The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part 4: Subtleties)

30 Sep


This series has been going on for a lot of words. I’m doubtful anyone besides an actual Bethesda developer has written up such a lengthy general analysis of this series, and I assure you, I’m only halfway through. Maybe even a little less, considering that my base of retroactive comparison is growing.

I’ve been stuck on Morrowind for three merry posts now, and I can already tell that moving on to Oblivion will be painful–because no matter how long this series stretches, no matter what I do and don’t find time for, I will always have more to say about Morrowind. I’ve talked about its tone. I’ve talked about its goals. I’ve talked about its mechanics, its weaknesses, its strengths. But such is my fascination with this game that I could dedicate a full post to just about any faction, quest, or subsystem within it and not strain to fill a page. What I would strain, more than likely, is your patience.

So I’m setting aside this post to touch on a grab-bag of talking points, any one of which I’d gladly expand on if you catch me in a waffle house somewhere down the line. Many of these will be things this entry does differently than the others. Many will be things I personally love and cherish. Some will be things I moderately disdain. But all demonstrate some small part of my final argument: like it or don’t, this game is something pretty special.

Morrowind‘s narrative is settled around a religious schism between the “real” gods, who are worshiped by the occupying Empire, and three self-made gods who are worshiped proudly and even spitefully by the locals. Unsurprisingly, there’s a complex lore and backstory behind this state of affairs. Surprisingly, and very appealingly, this backstory is framed as it really should be: as a he-said she-said conflict of mythologies and folk histories that sparks heated arguments and debate even between people on the same side. It’s trite but true: history as a debate is much more interesting to learn and follow than history as an inventory. More games and even novels should learn this.

Later Elder Scrolls games would give each town its own architectural hook; in Morrowind, there are five or six architectural styles spread across most of the settlements. There’s a definite trade-off here. Later games use their visual storytelling to communicate more specific details about a town in isolation, but Morrowind‘s visual storytelling tells you about a town’s place in the greater narrative; a squat little mining town with modest Imperial thatch and stonework implies a vastly different backstory than a mining town with Redoran chitin and fringes.

Morrowind has an explanation for why all of its caves are full of hostile bandits and necromancers. It’s practically an easter egg, and it’s worth noticing that until they find it, nobody thinks much about the issue–or cares.

Morrowind is one of few games to deal soberly and temperately with the issue of slavery. One of the many unseemly traditions upheld by the “oppressed” native Dunmer is the right to enslave the two “beast races” (both playable races, mind) for personal and industrial use. When I say it deals soberly with the issue, I mean it trusts in the inherent horror of bondage to rouse players to action. There is a slave-freeing faction in the game, but the player discovers it by freeing slaves independent of any greater questline. Morrowind presents slavery as a feature of the local culture without feeling the need to moralize redundantly–it rightfully trusts the player to know that slavery is bad without needing to make every NPC adjacent to it a hero or a monster.

Among the many diverse factions in the game are the three semi-aristocratic Great Houses. They’re loosely coded to the three main skill trees–combat, stealth, and magic. The combat one is mostly good and honorable, the thief one is mostly sneaky and underhanded, and the magic one is mostly evil and vicious. The effect of this is that good mages and evil warriors find themselves in difficult situations. Some might say giving those organizations a little extra flavor is worth their specificity and consequent exclusivity; others might prefer factions designed to let everybody have a go. For the ethically incongruous, there are of course standard fighters’, mages’, and thieves’ guilds, which are all pretty neutral.

Morrowind contains more powerful magic items by far than either its predecessors or its descendents. Laying aside the tremendously powerful creations players can cook up themselves, there are dev-created items that can make a character nearly invulnerable. The trick was, to get one of these awesome items, you often had to kill somebody already using them.

A few features that would debut in Morrowind only to vanish forever include throwing weapons and spears; spells that teleport the player to local temples; joinable non-military political factions; beast races with conspicuously different physiologies; vampire clan quest factions; about a half-dozen unique clothing and item slots; fixed-point money-cost fast travel, including forms never seen before or since, such as hireable boats and mage teleporters; a system to taunt NPCs into fighting you so they can be killed in self-defense; joinable religious factions representing multiple faiths; drug prohibition (honest merchants won’t talk to you if you’re holding) and paraphernalia; manors with staff that may be overseen; avian adversaries.

