It’s been a while since the last Elder Scrolls game, around a decade or so. I’m a firm believer in the value of looking back to past titles to see where a developer’s strengths and weaknesses have historically layed.
Morrowind, the third game in the Elder Scrolls series, released in May 2002 on both the Xbox and PC. It can be hard to put yourself in the position of a video game player at that time, simply because the industry has changed so drastically in the past two decades – but at the time, there was nothing that even came close to it. I also believe that there has been little since that has captured its mystique.
For those who have not yet played Morrowind, the game is notorious for its lack of handholding. When you step off of the boat as a prisoner in the beginning of the game and you choose the wrong specifications for your character, you will have to deal with the consequences. If you don’t carefully read dialog and pay keen attention to the world around you, you will have to deal with the consequences.
Parts of the game design have been lost to time. The most famous example being the combat system being tied to your stats and being based on a dice-roll. If you are a character that specs into using axes but equip a dagger, you will miss frequently. This is off putting at first, but with time you will come to appreciate the work and progression that you put in your character. You will die a lot at first, and that is okay.
There are also no quest markers, your directions are granted over text and it is on you to follow the directions that are given. I found this approach to progression to be the most immersive factor of the game. I really felt like I was learning about the world from the characters and felt a great sense of accomplishment whenever I progressed in the game; progress had to be earned.
During my current playthrough I found value in taking notes on a large notebook I have placed next to my keyboard. Obviously not everyone would want to play this way, and there is an in-game journal to assist with questing and keeping track of dialog, but being so immersed in a game to the point where I kept pages and pages of notes next to me has been an experience I have only had with Morrowind. There are hundreds of books to read, thousands of characters to speak with, and countless setpieces and environments to explore. Every item was hand placed by a developer, nothing was automated – and you can tell. The level of care and attention to detail in every aspect of the game was unprecedented for the time, and today.
The level of freedom is similarly unmatched. Characters can create powerful spells and potions that reward the player for their inquisition. I’ve talked to people who have completely skipped the main quest and instead have focused on side quests or just exploring. There really are no rules that bind the character.
The world and its environments are varied, there are shipwrecks, desserts with ashy sandstorms, marshes, grand cities, snowy tundra, islands that host trees where mages live, and much more. The main quest does a great job of introducing you to these areas, and from there it is on the player to venture further.
The plot does a great job of lending the player insight to the history of Morrowind. There is a great sense of urgency, and you need to prove yourself as the hero – it isn’t a title that is just given to you. This alone was a great change of pace from other games and their plots, characters don’t immediately bow down to you, in fact they accost you oftentimes. It is on to you to fulfill the prophecy of the Nerevarine.
Morrowind’s open endedness is not for everyone and it can be very intimidating, but if you enjoy a game where you are only bound by your imagination, Morrowind would be a great fit.
I have around 100 hours in the game split across two characters. For other games, I would be well situated with a game after 100 hours, but for Morrowind, I have only discovered around a third of the map and am only just now nearing the end of the main quest. I have much more Morrowind to play, and I’m not even close to being burnt out yet – I feel like my journey has just started.