Morrowinding Down

So, I beat the main quest for Morrowind and its two expansions. I loved it when it let me, but there were still setbacks and broken quest fragments lying everywhere. Thankfully, the main quests, though still frustrating in places, became relatively straightforward toward the end, reducing the chance for irritation. 
 
One thing I've noticed more and more is that Morrowind is exceedingly bad at giving directions. I and others like ArbitraryWater have talked about this before, where they give you a long list of turn-right-at-the-burnt-logs, and they all sound reasonable enough when you read them, but then you reach a crossroads that splits northwest/southwest and you're supposed to go west. If you go as the crow (or cliff racer, I guess) flies, you may find what you're looking for, or you may not. It has become clear to me that there were actually a lot of different writers working on the different quests, and even within their own work there are inconsistencies in the way quests are handled, but you get the feeling that the quest writers had a better view of the landscape than the player does, and that some of them, testers or the writers themselves, never bothered to follow the directions given and see how quickly they could find the place when the map hadn't been uncovered, and there was a bit of a foggy gloom cutting down the already low visibility, plodding along at 40 Speed, getting pecked by cliff racers, and, oh why not, escorting a hapless NPC that you have to lead all the way back to Ebonheart from a distant foyada.
 
You already know a good deal of the problems if you've played the game, but man did I have my share. The game's crashes became more frequent the further I got, but those crashes sort of accelerated a bit toward the end. Made me a bit worried that the XBox itself might be dying, but our games of Gladius have been fine, and I started up a new game with an Orc, and the game runs and saves smoothly, suggesting it's just a huge buildup of errors.
 
I really enjoyed the main quest in Morrowind, though. I wouldn't have gone through all this if I didn't. And Tribunal had a nice moment of ugliness toward the end that reminded me why I still put so much time into ES games despite all the pain I go through. Bloodmoon had some well-written moments too, but the tone was different enough that I felt like it was a vacation spot. Going there for a few hours would usually freshen up my perception of the strangeness of the main island. Werewolves seem to have gotten a bit more attention than vampires did, although it still boils down to what seems to be a fun minigame rather than a way to play the game long-term and get much out of it. I like those things for novelty's sake, but I don't mind if they're not there for sequels since it seems like this sort of stuff was a lot easier to implement in Daggerfall.
 
Many of the expansions had features that were mutually exclusive. Bloodmoon often featured choices that were largely absent in the other two expansions, with some minor but permanent changes to the landscape depending on what you decided. Morrowind had pack animals, persistent hirelings, and plenty of high-class loot. They felt in turn like they were testing the water, trying things out for the Elder Scrolls formula.
 
I think that's where some of the cynicism toward Elder Scrolls comes from. We often get a huge selection of things, a bewilderingly large world to play around in, so when we set out it feels new again. Yet the further one plays one can almost trace how things were corrected over time to get rid of things that didn't work, which sometimes created new problems. Daggerfall made dungeons 3D, and made them very hard to navigate. Morrowind went full 3D, reducing the amount of times you fall into the abyss, but not eliminating them. Oblivion paid closer attention to quest structure to help make them less likely to break, yet social interaction got a bit too close to uncanny valley for some, while others noted that making quests and leveling safe sort of defeated the magic of breaking the game's sequence, something open world games sometimes allow.
 
I'm tempted to review Morrowind, Bloodmoon, and Tribunal, despite them being old, because I have managed to actually beat the main quest lines. I think it would benefit folks like me, since up until now I was the kind of person who would get lost in the world and then give up, rather than try to follow the trail of breadcrumbs. Finishing these reminded me that Bethesda actually puts enough care into their main quests that they should at least be attempted. Even back in Arena, the real strong dungeon variation came from the main quest dungeons, which were designed and not procedurally generated.  I think procedural generation will eventually reach a point where we'll have some stunning, organic places to explore. You see hints of that in popular games now, but I imagine it will become even more expansive and fascinating down the road, if we let computers compute a bit more.
 
One day, assuming civilization doesn't collapse, I imagine I'll be playing a game that lets me explore, say, a Von Neumann Probe like the one painted by Don Lawrence as part of my background graphic on my page.
 
