Birb Friends Review: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC)

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the third installment of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise and a follow up to Daggerfall, marked the first modern Bethesda role-playing experience. When I first encountered the wastes and swamps of Vvardenfell I was enamored, but I was also a very young child. Playing on my original Xbox, I started at the yelps of a man falling from the sky in goofy blue wizard robes speckled with stars and gazed in wonder at the giant fleas that strode the rivers’ silt. It’s been 15 years since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was released, and after years of waxing, raving, and procrastinating, I’ve finally completed the base game’s main story. Nowadays there are innumerable ways to purchase Morrowind and its expansions, Tribunal and Bloodmoon, including Steam, GOG.com, and in physical releases of all shapes and sizes. With that in mind and regardless of the content that follows, I strongly recommend purchasing and playing this landmark title and achievement of a game.

To detail my experiences with Morrowind, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

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The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Logo (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from their official Morrowind page)
Technical Proficiency: 77/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 54/100

  • Style Score: 81/100
  • Animation Score: 35/100
  • Purpose Score: 50/100

While destined to be full of reused assets, similar areas, and bland NPCs, Morrowind succeeds in crafting a simultaneously believable and outrageous dreamscape of an island. A volcano gated by pulsating blue magics, an enormous canal city reminiscent of the Aztec’s Tenochtitlan, mushroom trees of great size and variety, and biomes of every sort make up only a small fraction of Morrowind’s intriguing sites. Coupled with the dreamlike fogging of the game’s short render distance, Morrowind’s ethereal setting springs to life. Enemy design is more inventive in Morrowind than previous Elder Scrolls games and introduces future mainstays of the series such as Hungers and Golden Saints. Armors, clothing, and weapons feature designs inspired by a multitude of cultures and, though they occasionally look silly in practice, allow for a wide amount of customization and differentiation between characters. Morrowind’s skyboxes move through night and day cycles with stunning renditions of Nirn’s moons. As for color design, textures are muted and muddled due to the limitations of the time, but deep jewel tones and a variety of lusters and roughnesses allow for many separate yet unified themes. For its imaginative source material and captivating execution, Morrowind receives an 81/100 in the category of visual style.

Animation is where Morrowind’s visuals fall horribly flat. Awkward and inhuman for every humanoid in the game and animatronic for everything else, nothing breaks the immersion of a role-playing experience like an NPC float/running up a wall with elbows bent at an extreme position and clothing clipping into limbs. Despite their shortcomings, Morrowind’s animations are, at the very least, functional in relating game information to the player and expressive for its menagerie of creatures and special people. Everything considered 35/100 is Morrowind’s animation score.

Morrowind is a first/third person action RPG that intends to immerse the player in a believable world. For this to function there are some concessions made to visual cuing and mechanical clarity. Nonetheless, Morrowind delivers many visual cues to its players through the use of specially marked color coded effects that differ depending on the school of magic from which the effect originated, and telegraphed attacks. A distinct sheen on magical items also relates information to the player in a similar fashion along with unobtrusive pop-up tips that describe items available for pickup. While not perfect and often too cluttered to decipher, Morrowind’s visual purpose is completely functional to earn a 50/100.

Overall Sound Score: 80.44/100

  • Music Score: 92/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 69/100
  • Variety Score: 80/100

Morrowind was the first game in the Elder Scrolls series to enlist the aid of highly lauded composer Jeremy Soule. Contemplative and ambient with memorable melodic movements and an orchestra worth of instrumental variety and intensity, Soule’s soundtrack offers a near perfect complement to the adventurous, beautiful, foreboding, and often bewildering feeling of Vvardenfell. Tracks such as “Peaceful Waters” build slowly from dreamy harp song into emotive string crescendos and continue onward to deep ponderings and choral murmurs that resolve with the plucking at which they began. More conflictive tracks, such as “Bright Spears, Dark Blood”, recapitulate the triumphant movements of the title track “Nerevar Rising” while simultaneously washing the player with sounds of fear and apprehension. My personal favorite track still stands as “The Road Most Traveled” which never fails to conjure images of the watery shantytowns in which I first heard its bustling drum beats and swelling melodies. Where Morrowind’s music fails is in its repetition throughout the game’s potentially hundreds of hours of play time and the general lack of context sensitivity. The game’s music rotates through the selection of tracks and only changes tone to notify the player that they are being attacked. Beyond this minor criticism, the soundtrack of Morrowind is moving, fully realized, and as memorable as any John Williams score ever could be. For those reasons, Morrowind receives a 92/100 in the music category.

