Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Kill Vivec

I "beat" Morrowind last Thursday. Hooray! Thought I'd put down some thoughts while it's still fresh.

This is the first Elder Scrolls game I've played. I heard a lot about Daggerfall when it came out but never played it; I remember hearing that it was a huge, long game and you could become a werewolf. More recently, I was kind of surprised after Bioware released Neverwinter Nights to hear almost all RPG praise for the year directed towards Morrowind. Finally, I saw my friend David play it for a little while when I visited Minnesota this July, and was sufficiently intrigued to pick up the game-of-the-year edition from Best Buy.

"Immersive" is certainly a valid word to use. The game is incredibly broad and deep. When you walk into a house, you can interact with individual spoons, pieces of paper, and so on. Beyond the physical world, though, the mythology of the game is incredible. They didn't just create a fully-realized culture; they created a plethora of cultures, coexisting on the same world. As you progress through the game and move the plot forward, you also come to understand how Vvardenfell (the large island the game takes place on) came to be this way, and eventually come to absorb the history of its migrating peoples, the cultural differences between rural and urban Dunmer that led to their disparate (though still familiar) religions, the present political influence exerted by the Empire, and so on.

In the Ultima games, I always loved going to libraries and reading through the books. That kind of backstory really helped the world come alive for me. Here, I only read the books I was really interested in. Once again, the sheer volume of material feels overwhelming. All of it related somehow to the Elder Scrolls universe, but only some has any real bearing on your life. Still, every book was well-written and fairly self-contained, even though it might spill over in five or more volumes.

One of the best examples of the richness of the game backstory is coming to grips with the Tribunal. This collection of three gods dominates the course of Vvardenfell, but there is a surprising degree of dispute and interpretation over even the factual aspects of their rule. As you continue in the game, you encounter written records and oral traditions that paint vastly different impressions of Vivec, Almalexia and Sotha Sil. Different factions believe fervently in their own accounts; many citizens of Morrowind do not know exactly what to believe, but revere or despise them anyways. Late in the game you actually encounter Vivec. I was expecting to finally get the straight story, but as he recounted the story, it was obvious that I was still getting just one interpretation of events. Much like in "Rashomon," it is impossible to arrive at the absolute truth of an event.

Now, this isn't really broadcast as a "point" or a moral, but rather this sort of sensibility is what gives Morrowind its sense of authenticity. You're left with the impression of a vast, complicated world, one that you can move around within and influence, but never come to absolutely dominate.

In this regard, it reminded me of my favorite RPGs, Ultimas VI and VII. This is in contrast to Square style RPGs like Final Fantasy, which tell incredible stories but limit you to acting out within that story; you inevitably become the single most important force in the universe by your actions. It also stands in contrast to the excellent Bioware RPGs, which feature incredibly intricate plots and characters and offers the same scope of freedom offered by Morrowind, but not the same level of detail or history. In the Ultima book, Richard Garriot describes how whenever they created a new Ultima, they would first build the world, and then create the characters, and only then worry about the plot. Morrowind is the successor to this legacy, and once again demonstrates that by building a solid world you imbue everything happening on that world with much more import. Tolkien taught this lesson well, and people would do well to follow.

Moving briefly on to complaints. I've been spoiled by the Baldur's Gate games, but I would have liked better-written characters in this game. It often felt like the characters written down in those books were much more interesting and unpredictable than the many quest-givers in the game. They weren't bad, exactly, and there were some bright spots (I especially liked the de Medici-esque manipulations of House Hlaalu), but many of the side quests were completely outshone by the enormously creative quests in Baldur's Gate. Most of the quests involve finding and returning an item, killing a certain person, or talking to someone. There was enough variety within these broad categories to keep it from becoming a grind. Still, I think I've been spoiled by the incredible array of quests in games like, say, GTA: San Andreas.

The graphics are so obviously poor they're hardly worth discussing. Beyond that, though, the art design felt lacking. I did appreciate the incredible variety you see in different parts of the world, from architecture to foliage, yet so much of the world is dark and ugly. I don't want the whole world to look like the Ascadian Isles, necessarily, but I'd have liked for that level of beauty to be present in the parts of Vvardenfell where you spend a lot of time outdoors. I think of this as the "Alpha Centauri" problem, after a great game that was almost single-handedly done in by its ugly color scheme.

Dialog was annoying as well. Again, the story and background was great, but the designers populated the world with thousands of individual characters without bothering to differentiate them. Every scout, everywhere, tells you exactly the same thing about every topic. It got especially jarring when, for example, you would ask a Khajit about a unique topic relating to your quest, and they answer it with the idiom and pronunciation of their race. Then you would ask them about a more common topic, like "Balmora," and they would answer in perfect Imperial English, with the exact same words as everyone else in the entire game. Variety, folks! It amazes me that they went to such great lengths to come up with different cultures and then lost their differentiation.

This is a common complaint for RPGs, but the money system is messed up. You don't have enough money early in the game for anything decent, and late in the game you'll have so much that it ceases to have any real meaning. Still, I have two complaints about money that are unique to this game. First, the game is filled with artifacts that are valued at 50,000 GP or higher, and yet few shopkeepers have more than 2,000 GP on them. I fail to understand the point of bothering to list something as being so valuable when nobody on the whole continent will buy it for that amount. This would lead to annoying contortions where you would gradually sell Creeper 45,000 worth of stuff over a month so that you could buy it all back so that he'd have enough money to buy the 50,000 item. Again, though, by late in the game you won't bother because you'll have enough money for everything. EXCEPT enchanting. Enchanting is something I got into late in the game, it's a theoretically cool system that allows you to create customized versions of items with their own unique powers, but you need to either do it yourself or pay someone else. Paying someone else will cost you more money than you have (which is a LOT of money, enchanting is the one truly expensive thing in the game). Doing it yourself is impossible - for a high-level item, even with a maximized Intelligence statistic and Enchanting skill, I was unable to do it after ten tries. Quite frustrating.

