The Brilliant Accident of Morrowind

Posted by Cretaceous_Bob (506 posts) -

My memories of playing Morrowind are particularly vivid. I don't know that any other game is remembered the same way as Morrowind for me. I feel like I lived there, I went through something, I experienced something. For example, when I was still pretty new to the game, I ran out of money. Well, I guess I wasn't that new to the game, because I'd managed to get out of Balmora. Balmora was one of the first cities a fresh player will go to. The main quest points you there, but you also kind of end up going there by default. Originally, when I tried going outside the starting town, wildlife killed me. When I tried to go into a cave near the starting town, some guys killed me on sight. When I tried to steal some stuff I could use, guards killed me. So I walked up the hill and paid to have some guy and his giant louse carry me out of that town to Balmora. Clearly there was nothing for me here.

When I arrived, I followed the only guidance I'd been given: go find some dude in Balmora. I found the guy's name on a door and walked into his house, expecting to be given purpose and direction. I was greeted by a shirtless man in rags in a mess of a house full of drugs and drug paraphernalia. He told me he was a secret agent for the government and I was, too. He told me I had to go get some box I had no idea about. But he told me another guy in the Fighter's Guild knew about it, so I ran over there. That guy told me where the box was: in some "Dwemer ruins". Right. I'll go do that. Clearly that's what I'm supposed to do. On my way out, I asked around the Guild for a job, because I'm pretty good at fighting in video games. They told me some lady is really stressed about some rats eating her pillows, so I could go do that. "Nope!" I said. "I'm a secret agent!" And I walked out.

But when I tried following the road to the ruins, wildlife killed me. Little crabs that lived in mud by peaceful rivers slaughtered me. Weird little bug creatures paralyzed me then scooped my flesh out of my body with their tiny jaws until I died. Just about anywhere I tried to go outside of the city had something that immediately chased me down and murdered me. "Fine," I said. "I'll go save that woman's pillows and get some money to kill the jerky wildlife around here. Clearly that's what I'm supposed to do."

I entered her house and sure enough, there were rats and pillows. I unsheathed my axe, expecting this to be a quick and easy job. Seconds later, I was standing on top of the table in the middle of the room, which I had mounted in panic as the rats mauled me. I jumped towards the door and clicked on it, never touching the floor and thus exposing myself to a vicious death.

This was the city that taught me that I wasn't playing other, easier, balanced games. This wasn't a shooter where I always had the tools to destroy anyone I saw. This was an RPG. And that meant the lowest form of life doing the least important things could still shred my dick. I wasn't a hero. I wasn't as good as a partially clothed, possibly delusional drug addict. I wasn't even as badass as a few rats. I couldn't even protect pillows.

Much later, after I had gotten some money and killed particularly small, helpless wildlife, I attempted to travel. I saw a few cities, paying for passage on Silt Striders (aforementioned huge land lice). I ran into a bit of bad luck, however, and I ended up spending my last coin traveling to a place called "Gnisis". I hadn't been there, so surely a new land would be my ticket to success and riches. I come to find out that I am stuck in a town that, as far as I can tell, primarily harvests "muck". And there's a mine where they harvest eggs of some asshole creatures that (surprise surprise) kill me on sight. And the eggs aren't really worth shit, either. Super.

In my poverty, I resorted to crime. Gnisis was filled with shitty little huts that held one person and their total assets, which always amounted to a bunch of ceramic houseware. I tried to just steal the clay pots and cups and whatever, but invariably they caught me, and when I tried to escape guards beat the piss out of me or sent me to jail. But I discovered that I had become strong enough as a character to kill one unarmed, muck-farming NPC. It was a struggle, and I may have had my lights punched out once or twice. But Morrowind had dumped on my chest for too long for me to feel any shame. I had discovered my vocation: I would go into a hut, violently murder its sole occupant, load every single thing I could find into a sack, then go into the next hut and repeat. Eventually, I sold enough ceramic goods to the local merchants to get out of Gnisis and continue my adventures.

I leveled up. I learned magic. I bought armor and weapons. I could kill things! And I started to complete quests. Much later, I returned to Gnisis. "The queen of these things what fart out the eggs we harvest is sick!" the citizens told me. "Go get a scroll from a notable town-person and use it on the queen and we'll pay you!" Easy enough! I walked to the part of town he was in. I opened the door to his house. It was completely empty. Totally bare. I walked around the fire pit in the center of the hut and lying there was a dead body. I had been here before. This man was an important part of the town, and I had murdered him for his clay crap. And, more importantly, I now had no idea how to get those scrolls.

