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:
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:
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?