Once upon a time, just before I set off to college, I got the itch to play an RPG. I had either The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind or Neverwinter Nights in mind, and I ended up choosing the former. It set off a love affair that I still won’t shut up about to this day. I still need to go back and try out Neverwinter Nights one of these days.
That was my introduction to The Elder Scrolls, which would eventually lead to my recent playthroughs of Arena and Daggerfall. Now that I’ve got that insight into the genesis of the series, it’s time to return to Morrowind. It’s a game I’ve never been gone from for long, starting it up for a short jaunt every few years, but this is the first time in a long time that I’ve made the effort to conquer its main questline once more. It’s like sliding back into a comfortable pair of pants.
WEALTH BEYOND MEASURE, OUTLANDER
Welcome to Vvardenfell, Outlander, have fun. Morrowind doesn’t seem to care much for pleasantries. You literally step off a boat, fill out your customs forms, are given a package of documents, then are kicked out into the world to fend for yourself.
That’s it: Paperwork. Adventure.
Both Arena and Daggerfall at least had the courtesy to put you through a hostile and unforgiving dungeon in a desperate attempt to convince you not to play them. Morrowind doesn’t care whether you follow its instructions to the letter, help the first town’s wood elf find his ring, or immediately attempt to slay everyone in sight. It’s up to you.
Of course, there is a central plot to the game; a main quest for you to follow if you want to see some sort of closure, but Morrowind has no interest in guiding you through it. Until you figure out how to read documents out of your inventory, you may never even find where you’re first supposed to go. It’s not too different from how Daggerfall did it, but regardless of whether you find your own path or follow the narrative planned for you, you’ll discover just how different Morrowind is compared to what came before it.
TO THE EAST, TO MORROWIND
The island of Vvardenfell, the setting for Morrowind, is a weird and alien place. Fantasy settings have been pretty standardized for most of the genre’s existence; most often falling back to a Tolkien-esque version of medieval England. Arena and Daggerfall were pretty much that; Morrowind isn’t.
The island is dominated by a large volcano, Red Mountain, and much of it is covered in giant mushrooms and stone pinnacles. Imperial established colonies contain the typical western stone houses, but the province’s natives live in insect-like stone huts, giant pyramid like cantons, or towering mushrooms. The creatures don’t seem to be derived from any particular source, instead resembling giant insects, dinosaurs, or even weirder monstrosities. Ruins jut up from the landscape that tell the tale of religions long past and the folly of a race that vanished while reaching for the heavens.
The political climate even deviates from the court intrigue of Daggerfall. The western Empire has asserted its power over the locals, but much of Morrowind’s original structure remains in place. The lands are ruled by the five great houses (three of them featuring on Vvardenfell itself), who answer to the temple. The temple, rather than worshiping the established pantheons of Aedra and Daedra, follow the Tribunal, three dark elves of power so immense that they’re viewed as living gods.
The lore is a million miles deep and goes thousands of years back, and if you have any hope to make heads or tails of the plot, you may need to delve into one or two books. That’s not necessarily a positive thing; I don’t typically appreciate when a game decides to tell its story by tossing a glossary at you, but if you’ve got a long attention span, there’s a lot to sift through. Dialogue is similarly dense, though the speakers try to speak as concisely as possible. It’s rare that anyone will give you more than one paragraph about a given subject, and if a topic is too broad, they’ll often give you notes to read at your leisure. It’s storytelling by encyclopedia, basically, there isn’t much personality to be found.
WHAT A GRAND AND INTOXICATING INNOCENCE
The main story casts you as some schmuck who gets dumped off on Vvardenfell by order of the emperor in hopes that you fit the description of the Nerevarine, the reincarnation of Indoril Nerevar, a warlord who once united the great houses with the nomadic ashlander clans to defend Morrowind. Your goal is to discover and fulfill the various prophecies associated with this figure to cement your claim.
The difficulty is that a figure from the past that is associated with both the Tribunal and Nerevar’s past, Dagoth Ur, has awakened and is wreaking gradual havoc on the populace of Vvardenfell. Through your quest to prove yourself as the hero of prophecy, you learn the truth behind the godhood of the Tribunal, the betrayal of Dagoth Ur, the disappearance of the Dwemer race, and the fate of the god who created the world. It touches on every point in Morrowind’s history, providing a complete picture of the world you’re in. It’s a sprawling story that even dips its toes into deconstructing the conventions of the fantasy genre.
