Ah, 2002’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Heralded by many folks as one of the greatest action RPGs ever created, if not the greatest.
Morrowind got stupidly good reviews on release, and wooed players on both the PC and the original Xbox. I heard tales of friends buying it for their shiny new Xboxes…then jumping a whole bunch to level their characters up. I read all these reviews that went on and on about how it was the greatest experience of all-time.
I finally plunged in, buying it for the PC. I had never played an Elder Scrolls title before, nor had I spent much time with a Bethesda game outside of a brief dalliance with their cool/weird Terminator title. I didn’t really play RPGs of that sort at all in that era. I was way more into shooters, action games, and real-time strategy stuff.
And so, as cool as it was, I bounced off of it after a few hours.
I tried it again when I finally got an Xbox, and the same thing happened.
I wanted so badly to like this game, but I just couldn’t get used to the way it handled and played. This was the proper debut of the Gamebryo-based engine technology that people have come to love or hate in all the future Bethesda titles…but Morrowind represents it at its most raw and unrefined.
When Oblivion rolled around, I finally got the whole Bethesda thing. They honed it to a point that made it both expansive and accessible. And I’ve been a huge fan of their stuff ever since.
I’ve seen most of Morrowind online through various playthroughs, but I’ve never conquered its full depths myself.
It’s time to change that.
I created a Redguard named Eleniara.
I also created my own custom class. It’s weird and interesting how much emphasis Character Class has in both this game and Oblivion, since Bethesda basically did away with the concept in Skyrim.
I pilfered absolutely everything I could in the opening area. I was given a package that I had to take and give to another dude in the town of Balmora.
It’s weird that a random prisoner is being given such important yet such vague duties, no? Oblivion and Skyrim do a better job of establishing the stakes at the outset.
The opening town of Seyda Neen looks a bit quaint in 2017, but it’s still nicely designed from an aesthetic perspective.
I decide to be nice and give the elf dude in the town square the ring that the guards took from him. This gets me in good with Arille, the local merchant, getting me a chance at better prices.
Most of the dialog in the game is handled through text that’s reminiscent of the convoluted system in the first two games in the series, but a little more streamlined. You can click on highlighted text to find more out about that thing instead of using the menu at the left. It’s a little bit cumbersome if you’re used to more modern systems, but it gets the job done.
Ken Rolston, one of the designers of the game, is very fond of every character in the game world being able to talk about everything. He went on to design Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and that game has an absurd amount of recorded dialog. If you liked the conversation system in Morrowind, and always wished all of it was fully voiced, I bet you’d get a huge kick out of Amalur.
Speaking of Arille the trader…why is the front door of the shop on the back of the building? The side that faces away from the town? This has always baffled me.
I buy myself a whole bunch of heavy armor using the ill-gotten gains from all the stuff I looted from the weird tutorial building. I don’t know why you can take so much expensive stuff without being considered a thief. Maybe the designers realized you’d need more money in the beginning, so they changed it at the last minute? Who knows!
Here I am kitted out in all of my heavy armor.
The only weapon I had at this point was the dagger from the tutorial building.
Never mind the fact that it’s a short blade, and I was highly specialized in long blades. It would be totally fine.
It wasn’t fine at all.
I made my way into the first dungeon near the Silt Strider platform, to tackle my first combat. Silt Striders are big hollowed out bug things that you can ride from town to town. Anyway, I learned that some bandits and a random Mage were holding prisoners in the cave, and I decided to free them!
I walked into the cave, drew my dagger…and spent like two minutes feebly hacking away at the first bandit.
That dark blobby shape is the first bandit.
After two minutes and two thirds of my health were gone, I defeated the bandit!
Then the mage beyond that door killed me almost immediately.
Maybe I should have, you know, bought a sword and a shield…
I load a save, run back to the trader, and buy a sword and a shield.
Okay, now I was ready for my first adventure in Morrowind!
I made much quicker work of the first bandit in the dungeon, and got through the rest of the area without too much difficulty. It’s amazing how much of a difference having a proper weapon and a way to block made to the game!
Every time I play one of the newer games in Bethesda’s oeuvre, I always want to re-visit the older ones. I’m not sure why I do this. Maybe it’s because I never finished anything before Oblivion?
Or maybe it’s because I’m always so impressed at how many of their design decisions carried through from earlier games, and did so without feeling old and dated.
Sure, Morrowind has really clicky/mashy combat and a generally clunky interface design. And sure, it doesn’t have things like Radiant AI or Radiant Quests. But it still has a world full of characters living their own lives, that’s just waiting for you to explore it. It still has millions of containers to root through looking for cool stuff, and lots of quests you can complete in a variety of ways. It still has that feeling of being in a vast, dynamic, and real place that will respond to your presence…even if this isn’t always actually the case.
My experience from my years of gaming following my initial bounces off of Morrowind has served me well. I’m finding the game a bit more enjoyable this time, even if all the weird decisions stick out way more now than they ever could have in 2002.
Bethesda is one of the few companies that’s constantly trying to push the envelope not just through graphics, but through design. Their creations give players a dramatic feeling of scale and scope, and invite you to interact with those worlds on your own terms, rather than strictly picking your way through them the way the designer wanted you to. Even other famous systemic game franchises like Deus Ex, Thief, or System Shock are still limited by the relatively small scope of their worlds.
Now of course, you can’t do everything you could do if you were actually there. You’re still interacting with a huge pile of systems built explicitly around the experience of playing an RPG. But the way those systems all smash into things and influence one another still adds up to an impressively “realistic” experience, even all the way back in Morrowind.
I thought about making this a one-off, but I had enough fun with my brief night in Morrowind that I think I’m going to keep going, at least for a little while.