The promise of the unexplored is why so many of us still play Elder Scrolls games even when they burn us.
 
Since then, other than revisiting my Gladius game from a long time ago, I've been pondering the possibilities of Inform 7 a little more in-depth than usual. I'll let you know if anything comes from that; otherwise, you know, there'll be complete silence until I have something I want to talk about.

16 Comments
17 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

So, I beat the main quest for Morrowind and its two expansions. I loved it when it let me, but there were still setbacks and broken quest fragments lying everywhere. Thankfully, the main quests, though still frustrating in places, became relatively straightforward toward the end, reducing the chance for irritation. 
 
One thing I've noticed more and more is that Morrowind is exceedingly bad at giving directions. I and others like ArbitraryWater have talked about this before, where they give you a long list of turn-right-at-the-burnt-logs, and they all sound reasonable enough when you read them, but then you reach a crossroads that splits northwest/southwest and you're supposed to go west. If you go as the crow (or cliff racer, I guess) flies, you may find what you're looking for, or you may not. It has become clear to me that there were actually a lot of different writers working on the different quests, and even within their own work there are inconsistencies in the way quests are handled, but you get the feeling that the quest writers had a better view of the landscape than the player does, and that some of them, testers or the writers themselves, never bothered to follow the directions given and see how quickly they could find the place when the map hadn't been uncovered, and there was a bit of a foggy gloom cutting down the already low visibility, plodding along at 40 Speed, getting pecked by cliff racers, and, oh why not, escorting a hapless NPC that you have to lead all the way back to Ebonheart from a distant foyada.
 
You already know a good deal of the problems if you've played the game, but man did I have my share. The game's crashes became more frequent the further I got, but those crashes sort of accelerated a bit toward the end. Made me a bit worried that the XBox itself might be dying, but our games of Gladius have been fine, and I started up a new game with an Orc, and the game runs and saves smoothly, suggesting it's just a huge buildup of errors.
 
I really enjoyed the main quest in Morrowind, though. I wouldn't have gone through all this if I didn't. And Tribunal had a nice moment of ugliness toward the end that reminded me why I still put so much time into ES games despite all the pain I go through. Bloodmoon had some well-written moments too, but the tone was different enough that I felt like it was a vacation spot. Going there for a few hours would usually freshen up my perception of the strangeness of the main island. Werewolves seem to have gotten a bit more attention than vampires did, although it still boils down to what seems to be a fun minigame rather than a way to play the game long-term and get much out of it. I like those things for novelty's sake, but I don't mind if they're not there for sequels since it seems like this sort of stuff was a lot easier to implement in Daggerfall.
 
Many of the expansions had features that were mutually exclusive. Bloodmoon often featured choices that were largely absent in the other two expansions, with some minor but permanent changes to the landscape depending on what you decided. Morrowind had pack animals, persistent hirelings, and plenty of high-class loot. They felt in turn like they were testing the water, trying things out for the Elder Scrolls formula.
 
I think that's where some of the cynicism toward Elder Scrolls comes from. We often get a huge selection of things, a bewilderingly large world to play around in, so when we set out it feels new again. Yet the further one plays one can almost trace how things were corrected over time to get rid of things that didn't work, which sometimes created new problems. Daggerfall made dungeons 3D, and made them very hard to navigate. Morrowind went full 3D, reducing the amount of times you fall into the abyss, but not eliminating them. Oblivion paid closer attention to quest structure to help make them less likely to break, yet social interaction got a bit too close to uncanny valley for some, while others noted that making quests and leveling safe sort of defeated the magic of breaking the game's sequence, something open world games sometimes allow.
 
I'm tempted to review Morrowind, Bloodmoon, and Tribunal, despite them being old, because I have managed to actually beat the main quest lines. I think it would benefit folks like me, since up until now I was the kind of person who would get lost in the world and then give up, rather than try to follow the trail of breadcrumbs. Finishing these reminded me that Bethesda actually puts enough care into their main quests that they should at least be attempted. Even back in Arena, the real strong dungeon variation came from the main quest dungeons, which were designed and not procedurally generated.  I think procedural generation will eventually reach a point where we'll have some stunning, organic places to explore. You see hints of that in popular games now, but I imagine it will become even more expansive and fascinating down the road, if we let computers compute a bit more.
 
