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

When The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind Released May 1, 2002, my pre-teen life was little more than a series of impulses dripping from my underdeveloped brain like embarrassing sticky substance. Trousers, resembling the walls of a dungeon, were my whole identity. The only thing that separated one day from the next was if my health teacher could draw a stick on the board in health class. (He did a lot.) I was rambling and cautious in a hell that looked a lot like Garden State Plaza until I woke up one day on a boat and was a convict born with uncertain parents.

I’ve always gravitated towards games that have some freedom. breaking the clouds inside Arcadia sky it was mind blowing how he was running SenmueYokosuka and Strangely interrogating hostile NPCs about the Marines’ whereabouts. There were invisible walls and locked doors, but for the most part, I could go anywhere I wanted, away from the consequences and judgments of others.

morrowind It wasn’t my first video game, but it was my first true love. When I was desperate for meaning and life without salt was the saltiest, this was a Flavored Goldfish. I’ve played it before but this was more like an alternative to reality. Long before open worlds were ubiquitous, it was too obvious to grasp. My small, mundane existence has been replaced by possibility, mystery, and fear in equal measure. This game fundamentally changed the standard by which subsequent open world RPGs would be judged. Everything has changed.

Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

I had no friends at school, but the people of Vvardenfell were not concerned about my lack of social standing. They tried to criticize my status as a mere outsider, either because I was walking around naked or because I kept them away from important work such as snake-like turning and looking away in a five-metre radius. The game’s voiceover was also quite limited, and dialogue was primarily provided through text boxes. This had the amusing benefit of letting me cast any tone I saw fit into an NPC’s rambling talk – often getting unnecessarily offended and killing many unsuspecting villagers in the process, withdrawing myself from future questlines.

It was one of many wonders morrowind: You can screw yourself up in ways that challenge your imagination. Actually, morrowind It offered some degree of game-breaking freedom. Some modern games offer branched decision trees under the veil of representation, but eventually lead them all to the same conclusion independently. But in morrowindThere were no such tricks. In fact, sometimes there was no error condition at all. After a month of killing the sugar addict and “cutting the oracle thread” the Game Over screen was gone. You could play for dozens of hours before you realize the effects of dropping an important item somewhere in the sewer. Bethesda’s creators didn’t think to protect us from ourselves. play morrowindI was Colonel Kurtz’s snail crawling on the edge of a razor.

However, breaking your best judgment doesn’t always lead to failure. In some cases, it led to new adventures. If one was feeling particularly brave, they could kill God-King Vivec and go down the rabbit hole of an entirely alternative main quest path. This information was not initially sent to the player by telegram. Instead, it was a reward only available to those who were arrogant enough to kill a god. The lack of clear direction was a key aspect of the study. morrowindingenious design that has only been competed in recent years by forest breath and Hand Ring. As in these games, new missions morrowind found organically – through conversation and action rather than running towards the nearest map icon.

A mushroom scene in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind

Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

Their discoveries on the island of Vvardenfell aroused curiosity, not waypoints. morrowind came before we were all inoculated in worship Life quality. Convenience can reduce frustration, yes, but it can also reduce a rich experience to something irrational. morrowind He kept his magic by stubbornly refusing to spoon-feed his players. Navigation was bolstered by the physical map, the often vague (and sometimes downright wrong) directions shared by quest givers, and the player’s own dubious instinct. Fast travel options were available, but limited to certain locations. And you were on your feet most of the time, so the island looked huge – despite the game’s terrible viewing distance.

There is so much to explore and discover that it was expected to stumble upon the unexpected. After talking to a tax collector about sweet rolls, you can venture outside the boundaries of Seyda Neen village and be greeted with a loud bang. He was a mage who fell to his death from the air. In his corpse was a diary describing the audacity that resulted in the corpse in front of you being broken. Along with a spell that empowered stuntmen to a dangerous degree, Tarhiel’s final moments evoked a keen sense of wonder that colored the entire journey ahead. I felt that as long as you are in the right place at the right time, anything can happen without any restrictions on missions and concrete tasks. The map was full of possibilities.