There is a lot of talk about consequence in games, but I've never experienced as much consequence as that moment. I was thinking the other day that it's a shame that stuff like that hasn't happened in an Elder Scrolls game since then. But it occurred to me: it totally can happen in Oblivion and Skyrim. I'm just as capable of killing NPCs that are important to small quests. So what was the difference? Maybe it's that way because I've specifically never wantonly murdered NPCs in a video game again because I remember that hut in Gnisis. Or maybe I'm just better at playing Elder Scrolls games.

But I think it's more than that. Morrowind put me in a crappy, overwhelming situation and left it up to me to get out of it. The world was what it was, and what I did to it affected it. In Skyrim, the world is affected by me, but by my level, not what I do. For the sake of gameplay balance and accessibility, it has a clear, linear path of progression that you walk to the endgame. I still could murder NPCs for their worthless household items, but Skyrim never makes me feel like I need to. It never has me looking around, searching for a way to surmount the odds. I love Oblivion and Skyrim, and I think they are great for different reasons than Morrowind. But the way the Elder Scrolls games have changed over the years have followed the trend of the game industry of being a controlled and managed player experience. That's great and I have hundreds of hours of fun with it. But I still miss Morrowind. I miss being in a world that I can poke and prod.

All of the combat in Morrowind became a joke when I discovered I could enchant boots so that they would give me constant levitation and enchant a helmet with health regeneration. Most enemies in the game couldn't hit me in the air, and if any did, I just got my health back anyway. That is not proper balanced gameplay in any modern sense. But that's part of why Morrowind is so great. You could discover something about the gameplay that had real impact. Things were hard, but one day you could break all of the rules in your favour. Everything is a discovery in that game, so everything is a story.

I got a piece of armor as a reward from a quest and the guy told me, "Don't wear that, or the guards will get pissed." I assumed he meant somebody would speak sternly to me, or it would be a crime I would go to jail for. I was used to that. I put on the armor and went about my business. I talked to a guard, and sure enough, he was pissed. He tried to kill me. I ran out of the city. Surely that would blow over. Nope. I spent the entire rest of the game fighting my way through the guards every time I wanted to go to that city. Any time I had to go to that city, I had to be prepared to sprint through the place with every law-enforcement agent who saw me chasing me with the express interest of beating me to death. And that's just how the game was forever after. You couldn't fix that. The world of Morrowind was what it was, and it wasn't really designed with your interaction in mind. You could press on it in a certain way, and it would react how it would naturally react. It didn't really care if you didn't have a good idea of what the reaction would be, or if it really fucked up your shit.

Even the crappy directions the quest-givers gave you were an experience that led to a story. I hated the ashlands because I'd spend hours wandering around in an ash wasteland with ash blowing in my face trying to find a little door buried somewhere in these hills of ash, following directions that just said, "Go north a bunch and it's somewhere east next to the ash". I hated that place. I hated the people who lived there. They were stupid, ash-sucking dicks. I think that sort of thing would be stamped out in a modern game. But a negative experience is a real experience. There were places I liked and didn't like; there were people I liked and didn't like. Like the real world, the world of Morrowind was what it was and I had opinions about it. I affected it with my interactions with it, and it affected me in turn. The world of Morrowind is designed as a video game, of course, but the way I interacted with it was accidental, and that was the secret sauce.

Skyrim is still more fun than most video games ever are, and it stays that way for hundreds of hours. But somewhere between navigating a dungeon exactly the way it was designed to be navigated, killing enemies designed to fight me at the level I'm at, and getting treasure I was designed to get (randomly selected designed treasure is still designed), a part of me still longs for the days when I roamed free in Morrowind.

#1 Posted by ImmortalSaiyan (4676 posts) -

This was a great read. I never played Morrowind but you painted a good picture of your experience with the game. Makes me want to play it myself and have a story to tell. As you said that type of design is a rarity these days. Although I still got that from Skyrim but not to the level you clearly did here. I wonder how much of this has to do with your greater understanding of games versus the design of Marrowind.

#2 Edited by Cretaceous_Bob (506 posts) -

Thanks! I don't know that Morrowind can yield that feeling anymore. I played it at the time, so that's how I remember it, but I honestly don't know how someone who's played Skyrim would feel about it.

Yeah, I don't know, it's almost impossible to analyze why and what affects my experiences with each game. It's a network of things. I don't really wish Skyrim was any different, and I know maybe it's all in my head. But the feeling's still there.

