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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Morrowind Sucks, aka, Morrowind is Overrated
















Like everyone else, I have fond, nostalgic memories of playing Morrowind back in the early 2000s, but I was never able to get into it properly. I put about 10-20 hours into it, then gave up and lost interest. And yet, every time I've seen screenshots or heard its music over the past decade, I've felt a desire to reinstall the game and relive the glory days that everyone always harkens back to when discussing Oblivion or Skyrim. And then, whenever I do, I'm soon reminded of why I was never able to appreciate Morrowind, even back in its prime.

It's a shame, really, because I think Morrowind truly is the best of the modern Elder Scrolls games. It has the most interesting world to explore with its completely unique fauna, wildlife, and architecture, and it has the deepest, most complex stats-based RPG mechanics of any modern Elder Scrolls game. There's a reason, after all, that Morrowind was such a popular hit in 2002. For many young gamers, it was their first experience diving into such a deeply rich, complex open-world; for me, I'd already been spoiled by Gothic and Gothic 2, which made it painfully obvious how soulless and mediocre Morrowind really was.


Leveling is flawed and unsatisfying

In Morrowind, you create a character by picking a race and gender, which determines your starting stats, innate skill bonuses, and unique special powers and abilities. Then, you select 10 skills from a list of 27 to be your "major" and "minor" skills, which determines your starting proficiency with those skills, as well as how quickly those skills can level up. You pick two "favored" attributes that start with a bonus, and select a birthsign, which grants another unique bonus. During gameplay, you improve your skills by using them -- cast a lot of healing spells, and your restoration skill will improve; hit enemies with a dagger, and your short blade skill will improve. Once you've gained 10 level-ups among any of your major/minor skills, you gain a character level, which improves your health and fatigue and allows you to improve three attributes of your choice.

I generally don't like it when I'm forced to spec-out a character before I've had a chance to even play the game. Different games all have different systems, with their own nuances and idiosyncrasies, and it's asking a lot of the player to make uninformed decisions about exactly how they'll be playing a game over the next 100+ hours, without offering them any context for what their decisions actually mean. When you're at the character creation screen in Morrowind for the first time, you have no idea how important a skill like speechcraft will actually be -- "Is this going to be like a Black Isle or BioWare game with dialogue options, that will enable a more diplomatic playstyle with deep character interaction?" You just don't know.


It's easily possible, as I'm sure most people who have played Morrowind will attest, to create a character and discover, after 10 hours of gameplay, that it's either completely broken, or flawed in some significant way, or just doesn't play the way you expected it to. With Morrowind's character creation and leveling system being the way that it is, you're permanently locked in with whatever ignorant decisions you made at the start of the game. Truthfully, it's impossible to completely "break" a character, since you can level each and every skill in the game up to maximum, even if you didn't choose to specialize in them, but it makes one of the core gameplay mechanisms a major pain in the ass.

If, for example, you choose to specialize in spears and then discover they're really not that good, you might find yourself relying on the greater availability and general utility of long blades. Since you didn't make long blade a major skill, it starts out at a much lower level, which means your accuracy will be absolutely horrendous, creating an unbearable catch-22; you can't level the skill up because you can't hit anything, and you can't hit anything because you can't level the skill up. Your only options, then, are to spend your life's fortune paying trainers to improve the skill (which you can't afford early on), or level it up the slow and painful way, or begrudgingly stick to spears, or else start a new character. If you do end up making long blades viable, then it won't make any progress towards character levels, anyway, since it's not a major/minor skill. You're screwed either way.

It's a rote, shallow system that encourages (and basically necessitates) repetitive grinding, doing the same basic stuff over and over again, like a mindless, time-wasting Korean MMORPG. If you want to improve your destruction skill so that you can actually succeed at being an offensive mage, instead of failing every single spell and wasting all of your mana and having to rely on melee weaponry, which will be just as ineffective since you set them up as minor secondary skills, then you have to spend a week's time (or more) in game casting destruction spells over and over again, and resting to do it all over again.


Unless you play the game as a hardcore min/maxing number-cruncher, there are no important decisions to make when leveling; everything happens automatically as a byproduct of playing the game. Really, your only decisions are which skills to use actively (and let's face it, you're going to be using your major/minors almost exclusively), and which attributes to increase when you level-up, but even this decision is basically made for you. Each of the 27 skills is tied to one of the eight attributes; if you level up more strength-related skills, then you can get a multiplier to increase your strength by 2, 3, 4, or 5, instead of just 1. Realistically, you're going to pick whatever attributes are most useful for your particular specialization, and whichever happen to give you the highest multipliers.

There's a fair amount of depth to be found in the leveling system if you're going out of your way to level efficiently, by ensuring that you're getting x5 multipliers on each of your three attributes with each level up, but this requires an awful lot of meta-gaming -- gaming the system -- which I'm pretty sure is not the way the game was intended to be played. Efficient leveling requires counter-intuitive things like picking skills you won't use as your major and minor skills, avoiding using certain skills if you're not ready to level up, and not leveling up until you're ready -- in essence, not playing the game -- just so that you can control each level up, rather than being at the mercy of what levels up automatically. None of that sounds particularly fun unless you've already played the game multiple times and are looking for new ways to challenge yourself.



Combat is boring and broken

Morrowind implements dice-rolling pen-and-paper-style combat in a first-person action system; you move around and swing your sword in real time, controlling when, where, and how you attack, but the dice are secretly determining whether you hit or not, and for how much damage. It's a novel idea, in theory, but the mixture just doesn't work, at least in the beginning when your skills are so pathetically low level that you can't hit a moderately non-threatening enemy who's standing perfectly still, right in front of you.

