9 Summers Ago...
I’d like to take a break from my intensely deep posts and talk about a very specific and light-hearted topic, one that resides in a special place in my heart ever since I was 12 years old. I’d like to talk about The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. Please, allow me to indulge myself as I reminisce about the story, world, and construction of what I consider to be the best Western RPG produced of all time.
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Morrowind takes place in a fantastical universe, on a continent named Tamriel. The title of the game is the name of the province in which the story takes place, but takes place specifically on Vvardenfell, a large island located in the middle of the province of Morrowind itself. For those who didn’t play, the story is about the reincarnation of a long-dead leader of the Dunmer (back then, the Chimer) people of Morrowind, betrayed by his own trusted allies in the unwholesome desire for the power of a god. Ultimately it is a story about justice, valor, and the dangers of religious indoctrination. Out of every game I have played in my entire life—including the later Elder Scrolls installments over the years, and yes, even The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time—this game, The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, is by far the most creative, inspiring, and well written game. Period.
|Don't mess with the Temple's Ordinators|
What made Morrowind so special was Bethesda’s unbelievably detailed story, that which wove dozens of different themes, social commentaries, and religious ideologies into one coherent and ultimately engaging tale of one lowly prisoner’s rise to being the Nerevarine—the harbinger of justice to Morrowind and the Dunmer people. What also made Morrowind so empowering was the importance and legend of the protagonist himself. He was the victim of a lustful crime for power, reborn to bring his very friends to a woeful justice, not as an angry and vengeful champion blessed by the gods, but rather as the compassionate hero he was in his life eons before the game takes place.
Clearly, I love this game—no, this story that which took the form of a video game—and though all of those sentences paint a pretty picture of Morrowind, I now have a specific list of attributes that contribute to the near perfection of this game that bests the very same franchise’s descendants—Oblivion and Skyrim. Let’s break it down:
- The story of the Nerevarine is entirely unique, brilliantly written with religious undertones
- The way in which the game begins forces the player to discover who he is for himself rather than be forced into the action right off the bat
- The lore built up before the Nerevarine is even born makes him that much more of a legendary figure, both to the player and those surrounding him
- The antagonist’s relationship to the player is incredibly intimate, rather than just archetypal
- The world of Vvardenfell is full of alien wonders that awes the player every step along the way of his journey
Going down this list, I will compare each point with the Elder Scrolls’ later iterations, Oblivion, Skyrim.
You are the One, Nerevarine…
|That Nerevarine... So badass right now...|
As I explained above, you are the Nerevarine, the foretold reincarnation of a long-dead hero and leader of the Dunmer people. Right away, you should notice that there is something innately special about the protagonist of the game—he is the reincarnate of a legendary hero from the previous era. I’ve never played a game in which the protagonist is the reincarnation of a hero, which automatically makes Morrowind’s protagonist very unique. Sure, you’re Dragonborn in the latest installation of the series, Skyrim, but it doesn’t invoke quite the same uniqueness to your character as the Nerevarine did in Morrowind. The reason being that there were lots of Dragonborn before you, not to mention the Voice can be learned by anyone, so long as they have the patience to do so. Yes, your story was foretold and you were a figure of legend, but I can’t help but feel that the story was slightly cheapened by the fact that you weren’t the only Dragonborn ever to have existed. In Morrowind, you were the only Nerevarine—“though many have fallen, one remains”—but in Skyrim, the protagonist lacks this highly important attribute of being entirely unique and important for the story. Like Arngnir says, “If the world shall be destroyed, so be it. Why stand in the way of fate? One world dies and another is born.” It’s almost as if there’s a sloth-like attitude befuddling the world of Skyrim, as nobody seems to give a damn that Alduin the World Eater is going to destroy, you know, EVERYTHING, but there’s a Dragonborn here to stop it. Not even the Imperial army will stop their political strife with the province in the face of dragons—apparently, General Tullius doesn’t “believe” in dragons or the Nords’ ancient legends… Despite the fact dragons eat Imperials for lunch every day.
This lack of importance placed onto the Dragonborn takes so much away from what could have been an equally unique protagonist as the Nerevarine in Morrowind. Why Bethesda chose the route of downplaying the Dragonborn within two of the three main aspects of the main quest—the political (the Empire versus the Stormcloaks), the religious (the Greybeards), and the heroic (the Blades)—is unbeknownst to me, but I think it made for a weaker story and a weaker protagonist.
And as for Oblivion… You know, I’d rather not point to the obvious (you weren’t the real hero in Oblivion… Martin Septim was).
