Morrowind. Oh, where to start with Morrowind?! Well, I can actually trace this back with my excellent super-memory. Around November 2005 I picked-up a second-hand X-Box from one of my local(ish) gaming emporiums. Then I took it back because something small and metal was rolling around inside, then I replaced it with a new one (with a noisier hard drive but I wasn’t willing to lug it all the way back across town again) and realised that GTA: San Andreas and Knights of the Old Republic II weren’t going to keep me going for the coming year or so. I needed more games!
Cut to a week or two later and I’m reading a forum on NOTBBC where someone is bigging-up a fantasy RPG I’d never heard of and waxing lyrical about travelling from town to town, atmosphere and a few other people chip-in saying how good the whole thing is. I think “hmm, I’ve not really got into a CRPG since my Eye of the Beholder days, I might give it a try”. So I picked-up a second-hand Game of the Year Edition of Morrowind, the said game, took it home and started playing a game which, four years later, I’m still playing, still loving and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of.
Fans of Morrowind will tell you that it’s a world in itself; when playing the game you get to know it, get to know its nooks and crannies, quiet settlements, frightening crypts and dank, monster-filled caves like you do your home town. And all this is true but it’s only the merest paragraph in the Big Book of Why Morrowind is Great.
When I played Morrowind I realised I was playing the type of RPG that the genre had always promised right from the early days of The Dungeon Master and Swords and Sorcery on the Spectrum right through Eye of the Beholder and Fallout in the ’90s. Finally, here was a game where the player creates a character, has them dumped in a world and is pretty much free to do what they want. In Morrowind, the non-linear nature isn’t the result of side-quests which can be done at will to supplement the main quest, the main quest is literally an option. If the player wants they can ignore it and just concentrate on rising through the ranks of the Fighters’ Guild, or becoming an outlaw, or a vampire, or (in the expansions in the Game of the Year Edition) going-off to deal with the Dark Brotherhood in the capital of the Morrowind province, or help build an imperial colony on the frosty island of Solstheim. It’s literally up to you, Bethesda (the development team) have actually said there is no correct way to play the game and when you play Morrowind you realise they mean it.
Everything is presented first-person and, unlike games like Fable, there are no fixed “routes” to follow. Tired of wandering along the road from one town to another? Why not jump over the fence and wander off into the wilderness? You can do that, you can climb any mountain you come across (or at least try to), swim across (and under) and lake, river or sea you find; get the correct spells or potions and you can even fly high above the landscape. The landscape is so open that it’s actually possible to plan out a journey to the lair of the game’s paramount villain from the start and pick a fight with him (although a level one character doing so is sure to get his arse presented to him on a silver plate with a side-salad and a helping of chips).
And not only is the landscape open, it’s also full of things to explore and do. The game largely takes place on the island of Vvardenfell in the province of Morrowind and the island itself is split into regions each with their own flora and fauna and each run by a separate House of the Dunmer, the indiginous (and rather racist) population of the province. Exploring the landscape from region to region the architecture changes, different animals appear to menace (or just curiously observe) the player character, ruins and settlements are stumbled-upon and inhabited and forgotten caves and mines appear all over the place, often filled with as much hostile monsters and people as treasures.
Morrowind‘s “open” RPG experience was developed in its prequels, Arena and Daggerfall (now available as freeware) but Morrowind removes some remaining restrictions. No longer, for example, are certain character classes restricted in what armour and weapons they can use. The move from the mixed sprite-and-polygons “two and a half dimensions” to full polygon-based 3D also removes the graphical restrictions of the original – no longer do monsters and objects’ perspectives go all “funny” when looking at them from above or below.
I’ve not even started on the many reasons I love this game. I haven’t told you about the sheer atmosphere – the beautiful night sky, the changing weather conditions, the excellent sound (I still don’t like going into Dunmer crypts when playing the game late at night, those whispering voices!), the little touches like characters walking around with torches when you enter a town at night. I haven’t mentioned the extremely complex and self-configurable magic system which allows even non-magic-using character classes to commit themselves to learning a little magic if the player is willing to put the time in. I haven’t mentioned the way the Dunmer Houses gift you a home if you rise high enough in their ranks and how you can fill your new home with trophies collected on your travels turning them into a personal museum. I haven’t mentioned the game’s customisability on the Windows version of the game whereby players can change and mod certain aspects of the game to make it more realistic or more challenging. There is so much about this game that you need to find out for yourself and if you don’t have a copy (and the Game of the Year Edition probably costs peanuts these days) and you’re willing to invest time in this type of game then there’s no real reason not to.
Of course, Morrowind isn’t perfect; the combat system is a bit wonky and there are a few features I didn’t care for (like NPCs spending all night wandering around the place and never going to bed, although the game lampshades this in conversations with some characters) but overall this is simply the best RPG I’ve played in over twenty years of gaming and which I’ve been playing on-and-off for four years and could well be playing for another four. It’s for that reason that it’s the first of my ten games of the decade.