Much of the early game is spent failing at basically everything you try to do, since nearly everything has a statistical dice-roll to determine if you're successful or not, based on a combination of, primarily, your skill level, and your fatigue. In combat, this means watching your sword make contact with the enemy, and yet register statistically as a miss -- there's a very strong dissonance between what you see and what actually happens. According to the dice, your attack was off-target, when clearly, your aim was true, or else the target was nimble enough to evade your attack (based on their own defensive dice roll), but the game shows no animations whatsoever to indicate that the target has actually dodged. They just stand there and keep attacking, while your attacks seem to do nothing at all.


Performing actions like running, jumping, and swinging a weapon all cause you to gain fatigue, represented by a green meter that depletes as you take actions, and slowly regenerates with rest. That green meter factors into everything you do -- even buying and selling goods -- indicating that your character is less good at something when he's exhausted. Early on, you don't have very much stamina, which amplifies your failure rate on skill checks since it drains so quickly. What this means in combat is that the longer you fight an opponent, the worse your accuracy gets; if you have a few unlucky dice rolls at the start of a fight, then you put yourself in a hole that just keeps getting deeper and deeper as you continue to miss attacks.

As important as it is for an RPG to rely on stats-based combat, the fact of the matter is that Morrowind uses an active battle system that doesn't involve any ounce of player skill; you just click to roll the dice. Blocking and dodging all happens automatically -- you really just click until one of you dies. If your health runs low, you pause and chug a potion. The skill system further encourages you to just stand there and not attempt to dodge manually, since you need to be attacked to randomly trigger and thus level your block skill, and you need to get hit to improve your armor skills, and you need to have damaged equipment to improve your repair skills, and you need to take health damage to make use of restoration spells (if you want to level the skill "naturally").

You are entirely at the mercy of the dice in this game; there's really no tact or strategy involved in winning a fight, apart from having decent gear in good condition, and not going into a fight with low stamina. What you do really doesn't matter, because the dice are so variable that you can save right before a fight and do the exact same thing three times, and have three completely different outcomes. When faced with a tough enemy who absolutely destroyed me (I barely dented his health), I reloaded the save to try again, and, through sheer, random luck, defeated him with relative ease. If what you do really doesn't matter, and if the dice determine basically everything, and if all you really do is stand there clicking repeatedly, then everything may as well be automatic without your input, unless you want to pause to cast a spell or something.


The point of a real-time, first-person, active combat system is to immerse the player -- to make you feel like you're the one actually taking part in the action -- but the random variables undermine that feeling completely. Even though I've never swung a battle axe in my life, I can guarantee you I'd be able to hit a giant rat who's standing still chewing my toes; I'm pretty sure I wouldn't whiff thin air three (or five) times in a row. You spend the bulk of the early stages of the game (10 hours, at least) missing attacks and getting chain-stunned with hits staggering you and locking the controls up completely, and sadly, though your accuracy and damage may improve over time, the combat doesn't get any more fun. You don't unlock new combat maneuvers (unless you're a mage and learn new spells) or anything like that -- the combat remains the exact same from beginning to end. There's minimal concern for positioning, no real need for timing attacks, no reactive mechanisms like blocking/dodging. You just stand there and click. It's just so boring.

There's not even any tension of trying to survive out in the wild, since you can rest practically anywhere and recover all of your lost health, magicka, and stamina. All you need to do is survive a fight and then backtrack a little ways, to get out of range of other enemies, and you're back at full fighting form. This makes restoration and alchemy fairly useless, and makes it so you never have to worry about venturing deep into a dangerous dungeon, or getting lost in the mountains, and being unable to survive long enough to make it back to safety, low on health, out of mana, and out of healing potions. There's basically no consequence for anything you do in combat.


Exploration is bland and unrewarding

One of the biggest praises people offer Morrowind, and all of the TES games, for that matter, is the overwhelming size of their open worlds that let you set out in whatever direction you want, to discover whatever content you want, and do things in whatever order you want. People seem to relish that freedom, and enjoy "just getting lost in the world." I certainly understand that desire, since many of my favorite games feature spacious open worlds to explore, but I find Morrowind's world completely stale, lifeless, and uninteresting -- critical flaws for an open world game.

The world in Morrowind, as it is in all TES games, is simply too large. Yes, you could spend 200+ hours exploring everywhere in the game and completing all of the content Morrowind has to offer, but why would you want to, when all of that content is so bland and repetitive? After exploring your 10th ancestral tomb and finding nothing but wooden spoons and clay pots, and finding that they all look the exact the same, except with slightly different layouts and, sometimes, slightly different enemies, why bother going into any of the roughly 100 more? The answer is because it's marginally more exciting than wandering around 1000-square foot areas picking plants and mushrooms and killing slugs, rats, and mudcrabs.


If you're lucky, you might find an NPC standing along a roadside between towns, who'll offer you some type of quest, but these NPCs make up only a slim percentage of the content you can experience "out in the wilds." Otherwise, there's really nothing interesting to do and nothing unique to find except seemingly random caves, ancestral tombs, and daedric shrines. Everything in-between is pointless filler that only exists to spread the world out, to make it seem bigger than it really is. And as the saying goes, "bigger isn't always better." All this really does is turn the game into a bona fide "walking simulator" as it forces you to walk for 10 minutes at a time to get anywhere, with nothing much of interest to do between your starting point and your destination.

