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. When I tried going outside the starting town, wildlife killed me. When I tried to go into a cave, 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 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 a guy in the Fighter's Guild knew about it, so I went 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 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 this guy 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 found 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. Or maybe it's because I'm not 15 anymore.
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 with levitate and a helmet with health regeneration. Most enemies couldn't hit me in the air and if they 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. Everything is a discovery in that game, so everything is a story.
I got a piece of armor 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. 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 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.
As I said, 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.