#3 Posted by GERALTITUDE (3231 posts) -

Man. Really good, funny read.

Great timing too: I've just been reading about the Witcher 3 and that developer's thoughts on Skyrim. The latter game is just trying a little too hard to protect the player's experience I think. I really agree with what you said, that some of the ways in which Morrowind was "inconsiderate" to the player really left them searching for interesting, unique solutions. What's fantastic about that is you feel the way you grow into your class is natural, "I became this character because of how I reacted to the obstacles in front of me," like becoming a thief because you're so broke. In Skyrim the obstacles seem to react to you instead, allowing you to play however you want. You may still be a thief, but it's an elective choice instead of a reactive one.

#4 Posted by HistoryInRust (6293 posts) -

This is really great. An insightful, relatable look at what makes Morrowind so special.

Most people get flustered with the mechanics of the game and dismiss it. And that's a shame, because if they were to roleplay just a little more, or struggle for just a bit longer, they'd see what a uniquely malleable experience they had before them.

#5 Posted by Cretaceous_Bob (506 posts) -

Thanks guys!

Most people get flustered with the mechanics of the game and dismiss it. And that's a shame, because if they were to roleplay just a little more, or struggle for just a bit longer, they'd see what a uniquely malleable experience they had before them.

Yeah, even people who like video games will dismiss them as fluff and not very valuable expenditures of time, but video games definitely taught me the value of giving an experience a chance even when you're not enjoying it. In fact, it tends to be a hallmark of something I will really like, I just have to get past that first part.

I'm making my girlfriend play through Dreamfall, and the narrative in that game opens really slowly. There was a point where she went, "Oh my god, shut up!" at the characters. I did the same thing at the same point, but I saw it through and now I wouldn't change a thing.

The latter game is just trying a little too hard to protect the player's experience I think.

Yes, that sentence is exactly accurate. They've done a much better job of surfacing the appealing parts of the game to new players, but at the expense of an experience that feels natural. Maybe that's what makes Morrowind stick out in my mind so much: the choices I made in that game felt more personal because they were my natural reactions.

#6 Posted by Nixx (21 posts) -

hahaha! glad i clicked on this, this is exactly how ive felt about this game for all these years, remembering my stories just like that, and everywhere they went after. You got it exactly right, oblivion and skyrim are great games, without a doubt, but theyve become mainstream, and watered down if thats even possible for elder scrolls. Morrowind had a technical-ness that just made it unique. every little tiny thing you did was influenced by other little tiny factors, and resulting in tons of effects rippling outward making it a unique experience every time.

ive been an elderscrolls fan since i first picked up morrowind 10 years ago, oblivion, and skyrim did great jobs holding me over and being a rich and fun experience, but it was morrowind that all my stories and memories really took place in, and is the only one that felt like a life lived, only morrowind coulda started it all like it did :)

#7 Edited by aceofspudz (937 posts) -

@cretaceous_bob said:

Even the crappy directions the quest-givers gave you were an experience that led to a story. I hated the ashlands because I'd spend hours wandering around in an ash wasteland with ash blowing in my face trying to find a little door buried somewhere in these hills of ash, following directions that just said, "Go north a bunch and it's somewhere east next to the ash". I hated that place. I hated the people who lived there. They were stupid, ash-sucking dicks. I think that sort of thing would be stamped out in a modern game. But a negative experience is a real experience. There were places I liked and didn't like; there were people I liked and didn't like. Like the real world, the world of Morrowind was what it was and I had opinions about it. I affected it with my interactions with it, and it affected me in turn. The world of Morrowind is designed as a video game, of course, but the way I interacted with it was accidental, and that was the secret sauce.

Sometimes I tell people that waypoints and breadcrumb trails (and a thousand little other 'innovations') ruined video games, and they look at me like I'm an alien from outer space. I tell them about all the wonderfully frustrating experiences I had with the original Everquest or some other game that would be considered poorly designed by modern standards and their gut reaction is how much that must have sucked.

It sucked, of course, but low points are integral to creating something memorable and fun. If, in an RPG, you never feel destitute, lost, or powerless--you're being denied something cool because a game designer has a low opinion of you.

Nowadays I can tell within 15 minutes whether a video game's concept of me as a player is adequate. I purchased Far Cry 3 (because I loved Far Cry 2 so much and it had sky high reviews) and was hugely disappointed when it turned out to be a game for kids with ADD.

