It takes a particular kind of mindset to really enjoy a game like Morrowind. You really have to get what the designers are trying to do and understand why they avoid what seem like more obvious alternatives. Like the two previous games of the Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind has its sights set on one goal: to provide us, the players, with all the limitless possibility our finite little minds can comprehend. In an age where blockbusters like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy are accused of taking the "game" out of "videogame," its easy to see something like Morrowind as a critique of games that downplay the mediums innate virtues of interactive possibility. As a go-for-broke experiment in open-ended gameplay, Morrowind, like its predecessors Arena and Daggerfall, is ambitious, and that ambition is what gives the game a lot of its staying power. However, the manner in which it chooses to pursue that ambition is so single-minded, so dead-set on interpreting all aspects of the experience through a series of genre conventions, that it occasionally shoots itself in the foot. In many ways, Morrowind is a decisive improvement over the rest of the Elder Scrolls series and a relatively engaging game in its own right. As an attempt to realize a virtual world, though, its inability to think outside the role-playing game (RPG) box prevents it from achieving the sense of believability and purpose it obviously strives for.
Morrowind, like its predecessors, is a first-person RPG where a single player navigates the three-dimensional land of Tamriel, a fantasy world where a centralized, imperialist government rules uneasily over various ethnically diverse provinces, most of which feature races that are common to the role-playing genre such as elves, orcs, etc. Specifically, the game takes place on the Imperial district of Vvardenfall, the homeland of the Dark Elves where ethnic and religious tensions brought on by the Imperial occupation have sparked rumors of war. The game begins when the player, a prisoner from the imperial capital, arrives on a prison ship, is given her freedom without explanation, and set loose in Morrowind with only vague orders to report to the local Imperial secret service agent whenever it seems appropriate. From there, players have the option to pursue their orders (which, unsurprisingly, evolve into the main plot) or simply roam the land freely for as long as they desire and do anything that they wish. Naturally, theres quite a bit to do. The player can choose to plunder caves for treasure, sign on with the local law enforcement, join a religious cult, become a murderer, or even become an immortal vampire. All these are but a small handful of options available to the player and they all involve their own sets of people to meet, places to visit, and items obtain.
Of course, no RPG with this much variety would be complete without a system though which the player can customize her character. Naturally, the player is given the opportunity to choose a race, and gender, and a profession (or even create a profession if none seem suitable). These choices determine what skills and abilities the player will have during the game and from there can be customized as the player sees fit. Want to be an assassin who specializes in crossbows? Or a healer who responds to conflicts defensively? Or a charming rogue who can talk her way out of situations? Its all doable, and as long as players have the patience to improve their skills through repeated use or to buy training from experts, they have the opportunity to approach obstacles in a seemingly endless variety of ways.
Sounds great, right? Of course it does. The dream of the Ultimate Non-Linear RPG has been alive ever since the genre jumped off the page and into the virtual world of 1s and 0s. Its the holy grail the genre has sought after: to effectively recreate the sense of detail and narrative possibility that, previously, only a human imagination could provide. Morrowind, like its predecessors, is a dramatic push to make this dream a reality.
Its an admirable ambition, but one that works much better in theory than in practice. While theres no doubt that Morrowind is a much better game than either of its predecessors, it still suffers from the same core design weaknesses. The problem, I think, comes from two false assumptions. One, that a bigger world is a more real world, and two, that the subtlety achieved with lots of numerical stats is an effective substitute for the subtlety of actual physics. Sure, a big world with 50+ towns is realistic in the sense that its vast, but not as realistic as a world with five towns where the time that would have been spent to make the other 45 was spent giving each town the nuances that make them seem truly alive. Sure, a world where I cant kill a bandit because Im bad with a sword is realistic, but its far more unrealistic in the sense that my sword passes through my opponent without so much as being parried simply because a numeric skill rating is too low.
Things like these wouldnt be so terrible, except that Morrowind doesnt seem prepared to deal with narrative consequences implied by this absurd logic. It doesnt muster any really creative excuses for why the world operates the way it does other than "its an RPG." Why doesnt anyone one go to sleep? Why arent there any children? Why do otherwise peaceful people fly into a homicidal rage as their only response to the most benign physical threats? Why is your character bipolar in his/her response to any situation, only being able to choose between being a do-gooder or a self-serving scoundrel?
Dont get me wrong. Im not criticizing Morrowind because it contains weaknesses in logic. All games that attempt to simulate a believable world do. The best games of this sort, however, find fiendish and interesting ways of disguising them. Games like Deus Ex, Thief, and even The Legend Of Zelda: Majoras Mask managed to orchestrate such ingenious excuses for their obvious logical shortcomings that they transcended them to achieve an impressive illusion of believability. Rather than trouble itself with such things, Morrowind seems content to coyly ask the player to ignore them because well, I guess because we should be happy that the game is so damn big.
Not that this makes Morrowind a bad game. Its actually quite a fun game, just not a very good example of a world simulation. Even though to accept the world as real required a suspension of disbelief that was beyond me, I did find the basic format of advancing in a profession to be engaging. In my game I was a thief, and I had fun thieving, looting, and becoming involved in conspiracy plot that decided the fate of Morrowind and the Empire. So, I think the game works on many of the levels it promises, but just not on the one that is the most vivid and enticing. The back of the box promises the opportunity to "live another life," and that really isnt something that Morrowind delivers on. If you want that and all the dramatic subtlety it implies, youd be better off picking up a bargain bin copy of Fallout or Planescape: Torment. The Elder Scroll series, for all its achievements, still doesnt quite seem to understand that role-playing a profession isnt the same as role-playing a person.