20 years ago, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind changed everything

When The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind was released on May 1, 2002, my preteen life was little more than a series of impulses dribbling out of my underdeveloped brain like an embarrassing sud. Pants that looked like the walls of a dungeon were my whole identity. The only thing that separated one day from the other was whether my health teacher would draw a cock on the whiteboard during health classes. (He did a lot.) I was apathetic and sheltered, drifting in a hell that looked a lot like Garden State Plaza until one day I woke up on a boat, like a prisoner born on a certain day, from insecure parents.

I have always gone to games with a certain freedom. Zips through the clouds Skies of Arcadia was mentally retarded, just like running around Shenmue‘s Yokosuka and asks strangely hostile NPCs where the sailors are. There were invisible walls and locked doors, but I could mostly go where I wanted, unlimited by consequences and the judgment of others.

Morrowind was hardly my first video game, but it was my first true love. When I was desperate for meaning and life was at its most unsalted saltwater, this was a Flavor Blasted Goldfish. I played games before, but this was more like an alternative to reality. It was open beyond comprehension long before the open worlds were ubiquitous. My small, worldly existence was supplanted by opportunity, mystery, and horror alike. This game fundamentally changed the standard by which subsequent open world RPGs would be judged. It changed everything.

A Marketplace in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind

Image: Bethesda Game Studios / Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

I did not have friends at school, but the inhabitants of Vvardenfell were not worried about my lack of social status. They only sought to criticize my outlander status or to run around in nudity, or to keep them from the important work of slinging around in a 5 foot radius and staring blankly into the distance. The game’s voice acting was also quite limited, with dialogue primarily delivered via text boxes. This came with the fun benefit of allowing me to assign any tone I found appropriate to an NPC’s trek – I often took unnecessary insults and murdered many innocent city dwellers, and screwed myself out of future quest lines in the process. .

It was one of the many wonders Morrowind: You could fuck yourself in ways that defied the imagination. Actually, Morrowind offered a game-breaking degree of freedom. Some modern games offer branched decision trees under the veil of agency, but end up leading everyone to the same conclusion regardless. But i Morrowind, there were no such gimmicks. In fact, sometimes there was no fault condition at all. There was not a Game Over screen after you killed a shady moon sugar addict and “interrupted the thread of prophecy.” You could play for dozens of hours before realizing the implications of dropping an important item somewhere in a sewer. The creators of Bethesda did not think of protecting ourselves from ourselves. Player MorrowindI was Colonel Kurtz’s snail crawling along the edge of a razor.

However, undermining your better judgment did not always lead to failure. In some cases, it led to further adventures. If one felt particular trouble, they could kill the god king Vivec and first knock his head down a rabbit hole on a completely alternative main task path. This information was not telegraphed to the player in the beginning. Instead, it was a reward that only those with hubris enough to kill a god would be familiar with. The absence of explicit direction was a fundamental aspect of Morrowind‘s ingenious design that has only been competed in recent years by The wild spirit and Elden Ring. As in these games, new quests enter Morrowind was found organically – through conversation and action instead of running towards the nearest cortical icon.

A spongy landscape in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind

Image: Bethesda Game Studios / Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

Curiosity, not waypoints, fueled the exploration on the island of Vvardenfell. Morrowind came before we were all indoctrinated into the cult of Quality of life. Convenience can alleviate frustration, yes, but it can also reduce an otherwise rich experience to something weak-minded. Morrowind preserved the magic by stubbornly refusing to spoon-feed its players. Navigation was aided by the physical map, the often ambiguous (and sometimes downright wrong) directions shared by quest givers, and the player’s own dubious instinct. Express travel options were available but limited to specific locations. And you were on your feet most of the time, so the island felt huge – despite the game’s awful draw distance.

With so much to explore and discover, it was expected to stumble into the unexpected. After chatting with a tax collector about sweet roll-related issues, you could continue outside the village boundaries to Seyda Neen and be greeted with a loud scream. It was a wizard who fell from the air until his death. On his corpse there was a diary outlining the hubris that resulted in the broken corpse in front of you. Along with a spell that strengthened acrobatics to a dangerous degree, Tarhiel’s last moments gave a pervasive sense of awe that colored the entire journey forward. It seemed like anything could happen, unbound from concrete tasks and tasks, as long as you were in the right place at the right time. The map was full of possibilities.

