Sometimes you're at a used bookstore and you pick up an old paperback fantasy novel you've never head of. You're not even sure why you buy itâ€"maybe you like the cover, or the summary on the back was well written, or it’s on-sale for something confrontationally cheap like a nickel or a petition signature. Nothing grandiose. Nothing you can really point to later.
You don't read it right away, because it's not that kind of purchaseâ€"you just throw it onto the backseat of your car and forget about it for a couple days. Later you're getting out of your car and you remember to bring it in and put it on your desk. Then one day you sit down with your lunch, realize you left the Comic History of the Peleponnenisan War you'd been reading at homeâ€"and with nothing else to read, you grab the old paperback and flip to page one. You put the book down on page seventy. From that lunch break onwards, you’re pushing through this book like it’s your job.
It's goodâ€"but it's not really that it's good. It's that it's weird.
The hero is born in a village that isn't burned down by orcs. Magic rules are patterned around some obscure historical mystic tradition that doesn't comfortably conform to established conventions or even vocabularyâ€"spellcasters aren't wizards, but byrzkars, and that's somehow relevant instead of annoying. Elves aren't haughty fey, which would be cliche, or evil celestial beings, which would be edgy clicheâ€"they're some third choice that doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything anyone's done with elves before. But it works. It feels alive and organic and fresh and you find yourself transported–and why should you be surprised at that, when transport is supposedly the aim of fantasy? How jaded were you–and how has this book gotten past it?
It's kind of like you showed up to watch a stringed instrument contest. For hours you hear everything from Jim Croce acoustic guitar to twanging Southern six-string riffs to wailing glamrock solos to doom-shaken death metal crunch. And just when you're trying to figure out where on the sliding scale of soft folksy guitar to ear-splitting electric guitar your tastes lie, some guy comes on with a cello and effortlessly changes the context of the entire show. That paperback fantasy novel probably won't end up being your favorite ever. It may not be the first book you recommend to people. You may not even seek out other work by that author. But years later, if you come across the spine of that book on your shelf, it'll all come rushing back. For better or for worse, that book was different enough to stick with you to the grave.
Give it time, and that's exactly what Morrowind is. It may not be your favorite videogame, but give it time and something about it will crawl into your brain and refuse to leave.
TES I: Arena was about making the player feel like a hero. TES II: Daggerfall was about making a world that felt real and functional and full of opportunity. TES III: Morrowind was not about making a world that felt real, per se, but a world that immersed you despite being manifestly unreal. Everything about the game contributed to making the feeling of inhabiting its alien, hostile world as complete and captivating as possible.
On the face of itâ€"that might sound like a similar goal to Daggerfall’s. In practice, they could hardly be more different. Daggerfall creates verisimilitude by simulating the sameyness of civilization, procedurally generating vast chunks of territory so that as in life, one town is superficially like another. Morrowind creates verisimilitude by featuring specificityâ€"making each place feel like its own location with its own purpose, history, and personality. Both are valid approaches, but Daggerfall gives the player a sense of cynical world-weary monotony where Morrowind constantly engages the player to examine their surroundings. It presents a fantasy world that is far removed from any real-life cultures or faiths, a world populated by entirely fictitious fauna, a world where there's a new made-up word for every concept and creature and political position, a world where even the food is unfamiliarâ€"and makes it work without a single misstep.
Even now, the vocabulary that should sound obtuse and ridiculous stirs me deeply. Ash yams. Silt striders. Almsivi. I can see the blight-choked winds rustling a row of roughspun banners. Telvanni. Nerevarine. Kagouti. A mournful wail of some unknown, unseen creature warbles over cracked hills. Shalk. Kwama. Indoril. The sun sets over the canals of Vivec. Bonemold. Flin. Saltrice. The gravely, unkind voice of an impatient old pilgrim stings your ears as you take to the road. All of it is sold by the matter-of-fact, deliberate way it is laid out within the gameworld. All of it just works.
Morrowind is my favorite Elder Scrolls game.
I understand every complaint everyone’s ever made about it.
Before we get to the good part of Morrowind, we're going to have to do what plenty of people very reasonably failed to do: suffer through its bullshit. Like its predecessors, Morrowind was as approachable as the rotted feral zombie of a terrorist skunk.
