I’ve gone back to some Morrowind for a bit. I have a character who’s now up to level 40 or something, has 100s in all stats except for luck and is, for all intents and purposes, a god.
While one of the biggest problems I have with Morrowind is the ‘static’ nature of game world, especially in terms of things going on after you’ve finished a quest arc, I find myself going back to it over and over. There are some truly awesome and epic missions in the Tribunal Temple arc, particularly those out of Ghostgate, where you’re asked to make forays into the heart of godforsaken and accursed badlands of Red Mountain and retrieve lost relics of the temple from the hands of Dagoth Ur’s minions. But once you finish those last quests, you’re told “Congratulations, you’re the Patriarch now. Goodbye!” and your involvement with the Temple is effectively ended, save for the massive boost in faction/individual relationship ratings.
That part of your character’s life is ‘done’ so you can go on to do the next thing. “But I’m the pope of the dark elves!” I wish that had a bit more bearing on the game, I guess.
And in some ways it does. Once you’re a faction leader, members have a hard time refusing you things. Maybe the fact I was grandmaster of the Morag Tong made a fetch quest for some Telvanni shlub easier since the Morag Tong guy was all “Oh, hey, sure, have this thing.” I don’t know. It could’ve just been a personality check to begin with. I do like that being the Dark Elf Pope means that your underlings don’t murder you for heresy when you go around claiming to be the Nerevarine. But it does say a lot about the weight and worth of the rank of Patriarch of the Tribunal Temple when Vivec tells his own pope to screw off and not bother him if the main quest hasn’t started. Man, the theological implications!
I’m actually saving wrapping up the Mages Guild arc, partly because I like having that arc open ended, with everyone I run into at the halls pleading for me to replace Trebonnius, but also because I want to do his last quest. The one where he asks you to murder all of the Telvanni mage lords. And I’m doing the Telvanni great-house arc to become the head of the Telvanni first, because murdering all of the other Telvanni mage lords seems like such a Telvanni thing to do. I just hope I won’t have to kill Divayth Fyr; for some reason I find him one of the most likable characters in Morrowind, even if he’s a bit of a creep. Most people are playing politics for religious and world domination; Fyr just wants to cure an incurable disease.
I like Morrowind and keep coming back to it, I think, because it FEELS like a big world, and the towns FEEL like towns. Small towns, sure, but you always have the sense that they are, in fact, communities and places, not just for existing for the adventurer’s benefit. I think part of how it does this is by having lots of places that just aren’t really worth going. Yeah, the hero PROBABLY isn’t going to check out the various small houses, homes, hovels or apartments in a town, because there’s nothing THERE except for the basic implements of living for its inhabitants. But those places ARE there, which gives the towns more depth and a realistic feel. I’ve never checked out the (albeit very small) residential part of Northeast Ald Ruhn, but IT’S THERE! And the fact that the town is big enough to have a part that I can say “There’s a part of town I don’t go to” makes it feel bigger than it really is. Like some of the Canton’s of Vivec; there’s stuff there to do and check out, even if there’s nothing that would ever really prompt you to go there.
Even though Morrowind is, landmass-wise, a smaller world than Oblivion, it feels larger because of how it handles these town and random NPCs. Having a dozen or more people who can answer (from stock responses) 10 or more questions, for some reason, feels better than having a dozen people who have one very specific thing to tell you each, because if that thing that they tell you isn’t relevant, and that person isn’t a questgiver or merchant, you find that you’re asking yourself ‘was this person not fully implemented? Was there a dummied out quest where this person was relevant?’. That’s the way that half the characters in the imperial city feel. But some dude who is out hoing in his field, I am happy to see him out there hoing and am okay with the fact that he doesn’t know much relevant to me but can tell me a handful of generic things about the region around his farm. Keep rockin’, farm dude! The plethora of irrelevant characters makes this okay, because they’re there to make the world feel populous, and it does! But in a sparsely peopled game like Oblivion, if there is a farmer, and all he has to say is “I’m a farmer, these are my fields!” I feel let down; he is taking up valuable space that could be occupied by someone who could give me a quest!