With the world as big as it is, you just don't have time to walk everywhere, so you sprint, which drains your stamina, which then means you have to stand and wait for 30 seconds regenerating stamina before doing anything, since fatigue determines you efficacy in everything you do. Want to buy a healing potion, or sell some gems? Better get that stamina up. Want to persuade someone to get them to like you more, so they'll tell you vital information for quest? Better get that stamina up. See some bandits up ahead, who will attack you on sight? Better get that stamina up. You spend basically the entire game slowly trudging from place to place, or waiting with your hands off the controls -- not very engaging gameplay.

The world is missing any kind of meaningful structure -- areas with purpose, design, narrative, and context. Tombs, caves, shrines, ruins, and strongholds may as well be randomly generated and randomly placed across the world map for as memorable as any of them are. There are approximately 258 of these "dungeons," which all feel mechanically and aesthetically identical to one another. What's worse, every single one of them exists in a vacuum independent of the rest of the world, since they all require you to go through a loading zone into a completely separate map. What's even worse, perhaps half of these places are filled with completely worthless, randomized loot; maybe a quarter of them have scaling loot that's at least worth selling, if you care to; and maybe a quarter, if I'm being generous, have a unique, "special" piece of loot at the end.


It's a random guess which dungeons will have rare, special loot in them, which means you have to explore every single one you come across if you want to improve your odds of finding something good. Daedric shrines are the only ones that consistently seem to have anything worthwhile. Most of the time, this means there's no reward for exploring anywhere in the world, and no elation that comes from discovering something cool, whether that be a unique item, or a unique-looking area, or an area with unique enemies, or some place with an interesting backstory. More often than not, finding good loot is just the result of random luck, rather than you getting a special reward for a special accomplishment. Even when you find a unique piece of loot that was specifically placed there by the developers, you have to wonder "why is this particular set of ultra rare, special boots in this particular place?" It all just feels so mundane, random, and arbitrary.

Towns are a little better, in the sense that they have buildings to enter, people to talk to, merchants and trainers to use, and quests to pick up -- ie, there are things to do. But even towns get overwhelming. Every NPC is uniquely-named (often with some unpronounceable, unmemorable name), so when you have to find a specific NPC you have to approach every, single, character to figure out if they're the person you need, and there are hundreds of these NPCs in some towns. Likewise, it's impossible to tell which NPCs are merchants, trainers, or quest-givers without approaching and talking to every, single, one of them. It's a tedious chore. Then, with the engine's restrictions on loading zones, you have to go through a load screen every time you enter a building, often multiple times within a building, which completely breaks the feeling of an "open world" in towns like Vivec that are simply massive, yet broken into a million tiny, copy/pasted compartments.


Quests are boring and tedious

Basically every single quest in Morrowind consists of the most tedious, boring, and straightforward FedEx errand-boy fetch quests; go here, kill this, get that, report back. Even faction quests fall victim to this simplistic structure, and they don't even give interesting narrative reasons for why you're doing the things you're doing. Join the mage's guild and you get quests that consist of "fetch me four mushrooms." Complete that quest, and you move up to "fetch me four plants." In the fighter's guild, you get quest dialogue that plays out exactly like this: "There's an Argonian by the name of Tongue-Toad at the inn in Ald'ruhn who won't keep his mouth shut. Go take care of him for me." And that's literally all you get, verbatim.

Since the game is designed to be open-world, allowing you to go wherever you want and do whatever you want whenever you want, the quests are necessarily designed without any kind of narrative or mechanical urgency, because the game really doesn't care whether you do them or not. The world will remain completely static, suspended in animation until you're ready to do a quest. If you start a quest and get distracted, it will be waiting for you exactly where you left off. That's a quality that's kind of necessary when dealing with a large open-world setting, but again, this world is just so large that everything has to accommodate the scope of aimless possibility, which means no quests that require your timely input, or outcomes that dynamically alter the world, or quests that overlap in significant ways.


I imagine it's hard to write memorable, interesting quests when you have to fill a giant, sprawling world with nearly 500 of them. This, again, is a fault of over-ambition, of making the world so big and unwieldy that it becomes bland and boring, another instance of Bethesda striving for quantity instead of quality. Consequently, there's no depth to any of the quests, no role-playing options, no way to act out your character through the game's quests. Most quests only have one solution, and unless the quest specifically requires you to fight something, or steal something, there's hardly any opportunity to put your character's skills to use during the quest.

During one quest for the fighter's guild, I was sent to collect a bounty on an orc who'd been living in town. I talk to the orc, and there's no dialogue option whatsoever to address the fact that I'm about to kill her. There's no way to show mercy and talk her into skipping town, or a way to accept a bribe from her, or any kind of interaction that escalates to a fight. I even tried talking to the city guard, to see if I could report her location -- no such luck. In the end, my only option was to brandish my sword and brazenly attack her in her own house, not knowing what crime she'd even committed to deserve the wrath of my steel.

Role-playing games by definition are supposed to be about role-playing a character, making decisions and acting in a way that embodies the type of character you envision. Are you a good Samaritan who selflessly looks out for the good of others, or are you a greedy mercenary who's only interested in fattening his own wallet? Are you a noble saint who upholds virtue and justice, or are you an evil bastard who murders townsfolk just to take a few pinches of moon sugar from their pockets? Or do you fall somewhere in between; chaotic good, lawful neutral? There's hardly any opportunity to enact these characteristics through actual gameplay -- you can be a goody-two-shoes or an evil villain, but nothing in the world really reacts to anything you do, unless you're caught committing a crime.

