NeoGAFs Kent Brockman
The freedom of Bethesda’s open-world RPG still has few rivals
Morrowind was hardly my first video game, but it was my first true love. When I was desperate for meaning, and life was at its most unsalted saltine, this was a Flavor Blasted Goldfish. I played games before, but this was more like an alternative to reality. It was open beyond comprehension long before the ubiquity of open worlds. My small, mundane existence was supplanted by possibility, mystery, and horror in equal measure. This game fundamentally altered the standard by which subsequent open-world RPGs would be judged. It changed everything.
I didn’t have friends in school, but the denizens of Vvardenfell weren’t concerned with my lack of social standing. They sought only to criticize my outlander status, or for running around in the nude, or for keeping them from the important work of meandering around a 5-foot radius and staring blankly into the distance. The game’s voice acting was pretty limited as well, with dialogue delivered mainly via text boxes. This came with the fun benefit of allowing me to assign any tone I saw fit to an NPC’s rambling — I often took undue offense and murdered many innocent townspeople, screwing myself out of future quest lines in the process.
That was one of the many wonders of Morrowind: You could fuck yourself in ways that defied imagination. In fact, Morrowind offered a game-breaking degree of freedom. Some modern games offer branching decision trees under the veil of agency, but end up funneling everyone toward the same conclusion regardless. But in Morrowind, there were no such gimmicks. In fact, there was sometimes no fail state at all. There wasn’t a Game Over screen after you killed a shady moon-sugar addict and “severed the thread of prophecy.” You could play for tens of hours before realizing the implications of dropping a key item somewhere in a sewer. The creators at Bethesda did not think to protect us from ourselves. Playing Morrowind, I was Colonel Kurtz’s snail crawling along the edge of a straight razor.
Subverting your better judgment didn’t always lead to failure, though. In some cases it led to further adventures. If one was feeling particularly ballsy, they could kill the God-King Vivec and tumble headfirst down a rabbit hole of an entirely alternate main-quest path. This information was not telegraphed to the player at the outset. Instead, it was a reward that only those with hubris enough to kill a god would be privy to. The absence of explicit direction was a fundamental aspect of Morrowind’s genius design that has only been rivaled in recent years by Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring. As in those games, new quests in Morrowind were found organically — through conversation and action rather than running toward the nearest map icon.
Curiosity, not waypoints, fueled exploration on the island of Vvardenfell. Morrowind came before we were all indoctrinated into the cult of Quality of Life. Convenience can temper frustration, yes, but it can also reduce an otherwise rich experience into something mindless. Morrowind preserved the magic by stubbornly refusing to spoon-feed its players. Navigation was aided by the physical map, the often ambiguous (and sometimes straight-up incorrect) directions shared by quest givers, and the player’s own questionable instinct. Fast-travel options were available but limited to specific locations. And you were on your feet most of the time, so the island felt huge — despite the game’s god-awful draw distance.
With so much to explore and discover, stumbling into the unexpected came to be expected. After chatting with a tax collector about sweet roll-related issues, you could proceed outside the village bounds of Seyda Neen and be greeted with a loud shriek. It was a wizard falling from the air to his death. On his corpse was a journal, outlining the hubris which resulted in the broken corpse before you. Along with a spell that fortified acrobatics to a dangerous degree, Tarhiel’s final moments lent a pervasive sense of awe that colored the entire journey moving forward. It seemed like anything could happen, untethered from concrete quests and assignments, as long as you were in the right place at the right time. The map was brimming with possibility.
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