Nearly all the foodstuffs in Morrowind are fictitious. The crops grown on the game’s landmass are largely imaginary–“ash yams,” “saltrice,” “comberries,” “hackle-lo leaf”–and the dishes and liquors made from them are doubly so. One staple in particular, kwama eggs, has a fully-realized species life cycle and ecosystem built around its acquisition–a queen kwama lays eggs, workers (headless dog-shaped arthropods) tend them, foragers (hopping maggotlike creatures) gather nourishment, and warriors (arthropods with a forager jutting from the neck cavity) defend the lair.

A few common phrases and phrases you’ll have to learn from context over the course of playing: serjo, sera, muthsera, s’wit, n’wah, b’vek, almsivi.

Morrowind is actually the second game in the franchise to set its climax inside the ash-spitting Red Mountain. In Arena, Red Mountain was Jagar Tharn’s final bolthole and looked like a generic lava-filed demonic hellscape. In Morrowind, Red Mountain is a semisacred place used as a fortress by the ancient Dagoth Ur; its design gives a few nods in the direction of actual volcanoes. It really sells Morrowind‘s commitment to “plausible, even if that’s sometimes a little bit more mundane than we’d have gone for in the mid-90s.” Also, it raises a lot of appalling continuity questions, but nobody really cares about that.

Next time: drilling the marble jaws .


Leave a Reply


  1. David

    September 30, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    So… what’s the Easter egg explanation for creepy cave contents?

  2. Corpital

    October 1, 2014 at 12:52 am

    Screw the avian adversaries.

  3. Inwoods

    October 1, 2014 at 5:06 am

    @ David I, also, would like to know this.

    I loved the situational humor too: walking outside of your first town and hearing someone fall from the sky. Hilarious, and that episode shows so much about the game world. I can’t remember if you talked about him, Rutskarn.

  4. Darren

    October 1, 2014 at 6:35 am

    Skyrim saw the return of fixed-point fast travel, although it was alongside Oblivion-style fast travel. I think that’s a fair compromise.

    If you purchased the Dawnguard DLC, there are also exclusive factions, one of which is a vampire clan. In base Skyrim you can lock yourself out of the Dark Brotherhood by refusing to perform the initiation murder.

    So not everything you cite was gone forever, and much of what was unique is probably better by being unique to Morrowind. Bethesda’s failure wasn’t so much in stripping away cool ideas from Morrowind as in not making subsequent games quite as fully realized in their own ways.

  5. Someone

    October 1, 2014 at 11:23 am

    I thought the reason there were so many bandit caves and hideouts was the local populace being disgruntled about the surrender to imperials and falling back on the fair dunmer tradition of savage banditry to spite the regime.

  6. Legendary

    October 1, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    What in the list is better off being abandoned in Morrowind? MAYBE the beast race thing, since they didn’t get to have shoes, but that’s basically it.

  7. Funklewrinkler

    October 1, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    Honestly, if you decided to spend an entire post or more on any one of these topics then I for one would drool all over it. Morrowind was my first Elder Scrolls experience and remains one of my favorite games for these reasons you’ve mentioned. As you’ve said, it grabs ahold of you with an interesting setting and a well-delivered plot, both of which feel like a reality instead of just backdrop and fluff. And even as you mention all of the rich intricacies of its substance, I feel like spending hours bathing in Morrowind’s outlandish and captivating splendor.

  8. Rutskarn

    October 1, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    Skyrim’s fast-travel isn’t fixed-point. Carters disappear from destinations.

    The vampire clan stuff I’ll grant you more.

    The explanation in-game for bandits: they’re being subsidized by Dagoth Ur as shock troopers and saboteurs.

  9. Cuthalion

    October 1, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    So many of these things you say in this post are making me nostalgic.

    Except for cliffracers.

    Screw cliffracers.

  10. noahpocalypse

    October 1, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Surely Morrowind’s not the only game with avian adversaries! Oblivion, um… Well, there’s… Skyrim had dragons, I guess? Are cliff racers and dragons really the only flying enemies in any of the Elder Scrolls games?

