Games from Ten Years Ago: The Elder Scrolls

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Even almost five months after release, Skyrim is still pretty buzz-worthy, with the recent 1.5 patch and the release of the Steam Mod Workshop and an official HD texture pack at the beginning of last month. Even rumors of a seemingly inevitable Elder Scrolls MMO have emerged in the last couple weeks. Skyrim has certainly been an impressive title in multiple regards, but where did it all begin?

While the gaming community at large is still very familiar with Oblivion, the fourth installment in the Elder Scrolls franchise, a smaller number remember playing Morrowind. Moreover, you would be somewhat hard-pressed to find someone who has played Daggerfall or Arena, the first two games of the series. (Both of them can be downloaded for free legally if you’re curious.) Without the context of the first two games, it’s difficult to appreciate what a big step forward Morrowind really was for the franchise.

In terms of total area, Morrowind ranks as the smallest of the five games, spanning between six to ten square miles (or 15-26 square kilometers). By comparison, Daggerfall covered an area larger than Great Britain, and Arena was even bigger than that. However, most of the environment in Daggerfall is randomly generated and the regions between towns often looked something like this:

Unlike anything you've ever seen before!

Needless to say, after some time it started to feel generic. While I’m all for procedural generation and I think it works great in many games, exploration in Daggerfall quickly became largely bland and uneventful once your brain stopped boggling at its sheer scale. While the graphics in Skyrim are certainly impressive by contemporary standards and are a considerable step up from the graphics in Oblivion, the third installment marked the biggest single jump forward graphically, as it was Bethesda’s first attempt to create an entirely handcrafted game world.

The result was that exploration outside of a town went from this:

…to this:

However, graphical developments like this are par for the course over the last 15-20 years. What made Morrowind particularly unique was its characterization. Bethesda filled the game world with handcrafted details in the environments and characters, reserving procedural behavior for the radiant AI that would be implemented in their later games. While doing so shrunk the size of the game in terms of the overall area, the game world still felt quite large as travel was more difficult, and each locale and NPC felt like a unique character. These individualized details were such a success that they’re still at the core of the franchise today.

Coupled with this was the increase in the depth of the game content. The shift between Daggerfall and Morrowind was truly one from quantity to quality. The in-game books totaled over 300, and after being compiled by fan with too much spare time, comprised a 1,300-page PDF. This wealth of flavor text expanded on the game’s storyline, but also greatly developed the world’s lore. Because of this, most of the books are now re-used alongside the new content added in each of the sequels.

Morrowind was also the first of The Elder Scrolls games to have a soundtrack composed by Jeremy Soule. Who is that, you ask? He’s a renowned video game composer who has produced the soundtracks for Total Annihilation, Neverwinter Nights, and Guild Wars, just to name a few. Soule is the man responsible the main theme for Morrowind, the melody of which has carried through every subsequent Elder Scrolls game thus far. His work added a degree of emotional intensity that made The Elder Scrolls feel that much more epic.

While Morrowind is not available to download for free like its predecessors, the Game of the Year edition is available on Steam, and the Xbox 360 is backwards compatible with the original Xbox version if you’d prefer to play on a console (god help you).

Have you played any of the first three games? Bearing in mind that they’re 10-15 years old, what do you think?


4 replies
  1. Emerson Guitar
    Emerson Guitar says:

    I do have to say, great article. As soon as I saw Elder Scrolls, I jumped on it like a crazy man. If you weren’t aware, I actually wrote a whole article on Morrowind, under the title Anthology: A Return to Vvardenfell. It would be great to hear if you experience was similar to mine.

  2. Brodie Young
    Brodie Young says:

    Ive spent well over 1000 hours between Morrowind and Oblivion. Wanna know something? I have never completed either game’s main quest. Now that, good Ogeeku, speaks volumes.

    While these games were awesome out of the box, the modding community is what really pushes these games into greatness. I have yet to play Skyrim because I refuse to get it for any platform but PC. My current PC is not strong enough to handle the game at a manageable speed. If it wasnt for the modding community, I dont think I would have spent even 1/3 of the time with these games. Oblivion especially.
    I was one of the lucky ones. I played Morrowind on Xbox. It got to the point where I had to save every 10 steps because the game would freeze. I wasnt spoiled then. I was more patient. Thinking about that now makes me cringe.

  3. Tim Ward
    Tim Ward says:

    Emerson, your article actually showed up under Related Posts, so it was really easy to find! Lots of great memories of Morrowind there. The first time I found the wizard with the Scrolls of Icarian Flight, I laughed my ass off, and I still love finding Maiq the Liar in the newer games as well. With regards to the vampirism questlines, I do miss them, but I was glad that Skyrim at least included a questline for werewolves.

    Much to the dismay of some of my friends, Brodie, I also haven’t completed the main storyline in any of the Elder Scrolls games. Several months back, one of my friends bought me a copy of Oblivion on Steam. He gifted it to me, and sent the message: “NOW LOG IN AND SAVE KVATCH YOU JERK!” Which I never did.

    And you’re both right: Morrowind was the first game in the series to really build a great modding community. And it can be just as easy to sink a lot of time into just MAKING mods, let alone playing around with them. I had a friend in college did just that.

  4. Jeff Gallo
    Jeff Gallo says:

    I’ll preface this by saying that I have nothing against modding or the modding community.

    With that out of the way, would this not say something a bit negative about the Elder Scrolls series? If you were far more interested in playing mods than finishing the actual game? Especially a game where the story is supposed to be so integral, were it done well would you not want to see it through to the end?

    Keep in mind these are questions, not accusations. I am genuinely curious why you are so high on a game that you never had the urge to actually finish.

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