One day, assuming civilization doesn't collapse, I imagine I'll be playing a game that lets me explore, say, a Von Neumann Probe like the one painted by Don Lawrence as part of my background graphic on my page.
 
The promise of the unexplored is why so many of us still play Elder Scrolls games even when they burn us.
 
Since then, other than revisiting my Gladius game from a long time ago, I've been pondering the possibilities of Inform 7 a little more in-depth than usual. I'll let you know if anything comes from that; otherwise, you know, there'll be complete silence until I have something I want to talk about.

Posted by BirdkeeperDan

I have played Morrowind for over 1000 hours and Oblivion for about 650 hours. I can say I had a better time with Morrowind. And some of the reasons why are things you complain about.  I replayed Morrowind about 4 months ago almost maxed out the character too, and still feel this way about it. 
 
You say that the quests have poor directions and that it's really easy to get lost. That might be true for some people. I found if I paid close attention to quest details and was dilligent I rarely had problems. The system they put in Oblivion to 'improve' this turned most of the hours you spend with the game into follow the quest marker. In Oblivion you barely had to be cognizant  of what you were doing to complete it, whereas in Morrowind you are rewarded for knowing your way around and paying attention to the details of the quests.  
 
But things will continue to be "streamlined" to the end that there is no thought required. The only way to make a game where no one has any problems is to remove all thought and dexterity required. I liked Morrowinds ballance alot more than Oblivions, That said I still love all entries in TES and am hopeful for Skyrim.        
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@BirdkeeperDan:  Last game I played I was told to leave the town and find "the" bridge that crossed the river Odai; the cave I was looking for was just before the bridge. So I go straight to the Odai River and find a bridge almost immediately, but no cave except for an egg mine. It turns out there were at least two bridges, and the one a bit farther south was the bridge they meant.  In this case, following the road would have been better than going in a straight line, yet in other quests the cardinal directions sometimes break down, or become hard to fulfill because the mountains are so steep that road directions seem more sensible.
 
I don't mean that the process of direction-giving itself is bad, I like that, but the specific directions they give in many quests suggest that they never bothered to see if the directions were sensible.  Sometimes they mean follow the road, sometimes they mean go in a straight line, sometimes they mean in that general direction.  With a fixed draw distance and plenty of distractions, this can be pretty frustrating, to the point where uncovering little worm-width sections of map is all you can do until you find the spindly NPC you're looking for. If the roads were more clearly defined, if the directions were detailed in a way that minimized alternate interpretations, that would be enough.
 
Another nice thing that they actually got rid of was the system they used in Daggerfall and Arena, where people you met would actually tell you the general cardinal direction of the thing you were looking for, if they knew where it was. "Oh, that's to the northeast" would help you correct your course.
 
Oblivion's solution is from the GPS era and entirely inappropriate as far as I'm concerned. It removes all the guesswork out of it and the luck of finding something along the way, making it more like you're LARPing while talking on your cell phone than actually trying to simulate a fantasy setting to any degree. Combine that with fast travel and you might as well be teleporting.
 
In Arena and Daggerfall, marking something on your map was bascially required, for the former it was a point-to-point system with no free-roaming that would get you anywhere, while Daggerfall was so blindlingly massive that it was impractical to wander. Each of these games tackled navigation differently. 
 
I don't know if Skyrim will follow that slippery-slope argument you're making, but Oblivion's success suggests it might. I don't worry so much about the things I can ignore, but if it becomes too easy to navigate it will cease to be interesting. In a way I feel like we're coming full circle back to Arena, in a weird way.
Posted by Getz

"One thing I've noticed more and more is that Morrowind is exceedingly bad at giving directions."     
 
Ah, the infamous "if you hit the abandoned fort you've gone to far" direction-giving. I remember when Oblivion was being talked about leading up to the release, Todd Howard mentioned adding in a compass with quest markers and I just pissed myself with joy. All over my keyboard. A game I had sunk hundreds of hours in to and enjoyed, which is an incredible investment considering the games NUMEROUS flaws, bugs, jankiness, huge learning curve, etc. 
 