  11. DP

    October 1, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    @noahpocalypse Daggerfall had bats that looked like they were flying. I can’t remember if they were really flying or had to use the stairs like everyone else. And was there some sort of flying Deadra as well – an imp or something?

    I remember feeling very smug about being the first in my social group to work out almsivi.

  12. Mortuorum

    October 2, 2014 at 9:45 am

    @noahpocalypse: There were also netches. I believe they’ve returned in the Dragonborn DLC for Skyrim, but I haven’t bought it yet. (Really got to do that one of these days.)

  13. Ilseroth

    October 2, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    As someone who started with morrowind and Immediately made a Khajiit, the whole slavery thing really hit me when I found that part of the island that uses them the most.

    I immediately used my characters pickpocket skills to gain the key (since i am not the murdering sort) and I was able to free a few…

    The one that really hit me was that I got to one argonian and he said something along the lines of “What’s the point, I’ll just get caught and recaptured.”

    This was the first… I guess you could say “open” RPG I played. I mean i had played games like Baldur’s Gate that allowed some free roaming, but none that literally gave me a note giving me an approximate direction and said “go do stuff”

    Of all the subtleties in the game the simple introduction, where they trust you to decide how you’ll play and where you’ll go is what enraptured me. Part of what disappointed me when oblivion and skyrim came along is the sense of main storyline drive.

    In morrowind, you could choose to never even read the note, in Oblivion you are given a task, from the emperor to save the world, and moreso in Skyrim you aren’t just given the task to *potentially* be the world savior early in the game… You are informed that you are the only person who could possibly do it.

    While I understand a lot of games strive to include player empowerment, I think it is actually more empowering to the player to allow them to choose their own path, as morrowind allows, then to shoehorn the player into that kind of narrative.

    Technically Skyrim is better, since you have to actually progress in the storyline prior to it going all out “you are the chosen one” while oblivion goes straight to “close shut the jaws of oblivion”

  14. RCN

    October 2, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    @ Ilseroth
    Having played Might & Magic before I played Morrowind, I was actually familiar with it. In fact, I only got annoyed that most RPGs were so linear and went “This is what you have to do, so go do it!”

    Since the very first title the series was set up as such: “Hey, welcome to Varn. So… there’s trouble about, maybe your group wants to do something about it. What’s that in the title? Inner Sanctum? Never heard about.” And then you had to explore quite a bit before you even find out what the main quest is. I liked this aspect of the semi-revival Might & Magic X. Your party shows up on the Agyn Peninsula for reasons initially completely unrelated to the main quest (though it is later revealed you are PULLED into the main quest because of the initial quest).

  15. Retlaw

    October 3, 2014 at 8:03 am

    @ David and Inwoods

    Most bandit caves are hideouts for smugglers. It is implied that the Mage Guild was granted authority by the empire to track and regulate all enchantments and magical services (enchanters and mage-trainers need to pay a tax). Also, moon sugar and skooma are illegal in the empire, and Morrowind has a strong drug culture. Other things I can think off that are smuggled by the bandits are glass and ebony (for which certain companies were granted a monopoly), and sixth house artifacts (which are highly heretical and punishable by death).

  16. Bubble181

    October 3, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    Unless I’m very ,very much mistaken, Daggerfall had several unique vampire clans/factions as well.
    Mind they weren’t truly unique, in the sense they were pretty much like the Knight’s Orders (which also suddenly went *poof* after Daggerfall. Seriously, is there any bit of lore that’s remained throughout the series?) – mostly the same type of quests and rewards, but different logo’s/banners/colors and located in different regions.

    Few people actually *knew* about them, since, for one, there was no internet to find this sort of thing on, and for two, two out of the three clans only lived in regions where you never, ever, ever had any reason whatsoever to go to (I think one of them was only in the top-right corner of the map, in 2 or 3 lands – over a hundred days of fast travel for no discernible reason except being able to say you’ve been there).

  17. Bubble181

    October 3, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    Sorry, after looking it up, I was confusing Daggerfall and Morrowind. There’s only 3 clans in Morrowind. There’s 9, “unique” bloodlines in Daggerfall – and indeed, some of them are completely out-of-the-way.

  18. Jokerman

    October 7, 2014 at 9:36 am

    You can actually hire a boat in skyrim.