There was so much on that island. The geography ranged from swamps to grasslands and the gray hell of Red Mountain, with vibrant fungal flora along the way. Cabins were generally gorgeous (pictures of these creatures wouldn’t be out of place here) if they hadn’t been hidden by a roaming group of Cliff Racers. orange clockavoidance therapy). And water. Everyone’s head exploded scream from afarwater while morrowindin It never got the recognition it deserved. It looked shiny, wavy, and wet—everything you want in good water. Beneath the surface was a blue void hiding treasures, sunken ships, and skeletons.

Its architecture was as diverse as its geography. Each of the Three Great Houses had a dominant design aesthetic that reflected their understated sense of place as well as their unique sensibilities. I like Telvanni House’s winding towers, carved from giant mushrooms, with vertical corridors that require levitation to navigate. The Redoran House’s structures were similar to insect shells, whereas the Hlaalu House had a less fantastical style (although I have a soft spot for that since the Hlaalu-aligned Balmora city is my character’s hometown). It is worth noting that most of the cities in the game are compatible with the rest of the map. The absence of a loading screen when entering a settlement meant that you could stumble upon a settlement by accident.

Aerial view of an overpass in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind

Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

it’s possible morrowind It felt familiar and comforting because, just like in real life, there was no shortage of places where I felt unwanted. Daedric shrines were as dangerous as they sounded, consisting of twisted piles of sharp black metal and cage-like structures. Dwemer ruins were once abandoned industrial warehouses where you can observe the remnants of a thriving society. There, you can find the Ascended Sleeper (and the predominant nickname I gave myself two hours after eating a edible), a Lovecraftian nightmare of eyeballs and tentacles. In addition to these sprawling ruins, there were many caves and smugglers’ graves that I could explore, loot, and die.

Each game session would produce something new and exciting. Cross the smaller landmasses that dot the coast to find a constantly drunk and extremely wealthy Mud Crab trader. You can find a lone Norseman who is tricked by a conniving witch and left to wander the country naked and enraged. These fleeting interactions and tangential adventures can grab the attention of even the most focused explorer. hand ring may represent the natural evolution of this idea, with the density and complexity of the world design that represents it. morrowindside quests and character interactions. These games are like dinner at one of the conveyor belt sushi restaurants, every whim is completely satisfied.

Where simplified progression systems tend to reduce modern RPGs to action games, morrowind It was a role-playing game in every way. Player skill was second only to player character. The success of an action is determined by probability, which is why you shouldn’t swing your sword at a Slaughterfish and damage it. What made it so infuriating and rewarding at the same time was the role-playing game that was all about tabletop inspired. Skills will increase as you use them, so your security will increase if you unlock them. Due to the relationship between abilities and government attributes, the player characters were much more special. It was unlikely that they would take on that obscure mechanic role where progress was inevitable in everything.

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 distribution of skill points. But this system was not without its shortcomings. On the one hand, it was easily exploitable. Only a player’s dedication to role-play can prevent them from jumping to their targets instead of walking to greatly increase their stunt skills. However, my Nerevarine had the Easter Bunny theme – so such behavior made a lot of sense.

morrowind It was the perfect thing at the perfect time. The sad gothic girl destroyed my identity and divided my life into two halves: one defined by insecurity and apathy, the other touched by the Face of God (Daedric). It awakened me to the possibilities of video games, not just technically, but in the way they impacted me as a gamer. Games have come a long way in the decades since their release, but I still find myself standing all things up against the impossible standard. morrowind to define. Despite some upcoming games, I’m still looking for someone whose freedom can spark that same sense of wonder. morrowind He gave it to me 20 years ago.


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

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.

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.
Playing Morrowind, I was Colonel Kurtz’s snail crawling along the edge of a straight razorThat 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.

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.

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Morrowind: an oral history
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.

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 (and the nickname I give myself two hours after ingesting an indica-dominant edible). Aside from these sprawling ruins, there were plenty of smugglers’ caves and tombs in which I could explore, plunder, and die.
Elden Ring might represent the natural evolution of Morrowind’s side quests and character interactionsEvery 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.

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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