Another irony is that Vvardenfell feels so much less ‘ruined’ than Cyrodiil. I mean, yeah, I get that things must have been bad under the Pretender, but Cyrodiil a lot of times feels more dead than alive. ALL of the forts are ruined. Lots of super ancient elven ruins are everywhere. In most cases, any place with that many ruins would have long since cleared them away and used their materials to build new and better structures. You’d think that the great and mighty empire would’ve at least engaged in some sort of renewal program, rebuilding and fortifying what forts they could, demolishing those that were too far gone and using them for materials. The immediate answer that comes to mind as to why they haven’t done this is that there just aren’t enough people. The imperial legion consists of maybe a dozen guys patrolling the highways. There’s no WAY they could actually man the ruined forts. Heck, the best the entire province could muster to stand against an extra-planar invasion force is two or three dudes from each city. Contrast this with Morrowind. While the Velothi towers are technically ‘ruined’, many of them are in excellent structural shape, and several are home to as many as a dozen people. In fact, you’re more likely to find a these towers peopled by wizards or retainers of great houses than monsters or brigands.
So why do I say it’s ironic? Well, Vvardenfell is JUST NOW being recolonized for the first time ages, and most of the structures are from the 1st age. But there are enough people in Vardenfell to actually fix up these places, fill them with furniture, and hang out there, which really lends to a feeling that there are LOTS of people here in the world, as opposed to ‘here is a thoroughly ruined castle’s underworks that is now inhabited by brigands with bedrolls.
Another thing I like about Morrowind is the abundance of tombs. I’ve written lots about tombs and undead and necromancy here, and Morrowind has the best handling of haunted tombs of any setting. The tombs are mostly small, often don’t have a lot of significant treasures other than those left as gifts to the ancestors. The guardians are ‘undead’ magical construct created by the tombs’ families made for the purpose of discouraging tomb robers. These are made from the bones of ancestors, so it is the family’s ancestors protecting their tomb with the magic of the present and past working together. I remember there was also some discussion of the ‘ash pits’ and the idea of mixing together the ancestral remains to strengthen the bonds of family after death, and part of this somehow tied into the creation of the ghost-fence. But what’s important to me is that they are not haunted in the traditional sense.
In Oblivion, and the world of Cyrodiil, to add to the feeling that you’re in a dead world, it seems like every place is haunted. Ruined forts, caves, and elven ruins are, more often than not, crawling with undead. Rotting zombie corpses, skeletons and aethereal undead are all over the place. These aren’t constructs created magically and put in place as sentinels, these are things that are appearing because all of the places in cyrodiil are reeking of death and evil. The reappearance of Mannimarco could explain this to some degree, but a lot of the places aren’t touched by the necromancers; they’re just haunted. I know that part of this is probably so they could create ‘undead’ as a levellable creature type, but it definitely contributes to making Cyrodiil feel like a place where the dead significantly outnumber the living.
Man, I’ve really gone overboad and in all directions in this post! So, what lessons can be drawn from this? Population can make a world feel more ‘real’; we don’t interact with everyone we see each day, but the fact that we see them and they are there gives us our impression of the world, and when that is missing from an imaginary world, we notice. Having more ruins than towns in a kingdom gives the feeling of a ‘dead world’, especially if we’re expected to believe that kingdom ISN’T in ruins. Especially if that kingdom is CROWDED with ruins. Most stable kingdoms, if able, will repurpose old structures or will demolish them to recycle the building materials. Having a kingdom that is filled with as many ruins as Cyrodiil will give the impression that the kingdom lacks the resources or manpower, very likely due to depopulation, to reclaim or recycle older buildings. Lastly, I say give the dead their own places. It’s fine to have haunted caves and castles now and then, but tombs are a great and consistent place for undead to lurk. Wherever they are, though, give them a good reason to be there! It shouldn’t just be ‘because it’s an evil place’. Your world deserves more depth than that. Heck, even feel free to use my ‘magic as chemical runoff’ model.
(apologies in advance for all of the ES proper name misspellings that I may not get around to correcting).