Screeching creatures, booming voices, shocking shouts, blustering winds, swishing weapons, clanging metals, and much more adorn Morrowind’s aural presentation at all times. The abrasive noises of Morrowind highlight the feelings of isolation and unease that characterize the entrance into Vvardenfell’s alien world. After hours of playtime, the familiar words of Morrowind’s inhabitants will ring in the players ear and work to build every thematic sense that Morrowind contains. The only noises that Morrowind fails to craft are its magic effect sounds which berate the ears unnecessarily and grow quite repetitive quite quickly. It’s for these reasons that Morrowind receives a 69/100 in the sound effects category.

From the full orchestration of the soundtrack to the diverse sounds that accompany those tracks, Morrowind isn’t afraid to show the player new and interesting things. That being said, a larger soundtrack would have been greatly welcomed and certain creature sounds (I’m looking at you, cliff racers) grow tiresome after many hours in Vvardenfell. Increasing the variety of sounds available to each creature could have alleviated this issue, though this is a relatively minor complaint. For these reasons, 80/100 is Morrowind’s aural variety score.

Overall Controls Score: 97.22/100

Dwemer Spiders
A glass axe stands ready to strike Dwemer Spider Constructs in an aged ruin. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
  • Controller Score: 100/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 95/100

The PC edition of Morrowind does not support the use of a controller although I can’t imagine why you would choose to use one as the mouse and keyboard control setup is more than adequate. The Xbox edition’s controller usage works perfectly as well if you choose to play on that console. During my play through, I found the keyboard and mouse fit the needs of the game perfectly and for that reason Morrowind receives a 100/100 as its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Morrowind, though this may differ depending on the hardware and settings you intend to use. Because Morrowind is a 15 year old game, nearly all modern hardware can run the game smoothly with at least 30 fps. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 100/100 in the responsiveness category.

While criticisms can be made that Morrowind’s draggable menus are detrimental to the user interface’s functionality, I took no issue with them and at some moments even found their flexibility convenient. Beyond this, nearly all control inputs are remappable and don’t conflict in their default positions, allowing the player to control their character with ease. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 95/100 in the functionality category.

Morrowind Steam Banner
(Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
Artistic Proficiency: 72/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 59.44/100

Dwemers Touch The Sky
The Nerevarine stands amidst the ruins of the great Dwemer nation. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
  • Agency Score: 90/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 38/100
  • Variety Score: 75/100

Morrowind is a game about constraints and how to succeed within them through patience, hard work, and determination. It is a game about consequences and living with those consequences; there are mutually exclusive quest lines that force decisions in interesting ways. Morrowind gives the player the agency to define themselves both at the outset of the adventure and through acting and leveling skills by use within a space that reacts to player agency in novel ways. Oppressive forces like the Ordinators will beat you into line, others will halt your progress until a service has been paid them, and some won’t even notice when their conspirators are murdered miles away. There are many impactful things you can do in Morrowind; kill gods, rise through the political systems of the Dunmer (Dark Elf) Great Houses, pick mushrooms for a fledgling alchemist, but most seem as innocuous, disconnected, and unimportant to the system as our day to day actions in the real world. How wrong that assumption is. The systems of magic within the game also give way to creative agency in terms of problem solving and character building. Alchemy is an incredibly exploitable system to enhance the player character and crafted spells can specifically solve any number of problems in the game. Everything from water walking and levitation to invisibility can be applied not only to the player character but also to NPCs and monsters. With an open world design that allows the player to learn the limitations and impact of their agency and plenty of opportunities to use it, Morrowind receives a 90/100 in the agency category.

The core gameplay loop of Morrowind is as follows: explore the world and stumble upon a quest bearing NPC, receive quest from that NPC, travel to the appropriate area to complete the task, complete the task or receive an addendum to the task, return to the NPC. Some tasks require dungeon crawling, others require patient talking and item collection, the best require a convoluted mix of both. Morrowind’s gameplay loop is not for the easily bored or illiterate; it requires a respect and dedication for the work and writing that went into crafting it that many other games lack. That being said, Morrowind’s gameplay loop is no better than Diablo’s gameplay loop or any other Elder Scrolls game; it is enhanced and defined solely by the pretense and context given it by the audiovisual experience of the game. For that reason, Morrowind is not a tightly designed game and relies far too heavily on its story as a means to mask its ends. There is no deep combat system here (although the level up system magnifies and builds a narrative for the impact of your decisions in interesting ways), no deep conversation system here, and no slow introduction and intuitive teaching of mechanics. Sadly, Morrowind’s core gameplay loop receives the low score of 38/100.