So many good memories...

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Getz:  I don't think it's too much to ask for some sort of middle ground. The "too far" qualifiers were a bit painful, yeah, but I was grateful for them after a while. It wasn't so much a function of how simple or complex the directions were, it was more whether or not they actually hunkered down and looked at the world from the 1st person perspective to see if it all made sense. 
 
It's another in a list of things that make me think that the quest part of these games and the exploring part are diametric opposites. Maybe I'm a better wanderer than quester, though.
Posted by Bogitt

Yeah i remember one quest in the main story line when you have to find a white Guar at a hand shaped rock or something, took me hours to find that stupid place! But still it was kind of fun in the sense that i had to use the map and actually look at the topography and such instead of just blindly following a pointer, so i guess i prefer Morrowinds approach as its more interesting.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Bogitt:  Yeah, that's where I'm coming from. And the white guar quest wasn't nearly as bad as others. The thing that the white guar wound up doing, though, at least on this xbox version, was stopping in its tracks if you loaded the game while it was moving. I don't know if it started again because I already knew where it was going having played before, but finding the thing wasn't easy either.  Still, at least getting directions like that makes it feel like a lived-in, organic place and not a bunch of pushpins on a map.
Posted by Getz
@ahoodedfigure: Yeah, it definitely wasn't a complexity issue with the directions. Me, I'm very much the opposite to you. I need structure and a critical path to hop back on when I'm done goofin' around. Fable's breadcrumb mechanic was a brilliant solution to this, though Fable failed to have nearly enough side content to warrant needing such a thing. Not suggesting TES requisition this mechanic anyway, the quest markers do just fine. 
 
I always thought of Morrowind as more a free-form, DIY adventure compared to Oblivion's concessions to players like me, who want some more focus thrown in there.
Posted by Bollard

If you do ever feel like reviewing Morrowind and expansions I'd love to read it! And I'm still yet to sink any serious time into Morrowind but I'm sure I'll get there soon.

Online
Posted by ArbitraryWater

I've made my opinion on Morrowind abundantly clear, so instead I will merely congratulate you on your accomplishment. It's something I'm not capable of, and I'm totally cool with that at this point. I might as well spend time playing games I actually enjoy (or have had the misfortune of starting a blog series about but am not especially hot on, yet it's not terrible so I might as well keep playing) than a game I simply don't "get". (although, it's the games that I don't get that I spend the most time talking about. I've probably mentioned Arcanum and Alpha Protocol far more than those games have any right to be)
 
As for the open world thing, I've realized that what I like is the openness of the quests, rather than the openness of the world itself. I couldn't give a damn about walking everywhere in a mostly empty world, but rather the idea that there's a bunch of content to do all at my fingertips that appeals, and that's partially why I have a weird favoritism for Daggerfall despite the critical flaw of all that content being procedurally generated and therefore occasionally unplayable. I'm also one who rolls his eyes every time someone talks about "immersion" so take that as you will.

Edited by BirdkeeperDan

The example you gave doesn't sound that bad but they never do. Sometimes you will make the wrong choice when dealing with uncertainty and often that lead to a lot of wasted time.  These type of problems are going to be inherent to having the writen direction like in Morrowind. I mean it's the same deal on in the real world. I'm sure the team would have liked to have done better with directions for some quests. But the size of a TES game and monetary constraints mean we have to make certain concessions. The game of this size of a TES game the gameworld will never be described as polished and there will always at least be some issues that one would question why that wasn't identified with gametesting. 

But I and seemingly you would rather deal with these problems than be bored with the Oblivion system. The thing that makes Morrowind so grand to me is that there is that critical mass of quests that all the other quest NPCs around who you aren't dealing with currently make the gameworld feel like a real place, busy and full of life. They seem to be slowly reducing size and improving quality, Morrowind was a step in that direction, Oblivion at least in terms of # of quests, Fallout 3 was a huge step down in terms of size but hopefully that doesn't set precedent. I hope Skyrim is a step back in the right direction.  With all the time the spent making interchangable dungeons in Oblivion and the increase in team size they could easily dwarf Morrowind in terms of size and quests I just hope they allocate  resouces so it turns out that way. 
 