True sandbox RPG versus the Action RPG
The second attribute that made Morrowind the best Western RPG ever was that it stayed true to its genre, the role-playing game, in that you weren’t forced into the action of the main story right from the get-go. Oblivion, Skyrim, and other games like Mass Effect all force the player into the action right away; in Oblivion, you meet the Emperor and helplessly witness his assassination; in Skyrim, you meet Alduin as he wrecks the unfortunate town of Helgen; in Mass Effect, after some lengthy cinematics and well-written dialogue you travel to a nearby planet and are instantly thrown into the main story. These games, though they are good, do not give the player the true sandbox feel one should have not only during the overall game, but from the very beginning as well. Morrowind’s beginning is so incredibly mundane that it makes the rest of the journey feel that much more epic. Think about it: just like with buying a gift for your sweetheart for Christmas or whatever, you don’t want to wow him or her too much, because then you have to top it the next year. Similarly, when you see the Emperor die right in front of you, you kind of lose that shock value for the rest of the game. Basically, you learn too quickly that anything is possible. In Morrowind, your one goal from the start (besides trying to get enough gold to use the silt striders) is to deliver a package to one Cassius Cosades. And even after doing that, the main quest tells you to do other stuff before continuing. Through Cassius, Bethesda says something to the effect of, “You’re not ready yet for what’s to come. And what’s to come is a big, big deal.”
What Morrowind does and newer RPG’s fail to do is it gives player the benefit of the doubt—the doubt being they doubt you aren’t smart or patient enough to gradually learn your role in the game. They give away too much too fast; it’s as if Hollywood is giving them tips on how to make more money at the expense of the player’s overall enjoyment of the game. In the case of RPG’s, what makes for a more immersive, and epic gameplay isn’t one that starts out with the world being destroyed—it’s one where the player slowly learns the goings on of the world and the big picture, realizing, “Holy shit, this is a huge deal and I’m the ONLY hero who can do anything about it.”
The Legend of the Nerevarine: Suspending Disbelief with Lore
|Legends foretold from other legends? Meta.|
Morrowind also does a fantastic job utilizing the incredibly intricate lore of the Elder Scrolls universe in order to effectively bind legend with story and action. Unlike its descendants, Morrowind builds up its protagonist like none-other. The legend of the Nerevarine begins thousands of years before the current time in which the game takes place—that’s a lot of hype. Good hype. In fact, that was the most compelling aspect of the game for me. I took every opportunity I could to piece together the accounts of history as they actually took place while sifting out the dogma of the Tribunal Temple, the politics of the Empire, and the—albeit slightly more truthful—bias of the Dissident Priests. That meant a lot of in game reading (yes, I know I’m a nerd) through which I learned about the previous life my protagonist lived—that was amazing. It was like a bunch of easter eggs that actually meant something in the overall story of the game—brilliant, absolutely brilliant. That was the main cause of my suspended disbelief; all of that lore that was intricately developed, written, and implemented, giving Morrowind a feeling of discovery unmatched by any RPG I have ever played since.
Where Skyrim and Oblivion fall short is obvious under this light; they simply have shallow protagonists, Oblivion more so than Skyrim. The “hero of Kvatch” (cop-out, cop-out alert) was nothing more than a guy brave enough (maybe stupid enough) to run into Oblivion and shut the gate behind him. Luckily it all worked out for him in the end, but he didn’t even fight the main adversary—Martin did! Martin. A guy named Martin beat Mehrunes Dagon.
Skyrim did have a strong comeback, though, making the protagonist something more of legend than the previous title. That said, however, there wasn’t nearly as much built up around the Dragonborn as there was for the Nerevarine—I didn’t read any books in game in order to discover the truth of my character or his murky past (YES, I know I’m a nerd). Although it did have some of that ol’ feeling I had experienced playing Morrowind, it simply didn’t go the distance it should or could have in order to make Skyrim a grand slam rather than just a homerun. Why? Because it was too easy, too in-your-face about what you had to do next and who you were. There was no magic because everything was dictated to you rather than discovered by you—no hidden lore to discover secret truths about the protagonist, no hype. That’s what lore is for, Bethesda—use it or lose it, as the saying goes.
