20 years of Morrowind, the unmatched potential of The Elder Scrolls

We revisit the Bethesda classic. An RPG with rough edges, but also many flashes of genius not always recaptured by its successors.

We all know Skyrim. Everyone. Well, maybe not all. Surely many grandmothers do not (although there is a streamer literally nicknamed “the grandmother of Skyrim”). But among hardcore gamers, it’s a name taken for granted. Not long after its release, Skyrim became the most successful RPG since… ever. And although the absence of data may now give that place to The Witcher 3 with 40 million copies declared, it is hard to believe that Skyrim does not accumulate more considering that at the end of 2016, before its arrival on Switch, VR, or the most recent anniversary version (yes, the same one that implemented fishing) already added 30 million.

All this comes to mind because the fifth numbered The Elder Scrolls was – and to some extent still is – a massive phenomenon. And not just for sales; but also for criticism, for awards, and for permeating the collective consciousness like few games before or since through references, memes, and others. Since then, Bethesda has made some big blunders, and the multiple re-releases of Skyrim itself have sapped some of the initial hype. Although that does not mean that even now, in the middle of 2022, putting previous deliveries at its level or even above it is a spicy topic, with room for some controversy. But today, May 1, is Morrowind’s 20th anniversary, so allow us some self-indulgence.

Towards Vvardenfell

As its full title suggests, Morrowind was the third The Elder Scrolls, though its importance is greater than a middle position usually implies. Like the groundbreaking Grand Theft Auto III, released just a few months earlier, this was the first fully 3D installment; but unlike the Rockstar classic, Morrowind was not “limited” to adapting the formula of its predecessors from pixels to polygons, it needed to reimagine its development and possibilities from the ground up.

Six years earlier, Daggerfall had been a hit by the standards of the day. But six years in the nineties was not like six years now. Technological leaps were constant, and the procedural generation of cities, dungeons, and missions showed limitations that were impossible to control and debug without sacrificing scale. Both Daggerfall and Arena embraced the idea of ​​”living in a simulation,” virtually infinite games that created content on the fly; but the gaps that in 1994 and 1996 could be filled with ingenuity and imagination, at the turn of the millennium required more concentrated efforts. Morrowind was to be designed by hand.

And so the next stage of the saga began to take shape, with, in addition, a new creative leadership after internal fluctuations that led to the departure of some key figures from the first installments. Todd Howard made his directorial debut after leading the development of the spin-off Redguard (1998), a pirate-themed adventure that had already dipped its toes in the new three-dimensional waters. And the scale, of course, was drastically reduced due to the need to give each NPC and build a predefined function. Almost everything the player found was useful for something, related to some quest, background, or character progression.

As it will surely not surprise anyone, the initial idea was to set the game in the Morrowind region, located in the extreme northeast of Tamriel, but in the end, they decided to limit themselves to the Vvarden Wasteland (Vvanderfell in English), an island that allowed them to maintain the acceptable development and incidentally isolate the player without the need for invisible barriers. The process of creating it manually, of course, also led to a striking inconsistency, since the terrain was ten thousand times smaller than that theoretically covered by Daggerfall’s procedural generation, despite the fact that according to the official map both should be smaller. or less equivalent.

But playing it out, it was soon revealed to be a justifiable sacrifice. What Morrowind didn’t offer in raw scale it did in attention to detail. The design was denser and more intricate, the paths meandering more than in previous or later installments, preventing shortcuts— possible, but not as ubiquitous —from trivializing the size. And despite the inevitable repetition of resources in villages and dungeons, the world still offered new sights hours after you started exploring it. As a game from 2002 to revisit in 2022, the geometry is not particularly complex and the draw distance is short —although the PC version and its mods can transform it with little effort—; but despite this, even now Morrowindcontinues to offer the most original and differentiated environments in the saga.

Compared to the traditional European medieval fantasy of Daggerfall before and Oblivion after, or the Nordic Skyrim, Morrowind took advantage of his trip to the homeland of the Dunmer (black elves) to capture flora, fauna, and architecture less derivative of other works of the genre. , playable or not. Mushroom-shaped trees, flying jellyfish, dwellings carved inside bulbous plants or giant shells, red sand storms… Vvarden was an exotic place, sometimes almost alien, so exploring it was not only interesting for the freedom and the decisions of any good RPG, but also because of the feeling of entering a genuinely new world, specifically imagined to come to life in this game.

consequence of choice

But beyond its audiovisual pleasures (Jeremy Soule made his debut as a composer and his music greatly contributed to the atmosphere), what made Morrowind a classic capable of playing a familiar role in games with greater extension and better graphics was both its freedom of choice and, more importantly, the consequences of those choices. That is to say, although something that has not been lacking in any installment before or after Morrowind has been the possibility of creating a character to suit us, going in any direction and accepting almost any mission at any time; what has rarely been on their level has been how that freedom responded back.

