I often say that Morrowind is my favorite game of all time despite it having some of the worst gameplay mechanics I’ve ever encountered. Every action in the game is based on a dice-roll system; an attempt to ground Morrowind in the classic RPG genre that the previous Elder Scrolls games were largely defined by. This means that, especially at lower levels, combat essentially consists of repeatedly clicking on an enemy until an occasional hit registers and continuing until the bad guy falls over. The luck based system is also applied for any kind of magic, to the point where attempting to cast a powerful spell might require you to cast it fifteen times before being successful. Picking a high-level lock will break lockpicks until either the lock finally opens or you run out of lockpicks completely. These relics of a lost genre are incredibly frustrating and often just plain boring, but it’s unfair to use these mechanics to claim that Morrowind isn’t fun as a whole. In fact, I believe they’re emblematic of what makes the game so damn great.
RPGs originally existed as a kind of create-your-own-adventure board game, in which the players build their own characters, choose their own actions, and create a story of their own by playing the game and rolling the dice each turn. The Elder Scrolls series is a more simplified video game version of that, which seeks to let you create your own character, but provides an already-existing story to adventure your way through. Despite its obvious differences from the board game, the original Elder Scrolls games were meant to recreate that RPG experience, dropping you into a world in which it was up to you to explore and have adventures in. Bethesda built their world with an almost Tolkien-like amount of care and detail, creating a full cast of gods and demi-gods, races with race dynamics, languages, politics, history, and of course a massive landmass to explore (especially in the case of Daggerfall, which was ostensibly the size of real-life Great Britain). This attention to the world was what most people played those games for: they wanted to get lost in the lore and the setting, to explore every available corner of the massive fictional continent, and to feel like they were truly crafting their own unique adventure.
I believe the dedication to this experience is what made Morrowind remarkable, and I think Bethesda started to lose their grasp on providing that experience with its sequels, Oblivion and Skyrim. To me, Morrowind was not the first game I played that allowed me to go wherever I want and do whatever I want in an open world, but it was the first game that really felt like that world was actually worth exploring. It was full of people to talk to, books to read, dungeons to discover, items to steal, and large expanses of land to get completely lost in. Perhaps most importantly, it was dripping with atmosphere. The giant silk striders’ long, whale-like call echoed between buildings, trees, and mountains. It rained, and the thunder followed flashes of lightning with a fading, rolling rumble in the distance. In the Ashlands, storms of ash caused NPCs to shield their eyes, caused shop banners to wave in the wind, and spread the Blight disease in its wake. And all along, the sometimes-triumphant, sometimes-emotional, sometimes-haunting soundtrack of Jeremy Soule followed your travels. Walking around Vvardenfell was an experience like no other, a feeling of exploring a completely alien world with detail far exceeding any other game that I knew of.
When screenshots started coming out of the next Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, I was overcome with excitement. I actively searched for every scrap of information, browsing the Bethesda forums every day. As each piece of information got released, I started to worry a little more. The world looked, quite frankly, boring. The developers were bragging about a new technology they were using to create the world, called SpeedTree, which generated the landscape for them to later go over and edit by hand and add custom elements to. This worried me. What about the handcrafted world that helped make Morrowind feel so special? Was SpeedTree going to able to create the tangled vines of Telvanni cities, or the long-reaching lava-flow valleys branching from the volcano in the center of the island? Every screenshot that came out showed an environment made up of familiar-looking forests, fields, and castles that could easily be found in our own world; on Earth. The completely foreign feel of Morrowind was abandoned, even down to the creatures inhabiting the land. Instead of Guars and Scribs, we got wolves, bears, and deer. Instead of Silt Striders we got an exciting creature called a “horse.” I was disappointed, but I wasn’t about to give up on the game just because they took a more familiar approach to the world.
Then, details started coming out about the playable demo that journalists were given access to. The compass on the top of the screen not only pointed out any objects of “interest” nearby, but also gave you a great big arrow telling you exactly where to go to complete your quest. This small development choice alone represented everything I hated about Oblivion. By giving you an arrow showing you where to go, the developers had accepted that the destination was the focus, rather than the experience of getting there. The whole concept of adventure was abandoned. This was backed up by the implementation of “fast travel,” which allowed the player to simply teleport directly to their destination instead of trekking through the world. To me, this was Bethesda saying that the act of travelling was a waste of time, or boring, and that you might as well skip straight to “the good part.”
Of course, I wasn’t the only one expressing concern about the quest marker and fast travel system, and eventually this prompted Bethesda themselves to respond to the matter by saying both of these mechanics can be ignored and turned off completely in favor of the more classic Morrowind-style approach. But we already knew they were planning to fully voice act all of the NPC dialogue in the game. Were we supposed to believe that they provided enough information for the player to find these quest objectives after turning off the compass? In the end, my fears ended up being correct: the dialogue was brief and to the point, not bothering to expand upon the characters or the world, and certainly not giving any information about where you needed to go. They just put a marker on your map and you were on your way.
Some of my fondest memories of Morrowind are of getting lost trying to find things in the world. Instead of placing a marker on your map, the game might give you a set of instructions that say something like “head east until you reach a group of three rocks, then follow the Foyada (“lava-river” in the ashlander’s language) and the tomb will be a dome-shaped structure on your left.” You had to really explore the land to find what you were looking for, and although you may get lost, you would inevitably stumble upon something interesting during your trip. In Oblivion, you hop on a horse and ride in a straight line until you find what the arrow is pointing you towards. Not that you’d gain much from paying attention to the world around you, what with the land being generated by a computer and most of the landmarks looking generic and uninteresting.
To many, these complaints will sound trite and nitpicky. These are the people Oblivion and Skyrim are designed for. They don’t care about the design of the world, or the immense amount of care put into its lore. They just want to level up, to complete quests, to gather treasure and kill monsters. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but those things aren’t what I fell in love with while playing Morrowind. Those aren’t the things that made Morrowind so special. They are, however, the things that made its sequels successful. So it goes.