There was so much packed up on that island. The geography ranged from swamps to grasslands to the gray hell of the Red Mountains with a vibrant fungal flora along the way. The Skyboxes were often glorious if they were not obscured by a wandering bunch of Cliff Racers (footage of these creatures would not be out of place in A Clockwork Orange‘s aversion therapy). And the water. Everyone’s heads exploded Far Cry‘s water, mens Morrowind‘s never got the recognition it deserved. It was shiny, undulating and looked wet – everything you want in a good water. Beneath the surface was a blue void that hid treasures, sunken ships, and skeletons.

The architecture was as diverse as the geography. Each of the three large houses had a predominant design aesthetic that reflected their unique sensitivity as well as discreet sense of place. I was partially facing the winding towers of House Telvanni, carved out of giant mushrooms with vertical halls that required levitation to navigate. House Redoran’s structures resembled insect shields, while House Hlaalu had the least stunning style (though I have a weak point for that, as the Hlaalu-adapted town of Balmora was my character’s hometown). It is worth noting that most of the game’s cities matched the rest of the map. The absence of a loading screen when entering a settlement meant you could basically stumble into one by accident.

An aerial photo of a viaduct in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind

Image: Bethesda Game Studios / Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

maybe Morrowind felt familiar and comforting because, like real life, there were no shortage of places where I felt unwanted. Daedric shrines were as dangerous as they looked, composed of distorted heaps of sharp black metal and cage-like structures. The Dwemer ruins were abandoned industrial halls where one could observe the remains of a once prosperous society. There you can run into an Ascended Sleeper, a Lovecraftian nightmare of eyeballs and tentacles (and the nickname I give myself two hours after ingesting an indica-dominant edible). Apart from these vast ruins, there were plenty of smuggling caves and tombs where I could explore, plunder and die.

Each play session would provide something new and exciting. Hop along the smaller land masses that lie along the shoreline to meet an eternally intoxicated and extremely wealthy Mudcrab merchant. You may encounter a lonely North, tricked by a dizzying witch and left to wander around the country naked and angry. These transient interactions and tangential adventures would capture the attention of even the most uniquely focused explorer. Elden Ring can represent the natural evolution of this idea, where the density and complexity of its world design stands for Morrowinds side assignments and character interactions. These games are like eating at one of these sushi restaurants with conveyor belts, where every passing whim is so thoroughly spoiled.

Where streamlined progression systems tend to reduce modern RPGs to action games, Morrowind was a role play in every sense. The player’s abilities were different from the player’s character. The success of an action was determined by probability, therefore you could accidentally swing your sword against a slaughter fish and not do harm. It was the tabletop-inspired role-playing game of it all that at once made it so insane and so rewarding. Skills would increase through use, so if you chose locks, your security would increase. Due to the relationship between skills and controlling qualities, the player’s characters were much more specialized. It was unlikely that they would take on the hazy jack-of-all-trades role where progression in all things becomes an inevitability.

A pub in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind

Image: Bethesda Game Studios / Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

I felt a huge sense of ownership over my grades because they were a reflection of my decisions, rather than an arbitrary assignment of skill points. However, this system was not without its shortcomings. First, it was easy to exploit. Only a player’s commitment to role-playing games would prevent them from jumping to their destination instead of going to increase their acrobatics skills. That said, my Nerevarine was Easter Bunny-themed – so this type of behavior made perfect sense.

Morrowind was the perfect thing at the perfect time. It removed my sad goth-girl identity and divided my life into two halves: one defined by insecurity and apathy, and another affected by God’s (daedric) face. It woke me up to the possibilities of video games, not only in a technical respect, but to the extent that they affect me as a player. Games have come a long way in the decades since it was released, but I still find that I hold everything against the impossible standard, Morrowind set. Despite some games approaching, I’m still in constant pursuit of someone whose freedom can trigger the same sense of wonder that Morrowind gave me 20 years ago.