A superbly detailed, vast and often mystifying title, the third iteration of the now-legendary Elder Scrolls series is the benchmark to which all single player console RPGs should strive for, explains Sam Brewin.
While I know who my parents are and when to celebrate my birthday, the opening titles to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind were nevertheless incredibly precient. Replace “the role” with “the hundreds of hours (thousands? …Christ)” and you get a pretty good idea of what befell 11- to 16-year-old me once I’d first popped the disk into my Xbox.
Morrowind is one of the most engrossing, intriguing, tedious games I’ve ever had the fortune of playing. It gobbled up your time and handed you back a bubbling brew of excellently crafted lore, engaging characters and interesting gameplay, served up in a cauldron the graphics which was – for the scope and age of the game – captivating. The island of Vvardenfell did have its bugbears, of course, but as you’ll find out, these often made the game a damn sight more playable.
Bethesda Game Studios
Picking flowers and junk
I can’t precisely recall where I first read about the game, but chances are it was in the Official Xbox Magazine, nestled between the dumb screenshot competitions and reams of Halo 2 hype. Morrowind was billed as a game where you could do just about anything. Want to bosh around the land twatting lads on the head with a massive warhammer? Twat away! Prefer sneaking around dungeons, arrow knocked as you scout out rare treasure? Plunder till bedtime! Want to wander through valleys slaying animals and picking pretty flowers? Fair enough, pal!
Strangely, when I first informed dad of the majesty of Morrowind, it was that last feature which formed my reasoning why I should have an advance on my pocket money.
“Why would you go around picking flowers in a game?” he asked, likely wondering why modern game tech was being used in such a boring way.
“Because you can!”, I enthusiastically replied. Surely if you could do that, went my reasoning, there was a mad amount of other cool shit you could do too.
My hunch proved correct – that was Morrowind to a tee. You could literally do anything, and to a lad brought up on pretty linear games like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (yep), Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Halo, that was absolutely mad. A gigantic world where the only limit to your adventures was your imagination and the long list of integral information Bethesda neglected to include in the manual.
A really weird game
Anyone who’s played Morrowind will probably agree: most things about the game’s world are a little skewed, left-of-field, or straight-up strange. Forget Oblivion and its faithful recreation of every fantasy trope imaginable, or Skyrim and its plundering of Norse mythology. Morrowind is gloriously original.
Before I harp on about how brilliant this game was, I just want to note just how good its soundtrack was. It mixed a very original take on usual fantasy melodies with near-constant dissonance – even when you get a nice-sounding section, a minor note would edge in, reminding you that you’re not in Kansas anymore, and it’s a direction that gave the music a singular sound that is Morrowind all over. Click here to have a listen.
The game starts with the strange opening cinematic overlaid with a spooky but reassuring voice. Weird text scrolls over the screen as you’re presented with images of barren, twisted landscapes, then the game cuts in and our lad Jiub is stood there – possibly the most memorable TES character that had fewer than three lines of dialogue. You follow Guard (and try your hardest to overtake him, obviously), go outside and you’re immediately presented with the sight of a moaning, two-storey woodlouse towering in the distance. Hello, Vvardenfell!
Then there’s the warped, brooding design of the Daedric temples; the undulating, mushroom fortresses of House Telvanni; and the side quests. Never again in a game will I do pest control for a woman obsessed with pillows, stray upon a Santa-like moon sugar dealer (read: crack) in the middle of a forest, or observe a magician randomly fall from the sky as I walk down the road.
It wasn’t all fun, of course. You’d find grim grottos full of slaves or vampire ‘cattle’; horrifying, tendril-mouthed demons overseeing faceless vampires; and fast-moving automatons that did a ridiculous amount of damage. It’s a silly, scary game, combining dark magic, menacing fairytale plot lines and madcap characters who stick in your head despite being formed through poorly-written text dialogue and a limited number of voice lines.
Who will you be?
TES III had a raft of character customisation options. I’d never played a game where you could craft a character down to their sex, race, face and hair, and neither had any of my mates. Whenever anyone came round, we’d set about making a new character; Telanor the Wood Elf, a stout Nord called Renvir; or perhaps a scamp of an Argonian named Norvan. I still get a strange enjoyment out of imagining names for fantasy characters, and it started right here.
After choosing your character’s appearance, you chat to a old clerk with a high pitched voice, sort out your stats, steal the limeware platter on the shelf, drop it, say sorry to the guard, pick it up again, then proceed to the next few rooms where you gleefully steal everything. There was also a key in the next room you could nick that let you plunder the towers across the road, and a chap called Fargoth in the square outside who you could half-inch hundreds of gold pieces from. If you took the silt strider (a 50ft-tall bug bus) to Suran, you could steal from three traders; in Balmora, three more.