Once again, that’s if you’re willing to read it. There’s few voiceovers and fewer cutscenes. The story and narrative of Morrowind is fantastic. The storytelling; not so much.
So you’re walking through a canyon carved by lava flows, listening to the game’s atmospheric music, when suddenly the track changes to the more percussive sounds of the combat cues. Hastily, you scan the horizon for your aggressors, but are unable to locate the source of assault. Eventually you hear a familiar cry and look up to see another damned cliff racer.
Those blasted cliff racers. They’re everywhere. Go down any path an you’re likely to see a few circling above, waiting for you to wander by. They’re the worst. Their pathfinding is so bad, that you’re often left watching as one struggles to descend. I’m not sure what the hell is wrong with them, but they have a tendency to just hover above you, motionless, like they’re bugging out. It’s maddening and it breaks the speed of travel, which is already really slow.
Having been released in 2002, the game looks like someone vomited on trash. Vvardenfell is a big place (not as large as Daggerfall‘s world by any stretch), and is made to feel bigger by an extremely suffocating draw fog. It’s easy to get lost simply because you can’t see landmarks through the pervasive mist, which, to its credit, does give the illusion that even a trip down the street is a grand adventure on its own.
Interrupting these grand adventures is combat with the local wildlife. Simply put, combat in Morrowind is crap. Well, that might be unfair. It uses the same general combat system as the previous Elder Scrolls titles, which was merely lifted from your typical Dungeons & Dragons-esque CRPG template, but the issue is that it just doesn’t work when you’re dealing with polygons. Every swipe of the sword and every arrow you loose has to go through a dice roll that dictates whether or not you hit your target. If the invisible dice in the background fails to meet the minimum, you just miss entirely, even if your arrow flies through the enemy or the sword sinks deep within their gut. It feels like you’re getting cheated when you miss, and the whole system takes any feeling of control or physicality away. What you’re left doing is swiping at what’s in front of you repeatedly until it finally takes enough damage and keels over. It’s inexcusable.
YET ANOTHER DELVE
Daggerfall was just too big. Its world was boring, the dungeons were maddeningly repetitive, and the game just dragged on for eternity. Morrowind suffered the pruning sheers and ends up being a much improved game. The world, while smaller, feels distinct. The towns are varied and, at a glance, you can tell where you are. Fast travel has been reduced to finding local transit through the Mage’s Guild or by buying a ride on a boat or silt strider. Walking from town to town, though still kind of confusing due to the game’s poor draw distance and vague roads and pathways, is actually more practical and encouraged. Exploration has finally arrived to The Elder Scrolls.
Mercifully, the dungeons have been trimmed to a much shorter and more reasonable length. What’s more, they’ve also ditched the random generation and now you’re delving bespoke labyrinths. They’re still kind of mundane, but they’re a sight better than anything that’s come before in the series.
Perhaps they’re more tolerable because the game leans less on them. More quests require you to travel somewhere and deal with things on the surface, rather than sending you into the depths. A lot of the game can be boiled down to fetch quests, which may be irritating to some, but I’d rather be doing someone’s shopping than delving another Daggerfall dungeon.
On the other hand, gameplay starts wearing real thin at the end. The main quest never really gains any momentum, but it loses any steam that it did have right when you hit the home stretch. By then, you’re likely going to have your stats built up to a god-like level to begin with, and all challenge will have gone out the window.
NOW YOU DIE
That’s not really that important, though. Morrowind presents a deep and engrossing world, then invites you to do whatever you want. You get assaulted by cliff racers the whole time, but we can’t have everything.
Morrowind takes what worked well in Daggerfall, like the character building and faction systems, prunes out the tedious parts, and leaves only a solid experience. Maybe a bit too solid, since it lacks the emergent situations of the later games in the series, Oblivion and Skyrim, whose unpredictable elements helped give their worlds more personality and character. Yet what Morrowind lacks in personality, it makes up for in sheer depth. It’s deep; perhaps the deepest the series has ever been to date. If you can deal with the alien world and the dryness of its delivery, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
This review was conducted on a digital version of the game purchased by the author from Steam.