PS: I feel bad saying the dungeons in Oblivion are interchangable as they were all made by level designers. I really wish their time had been allocated more effectively.    
Posted by RelentlessKnight

I remember how easy you could beat Morrowind without fighting the last boss

Posted by DrMadHatten

How do you feel about the movement from text to speech in general? I feel like we can never go back, but for some reason I really enjoyed reading and filling in dialogue with my own imagination rather than having it spoon fed to me in Oblivion by single digit voice actors. I think it was a step everyone was taking, so it's not their fault at all, but I kind of missed the availability for so much content because of how detailed those texts were. So much more of the universe was explained through books and text dialogue, I think I understood more of the Naravarine (spelling!) main quest and the three house squabble. Really enjoyed Morrowind though.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@ArbitraryWater:  Immersion is of course subjective, but it's something I still strive for, even though I don't quite know what does it well unless I see it. I'm the sort of person who will put the abrupt music change when you get attacked thing near the top of the list, rather than having multiple ways to finish each quest. I DO like multiple paths to the finish (which is why I loved Thief and Thief 2, and think the new Deus Ex looks especially promising), but I also like the feeling that the world has a pulse, rather than being a big pile of busywork for me to complete. I'm not sure how Arcanum stacks up as far as that for you, but to me it felt like empty plus busywork, with every town blatantly having quest givers to the point where it broke for me. I think that was the precise moment I gave up, when someone talked to me in a familiar manner as though the game designers felt obligated to put quests in there just because they're expected, rather than letting me run into things naturally. 
 
I think the very term quest is prejudicial, though, since it suggests a particular phenomenon that doesn't even match up with what the word originally meant, I don't think.  The multiple paths thing helps open it up, "find the grail at all costs," but often when you get a lot of quests, you wind up having them be very tedious. I don't mind escort missions, I don't mind random encounters, but fetch quests irritate me quite a bit. Morrowind certainly has a lot of those, but there are some that are actually quite cool. Like the Fighter's Guild can resolve in at least three ways the deeper you get: you can slaughter many of the corrupt heads of the current regime and rule the local guild that way, you can bribe them into joining your side, or you can join with that corrupt regime yourself and become an enforcer.  It's not so much the goal, then, that's constant with multiple paths that lead to pretty much the same conclusion, but wildly different conclusions that started on the same path.
 
Still, if the world has a pulse, it's nice that the things in the world have consequence.  Pretty sights are OK, but unless it has meaning somehow, thematic or otherwise in the gameworld, it may be immersive, but as a player you can sorta see through it after a while. It just becomes a pile of sophisticated polygons unless you can actually interact with it.
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Chavtheworld:  Thanks. So far my attempts to come up with a general thrust in my head have meant at least three different openings. For a game people have either played or will never play I'll have to wait for the desire to well up in me before I attack it. Since I'm playing an alt game right now, it might become clearer what I want to write about to encapsulate it down the road. It's especially verging on irrelevant since it's the XBox version, and most will likely know it through the PC version if they try to play it now.
 
@RelentlessKnight: I knew there was some quick-run thing that was ridiculously short, but I never watched it all the way through because I wanted to see if I could handle the thing without help :) At that point I was a bit bewildered by the game, and felt that even if I wanted to beat the thing I had no way of figuring out on my own without the main quest telling me what to do. But after playing more thoroughly, I didn't need the main quest to know how to do it, even if I still needed it to get the proper equipment to beat it the only way I knew how.
 
@BirdkeeperDan:  I think it could have been better but I guess it boils down to our opinions on the usefulness of those sorts of verbal directions.
 
You're right that I would rather deal with these problems than teleport everywhere, because I feel like that's just bypassing the issue entirely rather than being a solution. I LIKED the mastery behind Morrowind, where you get to know the fast travel routes and the local areas well enough and actually get better at finding places over time. While I didn't like the frustration and the lack of wider understanding of the world on the part of the quest writers, I felt that it made the world feel less like a series of nodes, and it actually forced me to pay attention to my surroundings. I think the quests are good for that, to give you a tour of the world if you're not in the mood to explore independently.
 