Since the game doesn't use a traditional experience points system, there's no incentive to do quests unless you're expecting a nice tangible reward from someone. You could say there's always the adventure component, of wanting to see the stories that play out and interacting with the characters and the world, but as I described above, there's really not much depth or weight to enjoy there, either.

I picked up a quest for a blacksmith, who thought something shady was going on with a rival blacksmith in town, who was getting a lot of bulk orders and big business. He wanted me to check it out and help him edge out the competition. I got caught stealing the contract from the rival's shop, paid a fine, and lost thousands of gold worth of valuable, useful equipment I'd stolen from other towns halfway across the world (that the guards somehow, magically knew were stolen), and returned to complete the quest only to receive a measly 50 gold and a useless, worthless dagger. It wasn't a very fun or interesting quest, and the reward wasn't worth the cost of completing it, so I loaded my save and simply never went about finishing the quest.


A lot of quests in this game send you long distances across the map, usually to areas you've never been to, long before you're ready to move on, which makes every single one of these quests a tedious chore of simply making it from point A to point B. If you're a completionist, like me, who likes to do everything he can in an area and experience as much of a game's content as possible, then you're just going to get overwhelmed -- a quest sends you from town A to town B, and along the way you might pick up two or three quests, each of which sends you off in a different direction away from town B, each to a different hub city with its own plethora of quests that send you to other towns you've never been to. It's so hard to keep track of everything that you eventually learn to ignore a lot of the game's content, because you just can't focus on more than a few things at a time.

The journal system doesn't help this cause, either, since it organizes every quest update and important note chronologically when you receive it. If you pick up a quest and then get distracted for five hours doing other things, you have to scroll back through dozens of pages hoping to find the entry you need -- if you can even remember it. Thank goodness the expansions fixed this issue by adding a quest-filtering section, because the journal was borderline useless in the base game.

Even then, the journal entries are sometimes too vague to be of any use. At one point I picked up a main quest to find a missing NPC, and then had to shut the game down for the night. When I came back the next day, I couldn't remember the lead I was supposed to follow. All the journal said was "find so-and-so." I tried asking the quest giver for the information again, but all she said was "he's missing." I wandered around talking to other NPCs, hoping to ask if anyone knew anything, and didn't even have the option. I gave up, consulted a guide, and suddenly all the details came rushing back. "Oh yeah, I remember her saying that now. Why couldn't she tell me that stuff again? Why does the journal not keep track of this vital information?"


Atmospherically, it's ok -- not great

What good is having a huge, sprawling world if it doesn't drawn you in? There's a lot to like about this world -- namely, its unique fauna, wildlife, and architecture, which make it one of the most memorable, distinct-looking fantasy worlds of any video game -- but the whole world feels dead and lifeless. Consider: NPCs stand around, in the exact same spots, 24 hours a day, doing absolutely nothing, spouting the same lines of dialogue no matter the time of day or recent events. They don't even go to sleep at night. They don't care if you barge into their homes at night. They don't care if you draw a weapon and start swinging it around them.


Basically everyone in this world is a cardboard cutout with no personality whatsoever. Even major characters that are part of faction quests, house quests, and the main quests are just mechanical objects dispensing quest dialogue at you. The writing for dialogue feels identical for every character, and the complete lack of meaningful interaction leaves them feeling simply like bounty boards and merchant windows. Put simply, these characters have no character. Good luck remembering anyone's name, or describing them in any way beyond their occupation, location, or what menial task they set you on. Part of that is admittedly the fact that there's hardly any voice acting, and no animations during dialogue; these would certainly help bring the characters to life, but they're also not necessary, as plenty of other games have featured interesting, memorable characters with text-based dialogue.

Graphically, the game looks pretty good for its age, apart from the horrendous character models and animations. It's really easy to feel immersed wandering around in the world, just because of how everything looks. Jeremy Soule composed some really nice, memorable music for this game, which also helps put you in the mood of adventuring through Vvardenfell, but the music gets to be really repetitive after a while, since you hear the same half-dozen tracks everywhere you go. The music doesn't set the tone for specific areas; it doesn't matter if you're in a dark crypt, a daedric shrine, the blight-infested ashlands, or a major city like Vivec -- you hear the same music. Perhaps that's why it's so memorable, since you hear the same stuff over and over again for 100 hours.


Why Gothic is better than Morrowind

As I mentioned at the top of the article, the reason I find it so difficult to appreciate Morrowind is because the Gothic games, which came out around the same time as Morrowind (Gothic 1 actually predates Morrowind by a full year), offer a very similar experience to Morrowind and do a lot of the same stuff, but better.

A better leveling system

Gothic uses a traditional experience points system that rewards you for defeating enemies, completing quests, and completing certain tasks/activities/challenges. After earning a certain amount of experience points, you level up, automatically improving your maximum health and gaining 10 skill points to invest with trainers. Skill points can be spent improving your attributes (strength, dexterity, mana), training your abilities with different types of ranged and melee weapons, learning new circles of magic and magic spells, as well as learning and improving other useful abilities like animal skinning, alchemy, weapon forging, sneaking, lock-picking, and so on.


The benefit of this system is it rewards you for every little thing you accomplish, since even a measly 50 experience for killing a giant rat will add up over time. And since enemies don't respawn (with limited exceptions), experience is finite, which makes each amount of experience earned that much more valuable. It also means you can't max out every stat and learn every skill in the game, which forces you to make tough decisions about how to allocate limited skill points to your best advantage, and allows your gameplay and playstyle to change and evolve over time as you learn new skills and improve your character.

