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Morrowind, Bethesda, 2002

Note: The official title of this game is The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The Elder Scrolls series has consisted of I: Arena, II: Daggerfall, and a fighting game called Battlespire, all over the course of about 10 years.

Morrowind is a fantasy world simulation that suffers only in comparison to its goal: to create a living, breathing replication of a fantastical world, complete with cultures, peoples, monsters, weapons, normal denizens going about their lives, intriguing quests, elements of history, real-time weather, varying geography, night and day cycles, and many other elements that the game possesses in smaller or larger measure. The strengths of the game all proceed from this ambition: you really feel like you are there, you can do whatever you feel like to create your own character, and the consequences of your actions persist across time. The weaknesses are also present in this approach: verisimilitude breaks down in certain cases (shops are open 24/7 for example, for reasons of player convenience), an enormous amount of content is required, and some other issues. The world creation is somewhat derivative; any fan of fantasy will recognize certain influences on whatís going on. But the Elder Scrolls mythology is fairly complex, and allows for massive elaboration. Itís easy to get caught up in the game, and harder to stop playing. Players who prefer linear games would do well to avoid this game completely, as there is very little handholding. The choices are yours!

You arrive on Morrowind as a prisoner from the Empire. You donít know why you have been released and you donít know why youíve been brought to this island continent. Character creation is handled elegantly: the customs officer asks you some questions about yourself, and there at least 3 ways of coming up with complete answers to those questions. The office also helps you orient yourself to your new surroundings, with a small goal of following up on a contact, someone who might be able to help explain why you are here. This contact leads to the main plot of the game, which has to do with some historical and religious problems on Morrowind. More on that later. But the genius of Bethesdaís work here is the way that the main storyline is a large part of gameís content, but not necessarily the point. You can get quite a lot of enjoyment out of the game, without ever making that first contact.

You can join any one of the guilds, which consist of the fighterís guild, the thievesí guild, and the magesí guild. But be careful to figure out which guild likes which, because it might not be possible to advance far in all three. The guilds provide quests, as well as a safe place to rest, cheap equipment, and a way to explore the different areas. There are also three Houses, roughly corresponding to the guilds, but the Houses are indigenous to Morrowind, while the guilds have been imported to Morrowind by imperial decree. More political labyrinths to navigate! The people of each area in Morrowind also might be of different races or religions, build their cities with stunningly different architecture, and have differing tolerance for you depending on your character. The main story consists of some ancient mythological problems on Morrowind that have somehow percolated into the native vs. imperial difficulties. You would be well advised to build up your character before taking on some of the main story quests.

Like many fantasy role playing games, Morrowind makes you worry about stats. You level up in certain attributes depending on how much you use them. My favourite character was a heavier fighter, with my main weapon being a long sword. Once I had fought enough battles with the long sword, my skill level was at 100, meaning that I was the best! In any case, leveling up your other stats like strength depends on how much you use your skills, so itís a system that can be a bit too intricate. There are also lots of different items and bits of armour to find in the world of Morrowind -- which you can see on your character in 1st or 3rd person views! Magic use works much like weapons; you have to equip the item or power you want to use, and then you just press the mouse button. You can also buy or create potions or spells to use, as well as hire an enchanter or build up enchanting skills to add magical abilities like fireballs or energy shields to swords or armour.

Bethesda has made a gorgeous world for Morrowind. Lightning strikes with deep booming thunder, rain falling across the sky. Mountains stretch too high to climb, and cities, although mostly too small, are all unique and interesting to visit. Real time shadows can be turned on if your computer is fast enough, as well as tons of other eye candy. But Morrowind is not an empty game, all flash and no substance. Bethesda put in a great deal of work and it all pays off.

Bethesda also designed the game from the ground up to be modifiable. Most of the important attributes in the game can be fiddled with and saved as a separate module. I was impatient with the running speed in the game, so I made a super-fast-running module for those inter-city jaunts. Thousands of plug-ins are available online, fan-made as well as official ones from Bethesda, changing stats or adding content. Bethesda has also released an official addition to the game, called Tribunal, with more content for higher level characters, and upcoming one called Bloodmoon, with yet more content.

Overall, Morrowind is highly recommended for anyone interested in visiting a fully-simulated fantasy world. The drawbacks of the game are themselves interesting in that they are only limited to what current computing canít support. I canít wait to find out what Bethesda will be doing in another 10 years from now.


Last modified: May 6, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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