I’m a huge fan of the Elder Scrolls games and have talked about them at length both here and on the comments over at Rumors of War when discussing things ranging from quest design to how to handle factions. I haven’t talked about them as much lately, because I felt like I’ve said most of what I’d have to say and I don’t want to retread too often. I also hadn’t been playing them much recently, so I haven’t had any real useful epiphanies about the Elder Scrolls to comment on. Until now…
I got into the Elder Scrolls through Oblivion. I played it on a friend’s box back in 2006 for a little bit. It was one of the most amazing and beautiful games I’d ever seen (c’mon, guys, it was 2006!); I had to get it! Well, I got it and I sunk more hours than I can comprehend. I’ve probably lost literal months of my life to this and other Elder Scrolls games. Eventually I played all 4 of the core Elder Scrolls games, and I could understand fans of Morrowind’s major issues with Oblivion.
Both Arena and Daggerfall are very much genre games. Arena was a straight-forward affair in which one collected MacGuffins from impressive locations to kill an evil wizard. In some ways, Daggerfall might be considered one of the watersheds of Post-genre fantasy, because it was one of the first games to really begin the shift toward the Orcs as noble savage paradigm that has become so commonplace and it did a lot with its in-game books, but other than that it was still very bog-standard fantasy with all of the typical factions of thieves, fighters, mages, assassins guilds and temples and such. There was a bit of strange that was creeping in by way of the cosmology introduced in Daggerfall and the short fiction included in-game, but for all intents and purposes, it was western style fantasy adventure. Oblivion is also a fairly straight-forward affair of western style castles, knights and heroes; the loudest complaints one heard about Oblivion were the sparseness of locations, the lack of extensive dialogue that was present in Morrowind, and the relatively normal and generic fantasy feel of Oblivion compared to Morrowind.
And yes, I’ve always agreed since I’ve had the chance to play it that Morrowind is one of the best fantasy settings of damn near any game ever made, but I may finally be able to articulate why it stands out the way it does and why Elder Scrolls fans have so much praise for it.
I’ve come back to Morrowind once again, this time because of the Vance I’ve been reading. I’ve yet to get my hands on much of Vance’s fantasy works, but I’ve now read several books in his Gaean Reach setting. They seem to straddle the line of science-fantasy, sometimes leaning a bit towards the fantasy and sometimes leaning away. For instance, the Gray Prince had some magical elements while The Dogtown Tourist Agency did not, though they take place in the same megasetting. Whether there is mystical and magical present or not, Vance’s worlds are all strange and alien places where one can have an exciting adventure through the unfamiliar. For instance, Miro Hetzel, the Galactic Effectuator, has a hard-nosed detective adventure on a desert world whose native populace is a barbarian race of lizard men who reproduce by fighting wars and laying eggs in the dead bodies. The story, outside investment & cheap labor paid for unethically, possibly illegally, being used to undercut manufacturing competitors, is mundane but the setting is uncanny.
Out of all of the Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind is the only one that feels very pre-genre. It could be set on a moon of Alpha Centauri for how bizarre it is. Reading the Gray Prince, The Dragon Masters and Galactic Effectuator had me thinking “My God, the Elder Scrolls could easily be set in the Gaean Reach post collapse!” Especially compared to the games that came before and after it, Morrowind’s elves are strange and incredibly alien, not to mention the Khajiit and Argonians… these races all feel like they’re straight out of sci-fi pulps! I’ve already talked about how the Dunmer Ashlanders of Morrowind bear a striking resemblance to the Uldras in the Gray Prince. And I’ll always think of Anne McCaffrey’s cat people of Doona with their rolling R’s when I hear a Khajiit mumbling about yummy drugs and friendship.
Morrowind is a world of towering mushroom trees, giant insect egg mines, multi-thousand year old fortresses inhabited by squatting wizards and devil worshiping cults, spells and scrolls named after the wizards who wrote them, magic users experimenting with new spells with fatal results, ancient magics beyond the comprehension of even the most powerful contemporary wizards, and cities made from the dead husks of extinct giant desert crabs. And this world is full of petty rivalries, slave trades, smugglers, mundane organized crime, blue collar workers, desert nomads, librarians, farmers, potters, peddlars and petty thieves. It’s wild and crazy anything goes heroic fantasy pulp! And to just make things a little bit meta, there are heroic fantasy pulp stories to be found and read IN GAME. A few in game books are simple flavor and not much to talk about, but some of the multi-part novellas, such as A Dance in Fire (15,487 words), the Wolf Queen (11,944 words), The Real Barenziah(18,188/22,534 words), 2920: The Last Year of the First Era (20,779 words), or even the much shorter Bone (3,158 words) are worthy as stand-alone entries in the genre. They inform and are informed by the game’s strange world which was first informed by influence of several pulp heroic fantasy/sword & sorcery writers; there’s very little of the Tolkienesque tradition found here, and even less of the Dragonlance/Forgotten Realms post-genre influence on the setting.
