Come back with me on a journey through the heavy mists of time to 2002. Girls Aloud dominated the album charts. The German anatomist, Gunther von Hagens, had just conducted the first public autopsy in 170 years. 28 Days Later was on at the cinema. And more importantly, Bethesda Game Studios had just released The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
For many people in their mid-20’s to mid 30’s. Morrowind would have been their entry into the Elder Scrolls universe. Their ‘gateway drug’ to the later highs of Oblivion, Skyrim and the long, long, long-awaited next instalment of the franchise. For me, in particular, it was my introduction to the ‘serious’ Western RPG, where they were actually challenging and ‘hardcore’.
With this in mind, and with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, one bright summers day (What better time to play a computer game) I dug out my old original X-box copy of Morrowind from 2002. Of course, this had all been triggered and enabled by the news that Microsoft had included Morrowind as part of their backward compatibility program for the X-box one.
For once the much-maligned global corporation, or at least its gaming division, deserves some credit. Unlike film, literature and music, it can be nearly impossible to play a game from ten or fifteen years ago, without owning the system hardware as well. Beyond twenty years it becomes nigh on impossible to even procure the games and the consoles to play them on if you don’t have them stored away somewhere. Microsoft has done a great job with the emulation of the original X-Box, right down to the neon green startup sequence and the pleasing intro sound, and have allowed people to play, or at least to experience games that would have been inaccessible to them otherwise.
Morrowind was one of my fondest gaming memories. Something that I could regale bored strangers with, like a bard of old, reminiscing about my past adventures. A game that once helped me strike up a friendship in a pub one evening. A game that has remained in my top ten for nearly half my life.
But It is also a game that I hadn’t played properly since 2005. Oh, there had been the occasional and brief ‘nostalgia tour’ where I would rush around the old locales of the game every few years (other people do this, right?) but nothing substantial since then.
Also, this wasn’t to be the highly modded PC version, with unlimited draw distance, updated textures and ‘volumetric god rays’. No, this would be exactly as I played it on the X-Box 16 years ago. Although, thankfully, the emulation software has drastically decreased the load times in the game, which were yawn-inducing on the original hardware. Playing on an HD screen rather than an old CRT TV has allowed for a slight increase in visual detail to be picked out. I think.
Anyway, back to Morrowind or more accurately ‘Vvardanfell’, the actual island that the game takes place on.
First, the opening menu. The theme tune. The beautiful melodic theme tune. One of the composer, Jeremy Soules, finest creations. And it’s a good job because you’ll be hearing it for hundreds of hours.
Upon rushing through the character creation screen (I go the usual barbarian/warrior archetype) you are thrown into the world, where the last piece of advice you are given is: ‘Good luck, You’re on your own’. And that’s it for you, intrepid adventurer. Off you go. There are no prompts, markers, waypoints or guidance. Morrowind doesn’t pander to such silly and juvenile hand-holding as a giant arrow leading you to your next destination. The journal doesn’t have an ‘active’ quest or indeed ‘secondary’ quest marker. Everything is listed chronologically or by topic, forcing you to manually flick through the pages of a virtual journal. Directions to landmarks and quests are provided to you as being somewhere ‘South-West’ or ‘North’ of another place. You’ll be consulting the map frequently.
The initial foray into the game can be utterly overwhelming at first. With no clear direction, where do you go? The combat system, which seems to be based on dice throws, belying its more hardcore roots and D&D inspired play has no sense of contact. You’ll comically jab and thrust at enemies until, by random chance, you’ll finally make contact with virtual flesh (Hint: Level up agility).
There are far more options available to the player than most modern RPG’s. Heavy, medium and light armour can be procured. There are skills for the spear, short blade, long blade, blunt weapon and axe. There are darts and throwing stars. Once you grind through a few levels, you should be well on your way to progressing and every time you level up your most used skills get a multiplier. A feature that Bethesda removed for later games. But the game is still a slog at the early stages. You will die. A lot at certain bottlenecks.
