Monday, 6 May 2013

Made For Me, but won't see The End: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

What do you mean I'm late to the game?

Because "Vvardenfell" would just be a weird-sounding subtitle.

This game is really, really good.

In recent times, we've seen a massive uprising in "open world" gameplay. Bethesda recently released the beta of their latest game in the series, an online MMO spinoff that covers their massive world. The fifth game in the series, Skyrim, was generally very well received. Also, it's gorgeous. Kinda. In that very modern, realistic sense.

My major complaint with merely looking at the Elder Scrolls games is that they seem to have been decreasing in unique style since Morrowind. The first and second games were pretty simplistic, graphically, but Morrowind is where they really went wild and colourful. It was all exotic and colourful, with fungi and flowers in weird shapes and styles. Then Oblivion is all rolling hills, European countryside, and standard fantasy fare. Then Skyrim is snow. Cause it's in the north.

Despite being the most graphically inferior, Morrowind had the most unique stuff. Despite being the most graphically superior, Skyrim used its graphics power to render dull rocks and samey pine forests.

I have a copy of Oblivion lying around, but I wanted to start out in the earliest of the true-3D titles. So I booted it up, and it looked like, well, 2002. Well, that wont' do. And being a PC gamer, I'm such a borderline-OCD mod-obsessed freedom hacker[1] that I simply had to trick it out.

So armed with injected shaders, a DX9 plugin hack that extended my vision several cells out, and various other mods[2], I delved into the land of Vvardenfell. Not Morrowind. Morrowind is the... province, if I recall? Vvardenfell is actually the island you're on. (Note: All screenshots from here on out are captured from my copy of the game, using the mods I have installed, and whatever shaders I injected.)

The view as I step off the boat and enter a small coastal town.

One of the things this game does really well is create both a sense of grandiose, and put itself firmly in a land of lore. There is nothing in this game that is not logically explained. Factions, cities, even people have histories to them. The important ones have books written about them, that you can freely read when you want. It's standard epic RPG fare, sure, but I don't think that makes it invalid to comment on. It's still a masterful feat of writing, and something that is played down sometimes in our current force-fed gaming universe.

One of the things I really liked in the first Mass Effect was how the codex entries felt so important. But in the second game, they just felt useless, like they were repeating a lot of the same stuff, or didn't help at all to grant more info. Its format also didn't make much sense, as one could assume The Future would contain some sort of wireless internet service and wikis.

Likewise, The Past would simply have books, and it's really interesting to see rarer books with more forbidden or secret info be locked away, or sell for higher prices. You actually have motivation to wander through mage guilds, if only to find a new book with some tantalizing hint as to historical events.

One of the things the game really does is give you a lot of motivation to explore. The locales are varied and interesting, and especially with some mods to liven up the mundane areas, you get this feeling of being able to travel between these fantastical realms; exotic cities and lush forests.

Returning to the same village on a different day, having walked there, and arriving at sunset.

And that's another thing this game got right, that we don't really do any more. I know it's really tempting to have fast-travel in your game. Hell, it was really useful in Fallout 3. But at the same time, it can really make the game too easy. In Fallout 3 I had this moment of compulsion where I entered a general store which was really close to a fast-travel location. Inside were a bunch of cool items that would sell for a lot of money. So I loaded up until near encumbrance, then teleported back to the major city.

You can't do that as easily in Morrowind. You can learn spells to teleport, but you have to put a lot of energy into learning and using those. And that's just assuming you want to move between two specific points. If you sudden;y have to go somewhere, teleporting isn't so easy.

The major mode of transport in the game is using public transportation (giant beetles that are carved out and work like taxis) or getting a mage guild to teleport you. This is really cool, and most importantly, costs money. See, we underestimate how important it is to sometimes weigh the player down. By having fast-travel costly, we make the player have to choose to use it. And his choice will have actual consequences, beyond simply popping into wherever he wants to go. It makes you feel more involved in the world, without simply being some sort of teleporting god who only likes doing so when enemies aren't nearby.

There's one of those cool beetle things on the right there.

This isn't to say that Morrowind is a perfect standard. There's certain things it does that probably made sense at the time, but just don't work well any more. The combat is the most obvious. Morrowind's system of attack is kinda odd. For your attack to hit, it has to be in range. But then, it calculates with the attack misses due to agility and dodge and stats like that. Then it checks if an attack penetrates armour. Then it deals damage. In most modern games, especial action RPGs, we've moved away from the realm of hit-to-attempt and have just incorporated dodge and similar mechanics into the player movement itself. The way Morrowind handles it feels very disconnected. Thankfully there's a mod that changes the combat to make each hit a hit, but be wary that this majorly amplifies the game's difficulty, as you will lose health quickly.

Morrowind also has what I like to refer to as "null pacing". The plot develops, but it develops entirely at your speed, with very little guidance. You're essentially plopped in a world and told to go have fun. The inclusion of a rough journal system is very helpful, but its navigation is rather dated and it is far too easy to lose track of your progress.

Where was I going, again?

In recent games, I've seen this solved by breaking up quests based on importance, or sections depending on who gave them to you. This is a better way to organize it, and it's a shame they didn't implement it back then.

The plot, also, is rather hard to follow. There's a cult, a lost prophet, and all this other stuff which makes sense when you play it, but the pacing weighs it down further. Because there's nothing really driving the plot except whatever you decide on, it's hard to feel like there's any sort of urgent problem at all, and the lore of the main quest - the really important stuff - is easily lost among all the fluff of the world.

Which is what led to me putting the game down. At some point I had about 20 quests, and no idea which I was supposed to do next. I had travelled 3/4 of the way around the game map, and was now encountering random enemies which would one-/two-hit kill me. At this point the plot became irrecoverable, and I had lost any immersion with what was going on in the world.

This tree is nice though. Well chosen by the mages guild. I'd get one.

Which is a shame, because I feel the game probably gets really interesting and does a lot of neat stuff. I really liked a lot of the plot turns I did play through, and seeing more new locales would just be even cooler.

It's always a problem we have, looking back and playing old games. Modern games, there's so many released that they're constantly fighting to maximize your interest in them. They'll cut any corners they have to, in a bid for your undivided attention. And in a world where everything wants your attention, that's a lot of corners.

Older games, they didn't have that. The world was less connected, and you could sit down and play a game, and just be immersed. You didn't feel like you were fighting it for your time, because your time was easier to manage. These games were designed more to feel like a cohesive world, an experience, a place you could go to and explore.

And for that, I loved it.

Long Walks on Temperate Beaches

1. I'm not a very good hacker.
2. I was running both the Tribunal and Bloodmoon expansions, as well as a ton of modifications. It literally would be impossible for me to list everything that I was using. I would recommend simply trying things out yourself, and going from there.

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