Fortunately with Dark Souls there is a growing backlash against the standard elements of modern game design. I'm looking forward to their deconstruction and eventual reconstruction into something better.

#8 Posted by Hone_McBone (138 posts) -

@aceofspudz I really think Skyrim would have been a lot better if they used the same journal system as Morrowind & removed the waypoints. Was a little disappointed there wasn't a hardcore mode after having it in New Vegas too.

#9 Posted by CorruptedEvil (2729 posts) -

I tried going back to Morrowind last year and couldn't do it, the combat is just so unwieldy that it makes everything around it suck.

#10 Posted by Loafsmooch (348 posts) -

@cretaceous_bob: I often think about Morrowind to this day. Sadly, I didn't like Oblivion nor Skyrim that much, which makes my nostalgia for Morrowind even stronger. I could never figure out exactly what made it stand out.. But you sir, tell your tales in a very insightful and honest way, and now I also know why I feel this way about Morrowind.

Thank you!

#11 Posted by Bollard (5453 posts) -

Really enjoyed this, and it actually reminded me a lot of my first Elder Scrolls experience, Oblivion. I wish I could have got into Morrowind as much as this, but playing a newer ES first makes it really hard to go back.

I remember at the beginning of Oblivion spending hours looting plates from rich hotels in the capital, much like you did in Gnisis. It was the only way I could get money. And then also when I finally beat the Thieves Guild and got the Grey Fox's mask, being chased by guards just for wearing it.

It seems like your first Elder Scrolls will always have that effect on you. Skyrim was a beautiful and absorbing world, but I never felt compelled like I did in Oblivion to just hang out there.

#12 Posted by VoshiNova (1678 posts) -

I had a similar experience to yours in that my memories of Morrowind are vivid.

I don't think I'd ever encountered a game like it before putting it in my Xbox, and I'm not even sure what got me to purchase it - I think I just really enjoyed character creation tools at the time and saw that it had one. I just backspaced through about a paragraph of why I think Morrowinds atmosphere was so "heavy."

Loved reading your recollection! Great writing.

#13 Edited by Karkarov (3081 posts) -

Great write up man. I gotta say though... did you just suck at combat or did you make a completely craptastic character? That cave outside Seyda Neen is actually meant to be beatable by a new character :P. Much less the pillow eating rats.

#14 Posted by burgavo (236 posts) -

Thanks for this, it was a great read and really brought me back to some of my own adventures in morrowind.

I agree with you that the later entries in the series have definately lost something of the emersivness and sense of wonder that came with the exploration, wandering around looking for landmarks and dodging clifracers , although I doubt that people would have the patience for that sort of thing today. I recently found an old notebook that had some directions to an ashlander village wich made me smile.

I still enjoy the newer games but like you I'm a little sad they have become so much more of a managed experience (although looking at the sales I can understand the reasoning behind it).

anyway thanks again for bringing back some fond memories!

#16 Posted by Eurobum (244 posts) -

@cretaceous_bob: Is there even a secret sauce to be found? Big games can offer all of the sauces, wonderfully varied and numerous and they aren't secret either. The rest is just a matter of where the compromises end up.

Consequences for instance are a wonderfully ambivalent thing, as a player I want choice, but I also want the right choice, meaning I don't want to be stuck with a "wrong" choice or with a wrong decision for a hunded hours. This means that the choices have to be somewhat obvious, arbitrary and viable, thus they aren't really choices at all: does it matter if I pick mace, sword or axe or does it matter if I select "Yes." or "Maybe" from the dialogue wheel? Isn't that exactly what we get in RPGs like this.

Even the choice and the ability to kill at random is a somewhat moot, not because of a sense of morality or fear of retaliation. Tragic NPC deaths and murders are actually sad, but mostly because one is left deprived of the stories that NPC could have told or quest he or she could have offered.

When it comes to choices we can't have it both ways, we are stuck! Stuck with either fake choice epics or real choice short/repeatable Spelunky-likes. Scaling difficulty was implemented to give the player choice... to go anywhere and do anything, rather than to make the game easy. You could spend 50 hours in Skyrim not having killed more than a handful of draugr, just by avoiding that tomb symbol on the mini map.

My hope is that multi core processors will allow for a simulation of a dynamic world along with the main game in the future, for moving people and animals rather than scripted and respawning ones. It has been done before in games like Stalker, Pirates! or Mount&Blade and it is wonderfully entertaining. Even Skyrim already has a more or less elaborate routine for every NPC, nomadic caravans and occasional funny clashes of scripted encounters and wildlife.

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