Choosing one race or another when starting out, for example, was not only an aesthetic decision but also; it didn’t just change the starting stats; that also; And it didn’t just grant permanent passive buffs; that also; it also influenced how other races treated us. Vvarden was, as we have already said, the land of the dark elves, but obviously, they were not its only inhabitants. The Empire also had a presence, with various settlements scattered throughout the region, and many of the urban centers were inhabited by Orcs, Argonians, Red Wardens, Khajites, and others. However, not all the natives saw this multiculturalism with the same eyes and opting for a black elf as a character, although not necessary, opened some doors earlier and better.

But this was only the tip of the iceberg because then there were the other factors such as gender (with an effect on some statistics and missions), classes, birth signs, the infinity of characters willing to train us skills in exchange for money, a thousand and one enhancements and effects that we could achieve via alchemy, the creation of custom spells, the possibility of imbuing magical effects on weapons and equipment … That’s another one, do you know how many items could be equipped on our character in Morrowind? Over a dozen counting rings, amulets, or individual pieces of armor and clothing that were overlapping.

Or what is the same, the characters were not limited to putting metallic tunics or armor on their naked bodies, but also underwear or other clothing, either for aesthetic reasons or to add benefits to mere defense, giving more opportunities for validation to exploring, trading, stealing, and enchanting items. Was it a system with room to exploit? Of course. But it was part of the journey: starting at the bottom, a newly released prisoner in trouble to kill a simple rat; and end up being the most powerful warrior in all of Vvarde as we leveled up, equipped or consumed goods, and ensured a suitable physique to move with ease despite it.

This consideration is important because if the game now has a clear handicap next to Oblivion and Skyrim, at least to start with, it is to what extent everything is conditioned by statistics. Morrowind was not only an RPG in the sense of “you hit things, you get experience and you rack up numbers”, but also in the sense of “if you have little skill with a type of weapon, the attacks do not even hit even if you are within an inch of the enemy”. Or “if you’ve depleted your fatigue bar, spells can fail even if you have the intelligence and magic points to do so.”

Starting with Oblivion, Bethesda would move towards a  more typical and basic action RPG, where the statistics continued to condition the combat, but the collisions were always registered as hits, and other aspects such as the success of the conversations or the use of lockpicks could be altered with mechanical skill via mini-games. But in Morrowind, this was not the case. Morrowind was RPG pure and simple, based on paper, pencil, and dice. With time and dedication, you could do tricks: hit every sword strike, eliminate any enemy with a magic throw, run on water, levitate… The sky was the limit, literally. But only with time and dedication. Since you experimented, chose attributes, weapons, spells or alchemy to specialize, and embark on the adventure of improvement.

Your place or mine

But the complex network of systems and mechanics with which to mold the character was only half of the role component. The other was our role in the world, the repercussions through our mediation in the affairs of the guilds or the Great Houses of Vvarden . The concept of the guilds of fighters, magicians, thieves, etc. It has been one of the main hallmarks of The Elder Scrolls forever; but the Houses, on the other hand, were a key differentiating factor in this particular installment. Because Morrowind might be the land of the black elves, they were not grouped under a single culture. Under a common leader or beliefs.

The Hlaalu House, for example, would already receive us in Balmora, the first important urban nucleus if we fulfilled the errand that began the main plot (and then temporarily interrupted so that we could look for other activities). This was because they were the faction that was most open to other races due to their open interest in trade, and they welcomed any player willing to cooperate.

Offices of the Hlaalu House in Balmora.

House Redoran, on the other hand, was based further north, in the arid lands of Ald’ruhn, and had somewhat more nationalist convictions, although it tolerated the Empire, the fighters’ guild, and accepted into its ranks the most skilled warriors of all. whatever race would render their services to him.

Inner district of House Redoran in Ald’ruhn.

