From its rousing score to its breathtaking vistas, everything from head
to toe about Morrowind speaks the language of an epic, in the same
creative sense that led to Homer creating The Iliad, Miguel de
Cervantes' comical scripting of Don Quixote or James Joyce penning the
illustrious Ulysses. It all begins with a timeless, oft-repeated quest
motif: the archetype of the hero in the search for self.
Morrowind begins its tale off the shores of a sleepy town called Seyda Need. You, the protagonist, emerge from a deep slumber on a slave ship.
A fellow slave awakens you and through him, you find out that you have
no recollection of what had happened during the voyage but before you're
able to ask further questions, you're whisked off the ship to be
released. Morrowind is a remote province of a human race known only as
Imperial, who hail from the center of the continent from a place known
as Cyrodiil. The Imperials possess no more brawn, no more technology,
and no more spirituality than other races but like most empires, were
gifted with the skill of good governance. However, their hold on
distant Morrowind and its inhabitants, as the protagonist soon learns,
is tentative at best. Conquest of Morrowind was apparently done by
assimilating the existing residents, predominantly made of dark elves
known as dunmer.
The dunmer great houses, Indoril, Redoran, Telvani, Dres and Hlaalhu are
technically aligned with the empire. They continue administering the
lands but are under the aegis of the emperor, Uriel Septim VII, who
bestows a sort of Pax Romana or Pax Britannia on the land. But the
emperor is purportedly in ill health, making the houses restless,
especially in light of a disruptive sect emerging amongst the dunmer who
owe their allegiance to a 'lost' house following an entity known only as
Dagoth-Ur. Dagoth-Ur is clearly a nationalist cause that calls for all
dunmer to overthrow the yoke of the empire, a prospect that the few
Imperial garrisons scattered across Morrowind undoubtedly dread.
Dagoth-Ur prophesizes a champion born under a certain sign will come to
Morrowind and restore it. Like all Delphic prophecies, the 'it' is
particularly vague. That's where the protagonist steps in: he or she is
the one born under the sign but will they restore Morrowind under the
flag of the empire, cater to the nationalist dunmers or amass power as a
private tyrant? That is the dilemma that is handed to the player.
Morrowind was released on the PC initially and then on to the Xbox. It
is undeniably a different role-playing creature than what console
players have thus far experienced. Forget about levelling up, forget
even about specific levels, character classes or fixed story paths.
Morrowind is a living, breathing world that is dynamic and so too is the
role-playing aspect of it. Beginning with character creation, you're
emancipated, really, from character classes, racial restrictions or
perks and penalties of the D&D franchise. Mages can be fighters.
Thievery can be mixed with brawn. The most successful characters are
the ones who can do some of everything. Lacking a party system,
hirelings, familiars or companions, this is as it should be.
Furthermore, Morrowind tips its hat at the Ultima franchise, allowing
you to create characters based on a set of moral questions. And in some
sense, with its emphasis on skills and improvement of skills through
usage, it loosely resembles more like the system used in Fallout. These
two namesakes alone are testament enough that Morrowind is a
role-playing title of the PC breed.
Visually, Morrowind is played from a first person perspective, giving
you an intimate view of the action but most importantly, the landscapes.
Your travels will take you from swampy marshes, to stalactite caves, to
seaside coasts and barren deserts. Bethesda has had over a decade in
crafting titles featured in the Elder Scrolls' series. The artists of
Morrowind use a mix of real world architecture and fantasy influences to
create a wholly unique world. On the one hand, Imperial settlements
have a preference for stone, medieval style constructions with painted
glass. On the other hand, towering cities like Vivec are awe-inspiring
to behold but possess a distinct, foreign, dunmer feel to it.
Augmented by an equally impressive soundtrack, Jeremy Soule's score is
always present, ready to comment. Leave the town on a starless night
and his music chimes in ominously. Run up a hill to overlook a majestic
scene and the soundtrack drums up stirring tunes. Like most modern
scores, there are one or two memorable melodies. While Soule's work
here is commendable, it's not as memorable as his orchestral work in
Icewind Dale or the inimitable Dungeon Siege tune. Still, its tone is
able to speak the words of an epic and capture the zeitgeist of the
What do you do in an epic though? Actually, that touches on the piece
de resistance of Morrowind. You're able to literally do anything.