There is that illusion of activity in the gameworld, but I think some things could have been done to improve that sense of business. They definitely seem to be going in that direction with Oblivion and Skyrim, making characters have things to do when they're not talking to you. At times, as much as I like how people seemed to have their own lives, it was a bit of a strain on my imagination when they were all standing around and talking to me even though I was just passing by. With Oblivion you got the conversations between NPCs, which you could overhear and get quest ideas (really cool idea, but I don't know how well that worked out in practice for everyone), you get people reading (obsessively) through tomes, that sort of thing. At times they were a bit too active and flashy, and once in a while they went a bit nuts for seemingly no reason, but there was some sort of life going on there that didn't require too much from the player. Something in between those two extremes might be even better.
 
My spidey-sense tells me that Skyrim won't change Oblivion's travel system, from what I've heard from the previews. Naturally, taking a stroll rather than fast-travelling will still be an option, but to me the blend that was in Morrowind seems so much better. It's nice to get the wide distances out of the way by silt strider, boat, or magic, then focus on a smaller area as you search for something. If the land was more visible and the directions were better, you probably wouldn't have heard me complain at all.
 
As far as size, Skyrim may be just as big or perhaps even smaller, but the high mountains will act as natural borders, which will extend traveling time and exploration a bit, and I think it might feel a bit more like Morrowind in that regard, where some mountains actually directed where the player would go.
 the increase in team size they could easily dwarf Morrowind in terms of size and quests I just hope they allocate  resouces so it turns out that way. 
 
"PS: I feel bad saying the dungeons in Oblivion are interchangable as they were all made by level designers. I really wish their time had been allocated more effectively."

Yet I sort of know what you mean, even if it does sound harsh. A lot of the dungeons I saw at first felt kind of neat, but after a while it did feel a bit like a very square, sweaty marshmallow construction set they were working with. As modular as Morrowind feels, you got enough variety and enough surprises that the daedric-dwarven-cave-stronghold thing managed to be just fresh enough for me from place to place to not discourage taking a peek, not to mention stumbling across something plot-related and huge.
 
@DrMadHatten: I'm pretty much on the side of Whatever Works, so that if a game wants to do the full voice actor thing they can, but not all games are served well by that, I think. More cinematic games certainly are; I think the use of dedicated voice actors in Mass Effect add gravity to the main character's role, for example. I don't think it's necessary, I don't think we can't go back because as far as I'm concerned there's only expansion in the game world in all directions, if people don't try to put a stranglehold on creative ideas. 
 
I don't think text is dead by any stretch, but what's important if text is included is to make it relatively bite-sized, easy to read, and at least somewhat relevant. Some of the books in Morrowind are really fun to read but they don't necessarily add anything to the gameworld; the ones that were really neat were ones that slipped in clues that you could actually follow up on and capitalize on. The fact that, say,
wrote the book on artifacts was a cool discovery that enhanced the gameworld, but I'm not sure I would have read it in the first place had I not had a solid, in-game reason to read the book. So, the reference texts, to me at least, are more interesting than the fiction. They add something to the game, and I don't see the point in forcing voice actors to read for me, even if I think, in general, I'm more an aural person than a visual when it comes to storytelling.
 
And yet! Some games make me roll my eyes when the text scrolls up. Some really awful bloviating has gone on in the past, and I wonder if some of that is behind this total shift toward multimedia and dumping text as much as possible. I do think people have the ability to read decent-sized pieces, but it must be compelling. Once we're confortable with the game world we might open up, as I did when I actually started reading the texts in Morrowind. There were many pleasant surprises there, but I instinctively passed them by for a long time because I didn't want to waste time on what seemed to be pretty frivolous stuff.
Posted by Bollard
@ahoodedfigure: I never said by the way, I very much like the title of this blog, it's clever.
Online
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Chavtheworld:  It's not every day that a pun gets a compliment, rather than derision. I thank you :)