A few years ago, I decided I’d try diving into what is possibly the most celebrated RPG of the past 20 years: The Elder Scrolls II: Morrowind. The game got nothing but praise when it first launched, and fans have been singing its praises ever since. As someone who started with Skyrim, I was a little concerned that it would be difficult to get used to Morrowind, and it it was. Some differences I actually liked, while others made the whole experience feel pretty rough. I had every intention of playing all the way through, but I wound up only making it for a handful of hours before getting drawn away by other games. It’s been three years since then, and I think I’m ready to give it another try.
I’ve long been of the opinion that “dated gameplay” isn’t really a thing. Certainly there are design conventions that aren’t very popular anymore and some that have been completely abandoned, however I’ve long thought of these as simply different styles of game. They’re no better or worse than what we have now, they’re just a different (and often older) way of doing things. With Morrowind though, I can definitely see the logic behind the idea though.
There are many things about Morrowind that are inconvenient. There are no quest markers quest compasses. There’s no map-based fast travel, no neatly-organized quest log and no dedicated screens for the map or one’s inventory. If the game is left un-modded, combat is completely dependent on dice-rolls and doesn’t necessarily reflect what is happening on screen. There’s also a lot more reading and a lot less voice acting, making quests progress more slowly. I honestly find much of this to be annoying and am mostly glad that a lot of it isn’t in modern RPGs. The thing is though, I kind of like it in a strange way too.
I’ve only just started playing Morrowind again, but I’m already re-learning why the game is still so beloved despite all these older design features. In terms of world-building, atmosphere and story, Morrowind is king; there’s no question of that. The setting is so interesting, and the time period it inhabits in the TES universe is basically the tail-end of a legendary age. It’s basically the perfect context for compelling stories and characters.
Aside from that though, I’ve discovered something interesting: everything about Morrowind’s design forces me to pay attention. I have to actually pay attention to conversations if I want to learn what I need to know. I need to pay attention to who these characters are. I have to pay attention to where everything is. I have to pay attention to my character build! Unlike in Skyrim, where I could just kind skim through everything, I have to pay close attention in Morrowind. That, perhaps more than everything else, is what makes the game succeed as an RPG.
RPGs are about immersing oneself in the world or in the role of the main character. If the player doesn’t have to invest themselves in it, then it becomes a lot more difficult for that game to leave an impression. Don’t get me wrong, Skyrim definitely left an impression on me, and newer RPGs like Persona 5 Royal have too. It’s just that they’re a different kind of impression. With Skyrim, the impression is one of an amorphous, but grand adventure. For P5R, its bright colors, kickin’ music and endearing characters. For Morrowind though, I get the sense that I’ll remember it for the setting and the actual stories I get involved with. I’m finally getting back to it, so let’s see what happens!
Have you played Morrowind recently? What’s your impression of it? Got another game that’s hit you in a similar way?
Lede image from Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind expansion web page