In terms of variety, Morrowind excels. A large selection of factions and guild allows for hours and hours of content exploration. The wide selection and application of spells, enchanted items, and potions allows for ingenious solutions to combative, social, and environmental scenarios. A small, but dense and hand crafted play world allows adventure in any direction for any reason. This being said, Morrowind’s primary concession is that it’s action will be entirely similar regardless of the new context. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 75/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 85.33/100

Urshilaku_Camp
The Nerevarine cult resides in the Urshilaku Ashlander Camp. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from the Elder Scrolls Wikia’s Urshilaku Camp page)
  • Characters Score: 90/100
  • Plot Score: 81/100
  • Coherency Score: 85/100

Morrowind’s central characters are the self-made gods of the Tribunal, their fallen comrade Dagoth Ur, the Daedric Prince Azura, and the long dead champion of the Dunmer people Indoril Nerevar. You play a prisoner with the right characteristics to take on the role of the Nerevarine, Indoril Nerevar’s reincarnated self, after being moved to Vvardenfell and are given your freedom in exchange for orders by the Emperor to fulfill the Nerevarine prophecy. The history that surrounds all these characters and the resulting prophecy is muddled and different in each book and description you are given. No single narrative can take into consideration every aspect of the current events and many of those who had part in the events of the past give conflicting accounts. This creates an intriguing character study of each participant that not only relates to large sociological issues in the real world but also smaller, personal issues. Fantasy is the home of symbolism and analogy, and Morrowind is full of them both. Beyond this, the characters you interact with during the main quest are much less concerned with your actions and instead busy themselves with continuing the current function of their homeland. Each have personal desires and motivations, but they are seldom revealed. Outside the main quest the world comes to live with many hastily realized characters that are endearing for their quirks alone. For this reason, Morrowind receives a 90/100 for its character score.

The plot of Morrowind is intently political in nature and explores the culture and history of Morrowind while the player finds ways to fulfill each step of the Nerevarine prophecy, join together the people of Vvardenfell against the growing diseased army of Dagoth Ur, and end Dagoth Ur’s plan to conquer all of Tamriel. It follows Morrowind’s philosophical discussions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and control and freedom in a way that mirrors the best speculative fiction and, in some cases, directly steals concepts from previous works.  Despite this, Morrowind’s plot is an engaging, interesting whole with a lot to say about the world. For that it receives an 81/100 in the plot category.

Morrowind requires the player to actively engage in seeking out lore and answers, as well as critically analyze the full implications of its design and story decisions to  understand its final product. With that being said, many players, especially those familiar with the other installments in the series, can attest to the enjoyment of experience the smaller distractions and quests can deliver alone. In this way, Morrowind’s main quest is a product reliant on and designed to integrate novel experiences with at least part of the additional game content into itself. This build an understanding of the game’s world as a system and give Morrowind an 85/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Morrowind Cover Art
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Box Art (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from the Elder Scrolls Wikia’s Morrowind page)

While Morrowind suffers from a number of constraints based both in failure of design and in designing for the limitations of the hardware at the time, it’s lore, characters, and plot carry a depth and applicable weight that hasn’t faltered even after 15 years. Imbalanced design adds a layer of novel discovery to play, especially in the magic aspect of the gameplay, and the breadth of experiences available increases replay value. An experience more alike to searching a library with the aid of a librarian than to participating in a great cataclysm, Morrowind is not an experience for everyone but if you enjoy deep fantasy lore, exploring an alien world, testing and playing within the limits of a complex system, and philosophical enquiry it is an enjoyable one. It is my hope that future Bethesda RPGs, and especially future Elder Scrolls installments, will take note of the triumphs and the failures of Morrowind. Voice acting in subsequent games decreased the tedium of exposition but also left exposition awkward, truncated, and discordant with purpose more often than not. Combat has not grown mechanically in any way which is an enormous disappointment as gameplay is the weakest component of the series. The creation of a new mythos that mimics real myth instead of directly lifting from it was a triumph of Morrowind that gradually fell out of favor in the recent games. At the price of $15 for Morrowind’s Game of the Year edition, which includes content not covered by this review, Morrowind is more than worth the purchase price (especially with the added value of mods from Morrowind’s vibrant and active modding community). If you’re interested in exploring an alien world, thinking on metaphysical and political issues relevant even today, and meeting and creating a multitude of wacky situations, then Vvardenfell might be your perfect escapist destination. Just be sure to speak quickly, outlander.


75/100 – Great!

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Author: Shane Nichols

Co-founder and blogger at Birb Friends. I like a variety of games and celebrate game design that uses game mechanics to tell stories. You can catch me writing comparison posts, in depth game reviews, and game design articles, as well as with Noah Stites in our YouTube let's play show TheDPadShow.

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