Morrowind at 20: Why putting player agency first is The Elder Scrolls III’s true legacy

20 years ago today, Bethesda released The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind – a video game quickly hailed as one of the greatest ever made. The third entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise (excluding spinoff titles), this open-world fantasy RPG established the template that its equally acclaimed, blockbuster sequels Oblivion and Skyrim would follow. That alone is a pretty big deal, however, it represents only a fraction of what makes The Elder Scrolls III so important. Because Morrowind’s true legacy lies in the unprecedented level of immersion and control it afforded players – a legacy that is still felt today.

Why was Morrowind so much more immersive than other 2002 video games?

The most superficial aspect of Morrowind’s immersive gameplay experience was the game’s graphics. While the visuals project lead Todd Howard and his team developed to bring Vvardenfell and its surrounds to life look crude by today’s standards, back in 2002 they drastically exceeded gamers’ expectations – especially for a virtual world the size of Morrowind’s. The game boasted detailed character and environment textures; a real-time weather system and day/night cycles; impressive (for the time) draw distances; and realistic pixel-shaded water effects, all of which created the illusion of an actual, tangible place.

The design work certainly helped in this regard, too. Morrowind’s lead designer Ken Rolston – along with concept artists like Matthew Carofano, Michael Kirkbride, Noah Berry, and Mark Bullock – created a sandbox for players to explore that was utterly bizarre. That’s meant as a compliment, by the way; few mainstream games today have the courage to feature a virtual world as strange as Vvardenfell, with its oversized bugs and creepy-looking plant life. It was an environment that begged for you to explore it further – especially if you invested time in learning the intricate lore devised by Rolston, Kirkbride, and writers Douglas Goodall and Mark Nelson. Morrowind had its own history, religion and politics which changed depending on who you were talking to – just like in real life.

Yet when you get right down to it, the pioneering graphics and rich backstory are merely window dressing. What really makes Morrowind so immersive was the sheer amount of freedom it gave players. Once you’ve booted up the game and created your character, you’re pretty much left to your own devices – which was overwhelming, but also wildly liberating. Don’t want to engage with Morrowind’s core plot? Then don’t; you can easily spend hours wandering the wilderness or plugging away at side quests, instead. Want to experiment with magic and alchemy in ways that could potentially break the game? Knock yourself out. Heck, you can even kill (practically) every NPC in Vvardenfell, if you really want to!

As if this free-form design approach wasn’t enough, Morrowind also came equipped with The Elder Scrolls Construction Set. This consisted of a variety of development tools players could use to extensively modify (or “mod”) the game, allowing them to recreate the game world as they saw fit. Thanks to the Construction Set, Morrowind players weren’t limited to simply immersing themselves in the world that Bethesda built; they could also lose themselves in worlds of their own making, too. It took the gameplay beyond unfettered exploration and into the realm of full-blown self-expression – and arguably represents player agency taken to its ultimate extreme.

Morrowind was ahead of its time – but also of its time, too

Not that Morrowind was perfect. As you’d expect with a game this ambitious, it had more than a few rough edges – aspects that Bethesda didn’t quite nail because they were figuring things out along the way.

Morrowind’s biggest weakness was its combat mechanics, which critics considered clunky even back in 2002. The game used an ill-conceived hybrid system based partly around executing three different types of melee attack, and partly around Dungeons & Dragons-style “dice rolls” which determined how effective these attacks were. Yet players weren’t privy to the dice roll side of things, which left them wondering why their on-target chops, slashes and thrusts would inexplicably miss sometimes. In a sense, the commands you input while fighting were meaningless, which rendered combat in Morrowind a deeply unsatisfying, often frustrating affair.