My final complaint is the enemies. Again, with so much detail in the rest of the game, it's just puzzling that they only bothered to come up with ten actual monsters, and that fully 90% of your battles late in the game will be with Cliff Racers. I don't really mind the simplistic combat system, I just want to look at something else once in a while.

The definition of a good game is not a game without faults, and Morrowind's good aspects more than overcome its many deficiencies. One feature I particularly liked was that if you join one of the great houses, you will get to build your own stronghold. This was also one of my favorite aspects of Baldur's Gate II, and it was fun to go through a similar process. In my rise in House Hlaalu, I first purchased the land, then secured permission to build. As it grew bigger I strengthened my estate by establishing mining operations and clearing bandits out of the area. The whole process was fun, although the end was somewhat anti-climactic. You're left with a cool-looking house and your personal retainers, but unlike in BG2 it does not generate any revenue for you, and at least the Hlaalu one is located so far away from everything else that it's not practical to visit or use as a much-needed item storage location.

Oh, that's a complaint I forgot to mention: travel. Early on, it seems very cool that it takes fifteen minutes to walk between two cities. Later on it becomes deadly aggravating. You come to make use of the various forms of fast transportation, including teleportation, boats and silt striders, but these can only drop you to a limited number of locations. The really annoying thing is that with just one minor tweak, they could have made travel far less annoying while preserving the sense of scope. The game already has a "recall" spell that can take you back to a previous spot you have "mark"ed previously. If they had only allowed you to mark even two spots, it would have become practical to shuttle between two points on the map and saved a great deal of time and aggravation.

Like so many RPGs, at the end of Morrowind you need to Confront an Ancient Evil. The main plotline borrows heavily from the car'a'carn story in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time," while the finale is straight from Lord of the Rings. Despite the broad arcs feeling like plagiarism, though, the game as a whole has a strong integrity of its own.

What is the message of the game? It doesn't broadcast its ideology in the way that, say, a Final Fantasy game would. It's much more content to let you glean your own meaning from the mass of events within it. I take Morrowind to be a story of the importance of humility. In all of the various versions of the truth you receive, the problems always start when someone overreaches their bounds, whether it means seeking after immortality or wanting new lands or seeking dominion over others. The role you take on as the Nerevarine is ultimately not one of claiming power or building a better society. It is ultimately a negative role, as you tear down those who have risen higher than they should.

I do feel a sense of accomplishment from having beaten it. I have not yet started either of the two expansions, Tribunal and Bloodmoon. I'll likely at least start one of them soon, though if my experiences in Morrowind are any indication, I will not be close to beating them before Civilization 4 comes out on October 25th. And once Civ4 comes out, my life as I know it will cease to exist.

Oh, my final standings in the factions are as follows.
  • Ashlanders: Hearthfriend
  • Blades: Agent
  • Fighters Guild: Master
  • House Hlaalu: Grandmaster
  • Imperial Cult: Primate
  • Imperial Legion: Knight Protector
  • Mages Guild: Arch-Mage
  • Morag Tong: Grandmaster
  • Temple of the Tribunal: Adept
  • Thieves Guild: Master Thief
That means I have more ranks to go in the Blades, Imperial Legion and Temple. I'm not sure how to advance further in the Blades, if that's still possible. I should also mention that my character's name is Cirion (duh). I play a Wood-Elf (Bosmer) with a custom class that's sort of like an Agent with skills in Mysticism and Alteration. I wear glass armor, with the Cuirass of the Savior's Hide and Boots of the Apostle. I wield a Daedric Wakazashi with a glass shield, though more often I pick off enemies with my Dwarven Crossbow. My most common spells are the Mysticism teleportation spells - Almsivi Intervention, Divine Intervention, Mark and Recall. Out of all my factions, I consider myself closest to Hlaalu, Thieves Guild and the Morag Tong.

If I were working on this game, my single biggest suggestion would have been to enhance the quests. In particular, I feel there were many possibilities with the strongholds that were not explored.

The three things I most hope to see in Oblivion (the sequel out later this year) are: more believable individuals, a better transportation system, and more dynamic realignments between factions (alliances, guild wars, etc.). Basically, keep it the same but make it better.


  1. i see wat u mean it is annoying about the loooooooong walks between were u need to go and that they should have put more creautres in there plus they should have made it to were you should have been able to mark more than one location.

  2. It's too bad you never harnessed the real power of Morrowind, which is potion making. Sure you can't enchant with 100 intelligence, but brew yourself a few potion of intelligence, drink those down, and you'll find enchanting to be quite easy. And while your intelligence is 5000+ brew yourself a couple of uber-powerful potions of luck and levitation. Then you won't get bored walking for 20 minutes to get somewhere.

  3. Oh, interesting... I never spent much time with potions in Morrowind, and I like the idea of combining crafting skills in an effective way like this. (And good call on luck + levitation: if memory serves, the most expensive enchantment I ever treated myself to was a constant-effect ring of levitation. It made navigating around mountain ranges infinitely easier!)