More engaging combat

Like Morrowind, Gothic relies heavily on stats in combat, but implements them in an active battle system that rewards player skill. Realistically, you have to be a certain level, and with certain stats, to take on stronger enemies, but the balance between character stats and player skill allows a clever, skilled, and determined player to make up for weaker stats with his own abilities, to tackle tougher objectives before he statistically should be able to, or allows a player with less personal skill to rely on superior stats to lead him to victory by waiting until he's stronger to face a tough challenge. There are no random variables; everything has a fixed value, except a random chance for critical hits which improves with skill training, so you can control and plan for what happens in combat. If you lose a fight, it's usually your own fault, not because you got screwed by bad luck.


Combat is also a lot more fun and involved than simply standing and clicking until one of you dies. You can control the direction of each attack -- attacking left, right, or forward -- and string multiple attacks together to form actual combos, a feat that requires the correct timing between attacks, lest you fail the combo and leave yourself exposed for a moment. Blocking and dodging attacks is also done manually, requiring good reaction speed and knowing how to anticipate certain attack behaviors. Different types of enemies require different strategies to defeat, which means learning their attack patterns and finding their weaknesses. The system also changes and improves over the course of the game, with you unlocking new combos as you invest skill points.

More rewarding exploration

The world in Gothic is not nearly as large as in Morrowind, but it crams a lot more interesting locales, discoveries, and encounters in a smaller space, for a much better content-per-square-area ratio. You don't have to walk for five minutes at a time before you find something interesting; there's something interesting every single direction you look. Environments are given more purpose and structure, with specific relations to adjacent areas, which makes for a more memorable layout. I can remember every square foot of the colony from Gothic 1 -- even after playing the starting areas of Morrowind four times over the last 10+ years, I can't remember anything beyond the starting town, and a few things in Balmora.


No loot in Gothic is randomly generated; everything in the environment is hand-placed by the developer, put there for a specific purpose, to reward players for their ingenuity in exploring off the beaten path or for tackling a tough challenge, or to tell a specific story. When you find something -- whether it be a hidden NPC, a valuable sword, a unique monster, or just an interesting area -- you feel like you've accomplished something. Places within the environment have their own mystique, lore, and backstory, like the black troll cave, or the cave guarded by skeleton archons that houses the great Dragon Slayer, or the orc shrine, or the mage's collapsed tower with its failed necromantic experiments. Everything is unique, and feels heavily integrated with the rest of the world.

It's also a very dangerous world, filled with cutthroat bandits, deceitful allies who will rob and beat you, and deadly beasts. While exploring a forest, you can be hunting harmless scavengers and molerats and suddenly find yourself face to face with an enormous shadowbeast, that can kill you in one or two hits. Death is around every corner, which teaches you to be very careful about where you go, how you prepare, and what you do. It also allows you to set your own level of difficulty and challenge -- do you venture into dangerous areas early to try to get better rewards, or do you save it for later, until you're stronger? If you go early and find some clever way of surviving, you're treated with immense rewards, and if you save it for later, then it's a sure sign you've gotten stronger, which is rewarding in and of itself.

Interesting quests from likable NPCs

When you boil Gothic's quests down to their basic structure, they fall victim to the same type of simplistic errand boy fetch quest nonsense for which I criticize Morrowind. The main difference, here, is that Gothic's quests are given to you by NPCs you know and care about -- people with whom you have a lasting relationship. Early in the game, a farmer's wife feeds you and gives you a place to sleep in exchange for helping out on the farm; later, she falls ill, and her husband sends you into town to fetch a healing potion. It's the simplest, most mundane thing, but it shows some of the dynamic qualities of the world, and makes you care about helping her, because she's a named character that you know, not just some random nameless, faceless NPC who'll become useless and obsolete once the quest is over. 


Although not a thorough, in-depth RPG with a multitude of dialogue options and multiple ways to approach and solve every quest, Gothic frequently allows for multiple solutions with different rewards and consequences, with overlapping quests and interests between NPCs. A carpenter's daughter is indebted to a merchant, and asks you to help get her out of trouble; the merchant will independently task you with collecting the money he's owed, if you talk to him first. There are two sides to this quest. You can choose to pay the money entirely on your own to appease both sides, or tell the carpenter the full story and piss of his daughter, or blackmail the merchant (if you've completed another quest), or rough up his daughter and take the money from her, or persuade her with the right dialogue to give you the money. Each approach has a slightly different reward, and completing the quest a certain way opens new opportunities for later rewards and dialogue.

Livelier NPCs and a dynamic world

Gothic's world feels much more alive, atmospheric, and immersive because its characters behave much more realistically. NPCs follow a daily schedule, going to sleep at night, sitting by a fire in the evening, waking up in the morning, urinating throughout the day, and so on. During the day, they don't just idly stand around; they eat, they smoke, they drink, they hammer slats into their huts, they play music. Cooks stir their cauldrons, blacksmiths hammer swords out on an anvil, sword trainers practice weapon handling, mages cast spells. NPCs react to your presence and actions; walk into their hut, and they'll threaten to call the guards; draw a weapon, and they'll draw theirs, eventually attacking you themselves if you don't back down; stand in their way, and they'll tell you to move; beat up a guard, and he'll pretend not to notice when you're beating up a merchant in his presence. Even animals go about daily schedules, sleeping at night and hunting for food.


