Okay, here's today's to-do list: I need to go sell some of the rare weapons and armor Ive found for some cash, and trap a soul or two so I can enchant a weapon. Of course, I'll want to learn a few new spells before that, but I'm probably going to have to do some trivial favors for a friend maybe steal something from a wealthy socialite. I need to repair my weapons and then assassinate an aristocrat (hopefully without being detected).
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, from developer Bethesda Softworks, often seems so much like a full days work that it's easy to forget its just a game. It is time consuming in a most unforgiving way, and there is always something to do: someone to speak with, something to find, something to learn. Despite flaws that restrain the game from reaching the vision of its developers, it is remarkably engaging and always interesting, even if its not always very enjoyable. Most importantly, Morrowind's foray into extremely non-linear gameplay reveals some of the strengths and weaknesses of the concept, and in the process elevates the art of videogame design.
The game begins with a minimal narrative setup: you control a slave who, for some mysterious reason, has been set free by orders of an Emperor and released on the island of Vvardenfall. You create a foundation for the character in-game, choosing sex, race, class, skills, and other characteristics that will make him or her creation unique. This character is then given a package and a "mission" of sorts. However, once this initial setup is complete, you are free to do as you wish. Rather than proceed predictably and mechanically through a tightly scripted sequence of events, you are free to chart your own course through the game. In fact, there is such an overwhelming sense of freedom that Morrowind often feels less like a game and more like an alternate reality where one can live and function.
Like any videogame, a players actions in Morrowind are limited by rules and boundaries; Morrowind simply does not guide the player through a strictly linear progression. You can choose where to go, what do to do, and when to do it. Vvardenfall is extraordinarily vast and intricate. There are numerous factions and guilds that can be joined, and each will give players tasks to perform, ranging from trivial fetch quests to complicated adventures involving deception, murder and thievery. A central narrative, involving a faction under command of the Emperor called the Blades, gives the game some direction and structure. The Blades are the only faction for which membership is required to further the central plot. Of course, there is nothing that says you have to follow the games plot at all. It is quite possible to simply live a fictitious life of sorts in Morrowind, stealing, adventuring, trading, and taking on any of the hundreds of random mini-quests scattered throughout the game. There are also hundreds of books found throughout the game that detail the history and culture of the land.
As with any role-playing game, your character will gain experience and become more powerful with time. Interestingly, characters in Morrowind conform to the actions of the player. To become skilled in magic, one casts spells; to become skilled in thievery, one steals, and so on. Such a system eschews any limitations on character development. There is nothing to stop a player from developing a character that is skilled in stealth, wears heavy armor, and casts powerful magic spells. There are all kinds of fascinating trades that can learned four different "schools" of magic, alchemy, numerous weapon and armor skill, conversational skills, sneaking and lock-picking skills, and so forth. This is one of Morrowinds greatest strengths if you become bored with developing one group of skills, you can simply take a break and work on developing others.
Unfortunately, the open-ended gameplay, coupled with the immensity of Vvardenfall, is a double-edged sword. With so little emphasis on the central plot and so many factions and random passers-by to dole out quests of varying degrees, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things to do. The gameplay may feel aimless or confusing. It is not unusual to spend hours on end in a daze of overlong peripatetic journeys that seem to have little purpose or value. While a departure from linearity is welcome, a more pressing importance on the central plot would have given the game a stronger sense of direction. Oddly, the central supporting characters seem to suggest that time is of the essence, yet the game gives no concrete incentives to further the plot. Additionally, the walking pace is exasperatingly slow until your character is significantly leveled up; some more reasonable form of travel (such as the horse in The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time) would have spared hours that are spent grudgingly wandering from one place to the next.
Morrowind is certainly an ambitious game; the scale of the world is overwhelmingly large and its population is remarkably diverse. Within the rather broad boundaries of rules that structure the game, there are virtually no limitations on a players actions. You could be freeing slaves one moment and robbing an aristocrat the next. However, in the attempt to create such a wide array of cultures and characters, much of the believability of the characters is sacrificed. Dialogue is entirely text-based. Players are given a menu of subjects from which to choose that varies from one non-playable character (NPC) to the next. Each NPC has a disposition rating the higher their disposition, the more likely they will be to share personal or confidential information, sell items at low cost, and purchase items at an inflated price. It is even possible to offer bribes or use your characters speechcraft skill to increase an NPCs disposition. While the system itself is quite creative, the monotony of text subjects presented by the NPCs prevents them from portraying a believable sense of humanity. Additionally, the content of the dialogue rarely strays from factual information. Few of the characters are personable albeit in the most translucent manner (such as a friendly greeting). While developing intricate personalities for hundreds or thousands of NPCs is obviously impractical, it is an unfortunate side effect of a game of such massive scale.
To its credit, Morrowind is largely what the player makes it. It truly is open-ended. There are an amazing number of skills and trades to master, and nearly infinite ways to play the game. As incredibly long and involving a game as it is, it is virtually impossible to gain a real understanding of the freedom offered in Morrowind without trying multiple characters. Conflict may often be avoided through stealth or magic. When conflict does occur, there are almost always numerous solutions paralyze an enemy and run, chop them to smithereens with an axe, or drink an invisibility potion and vanish before their eyes, for example. Because the game is stat-based, it is also possible to exploit the level-up system to create an extraordinarily powerful character. While such power mongering can be very tempting, it is not necessary to fully experience the game and may in fact dilute the role-playing experience.
Morrowind is often the victim of its own ambition. In my review of Microsoft's first-person shooter Halo, I wrote, "I believe that the greatest achievement to which any game can strive is to create a world so lifelike, so logically implemented, that it allows players to feel a suspension of disbelief that is uninterrupted by illogical inconsistencies." Morrowind is filled with odd breaks in logic that hamper that suspension of disbelief. The world can seem very interesting and believable one moment, then feel very static and artificial the next. At one point in the game, for example, I robbed a merchant in plain sight. I had established a rapport with this merchant and had a very high disposition rating with him. To my surprise and despite the on-screen message informing me that my crime had been reported I lost no disposition points with the merchant. Crime is also handled illogically. Even if a character is alone when you attack or steal from them, your crime will immediately be reported and every guard in Vvardenfall will try to arrest or even kill you. All NPCs will be reluctant to speak with you. Simple monetary payoffs to a handful of seedy helpers in the game will immediately and completely erase not only the bounty on your head, but your reputation throughout Vvardenfall. The act of sneaking, which is integral to the game (particularly if you choose to avoid violence or master thievery), is handled in such a strange way as to rob it of believability. Sometimes it is possible to commit crimes by simply standing out of a characters view. I was able to steal from right under peoples noses and even kill in crowded areas simply by "hiding" behind a doorway or support beam. Bethesda was so eager to create a big house that they failed to give it a solid foundation.
Nonetheless, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is one of the most fascinating games I've played in recent memory. It is an ambitious but flawed game that is exasperating at some times, captivating at others, and always engaging. The quests are well varied and the world is full of interesting things to see and do. Bethesda's efforts to create truly non-linear gameplay are as much an experiment in game design as they are a realized concept. In their attempt to create a world so massive and diverse, Bethesda made a handful of key oversights in logic that sometimes paint a contrived, unconvincing world. Nonetheless, the array of skills is so interesting and the innumerable paths through the game so varied that Morrowind impressively displays many of the strengths of non-linear gameplay. Both its successes and its flaws will serve as important landmarks in the future development of role-playing games.