Listen to someone describing the world of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and you’d be forgiven for running a mile when confronted with the cliché – in both RPG and D&D flavours – presented. Don’t run just yet. Listen, however, to someone describing their experiences within that world, and you’d be forgiven for wanting to lean closer. Anyone who survives the harsh requirements foisted upon new players will, doubtlessly, have a handful of unique and engaging anecdotes to report. Morrowind’s crux involves possibilities, options and a certain lack of constraint, things that players often pine for. But, as much as it’s capable of a certain wish fulfilment, it’s also an object lesson in being careful what you wish for.
Before we continue with that, let’s first consider Morrowind’s enticing outset. Despite the aforementioned cliché, the genre blend is alluring enough: a world composed of believably solid 3D space, explored in firstperson (or thirdperson, if you want an inferior time) and home to a continental sprawl of real-estate to explore: towns, caves, settlements, mines, forts, several thousand individual NPCs and several hundred thousand hand-placed objects.
Despite its character-class system leaning towards archetype, the attraction is that you get to be it, not just wield it. Thieves stalk, sneak and steal like Sam Fisher minus the minigames. Assassins skulk and snipe. Warriors blunder and bludgeon. Not, of course, that you’re ever constrained to a fated choice; such decisions only affect your start-out stats. Beginning as a nameless, faceless, homeless presence stowed in the hull of a ship, you’re docked at the town of Seyda Neen, ushered into the customs and excise building to rattle through the paperwork. Choose a race, appearance, name, star sign, class (or craft your own), and you’re handed some official orders as a trail of breadcrumbs to get you going. And then – BAM! – the world is your oyster. Go wherever. Do whatever. You’re left to your own devices, just as you’ve always wanted. The trouble with Morrowind, however, is that it’s an oyster you’ve got to prise open with your bare hands.
While this may sound like an idyllic beginning to a game, your actual first impressions will almost inevitably be disheartening. Off you bound, crest a hill, only to come under attack from a rat. A minute of comedic fist-fighting ensues, your nascent combat stats resulting in few blows that actually connect. Or worse, you’re pummelled by a more interesting enemy, before having to flee. And then you’re lost. Tutorial advice is at a minimum, as is the design that has long prodded you through most videogames. And if you’re playing on Xbox, the lack of visual flourish – a stale colour palette and a terse draw distance – is all stick and no carrot.
Games are often, and easily, branded as interactive simply to set them apart from passive forms of entertainment. But that doesn’t make gamers proactive. Involvement requires willing participation; Morrowind is an elaborate but inert gameworld, whose gears don’t move until you actively propel them, and that take a wealth of effort to sound out. Aside from the rules of play, there’s an entire culture to ingest and digest, covering politics, religion, geography, guilds, lore, drugs, booze, diseases, flora, fauna and even books that can’t just be picked up, but also read (even if their pages are few).
It’s a heavyweight ask. And you’re often dogged by incoherence. Sometimes, people notice you stealing even though the onscreen icon that indicates that you’re not being detected is lit. Sometimes crimes aren’t even reported; wronged folk just get violent – until you leave their homes, at which point they won’t follow you. Other times, murders without witnesses are instantly acknowledged by the apparently psychic and teleporting guards. While Morrowind has a day/night cycle and a weather system, its citizens are static, despite the simple paths they sometimes traverse back and forth within a town on a curt, never-ending loop. They never sleep. In contrast, of course, to the population of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Much of Morrowind’s fallibility is true of Oblivion, despite its perforated beauty and physics-driven solidity. Oblivion made strides for accessibility, and a somewhat more elaborate world – people, for example, actually have routines, and sleep in their beds at night, a rather affecting presence for after-dark housebreakers. Fast travel is possible to any town, or any previously visited key location. Players recover fatigue – a measure that dictates how effectively they can wield weapons, among other things – even when running. A quest log keeps finer tabs on your heroic accounts, in a much friendlier manner than Morrowind’s quickly clogged journal. Objectives are tagged. Cursor details help the player keep tabs on criminal activity. And so on (incidentally, the levelling systems in both are equally cumbersome to unravel).
Morrowind, however, remains the least constrained of the two. Plot-dependent characters can’t be killed in Oblivion; in Morrowind, the quest line can be broken – a small text box alerts you to the fact – and you’re still free to remain an adventurer. Towns aren’t separated from the outside world by a loading screen. Aspects that could never be held up as sleek game design are nonetheless powerful: character dialogue – apart from passer-by soundbites – is never spoken, instead metered out via rich clumps of text, and conversation strands are far more profuse than those of Oblivion. Walking is the only way to conserve fatigue, forcing you to stroll the land; fast travel isn’t available, but silt strider creatures, boat rides and Mages’ Guilds offer a shortcut between major settlements. Such aspects may be dissuasive to the received gaming mentality but, while it’s likely that the average Oblivion player spends more time in the game before walking away, it’s just as likely that those who managed to submerge themselves in Morrowind felt connected and invested all the deeper.
So, what payoff awaits? The assessment so far may seem glum, but a careful and cautious approach is essential to savouring Morrowind’s seemingly everlasting gobstopper.
The reward is that, within the bounds marked out, you’re truly free to roam, to muddle, to amble, to be lured from the path of one quest by another, to play out a great number of bespoke adventures that may only ever exist in your head; your trawl of a given dungeon will be your own story, and no one else’s. Even exploration is an experience in itself, and isn’t about hoovering secret tokens or soaking up completion percentages. The island of Morrowind that exists on the disc can be threadbare and tenuous, but be undeniable and persistent in your mind. Also, even on Xbox, it’s a game that throws up snapshots of austere, worldly beauty, where sunrise and landscape conspire against any shortcomings to provide a memorable montage; again, these moments feel personal in a way few other adventures can match.
But, even if you sink your teeth gums-deep into Morrowind, the fabric of its world is still precarious. Play it for long enough, and you become something more than a resident: an expert. You no longer see the world, but the design that powers it. You’re now standing too far back from the rabbit hole, and it begins to look like nothing more than a rabbit hole. Play Gradius V for 100 hours, and it could be argued to be akin to a religious experience of high skill and furious elegance, honed to the point of inimitable, zero-ping connection between gamer and game. Play Morrowind for 100 hours, and it’s just as arguable you’ll feel like nothing more than a cog in a vast but plodding machine, one whose quest is now one more of compulsion rather than any true care for the fate of the land; a job, of sorts, now reduced to nothing but activity-crunching and data processing. This is, of course, just an extreme example of the vapid nature of RPG longevity, where commitment can be mistaken for involvement. It’s perfectly possible – if very unlikely – that you’ll still be as concerned and invested in Vvardenfell as a world, and not a gameworld. So, for a moment, forget GTAIII.
Its template, while alluring and roomy, is bounded in ways that the Elder Scrolls games aren’t. If videogames are tending towards experiences that attempt to capture a certain aspect of reality – the complexity of civilisation – then Morrowind is not just a forebear, but a post-mortem to boot. It’s both lesson and warning of the worth of effort and patience, for both gamer and game-maker. As the relationship between Morrowind and Oblivion shows, it’s one thing for a game to let the player go where they want, but another for players to let the game go where it wants.