Every single character also has spoken dialogue and animations, which helps lend characters a more unique identity. Main characters have memorable names, voices, personalities, and roles, who recur throughout the entire game and show up in different scenarios. It also helps that only important, unique characters are named -- all the atmospheric "filler" characters who are there simply to populate the world are given generic titles like "citizen" or "miner," so that you don't have to waste time talking to every single person to find out if they're useful or not. You can still talk to these generic characters about a wide range of topics, and receive fully-voiced responses, and they also play a role in the world around them -- spectating and cheering on fights, making idle conversation with one another, and so on -- so they feel like actual people.

The world also changes as you complete quests, more dramatically so as you advance the main story line. Help a group of farmers reclaim their property from bandits, and they'll get back to work farming and open a new line of trade for you. Blackmail a merchant to solve another quest, and he'll refuse to do business with you for the rest of the game. When returning to familiar locations after completing other quests, you'll find new characters, missing characters, people being attacked by orcs, and all other sorts of things changing over the course of the game. This all makes the world feel so much more rich, deep, complex, and alive.


In conclusion

There's very little I can find about Morrowind to praise that isn't prefaced by saying it's a better alternative than what Bethesda have come up with in subsequent games in the series, or that doesn't come with some kind of "but." It's a unique, memorable world, some of the quests are genuinely interesting, and it is kind of fun to come up with new characters in the character creation. I like its greater reliance on stats-based ... everything ... as compared to Oblivion and Skyrim, which have progressively removed most of what gave the series some semblance of being an RPG, but it makes certain things way more tedious than they really should be, and doesn't blend well with the intended first-person action combat. Leveling feels like it happens automatically, combat may as well be automatic, quests are straightforward and boring, there are very few opportunities for genuine role-playing, and the world is so static and non-reactive that I just don't feel a part of it.

And yet, I can totally understand why so many people were so enamored with Morrowind back in its time. I think, quite honestly, if I hadn't played the Gothic games before going into Morrowind, I would love it as much as the next person. But having already played Gothic and Gothic 2, I realized how much better games can be. Even then, as I got more involved with RPGs, I came to realize that other games that came out in the years immediately before and after Morrowind -- Fallout, Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate, Deus Ex, Arcanum, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, Knights of the Old Republic, and so on -- were all much better RPGs that offered many of the exact same gameplay elements as Morrowind, but with more focus, more care, and more attention to detail. Granted, Morrowind has a much bigger world with more more freedom than any of these games, but what's the point if there's no meaningful significance to any of it? Morrowind just feels like a bland, bloated amalgamation of ideas without any soul.

If you're someone who adores Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls in general, then I would like to encourage you to try Gothic and Gothic 2 -- at the very least, just Gothic 2 with its expansion -- to see an alternative point of view for how these kinds of open-world action-adventure-RPGs can be designed. Hopefully, you'll be able to appreciate just how clever and well-designed these games really were, and given your appreciation of Morrowind, you'll be able to enjoy their relative similarities. Perhaps you'll experience the same revelations I did and come to realize Morrowind really isn't all it's cracked up to be, but I won't hold it against you if you don't.

26 comments:

  1. Another classic. This is a fantastic breakdown of the problems with the Elder Scrolls series, just as with Skyrim. I can only hope this article gets way more recognition than the other one (though I have tried to share it with as many as possible).

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  2. I discovered this blog recently, and I have to say - your reviews and editorials are awesome.
    I never understood why does TES get so much praise. I completely agree that, although Gothic games are much smaller, they are in fact superior in every other aspect.

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  3. Yup, agree. Typical Bethesda. I still think Morrowind is the best out of the Elder Scrolls Series, but by no means a good RPG in comparison. Bethesda can design an open world, a shitty main quest, millions of meaningless sidequests and then they leave it to the community to mod the game playable.

    Even worse, they took the Fallout series and destroyed it to get the console shooter audience to play it.

    It's so ridiculous how people praise TES + Fallout 3 as if it was the holy grail of RPGs, even though they never played a decent RPG before.

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  4. What a coincidence, I was just about to reinstall this on Steam and then you reminded me why I never managed to play more than 10 hours without uninstalling it.

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  5. My first experience with the world of Morrowind was the day the GOTY X-Box version was released. I was a much younger man back then and gave up on Morrowind after a few half-hearted attempts that never progressed further than Balmora. After all, there was GTA to play! Fast forwards to 2015 and for some reason I just got the itch to try it again.

    The world Bethesda created in Morrowind is more engaging then it ever was to me back then. I was too young to appreciate a slower paced game and was glued to more colorful, action packed games like an ADD riddled adolescent. It's true this game hasn't aged well, and there are bugs, and sometimes it feels a little all-too-the-same. But it's also true there are completely novel moments like finding yourself and another character surrounded in a bar by racists. There's also a short sorta-quest where you come upon the body of a dead drug addict. I'd really like to know another game where you can experience these events without it making up the majority of the game. The graphics now feel uninspired and there were certainly problems but Morrowind's substance is in the story and the way the world is presented.

    It's a great thing modding communities exist because just about every problem I had with the game could be remedied quickly with a mod. The single and only irritating element for me now is cliff racers. In short, Morrowind is still a great game to me but can only be endured through the use of a few mods common to the game.

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  6. Great review, even though I do like Morrowind (played it for the first time last January and really enjoyed it). I can't necessarily disagree with any of your points,as they're all pretty much true, but I still liked it. I've always found Bethesda rpgs to be incredibly immersive, despite their flaws, which is generally more than enough to draw me in for a long playthrough. I need to get around to playing Gothic, I've been meaning to for awhile.

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  7. Good review. This make me want to try Gothic now

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  8. The only rpg game developers worth a sh*t currently are obsidian and pyranha bytes. Then there are few others like larian and developers of wasteland who are fine.

