Archive for February, 2015

The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part 5: Bitterness)

28 Feb


There’s no such thing as Your Dad’s Elder Scrolls Game.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that every entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise is the table-flipping, game-changing maverick that conceptually reinvents the series and makes you forget what came before it. Similarities between titles become visible only in retrospect, and only in comparison to how drastically things have changed since then.Generally speaking, this perpetual revolution is a force for good: there’s a reason every entry in the franchise is more positively and broadly received than the last, and it’s a testament to the effort and savvy of the development teams that they’re capable of keeping this up. But on an individual level, the changing nature of the franchise can lead to bitter disappointment.

Which is why I’m reluctant–in this series and in all things–to move on from Morrowind.

I have good things to say about every game Bethesda’s designed. I’m fond of them all, I respect the talent and craftsmanship that went into each one, and I think all of them are successful by their own metrics.

But Morrowind was the first and last entry in a series of its own, and for all the well-deserved accolades of later titles, I wish to see something this beautiful again. Morrowind was the dawning of an era that never came.

This was a game that reinvented the open world by tuning players to an alien frequency. It makes the player a traveler in a strange land, and not the sort of traveler who rides sightseeing buses and follows a tour schedule and stays in the hotel each evening: Morrowind makes you the sort of traveler who stumbles over a border with a water bottle and a blanket and no idea what country you’re in.

It’s not that the game is rough, and certainly not that it’s unfair. The game plays scrupulously by its own rules; it just so happens that these rules don’t seem designed with your convenience and inevitable victory in mind. Challenges like fighting monsters, navigating lava, crossing wilderness, and, indeed, finding quest locations at all don’t exist as comfortable obstacles on a pre-scripted level-scaled ramp to glory; they’re just not tailored that way. Challenges exist on their own merits, on their own terms–out there beyond the boundaries of civilization that you willingly cross. But these challenges are fair. You can engage in them at any time, and with any tools, and however and whenever you win, the same rewards will be waiting for you. They are objective. They exist. They are not variables attuned to your accomplishments, they’re stern features of the world.

And like these challenges, quests and factions are not thrust upon you. NPCs are trapped in their invisible cages of triangular patrol routes, and by and large they can only speak when you speak to them first and only about what you ask them to. You can ignore them if you want to. You can kill them if you want to. They merely exist.

Without a compass or level gate or scripted events, every journey is unique, unpredictable, unexpected–yours. Every time you perform a quest the experience will have a different texture.

That time I tried to take the road and ended up getting swamped by daedra from the ruin. That time I was a little underleveled and kept resting up on the top level and trying to make my damaged equipment hold up. That time I had an amulet that let me sneak past the first guy, so I could just clean up the last few monsters and teleport home, even though I was way too low level for the treasure I got. That time, I was high level and had that one broken ring of healing and just punched my way past everybody for the fun of it.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, it’s because you, without any prodding or pressure or hand-holding or special treatment, decided to make it so. Success happens only when you have the means and prudence to make it happen.

This sense of impartial design adds more than challenge, does more than require you to engage more actively and thoughtfully with the gameworld. It reinforces the sense that this place doesn’t exist for your benefit and isn’t organized into comfortable episodes of adventure. It’s not a videogame level, it’s a world, and you’re not running through it…you’re exploring it.

Again: no Elder Scrolls game that came before felt like this. And from this point onward, the franchise would move steadily, purposefully, determinedly in the opposite direction.

And I have to admit this has been to its benefit.

Focusing on constructed rather than organic experiences has done their brand many favors. It’s a kinder and probably more universally effective approach to take. But I miss the calculated inaccessibility of Vvardenfel, and I hope against hope to one day see its like again.

And now, the feature that terminates each entry in this critical series. What would a review of TESV look like in a world where the rest of the franchise followed this game’s lead?

“Don’t get me wrong: the world of The Elder Scrolls V: Valenwood is as beautiful and rich and fully-realized as any I’ve seen in a videogame. But actually experiencing it is a chore that few would relish. All the little obstacles come together: the combat is fiddly and overly lethal, the NPCs speak in accents that are genuinely difficult to parse, the much-vaunted translation minigame wears thin quickly and discourages the player from speaking with anyone but a fellow foreigner, and half of the quests end in anticlimaxes where I can’t tell if I’ve made a mistake, the developer made a mistake, or that’s just the way things are supposed to go. NPCs will tell you that venturing into the three-dimensional treescape without a guide is certain death, and the amazing thing is, they’re not kidding: ill-researched forays end in the player being eaten by monsters I’m not even sure are killable. All very gritty and realistic. My question to the developers is: what’s the point of going to such great pains with your gameworld if we have to go through similar pains to see it? I may sit down and play through this one with a page of cheat codes at the ready, but that can’t be the best way to experience Valenwood. Maybe the modders will save this one yet. (5.5/10)

Next week: Drilling the Marble Jaws

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