defeat a legendary enemy with one hit.

I don’t remember its being an issue in Skyrim, so it’s evidently not a fundamental flaw with the Elder Scrolls series. Which is good, because I’m looking forward to the next entry, even though it’s unlikely to come out for several years yet. I really love how the series does dwarves — Dwemer, in Elder Scrolls lore — and exploring magical steampunk dwarven dungeons, picking up all kinds of stuff until you’re overburdened, murdering skeletons and operating ancient machinery, is in my opinion the most satisfying dungeon-crawling experience in any video game.