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  9. I like Morrowind, but I think it's really telling that the quest I remember the best so far was the theatre one in Mournhold. I found that one unique and even quite funny (though the solution to it is lame). And the pilgrimage quests were OK, but not that memorable. It's also pretty sad that I found it much more fun just to run around and explore Vvardenfell randomly, not bothering to do most of the quests until I've actually explored the geography a little. That made up for the regrettably half-baked roleplaying options of the game's main territory. At least the two expansions actually had something of a more focused storyline and more focused quests (if lesser in number - but again, quality over quantity). And most of the "dungeons" are indeed repetitive - there were only a few which I found not only sufficiently unique, but non-generic in feel.

    BTW, could you review the original three Thief games, if you're familiar with them ? Or at least some of the better missions from The Dark Mod ? If you ever do that, thanks in advance ! (Trust me, you won't regret trying those.)

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    1. I played Thief 2 back in the day and really enjoyed it. Not sure I'll ever get around to replaying it, though. With the recent free release of Thi4f on PS+, I've been trying to get around to playing Deadly Shadows. The Dark Mod's never truly been on my radar because the plethora of missions always made it seem overwhelming.

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  10. And thank you for saying good things about the first two Gothic games. A lot of thought and hard work went into those and it's a shame to see many people seem to forget about them nowadays.

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  11. You're comparing MTG to DnD or Shadowrun. Both are good games but one is an apple and the other is an orange. Why compare, why not both?

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  12. Fuck Morrowind! This game gave me nightmare. The quests were awful, the combat was laughably bad, exploring was so slow that it drove me to suicide, the atmosphere was nice though. Felt like Arabia. I remember spending half of the game hunting freaking crabs with a crappy bow and arrow. Never again. No idea why it is so beloved by the gaming community.

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  13. Lmao git fucking gud you absolute skrub

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    1. Obviously you just don't know how to play the game. Also, your grammar's off. Go back to first grade, scrub.

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    2. Obviously you just don't know how to play the game. Also, your grammar's off. Go back to first grade, scrub.

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  14. You're absolutely right. Gothic blows TES out of the water in every aspect. There really is no excuse for the signpost NPCs in morrowind when Ultima 7 did living and breathing worlds about a decade before. Bethesda has always been the master of interesting ideas, but mediocre execution.

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  15. Still remember playing Morrowind for 14 hours and spending half of it shooting crabs with arrows. It was a nightmare.

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  16. Still remember playing Morrowind for 14 hours and spending half of it shooting crabs with arrows. It was a nightmare.

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  17. I am generally a fan of your writing: most of your reviews (the praise of Gothic, the criticism of Skyrim) are spot on and they capture precisely how I feel about those games, in addition to being pleasant to read. I also love the wealth of information in your Gothic walkthrough and its organization.

    When I stumbled upon your Morrowind blog, it was the first time when I disagreed and believed you mostly missed the point of this game.

    THE GOOD STUFF IN MORROWIND:

    Richness of the world (architecture, fauna) is only one of the aspects and perhaps the most obvious one. There are many others that might be just as important, yet one starts to see them only after experiencing the game for a while.

    - The itemization: there are so many hidden or less hidden treasures that cannot be bought from merchants or enchanted, thus rewarding exploration. For example, boots of unseeing swiftness make you crazily fast yet blind. This is the reason why mods with trophy rooms are so popular in Morrowind. It is also one of several reasons why Morrowind is so much better than Skyrim or Oblivion. It is true that most of the loot is randomly scaled but there is still more unique loot than in all of Gothic.
    - The abilities and effects: you can jump, fly, shapeshift, create your own spells/combos, and more. This makes the exploration more fun and combat more tactical. Absent in both Gothic and Skyrim.
    - The factions and politics: there are about 20 factions in Morrowind compared to three in the Gothic games. Unlike Skyrim factions, those in Morrowind can be mutually exclusive or conflicting. Furthermore, your rank in one will affect your disposition with the others. Just consider the complexity of the reaction table in http://www.uesp.net/wiki/Morrowind:Factions.
    - Reaction to actions and status of the PC: this is something related to my previous point but additionally, the NPC greet and treat you differently as you progress through major quests. Thus, the world is not as static as in Skyrim.
    - The charm and humor: there are quite a few quests like the one in your picture when an NPC complains about stolen pants. Gothic has this to an even greater extent, but I totally miss it in Skyrim.
    - The lore: the background lore is great and makes you appreciate when you meet the last living dwemer, for example. Like many players, I love some of the in-game books and keep in-game libraries. The game is good at gradually introducing you to the lore and background info, unlike Skyrim which throws unfamiliar names at your face without any explanation. I would argue that there is even more item- and place-related lore in Morrowind than in Gothic.
    - The sense of danger while exploring: what you wrote about Gothic applies to Morrowind as well, especially in the dungeons.
    - Modability: there are so many wonderful and diverse mods released for Morrowind. Admittedly there are few quests with multiple outcomes, but you can install an awesome story altering mod like "Great house Dagoth".

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  18. Continued:
    THE BAD STUFF IN MORROWIND:

    Bethesda has always been releasing half-baked games unfortunately. One has to patch them multiple times and then mod them. This way you can address most albeit not all of the issues. Thus, when reviewing, it is important to keep in mind which issues can be easily fixed and which cannot. For example, Oblivion is commonly critisized for creatures levelling with you, yet there are mods that address it in a good way. In contrast, there is no simple remedy for the blandness and lack of good itemization.