I stole a lot in Morrowind. Most NPCs in the game understandably attacked you when you took their shit, but a lot of them didn’t care, simply yelling “filthy swit”, “you n’wah” and so forth. What’s more, you could kill a merchant, drop all your stuff, run in your ragged loincloth to the nearest guard, pay a £40 fine, then scamper back to rob the place. It was an exploit, and a damn useful one at that.
While researching this article, I looked into why the rules for thievery and murder differed so much between characters, and I’m still confused, as according to the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages’ crime explainer, there are rules… Presumably the Xbox release needed patching, and while that might have been bad news for other games, it was welcome news here.
Morrowind was full of little workarounds you could use to get an edge on the punishing difficulty level, and get about to actually exploring the place. I’m not ashamed to say I used a health cheat every now and again, or hid around a corner and used telekinesis to break into a wardrobe otherwise watched over by a guard. I’d have been a fool not to have visited the backbones of Morrowind’s economy either. The Talking Mudcrab Merchant and the talking scamp: top lads. These days I love games with harder difficulties, but I’m still unrepentant when it comes to how I played Morrowind – the game didn’t get boring when you cheated a little.
What is this main game you speak of?
I never really experienced Morrowind’s plot. I know what happens from Oblivion and Skyrim’s in-game lore, but I never embarked on the main quest line.
Instead, I explored. The ever-receding fog of Vvardenfell meant that the devs could pack loads of locations in what was a pretty small game world – if the draw distance was as it is now, the map would look silly.
Overall, there were nine regions in the game world, within which there hid:
- 4 cities (one of which had 10 town-sized zones)
- 4 plantations
- 4 Imperial forts
- 7 holy grounds
- 11 Dunmer strongholds
- 11 grottos
- 12 Velothi towers
- 16 remote homesteads
- 18 towns and villages
- 18 Ashlander camps
- 23 Dwarven ruins
- 34 ships and wrecks
- 40 Daedric shrines
- 44 mines
- 83 caves
- 92 tombs
Pretty good for an old Xbox RPG, and while there were plenty of similarities between each type of building or area, delving into them didn’t get boring. There was always a terrifying demon, unique item or sad note grasped by a long-dead skeleton around every corner, and when I finally got my mitts on the Tribal and Bloodmoon expansions, the whole experience refreshed itself twice over.
Oh, and there was no equipment levelling – in my opinion, the bane of RPGs. Remember in Oblivion when you couldn’t find great equipment when you were a low-level character but forty hours in, loads of bandits were there wearing ridiculously expensive armour (despite, y’know, being bandits)? Yeah, none of that in Morrowind, pal. As long as you had the knackers, you could get the best kit at level one, if you knew where to look.
Storming through the game (or hopping, given that spamming the jump button was a slightly quicker means of getting around), I’d stop to complete quests every now and again, but following – or god forbid, returning to – a mission on the Xbox version was unequivocally painful. As console gamers, we’ve collectively become used to having a quest menu where it’s simple and easy to search through and pick up old quests in order to complete them, but in Morrowind you didn’t have this luxury.
Instead, you had the journal, a chronologically ordered account of everything that happened to you during your character’s travels. In hindsight, it was a cool idea as it gave the experience a touch more immersion – adventurers don’t go romping around the wilds with a filofax and ring binder in their inventory, after all.
However, it meant that finishing quests left half-finished was pretty much impossible unless you flicked through the on-screen pages, eyes squinting, hoping to find a note of the character you had to talk to or place you had to go, if you remembered either. What’s more, everything in Morrowind is composed of the same jarring string of letters, and even if you found what you wanted, you’d have to make a note, go on the map tab and hover over every icon to see where the place was. I can’t stress this enough: it was horror.
The expansions cleared up the issue a little – you could alphabetise the journal… yay… but it was a broken system. Not that it mattered of course, as I was too busy looting everyone and everything in sight to care.
Being a loot supremo wasn’t easy, though. Firstly, the combat was terrible if your skill in your chosen weapon class wasn’t high enough. Even though you had a fucking massive axe, if your skill was dogga, you’d fight epic battles listening to a ‘whoosh’ sound as your swings failed to land on your opponent. Collision detection was an emotion only felt between player models and the environment, so even if you aimed your axe at a huge enemy and swung, it wouldn’t hit. This, coincidentally, made levelling up in anything other than your chosen weapons a tedious task.