Those wishing to play as a mage are also at a disadvantage, however. Your magika bar doesn’t regenerate without resting or taking potions, which is either impossible or cumbersome during combat. Although, spell scrolls can be purchased to assist in a tricky situation.
Unlike modern games, where all options are open, Morrowind does not allow you to complete the quests for all guilds and factions. Choices actually matter. By siding with the Fighters Guild, you won’t be able to complete the Thieves Guild quest. There is even a quest line that can only be completed by a female character. You can even kill NPCs that are critical to the main plot. You’ll be given an on-screen warning to restore a previous save or ‘persist in the doomed world that you have created’, but it’s your doomed world to persist in if you wish.
The verdant forests of Oblivion’s Cyrodiil and the Alpine, mountainous beauty of Skyrim were both in the future in 2002 and have been replaced with the brown, quagmire of Morrowind. There are visual differences across the island, but it’s mostly a green, black and brown colour palate (The add-on pack, Bloodmoon, adds snow. So you have white as well) that you’ll be wandering through. There are still moments of genuine beauty, particularly during dawn or dusk where you can pretend that the land is wrapped in a low-lying mist rather than the game having a limited draw distance because of technical limitations. The ‘skybox’ and some of the nighttime views have also aged quite well considering. The interiors of most locations have a certain charming, spartan simplicity. Castles have the usual accoutrements that you would associate with castles: banners, bookshelves, weapons racks, platters, wall hangings, armour. NPC hovels have NPC hovel stuff in them: fire pit, sacks, plates, bed, chair, a perturbed serf. In fact, the interiors are probably more realistic than the often overstuffed dwellings of later games in the franchise.
However, graphics aren’t why I returned here. We’re all just spoiled gamers now and have been ruined with a level of graphical fidelity and detail that would have been unimaginable when I was young (I remember thinking the heretical statement that the graphics for 1998’s Tomb Raider 3 ‘couldn’t get any better’ when I was fourteen).
Rather than graphics, Morrowind has a rich atmosphere stuffed with cultural diversity, history and a sense of place. An often alien world, unlike many other RPGs since; the foreign strangeness of the land is palpable. Wizards live in giant mushrooms that they have magically nurtured and have carved homes from. Middle Eastern, Japanese, and nomadic cultures are also prominent in the visuals, ranging from the architecture to the armour design. When you encounter the more generic and familiar, medieval European buildings with their bay windows and jettying floors, they are the ones that look jarring and foreign against such an alien backdrop.
Such otherworldliness extends to the creature design. Rather than relying on the classical mythology of Oblivion and the obviously Nordic influenced creatures of Skyrim, Morrowind preceded both with a bolder direction. Many of the creatures have either an insectiod or a reptilian look to them, adding to the sense of the unknown.
The main plot involves Gods, lost races, empires, religious persecution and indigenous people. Whats not to like about that? Secondary quests can often descend into stereotypical fetch quests but can be entertaining and they provide you with a chance to gain some XP and loot.
However, despite my glowing words, I have come to the conclusion that you really had to be there at the time with Morrowind. Bethesda has taken a lot of flack for the quality and variety of the voice acting in the later Elder Scrolls games, but having a quest delivered audibly is far better at creating a believable world than a piece of text is. Through my more modern eyes, NPCs in Morrowind cease to be ‘real’, and at some point, they morph into nearly static clockwork machines that just provide a stat boost by providing training or are just a bookmark to the next quest.
I replayed the game (and continue to play) with rose tinted specs on. How else could I play it, really? I came from the 16bit and ‘PlayStation’ generation and to move from that to a game with a day-night cycle, massive scope and total player choice was a quantum leap. If I was eighteen now and if someone handed me a copy of Morrowind, I doubt I would persevere with it. It has aged, in some cases terribly. Games consoles leap forward every five-to-eight years and previous games get left behind and we’re now three console generations on from the release of Morrowind, in the era of ‘games as a service’ and VR.
Would I still recommend it? Yes. Is it a clunky, flawed masterpiece? Yes. Does it stand up in the day of Skyrim and the Witcher three? No. But we can all be nostalgic sometimes.