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A knight in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind

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20 years ago, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind changed everything

The freedom of Bethesda’s open-world RPG still has few rivals

Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

When The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind was released on May 1, 2002, my preteen life was little more than a series of impulses dribbling out of my underdeveloped brain like an embarrassing ooze. Pants that looked like the walls of a dungeon were my entire identity. All that distinguished one day from the next was whether or not my health teacher would draw a dick on the white board in health class. (He did it a lot.) I was apathetic and sheltered, adrift in a hell that looked a lot like the Garden State Plaza, until one day I awoke on a boat, as a prisoner born on a certain day, from uncertain parents.

I’ve always gravitated toward games with some semblance of freedom. Zipping through the clouds in Skies of Arcadia was mind-blowing, as was running around Shenmue’s Yokosuka and questioning weirdly hostile NPCs about the whereabouts of sailors. There were invisible walls and locked doors, but I could go mostly where I wanted, unconstrained by consequence and the judgment of others.

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.

A marketplace in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

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.

A mushroom-y landscape in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

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.

There was so much packed into that island. The geography varied from swamps to grasslands to the gray hell of Red Mountain, with vibrant mushroomy flora along the way. The skyboxes were often glorious, if they weren’t obscured by a roving band of Cliff Racers (footage of these creatures would not be out of place in A Clockwork Orange’s aversion therapy). And the water. Everyone’s heads exploded over Far Cry’s water, while Morrowind’s never got the recognition it deserved. It was shiny, ripply, and wet-looking — everything you want in a good water. Beneath the surface was a blue void that concealed treasure, sunken ships, and skeletons.

The architecture was as diverse as the geography. Each of the three Great Houses had a prevailing design aesthetic that reflected their unique sensibilities, as well as discrete senses of place. I was partial to the twisting towers of House Telvanni, carved out of giant mushrooms with vertical halls that required levitation to navigate. House Redoran’s structures looked like insect carapaces, while House Hlaalu featured the least fantastical style (although I do have a soft spot for it, since the Hlaalu-aligned city of Balmora was my character’s hometown). It is worth noting that most of the game’s cities were congruous with the rest of the map. The absence of a loading screen when entering a settlement meant you could stumble into one basically by accident.

An aerial view of a viaduct in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

Maybe Morrowind felt familiar and comforting because, just like real life, there was no shortage of places where I felt unwanted. Daedric shrines were as dangerous as they looked, composed of contorted heaps of sharp black metal and cage-like structures. Dwemer ruins were abandoned industrial halls where you could observe the remnants of a once-flourishing society. There, you might run into an Ascended Sleeper, a Lovecraftian nightmare of eyeballs and tentacles. Aside from these sprawling ruins, there were plenty of smugglers’ caves and tombs in which I could explore, plunder, and die.

Every play session would yield something new and exciting. Hop along the smaller land masses that dot the shoreline to meet a perpetually inebriated and extremely wealthy Mudcrab merchant. You might encounter a lone Nord, tricked by a conniving witch and left to wander the land naked and angry. These passing interactions and tangential adventures would hijack the attention of even the most singularly focused explorer. Elden Ring might represent the natural evolution of this idea, with the density and complexity of its world design standing in for Morrowind’s side quests and character interactions. These games are like dining in one of those conveyor belt sushi restaurants, with every passing whim so thoroughly indulged.

Where streamlined progression systems tend to reduce modern RPGs to action games, Morrowind was a role-playing game in every sense. Player ability was second to that of the player character. The success of an action was determined by probability, hence why you could swing your sword haplessly at a Slaughterfish and do no damage. It was the tabletop-inspired role-playing of it all that made it simultaneously so maddening and so rewarding. Skills would increase through use, so if you picked locks, your Security would increase. Due to the relationship between skills and governing attributes, player characters were much more specialized. They were unlikely to assume that nebulous jack-of-all-trades role where progression in all things becomes an inevitability.

A tavern in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

I felt a tremendous sense of ownership over my characters because they were a reflection of my decisions, rather than an arbitrary allocation of skill points. This system was not without its shortcomings, though. For one, it was easily exploitable. Only a player’s commitment to role-playing would keep them from hopping to their destination instead of walking in order to greatly increase their acrobatics skill. That being said, my Nerevarine was Easter Bunny-themed — so this type of behavior made perfect sense.

Morrowind was the perfect thing at the perfect time. It disemboweled my sad goth girl identity and divided my life into two halves: one defined by insecurity and apathy, and another touched by the (Daedric) Face of God. It awakened me to the possibilities of video games, not only in a technical respect, but insofar as how they affect me as a player. Games have come a long way in the decades since its release, but I still find myself holding everything against the impossible standard that Morrowind set. Despite some games coming close, I’m still in constant pursuit of one whose freedom can spark that same feeling of wonder that Morrowind gave me 20 years ago.

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