To Nerevar, Love Dagoth Ur: Archetype versus Intimacy
|Aw hell nah, what up Dagoth?|
A great protagonist needs an equally great antagonist, one that contains as much depth as the protagonist—Luke and Vader, Batman and Joker, Tyler Durden and Jack. Furthermore, what makes for an even better villain is one that isn’t simply evil for the sake of being evil; it’s a fallen hero. Case in point, Lucifer. Why is it people are so incredibly obsessed with what is supposed to be a grotesquely evil and damned figure? Because he represents what even the greatest of heroes could become should the wrong intentions consume his mind. He is the fallen hero, both tragic and despicable. I’d argue that Dagoth Ur in Morrowind is as much of a fallen hero as Lucifer is—he was once one of Lord Nerevar’s greatest allies, generals, and friends, but then fell due to his jealousy and thirst for power. His relationship with Nerevar and the Nerevarine is incredibly intimate, as Dagoth Ur feels that what he did—stealing power from the fallen god, Lorkhan—he did in the best interest for himself, his people, and Nerevar. He’s incredibly complex and flawed of a character, which serves as the perfect anti-hero off of which the player can better understand his own heroicness.
Oblivion didn’t have such antagonist, although there was a pretty threatening villain looking to claim all of Mundus as his own personal playground. And Skyrim, once again, only went nine out of the whole ten yards with its villain, Alduin the World Eater. Yes, Alduin was badass. Yes, the story was pretty epic—keyword, pretty epic. But alas, it was not epic as Morrowind. Why? Alduin was only half the antagonist Dagoth Ur was. There was no communication between Alduin and the Dragonborn as there was between Dagoth Ur and the Nerevarine—it was as if this big bad bully over there is threatening to do harm to you, but you have no idea why or who he is, just only that you better damn well destroy him before you’re too late. Sure this creates a lot of dramatic action, but Dagoth Ur was somebody you got to know. He sent messengers to tell you who he was and why he’s back. Alduin just showed up and started eating people. I can’t disagree though, if I saw a dragon eating whole villages at a time I’d want it dead too whether I knew its name or not. But in terms of good story and an engaging plot, you’d want to know its name and what he’s got to do with you, because that’s what draws you deep into the story. That’s what makes you lose all perception of reality as well as the eight hours that just flew by as you were crawling through Dagoth Ur’s dungeons. Don’t act like that never happened. You know it did.
We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, Jiub…
My final point of comparison is the world of Vvardenfell itself. Do any of you (who played Morrowind, of course) remember when you stepped off that boat and onto the docks of Seyda Neen? Did you look around in sheer wonder as the sun rose above the trees and the marshlands below their canopies? Vvardenfell’s landscapes were incredibly beautiful, but what made them more interesting than Skyrim’s majestic mountain ranges was the feeling of unfamiliarity rooted deep within Vvardenfell’s land. The three houses of Redoran, Telvanni, and Hlaalu all inhabited lands as equally distinct and perplexing to any outlander as the houses were themselves, thus throwing the player into an amazing world completely unknown to him. What better setting to place one in when embarking on an equally amazing journey?
My main complaint with Oblivion was how familiar the world felt. The game took on the role of a fantasy-medieval epic and lost all of the magic that Morrowind had. Now that was primarily due to the cookie-cutter style upon which Oblivion was built—every cave, dungeon, and oblivion plane looks the same as the last one you’ve just entered—but for the most part, Cyrodiil was framed as a familiar world rather than an amazing one. In Skyrim, we have half of the awe-factor Morrowind exhibited; the beauty of Skyrim is outmatched, by far, but it’s still lacking the alien feeling that, say, the Deadric ruins of Vvardenfell had. Though these things may seem small or insignificant, they add to the overall immersion of the experience. That’s not to say that Skyrim wasn’t beautiful or engaging, it just wasn’t as amazing as Morrowind’s Telvanni towers, its Red Mountain, or its truly unique Dwemer ruins. It’s alien to the player, which forces the him to try harder to understand the world in which he finds himself, thus creating more immersion and a more engaging experience. The Telvanni towers, the Grazelands, the Ashlands, Red Mountain—these are just a few examples of the incredibly amazing, outlandish, and wondrous areas in which you explore while playing Morrowind. It truly transported the player out of reality and into the alien landscapes Vvardenfell had to offer.
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Those are my arguments as to why The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind is the greatest RPG I’ve ever played, even when compared to the other titles added later in the game’s franchise. There’s nothing like the feeling I had on my long walk to Balmora, or the chills that went up my spine as I walked through Dagoth Ur’s lair and into the Heart Chamber, or the awe when I first saw the God-King, Vivec, floating in meditation. The majesty and fantasy that Morrowind produced has been unmatched by the later installments of The Elder Scrolls due to content, story writing, and Bethesda’s well-played attempt at widening their market at the expense of dumbing down the gameplay. Is it a bad thing that you no longer have to walk from one end of the map to the other with no way point easily marking where your objective lies? I would say yes, but many others may so no—it’s just a matter of preference. But if Skyrim and Oblivion were as well written and crafted as Morrowind, I doubt anybody really would have cared.