So it is quite understandable that fans who were awed by the wild and pulpy world of Morrowind would be disappointed by relatively bland world of Oblivion, especially for those who HAD read the various in game books that described the Imperial province as a terrifying jungle filled with Burroughsian white apes. To make matters worse, while fighting relatively mundane enemies in a fairly samey fantasy setting, we get things like the in-game sequel to A Dance In Fire, The Argonian Account (7,039 words), which tells tales of mysterious and festering swamps where inhabitants travel around via the slow-working digestive tracks of fast-burrowing swamp worms… REALLY WEIRD STUFF! And you find yourself wondering “Why am I riding a horse from one generic copy-paste castle ruin or limestone cave to the next when before I was poking around weird haunted steam-punk dwarven ruins and ancient alien elf-fortresses from the 1st Age?” Locations that were referred to and relevant to the in-game fiction often appeared nowhere in game, with two whole cities missing, but that could be more easily overlooked had the game’s tone continued to reflect that which was established by the prior game and the game’s own in-world accounts of itself. The world in the books about the game’s world made you wish that you were playing there instead, even though the world in the books was supposedly the game’s world.
Okay, maybe I wasn’t able to articulate my thesis as well and concisely as I’d hoped to, but I made a try of it, by golly!
Anyway, I said I was going to criticize Morrowind as well as praise it, and I still intend to do so.
Awesome setting aside, Morrowind suffers from a major problem in the form of a lack of urgency, largely due to its game world’s static nature. The Camonna Tong is ALWAYS in the middle of some scheme whose trigger is never pulled, the Great Houses are always just on the verge of some big conflict, the Thieves Guild and Fighters Guild are always on the brink of a big intrigue, and nothing ever happens until the player actively engages those factions’ story-lines. Which isn’t a HUGE problem in itself, but it becomes an issue when nothing happens AFTER the player has engaged those story-lines. Dagoth Ur is scheming and his sleepers are hanging around, but they don’t DO anything, and Dagoth Ur is literally waiting for the player to come visit and kill him. Morrowind lacks a dynamic world, and therefore the player has no impetus to do more than dick around at leisure. This is slightly different from Daggerfall which would have certain quests running in the background, and all known quests, once engaged, became time sensitive. But that Telvanni spy that Ranis Athrys wants you to out is going to be there hanging around not doing anything until you out him, and if you never out him, it’s not like he actually does anything.
Event: Urgent and Important
Quest: Important but Not Urgent
Affair: Urgent but Not Important
Rumor: Neither Urgent nor Important
To be truly engaging, a game world needs to have all of these types of plots. Morrowind’s biggest issue is that it lacks Events, and the Affair types are Rumor’s in disguise, because any sense of urgency is artificial. Telling the lady with Corprus disease to leave Vivec or catching the murderers who have killed the pilgrims and Ordinators in Vivec may seem urgent – you may even be told that dealing with it is urgent -, but you’re left entirely to your own schedule to handle them with no alteration of outcome if you delay or expedite accomplishing them. The effects of lacking Events and Affairs in Morrowind are exacerbated by the fact that you have an in-game calendar, a day and night system, and a track of how many in-game days have passed. The calendar was used to more effect in Daggerfall, wherein holidays and demon summoning days fell on specific dates that had in-game effects, and, as mentioned before, all quests were on time-tables ranging from around a week to a month. As far as I know, Morrowind is the ONLY core Elder Scrolls game in which the day and night system have only cosmetic effects on gameplay (with, perhaps, the exception of the sneak skill).
Oblivion really does not handle this much better, though if anything, certain bugs that lead to non-flagged NPCs accidentally killing themselves or something do give certain things a sense of urgency. For example, getting enough money to buy the best house in the game before the guy you buy it from falls off the castle bridge and dies. But one of the jokes I read once was that never starting the main quest was the responsible thing to do, because, with the exception of Kvatch, Oblivion gates won’t start opening up until you’ve given the Amulet of Kings to Joffre.
Daggerfall managed to convey urgency at times, particularly in certain stages of the game, because quests would run in the background that would send assassins and monsters after you until you finished or began certain quests, though these were infrequent. With Morrowind, they were virtually non-existent. The adventure hook to entice the player to explore the Tribunal content aimed to create this effect – an assassin from the Dark Brotherhood would interrupt your sleep and try to kill you – but ultimately fails because the moment you mention the attempt on your life to anyone with that as a topic, you’ll never be attacked by them again. On one hand, if the attacks were pressed until you actually dealt with the quest line and confront Helseth’s Lieutenant about it, there would be a greater sense of urgency. On the other hand, I could see how it would be damn annoying to have to go and briefly interact with high-level expansion content at low levels just to stop getting attacked every couple of days.
Without that sense of urgency and change, however, Vvardenfell begins to feel dead, especially after months of in-game playing to the point at which you’re the head of multiple guilds and are the elf-pope. Around that point, you kill the god Vivec and stuff him in a soul gem because why not? No one is going to notice or care. And then you start killing everyone because no one can stop you and you’ve finished most of the interesting quests anyway. Then you realize, walking around an empty Balmora, that nothing really feels that different.
For your game world to feel dynamic and real (tabletop or otherwise), you need to have things going on, stuff that can be potentially missed by your players. I tend to use what I call quantum content; things stay in stasis until players have interacted with them. Once they’ve seen something, it’s set in motion and they need to either deal with it to resolve it or somehow it’ll resolve itself. You can’t put everything in real-time, because then you’ll have to keep track of everything doing stuff and killing each other in a dungeon that your player may never even explore. But once your players know a princess is being held somewhere, they’d better get off their ass to save her, because one way or another, she won’t be there to save for long.