I was a little late to the Morrowind party having only played it for the first time roughly three years ago, and I’m a little late to its birthday. The role playing game was released on the first of May, 2002, and made up what was the third title in the Elder Scrolls series. Its a game that’s not widely played in the gaming community, but it is certainly a game that’s widely praised. People who don’t really care for the game’s outdated mechanics, textbook levels of reading, or punishing (and tedious) combat system often refer to appeals of “It’s just not my type of game” arguments when explaining why they don’t like it. The number of people who would outright say its just not a good game are small in number, and that should tell you a lot about the weight the game holds in terms of respect out of the gaming community: Its just about beyond major criticism, culturally speaking.
This doesn’t mean that the game is actually without its flaws to criticize, but it does mean that, generally speaking, the pros inside of the game’s inherent design are stronger than the cons. In fact, many people point towards a game like Morrowind when making arguments for why the early 2000’s were the “golden days of gaming.” It was a time when you couldn’t google a solution to every single problem you ran into when playing through a game, you had to just be bad at the game, can you believe it?
What this meant was that the tedious, confusing combat, the breakable mechanics, the quest lines with confusing directions, and all of the reading that came with that set of design choices were essential to the experience. In my first personal playthrough, for example, I found myself not only reading every single instruction given to me by quest givers, but also writing notes down: Cardinal directions, odd comments that may or may not have special meaning, maps, and dungeons I find along the way during my travels. I still have the notebook with all of that in there. And I wrote all that down despite there being an in-game notebook, not because I was going out of my way to role play, but because a game like Morrowind, of which there are few, if any, benefits greatly from the player acting as his or her own detective.
The in-game books, which a game like Skyrim. Morrowind’s younger brother, is so well known for, aren’t just extra flavor on an already completed game in Morrowind. There are textbooks detailing the inner workings of alchemy, which act as an in-game guide to the most broken skill in the game. There are journals of mages, alchemists, and warriors and their lives which give either nothing at all, or hints to the player regarding combat and the like. There are whole documentations in-game of all the gods and their cultures that the player can delve into. For lore? Sure. But also for in-game knowledge that translates into a stronger character.
I’m just spitballing some thoughts about the game out here, so this article isn’t going to be very coherent or streamlined, as you can see, but its probably the most prominent quality about the game: everything you need to know, you can find, research, and learn about in the actual game itself. No googling, no looking up guides, and no special addition developer notes required. Have a question? Look for a book seller in-game and find a book on the topic, read the whole fuckin’ thing and apply your new knowledge.
Stuck on a quest? Go back to the quest giver, ask ’em what to do, and write all of that down. Do everything they say to a T and, if you’re still stuck, its entirely possible they just gave you bad directions (seriously, they can do that.)
The game asks a lot of your time, but still respects it, which is an extraordinarily hard balancing act and one that a modern game, like Elden Ring (review coming soonish), simply cannot follow despite being nearly 20 years newer. All of the studying, walking, training, and reading is an investment in a game that rewards you by giving you greater and greater power. Not just power, but ways to break the game. The secret sauce being that the most powerful ways to become strong in the game is not by training your character, but by learning more and more about the game itself. That is to say, a newbie with maxed stats is infinitely weaker than a veteran starting at level 1 simply because, in Morrowind, mind beats matter. All the same, I’m sure many veterans would take being bad at the game for a chance at being able to play it all over again without prior knowledge of its inner workings.
So happy 20th, Morrowind. There may be many role playing games to come that try new things and advance the medium, but I doubt there will be any that are as nearly perfect, as special, as you. If we get something as half as good in the next decade, I’d say the gaming industry is doing alright.