And it really must be emphasized that Morrowind’s problems were nothing new for the series. In so many gameplay areas it made marked improvements from the last games that just so happened to be–as is universal throughout this series’ history–at least five years behind everyone else. The interface was busy and content-dense and was completely unsuited to the Xbox, which it launched on to some aplomb–but it was an improvement from the decentralized and intractable pages squeezed into the first two games’ resolutions. The journal that tracked quests and topics was a joke, but at least it was comprehensive and helpfully hyperlinked, unlike in Daggerfall and Arena where the journals felt haphazard, incomplete, and painful to sift. And yes, there wasn't a lot of in-game instruction to teach players just what the fuck the difference between Absorb Health, Damage Health, and Drain Health was supposed to be, but at least now when you cast the spell you could sort of figure it out from cues in the health bar (admittedly patched in) and enemy noises. So for accessibility Morrowind rates a solid, “Shows improvement,” unless you aren't an apologist fan trying to put your inability to criticize a good game into context, in which case it continues to rate the rotted feral zombie of a terrorist skunk.
Let's talk about combat.
Remember that Arena and Daggerfall were both 2.5D adventures. Your weapon was a pixelated graphic that swiped awkwardly across the screenâ€"an abstract gesture that meant you were rolling the dice to hit and it was time for [insert second-wave fantasy monster cliche] to roll to defend. The game had no further ambitions because it had no further resources; unless combat was to be a very straightforward and predictable slog, hitting and missing had to be matters of probability for every RPG of the era.
But Morrowind did not debut in that era. This was not the age of 2.5D and abstract warfare-by-accountant. Now it was 2002â€"the year of Two Towers and Wind Waker and Jedi Outcast all bringing gritty fantasy slugfests to the table. Now that Morrowind had triumphantly ditched its procedural corridors and sprite of a Caucasian fist for actual 3D models it was time to cast aside the crutches of the old and make Elder Scrolls combat into kinetic, bone-crunching brawling the series is now known for. Or so one would think. Evidently they disagreed, because the underlying mechanic is still murder-by-accountant with no allowance for the new engine. It's very possible to be pointing your sword or spear or bow right at an enemy, unleash an attack that clearly contacts their fleshâ€"and get nothing but the audible whiff of a complete miss. And when I say it's “possible,” I mean, “that is absolutely what is going to happen nearly all the time until you've got some points in a skill.” The only innovation was to make weapons swing when you click the mouse button instead of when you click and drag it, which was not so much an “innovation,” because everyone knew damn well that was a good idea when Arena came out and it was pure cussedness that kept the click-and-drag system in place so long.
Magic is pretty much like it was in previous entries. Every time you try to cast a spell, you've got a chance of failure. Players starting the game with as many magical advantages as possible will nevertheless encounter countless early-game situations where they will go to cast a spell, eat the (steep, in the early game) expense of Magicka, and watch the thing fizzle out entirely. After which they will pretty generally be beaten to death by whatever they were fighting.
That’s the problem in general. Random chances of failure suck when they’re so steep in the early game and everything you do amounts to shit. So many people's first game went like:
I can play whatever I want? Awesome! I'm gonna be a badass wandering knight in full metal armor who alternates between splitting foes' skulls with a two-handed blade and roasting them with fire. And hey, it's actually really easy to take all the skills and stats I need to make that build work as well as possible. This adventure's gonna be awesome!
So…wait, what was I supposed to be doing? Let me check the journal. This…is my journal, right? I think it wants me to click thisâ€"oh, no, that's a list of topics. Uh…is one of these relevant to what I wanted to do? I can't figure out how to switch it back. Well, never mind. I'll go buy my stuff and figure that out later.
Got my spells, got my armor, got my sword. Can't really figure out how this map works, and I accidentally pinned it to my screen so it's up even when I'm in-game, but no matter! The pressing issue is, there's a big ol' rat over there looking plump and lootable. Kind of a meager foe, but it'll let me figure out the controls so I can move on to some real…
Ow, okay, this rat is really nailing me.
Okay. How do I get my sword out…? Oh, there we go. Now, taking a swing…did I miss? How did I miss? Okay, swinging again. *whhfff* And again. *whfff* And again. *whffff* And againâ€"there we go, I hit it! But I did minimum damage, I guess, so it's stillâ€"okay, now I'm dead.
That…really didn't take as long as I thought it would. I mean, I personally am not wearing any armor at all, and I'm pretty sure it would take a rat longer than that to bite me to death, but what do I know? Let's try that again. Casting a firebolt at the rat…oh, the spell fizzled. Oh, he's coming over. Oh, the spell fizzled again. And now I'm dead. Again.
Is this part of the game’s charm? An intrinsic component of its (many and profound) successes? Not really. It’s a few bad decisions compounded by some overly-trusting game design and the puny and unworthy aesthetic of early enemies. And you know something?
If they’d done this part just a little bit better, I think a lot of complaints about later games in the franchise could have been avoided.
NEXT WEEK: UNAPOLOGETIC MORROWIND FANBOY FLAGWAVING.
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