While you're initially told to visit a man known as Caius Cosades in
Balmora, there's no stopping you to go pillage the countryside for loot.
You can join a guild or a cult to achieve prosperity, fame, respect or
all of the above. Or similarly, you can follow the clues to discover
your identity and ultimately, your destiny. What you do is truly up to
you. Have trouble getting an item from someone? Perhaps, you can pay
for it, barter for it, sweet talk someone, kill for it or outright steal
it. Morrowind grants you free will but it's not the free will where
path A will take you to ending A1, A2 and A3. It's much more fluid,
dynamic and therefore, complex than that.
Many of the initial quests you receive are just that; quests, tasks or
what we call in the PC world, Fedex-style quests where you get item A to
character B. Often, it's something as trivial as taking something from
one end of town to another. There's a reason for that because when you
begin, you're incredibly weak, in combat and in skills. But as you
progress, you'll encounter tasks that are increasingly multifaceted.
They're predicated on allegiances to other political groups, races or
guilds and you'll be waylaid by circumstances of the situation. One
task was from the Thieves Guild to collect payment from someone in a
remote seedy town. I quickly found out the Thieves Guild is not highly
respected outside of Imperial settlements and through searching for this
person, I came across a slave whom I felt obligated to free, thereby
igniting a mini-mob war.
The excessive number of guilds, races and political groups is actually
one of the key factors of success for Morrowind. They not only dispense
a tremendous amount of quests, they also encourage replaying because at
higher levels, it'll be progressively tougher to toe the line as a
mercenary or journeyman for all. It also reinforces the role-playing
aspects. As an assassin in the Morag Tong, you'll perform politically
sanctioned assassinations or hits with a strange emphasis on honor. And
as you move away from your base of operations, you'll find your identity
with that group will do disparagement to others but because the group
offers so many amenities to you, you'll develop a sense of protective
pride in your character's identity; role playing, par excellence.
There's clearly so much to do in Morrowind that it's impossible to cover
all aspects of it. True, there are mishaps with Morrowind on the Xbox.
The lack of a health point indicator for your enemies has yet to be
rectified on the Xbox. Combat is simple, perhaps to encourage
non-violent solutions. The journal can often be a mess, especially when
looking for uncompleted quests. The art of persuasion is hackneyed at
best. You're able to persuade someone incessantly until they agree.
Finally, for a living world, citizens wander the same paths they do from
day to night and shops remain unceasingly open. But in light of the
magnitude of the story presented, these details become irrelevant.
In some senses, Morrowind reminded me of Star Control II. The best
fantasy or science fiction works are those that are reflections of our
own world. The mentions of Imperial, provincial governors, tax
collectors, the Imperial Cult and history of imperial dynasties are
unmistakably lifted from the pages of history; the Roman Empire or
loosely speaking, the British Empire. There are countless tomes of
books to flesh out the backdrop of the empire, the dark elf world and
local histories. They are attractive because they dazzle us with
fantastically new things but also because in them, we see slithers of
our past. Imperial books on the empire are jingoistic, almost like
nineteenth century British attitudes.
What both Star Control and Morrowind shared in common was a love for
conversation and a love for the written word. Only through these could
a world so vivid and appealing be truly shaped in our minds such that
when I walked up with my character to a barbaric tribe in the middle of
a barren desert, I said to myself, "I'm an Imperial." Ironically, for
such a good-sounding and great-looking title, the creators still thought
the imagination of the human mind was most crucial.
This will probably remain the magnum opus for Bethesda for many years to
come. Even with the pending release of Bioware titles on the Xbox, I
see very few titles that are going to approach the scope, grandeur and
majesty that this one is able to exude so naturally. It has all the
requisite components of an epic and when they play together, the
individual instruments meld into a mesmeric symphony. Critics will
assail that this title is missing a rigid plot line. Its combat is
deficient and the action will tempt people to ask, where is the joie de
vivre? Everything is here for those who are willing to look for it.