Morrowind is a game that has a well-earned position in the pantheon of masterworks. Bridging the gap between an earlier era and the fully three-dimensional big-budget games of later generations, Morrowind is perhaps one of the first games that can be said to deliver on a no-compromise 3D experience.
This isn’t to say that it’s without its faults. Morrowind was running on systems that just didn’t have the power of modern consoles and PCs, but it was nonetheless a feat of game and software design that set the stage for many other modern games and gave a taste of what players would be able to come to expect from open-world roleplaying experiences.
Morrowind trailer courtesy of Bethesda Softworks
The defining distinction between Morrowind and its earlier brethren is the jump to a fully 3D world; Daggerfall used 2D sprites with simple 3D geometry, and Arena was entirely made up of 2D parts rendered in a primitive 3D style.
This by itself would not have been so revolutionary if it weren’t for the world that Morrowind brought to life. Although it wasn’t the first experimental fantasy setting to make its way to video games, Morrowind offered monsters and characters that were distinctively nontraditional. You didn’t see dragons flying between mountain peaks in Morrowind. Instead you had devil-like Daedra stalking through a volcanic wasteland, blight diseases, all sorts of exotic creatures, and the ever-present annoyance of cliff racers.
Morrowind offers incredibly complex roleplaying game mechanics that accompany its realistic-yet-fantastical (though not high-definition) environments. Characters are defined with attributes and skills, each ranging from 1-100 (though there’s a heavy weighting toward the 20-80 range for all but the most expert or deficient characters).
Not all of the mechanics were well-planned. Going back and playing Morrowind after playing any of the later Elder Scrolls games wonders why the designers thought that tying the chance for an attack to have any effects to arbitrary numbers was a good idea, especially since there’s no obvious indication that a failed attack would have landed but for the RNG. The AI and factions felt rich and vibrant for its day, but the fact that characters exist mostly just to do what the designers wanted them to do is pretty obvious.
For all its faults, however, Morrowind delivered in providing space for exploration. Artifacts and spells allowed players to open up parts of the world that would have been unavailable. The design of dungeons is incredibly clever, relying on both horizontal and vertical movement to provide plenty of options to find secrets or move players smoothly from the start to the end of an environment so that they didn’t have to back-track.
Combine this with vibrant settlements, a deep sense of lore that extends beyond just the plot, found documents that tell their own stories and extend the one told by the game itself, and the world felt more living and believable than perhaps any before it. The backdrop of a tremendous soundtrack by Jeremy Soule helped further the immersion in an emotional way. Although Avernum, which I wrote about yesterday, was the first game that made me feel empathy for characters and lose myself in the plot of a game, I can safely say that Morrowind was the first game that made me feel lost in another world.
It was also a game that presented conflicts. The main storyline involved many distinctive factions, but most factions also had their own independent storylines that player characters could follow. Many of these factions had branching stories, giving players a wide range of choice in their actions, and all of them rewarded the player by giving them a different role in the world; NPCs would respond to the player with more respect or unique responses based on their ranks in the various factions. Some factions were mutually exclusive, though clever players figured out ways to work around this in most cases.
The main storyline was distinctive, pitting the player against a multitude of forces as they rose to meet their destiny as Nerevarine, the reincarnation of the hero Nerevar. The actual lore surrounding the Nerevarine and their nemesis, Dagoth Ur, tied everything together by linking the player’s role in the story to an epic fantasy story that unfolded years earlier. Because most of the characters involved ascended to godhood (by one definition or another), it was possible to encounter some of these epic figures in the narrative itself, such as Vivec, one of the former companions of Nerevar.
Morrowind received two expansion packs; Bloodmoon and Tribunal. Bloodmoon took place on a frozen island northwest of the mainland, giving a much different experience than the weird fantasy of the first game. Tribunal, on the other hand, continued the drama of the main storyline with more revelations about the setting and lore surrounding the central conflict of the Nerevarine with Dagoth Ur by introducing the goddess Amalexia to the player.
In addition to the official expansions and a handful of free plugins that Bethesda distributed, Morrowind was compatible with modding, and supported quite dramatic changes to both the world and gameplay. While few mods reached the scale of the large total conversions that would be created for Morrowind’s successors Oblivion and Skyrim, Morrowind was a game that could be expanded and modified almost infinitely, with modders adding new items, fixing issues or inconveniences, rebalancing the game’s difficulty, and even adding entirely new mechanics to the game.
From many perspectives, Morrowind was unique. It was close enough to the clunky games of the 90s that it didn’t feel a need to streamline and simplify anything, and the designers reveled in using everything possible to reward the player for learning all the complexities and nuances of the rules and world. It took an approach to fantasy that felt familiar to fans of swords and sorcery, but included deeper mythical elements that wouldn’t have felt out of place in ancient mythology, with particularly strong ties to Indian mythology and similar Eastern thought instead of the more conventional Western tropes that had been explored heavily in other roleplaying games.
It is for these reasons that despite its many flaws Morrowind remains iconic. Although the game does not run well on modern systems, an open-source engine rebuild called OpenMW allows the game to be played and fixes many of the bugs that always plagued the original game. A branch of the OpenMW project allows the game to be played in multiplayer with a server-client architecture, and dedicated communities still exist to create new content to the game and keep it playable on modern systems.
This post was written for the Archdruid Gaming Decades: The 00's contest. Consider checking them out.