Speaking of frustrating, let’s talk about Morrowind’s journal system. A ground-breaking concept in theory – an automatically updated record of key plot points, quest information, and conversations wasn’t common in 2002 – in practice, the journal was an absolute mess. After several hours of gameplay, you’d end up with countless pages of content to pour over… without any way of sorting or filtering said content. And if you did manage to land on the page you were looking for, could you then use the information it contained to set a waypoint marker like you can in many of today’s open-world games? Not a chance.

Then there’s the underwhelming way Bethesda presented Morrowind’s main narrative. See, the downside The Elder Scrolls III’s focus on free-form designwas that the plot of the game came across as a bit of a secondary concern – mostly because it kinda was. Morrowind spun an engrossing yarn for those willing to put the effort in, however, more casual gamers likely never fully figured out what was going on. There was also a notable lack of dramatic tension for much of the game (admittedly, a common shortcoming in sandbox games). The fate of the world was supposedly hanging in the balance the further you progressed through the story, yet life in Morrowind largely continued on the same as ever. This made it a little hard to connect emotionally with the plight of Vvardenfell and its various exotic races. They didn’t seem to care, so why should you?

How Morrowind’s legacy is still felt today

Yet Morrowind’s shortcomings are easy to overlook when you consider the lasting impact its philosophy of immersion grounded in player agency has had on the video game industry.

Take the minimalist way Morrowind tells its story, which isn’t a million miles away from the approach taken by modern games like FromSoftware’s recent critical darling Elden Ring. Both games give players all the pieces they need to construct a fully-fleshed-out narrative complete with profound philosophical and emotional subtext. But crucially, it’s up to you to do this yourself, and only if you want to. There’s no inherent penalty for failing to uncover Elden Ring’s history before the cataclysmic Shattering event occurred, any more than there is for not teasing out the complexities of the Tribunal/Dagoth Ur conflict in Morrowind.

Even outright misfires like Morrowind’s journal system were the product of the game’s unwavering devotion to players’ autonomy and refusal to hold them by the hand. Of course, many games today (including Oblivion and Skyrim) have learned the wrong lesson from Bethesda’s mistake in this regard; forget setting a simple waypoint or filtering by quest – these games basically ferry you between objectives while peppering you with tutorials. Even acclaimed titles like The Witcher 3 and the Assassin’s Creed series make it abundantly clear where you’re supposed to go next and what you’re supposed to do once you get there. This is the opposite of actual exploration, and it hurts the overall experience of stepping into these virtual worlds.

But there’s also a steady stream of games such as Outer Wilds, Kenshi, Subnautica, and even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that trust gamers to figure things out for themselves. These games pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Morrowind and reject the idea that game design should be built around talking down to players or constraining how they choose to interact with the virtual environment. Outer Wilds and its ilk realize the dream of emergent gaming – of deciding for yourself what your next objective is and the best way to achieve it – that Howard, Rolston and the rest of the Morrowind team had when they implemented the third Elder Scrolls entry’s free-form design. In short: they recognise that the best way to deliver a rewarding, immersive experience is to give as much control and decision-making authority to players as possible.

And that’s just Morrowind’s impact on video game studios – it would take another full-length article to cover how the game laid the foundation for today’s thriving community of modders. Although modding was very much a thing before Elders Scrolls III, the way Bethesda officially endorsed Morrowind mods undoubtedly fostered a substantial chunk of the current generation of modders.

The overwhelmingly positive response to The Elder Scrolls Construction Set encouraged Bethesda to produce similar tool kits for more recent releases Oblivion and Skyrim – and the latter now ranks among the most modded games of all time. Today, many gamers don’t even play the vanilla versions of Oblivion and Skyrim, preferring to hang out in the modded game worlds, instead. It may have taken two decades, but Morrowind’s idea of letting players submerge themselves in a virtual world of their choosing, and in the manner of their choosing, is, at last, the norm for the Elder Scrolls series and other open-world franchises like it.

So, let’s raise a cool glass of Flin (or even Shein) in honour of Morrowind the game that so masterfully demonstrated the importance of putting player immersion and agency first 20 years ago today.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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