When you did work on your skills, the combat was a lot of fun. While the AI would often run at you swinging wildly, a lot of the time they’d play ball, darting back and forth trying to get a hit in as you did the same. There was a lot of pogoing with the jump button, and the slow-mo arrows were a little too easy to dodge, but it was charming; a charming, frenetic mudslinging contest.
There was also magic to mess people up with, but it was an expensive hobby if you didn’t have lots of magicka regeneration potions or a cheat, and even if you had the latter, spellcasting suffered from the same dice-rolling bullshit as the swordplay. I did crack it with one character, and it was a lot of fun, especially with the spellmaking mechanic that allowed you to make 50-metre-wide exploding fireballs or bolts of lightning that did 1,000 damage. Nevertheless, it wasn’t cheat lyf.
Playing the role of a cheating looter also came with the pitfall of getting stuck in the map. While successive TES titles did well to iron out these black holes, Morrowind had its fair share, which you’d often discover when spamming the jump button to assail a mountain or get up to a loot-heavy ledge. For this reason, saving often was extremely important, although boosting your acrobat skill, jiggling the left stick about and flicking the left trigger (yeah, they mapped jump to a trigger) could sometimes get you out of gluey crevices.
Traditional running was boring in Morrowind, which was partly why I always returned to my in-game avatar, Sam; a Wood Elf who started life as an archer-thief but ended up a level 50 flea, so maxed-out was his acrobat skill. Oh, the hours I’d spend lolloping around the in-game world, clearing hillocks and rivers with each hop, only ever stopping to slash up those who strayed into my field of view. The squeak of the trigger. The dull thud as my feet hit the ground. Bliss.
Sam had a house in Balmora. It wasn’t his house, per se, but the house of local citizen, Ralen Hlaalo, a recently-murdered city gent who was too tied up in a quest to take care of the place. Hlaalo’s housekeeper lived in a boarded up room upstairs and wanted to help solve the mystery of her dead employer, but alas, Sam’s journal wouldn’t let her, so he went about turning the open-plan living-dining space downstairs into a museum of everything unique and interesting in the game.
The tables were covered in piles of gold and weird books found in ancient ruins, on the plates and platters were demonic hearts and half-eaten legs, while stacked up and down the long row of shelving was a fabulous armoury of unique and ultra-rare weapons and armour, as well as an appropriate garnish of gemstones, soul gems and piles of cash. Morrowind? More like Morro-winning.
If that wasn’t enough, Hlaalo’s body was a quest item and thus had infinite storage capacity! You can bet I stuffed that poor bastard with as many food items as my boredom threshold would allow.
When I did decide to play the game the way it was supposed to be played, I naturally leaned towards the stranger, more interesting factions, such as House Telvanni and the Morag Tong.
Telvanni were one of the island of Vvardenfell’s Great Houses; a bunch of petty but ridiculously powerful wizards who grew their houses out of enormous mushrooms and eschewed staircases in favour of holes you had to levitate through.
Through their questlines you wandered the islands of the east of the map meeting ignorant wizard-lords who saw murder as a fine way of settling disputes and had no qualms about breaking all of the magical taboos in the game. While they were twats – after telling you to murder his servant, one wizard gave you a wafer-thin £10 reward – you did end up being able to have your own home; a experience that, as someone under the age of 40, I’m happy I’ve had.
The Morag Tong were even more dubious, basically being a state-sanctioned group of murderers who worked for the highest bidder and worshipped a god of plots and secrets through their celebration of all things murdery. If you’ve played Oblivion or Skyrim, they were a bit like the Dark Brotherhood, but not as insane, instead adhering to honour and tradition. Obviously their quests involved lots of ritualistic murder, which was fun.
These two groups were just part of the tumultuous backdrop of factionalism and antagony that pervaded Morrowind. Everyone hated everyone, until you came along and became the head of every single guild, saved the world from an evil demi-god and still had time to stuff dead bodies full of eggs.
- Hilarity down most corridors
- Loads of customisation
- A seemingly endless game world
- Interesting characters
- Great soundtrack
- Actual atmosphere
- Horrible tendril-beasts down most corridors
- Bad animations, textures and collision detection
- Annoying combat
- That journal…
An original story, lore and world made sure that Morrowind was one of the standout RPGs of the noughties, an utterly atmospheric title that ported well to the original Xbox – and in my opinion, the game to which all console RPGs should be measured against.