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Review by: Samuel Knowlton
Published: September 20, 2002
When Bethesda Softworks published Daggerfall in 1997, their innovative approach to role-playing and world-building was as lauded for its inventive genius as it was criticized for its daunting scope and host of bugs. Daggerfall‘s specific strengths and weaknesses aside, Bethesda left its signature on the gaming industry: brilliant new worlds teeming with life and adventure on a scope that pushed the envelope far beyond anything that had come before it. Like Daggerfall before it, the world of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind submerges the player in an extraordinarily detailed world of Bethesda’s creation, rich with history and intrigue. Morrowind is different from most CRPGs in that both the fictional concept of its world and the literal representation of it were not created to suit the game’s storyline; rather, the world and its inhabitants were created to remain consistent with and expand upon the Elder Scrolls saga. The narrative evolves naturally from the history of Morrowind‘s two prequels and offers significant back story to inform those of us who never played or don’t remember Daggerfall and Arena. Fictional achievements aside, does Morrowind‘s considerable scope and rich history make it a successful RPG?
The land of Morrowind is an imperial province in the world of Tamriel, home to the Dunmer, or Dark Elves. Once ruled by six great noble houses, only three remain influential. The denizens of Morrowind are restless and have no love for the aging Emperor, whose power wanes as no strong successor stands ready to strengthen imperial dominion over the provinces. While the dark elves conspire endlessly against one another, they all share in their resentment of imperial rule. The Dunmer people collectively have as little power over one another as the Emperor does over Morrowind; they’re also threatened by the ever-increasing evil that lives in Red Mountain, the central region of Morrowind where, generations ago, the mightiest soldiers and wizards of the land defeated a mad wizard. The power inherited by the victors was that of the gods themselves, and three of those ancient heroes survive as the living deities of Morrowind. Their tribunal, the centerpiece of Morrowind’s own religion, co-exists uneasily with the Imperial cult, the official religion of the Empire.
As an agent of the Empire, you may find solace with the imperial-friendly cult, or you may decide to align yourself with the native temple of the tribunal. You define your character as the game progresses. All you are told in the beginning is that you were languishing in an Imperial prison until you were abruptly put on board a ship bound for Morrowind, given a pocketful of money and released with instructions to meet with an agent of the Emperor. When you quite literally step off the boat, the Imperial Census Bureau asks you several questions about yourself, and your answers determine the foundation of your character: race and gender at first, and then options to select a pre-made character class from a list, find an appropriate one by answering a series of questions, or simply create your own. Character classes determine your initial strengths, allowing you to pick one of three key areas (combat, stealth or magic), two primary attributes that you favor, and then several major and minor skills. While you begin the game with higher ratings in the strengths you select, the most important factor of your major skills is that they develop rapidly. Classes are not so restrictive as to allow one of them access to a skill or quest and forbid another; instead, they predispose your character to be better or worse at certain pursuits. Consequently, any character can attempt any undertaking, but trying something to which your character is not predisposed is simply more arduous, as it requires more time and effort to excel in secondary and tertiary skills.
Morrowind is as much about the fate of the Dunmer as it is about your own identity. Early in the game, you’re treated with mistrust by the natives, and it’s easy to witness conflict between the Dunmer people and the imperial citizens who have settled in Morrowind. The peace treaty that annexed Morrowind allowed the Dunmer to retain their institution of slavery, despite its illegality everywhere else in the Empire. Because of this and several other cultural differences, the Dunmer stop just short of loathing all outlanders – you included. The main storyline reveals more of your own character’s destiny, as well as your character’s role in the fate of the Dunmer and Morrowind, and the events that herald the end of the third era of Tamriel. During your tenure in Morrowind, you will face imperialism, slavery, megalomania, xenophobia, necromancers, vampires, prophecy and a particularly debilitating disease called The Blight, which drives its victims insane while devouring their body. The best wizards and healers of Morrowind have been unable to find a cure for The Blight, which manifests itself both in diseased creatures and in unnatural storms that originate from Red Mountain.
Even after the in-game character generation, there are many paths open to you. Indeed, the hallmark of Morrowind, like Daggerfall, is the freedom to do as you please, to allow your actions to define your character. It’s not necessary (or even recommended) to immediately pursue the main storyline. Indeed, there’s no hard-and-fast requirement to ever pursue the primary plot. Morrowind conceals the real details of what’s going on until fairly late in the game, providing you with ample opportunity to explore the continent and familiarize yourself with its culture, all while strengthening your character in preparation for the epic struggle ahead.
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