And then there was House Telvanni, based in Sadrith Mora and led by sorcerers. This was the most isolationist of the three that we could enter (although there were others), but their desire to overcome the guild of magicians meant that they also accepted foreigners if they demonstrated a great mastery of the magical arts.

Entrance to Sadrith Mora

The genius of this structure, as you can imagine even if you haven’t played it, is that each House didn’t just offer a parallel sub-plot to sign up for and complete before moving on to another or returning to the main plot. These factions had different requirements based on the attributes of our character both to enter and to climb the ranks (until becoming the lord of our own fortress on behalf of the House in question); and their interests often collided directly with those of the other Houses, so that, once enrolled in any of them, the others closed their doors to us.

Despite the insane amount of power we could build up with one character over the long haul, Morrowind wasn’t designed for the player to do everything in one game. It was there for us to choose a path (take a role ), explore its consequences, and then, if we felt like it, contrast them with those of a second or even third character. In this way, the factions did not function as compartmentalized stories and the world was more likely. House Telvanni might require high magical attributes, but it was consistent and rewarded us with spells that would be useful to that character, although its members were wary of collaborating with the Mages Guild. And House Hlaalu could trick us into tricking members of House Redoran into extracting information from them because, after all, their missions were already out of our hands.

Needless to say, flashes of this kind of design have been seen since, as in the case of the Skyrim civil war, where we can join one side or the other to lead it to victory. But it is far from being the norm or being implemented at the level of Morrowind. Above we have focused on the Houses of the black elves as it is a unique aspect of the third installment, But that kind of friction was not only between them but also between traditional guilds (such as fighters and thieves) or other organizations established in Vvarden.

The progress within some of these factions, moreover, was not linear either: several characters scattered around the island could entrust us with missions that led us towards the same goal, the same position within that faction. Something that, obviously, prevented him from creating the same kind of rhythm and suspense that some of the later guilds had (like the assassins guild in Oblivion, perhaps the best example of what can be achieved with the opposite approach), but it brought him closer. to that sense of organic content that supported Daggerfall. That is why Morrowind is not only the intermediate delivery in number, it is also because it represents a sporadic point of union between two aspects of the saga that are increasingly distant from each other.

Life after Morrowind

Morrowind was created in a climate of uncertainty, following several unsuccessful projects (Battlespire, Redguard) and a change in studio leadership. But its more than four million copies sold put under Bethesda the mattress it needed. Oblivion was developed with a different kind of security, and with Xbox 360 as the priority platform. The number of developers increased, each line of dialogue began to be doubled, and options began to be removed as well. Fewer specialties in which to invest points, fewer conditions to move, fight, or access missions, fewer branches, fewer consequences of interactions.

And, of course, the magical GPS that directed us towards the objective of the current mission without having to pay attention to signals or open the diary was released. It is questionable whether the Morrowind alternative was always better since some indications could be obtuse (“go south, take a right, then a left, blah blah”) and be oriented in Vivec (a labyrinthine city with several cantons almost identical multi-story) was definitely unnecessary cocoa. But Oblivion, instead of polishing the design, scattered the content throughout a flatter world, pointed us where to go at almost every moment and it offered instant teleportation without the need to resort to striders, ships, or wizards. Sold double.

For a fan of Morrowind it is difficult not to get the cynical streak even before reaching Skyrim, and, beyond the problems derived from auto-leveling (enemies that automatically adapted to the player and minimized the sensation of progression), Oblivion gave a more moderate turn. The improvements were there too, of course, and not just in the graphics. The Elder Scrolls IV and V were more accessible, increased the spectacle, and improved the staging. Oblivion retrieved the horses from Daggerfall, missing from Morrowind. And Skyrim would bring the dragons, first to face them and then to take to the skies as well. So we can’t come here and say it all went downhill because that’s not even remotely true.

But it is true that we have never really received a “ Morrowind 2.0 ”. An RPG where the choices go well beyond “now I’m going to city A or city B”, of “now I’m doing guild X or guild Y”. A game that, without being obtuse for the mere fact of being so, knows how to squeeze the player, that pushes him to continue experimenting and discovering new possibilities many hours after leaving the character creation screen behind. To “ roll ” More game after game. We could allude to a certain From Software saga that was born during the rise of The Elder Scrolls and has since become a constant influence on the medium. But we’ll save it. Because, again, it comes with looking towards Morrowind. It may not have been the perfect RPG, but it did set the stage for one that could be.

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