    There exist very good mods that fix the following issues in Morrowind mentioned in your blog:
    - masochistic levelling,
    - dependency on stamina (the issue goes away at higher levels anyway),
    - ability to rest everywhere,
    - same music everywhere.

    Then, your blog lists a couple of issues that I do not perceive as such:
    - lack of structure in the world: in the real world, most areas are lacking structure. It might be the rarity of structure that makes us admire harmony. You claim that in Gothic there is structure and relation to the adjacent areas. How are the black troll cave or the Dragon Slayer cave related to the surrounding wilderness? Can it be that your opinion about Gothic locations being more memorable is due to you spending more hours with Gothic than with Morrowind?
    - loading times were a problem back when Morrowind was released but they are very short on modern machines.

    Of course, there are some issues that are not fixed easily, which makes them more important:
    - You do have to put up with uninspiring combat. Truth to be told, it is not that great in Skyrim either. In Gothic, melee combat can be moderately fun but only post low levels. At low levels it takes a lot of painstaking attempts to time the moves correctly. None of these games are known for great combat, even Risen does it better. When it comes to magic, at least two thirds of the spells in Gothic are borderline useless, perhaps more.
    - NPC routine and AI. This is one area where Gothic truly shines and is hands down better. Better than Skyrim in fact, despite being released some 10 years earlier.
    - Quests with multiple outcomes. In fact, Morrowind does have quests that can be approached in multiple ways but only a few. For comparison, I cannot recall any in Skyrim. The issue can be addressed to an extent by mods but overall, Morrowind is not the best RPG out there; its strength lies somewhere else.


    In conclusion, I strongly recommend that you mod Morrowind to address the issues that can be addressed, play through the entire game with an open mind, and see the greatness of Morrowind for yourself.

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    1. First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to write such a reasoned and thought-out response. I always enjoy reading counter-arguments from people.

      That being said, my opinion of Morrowind is one that's been formed and solidified over the course of almost 15 years. I've probably played over 150 hours while having taken 3-4 solid stabs at playing it; it's not like I played it once and just didn't like it or just didn't "get" it. Clearly, I don't actually understand the game's appeal or why people enjoy it so much, but I have tried real hard to enjoy the game and have given it more chances than any game should ever deserve, and Morrowind just doesn't do it for me. That's not to say that I'm some kind of definitive authority figure on the game, and that my opinion is 100% absolute truth, but rather to demonstrate that I'm pretty firm on how I feel about Morrowind and basically nothing is ever going to change that.

      Am I biased by Gothic? I pretty much stated so at the beginning of the article. After all, I played it before Morrowind, and enjoyed it so much that it set the bar for what I expected when it came to open-world action-RPGs. While you have many good points about what makes Morrowind a good game, I'd argue that the bulk of those arguments point more to Morrowind being a better sandbox, and not necessarily a better game. Morrowind has, without a doubt, more items (including unique ones), more special abilities, more factions, deeper lore, etc, but that doesn't translate to tight, cohesive gameplay in my view. Rather, it makes Morrowind feel bloated to me.

      I understand that mods can fix a lot of issues, but I simply refuse to judge a game based on its mods. Video game criticism should be principally about what the developer/publisher put out for public consumption, judging the work that they put into the game and the product that they deemed the "final" version that was ready to sell to people. Seeing as mods are a continual, progressive evolution of the base game, it's just impossible to keep up with them all, and unreasonable for people to review a game based on thousands of different variations. If John plays with Mods A, B, C, D, and E, and Mark plays with Mods C, F, G, H, and J, then they're bound to have different experiences, which relate more to the differences in the MODS than the base game that they're both playing.

      In cases where mods take a game that's merely "average" or "mediocre" and elevate that game to whole new levels where it's actually a really good game that's actually worth playing, I just can't, in good conscience, tell people to buy the game just to play with mods, because that rewards the developer for their lazy, uninspiring base effort. Because why should they bother testing and balancing things, or thinking up radical new ideas, or tightening mechanics up, so and on and so on, when they can release the tools and let other people fix their games for free?

      Don't get me wrong, mods are a great tool and I'm so happy they're such a part of PC gaming, but when it comes to reviewing a game, I HAVE to judge it based on the "Vanilla" version. And if I just do not like the vanilla game, then I'm not willing to give it the benefit of the doubt that mods will change it enough to change my opinion. I'd rather play something completely different than spend more time and effort polishing a turd just to see if I can make it shine.

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  19. Thanks for the detailed response. I did not realize you played Morrowind for many hours.

    Your stance on mods is somewhat surprising. What about fan patches? Would you agree that the definitive experience of playing Gothic 3, KOTOR 2, and a few other games is that with a fan patch?

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    1. We're getting into somewhat murky waters when it comes to fan patches. They might be an exception to my "no unofficial alterations" rule because their INTENTION is typically to keep the game the way the designers wanted it to be while merely fixing problems and, in some cases, restoring lost content, as opposed to simply changing things for sake of change.

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  20. I seriously hate Morrowind to the core. Never understood its appeal. The world felt boring and monotonous to me. The quests were trash and hollow, the factions, although many, were quite bare bones. The combat was atrocious, but that was the norm in those days honestly. The stamina system was laughable, took hours to reach anywhere. Don't even get me started on the journal.

    Seriously, Elder Scrolls series has so much lost potential that it is not even funny. How hard it is to write better quests, even indie games do it better. Considering the direction they took with Fallshit 4, fucking infinite quests system, I doubt them ever fixing the glaring flaws in quest design. I will just wait for Cyberpunk 2077...

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