Friday, November 15, 2013

Fulfill an Ancient Prophecy in Vvardenfell

In the waning years of the Third Era of Tamriel, a prisoner born on a certain day to uncertain parents was sent under guard, without explanation, to Morrowind, ignorant of the role he was to play in that nation's history…

So begins the grand adventure of the epic role-playing game, Morrowind, released in 2002 for PC and XBOX by Bethesda Softworks. I originally played the XBOX version when it was first released, and can remember, when the somewhat somber and reflective opening theme music began, and the above quote whispered its way across the screen, thinking that this was going to be a unique experience. I was absolutely right about that assessment–of all the worlds I've ever visited, Vvardenfell captured my attention and imagination for the longest period of time.
A merchant with books available for sale, or for pilfering,
if you've got the skill (and the nerve) to do it.

Unlike many video games, Morrowind has a much more "literary" quality to it, due in part to the over 300 actual books that are scattered about the land and readable by the player. If you added up all the in-game books, it is said to equal the amount of content in six standard-size novels! Most of the books are found in bookstores, homes, temples and come in the form of serialized installments, so you get, for example, "The Biography of Barenziah" volumes 1-3. So if you're following the story, it's fun to come across the next volume. Kind of like it's fun to read a trilogy in real life!

Another crazily fun thing to do in Vvardenfell is steal stuff! I love to play thief-type characters, and Morrowind is definitely a game that rewards this playstyle. If you gain enough skill in sneaking, you can move around, virtually unseen, and take whatever items you need. You can also train up your security skill and become an expert at lockpicking, which will allow you access to even more precious items. There are, of course, consequences, for getting caught. But if you play your cards right, these will be negligible, and you'll be sitting pretty like Smaug on your big pile of phat loot!

Great attention is paid to continuity between what you read and hear about, and the actual people and places you encounter in-game. For example, you might meet someone in the game with the last name Hlaalu, realizing you've read about their ancestors in a book somewhere, or even paid a visit to a tomb of one of those ancestors (and possibly robbed it!). 

Maps this beautiful are rare in video games.
These days you're lucky if you get a map at all!
The Light Side:

The culture and architecture of Vvardenfell has a truly unique feel, somewhere between the traditional medieval European look and a more nomadic, or "desert" style. There are even some truly fantastic dwellings that are encountered later in the story that I will not spoil for you. Suffice to say that the weirder elements of life in Vvardenfell are elegantly and seamlessly integrated with the rest of the design and the story. Even the mode of public transportation between towns, giant, flea-like creatures called silt striders, seems perfectly natural. When you want to go somewhere, you have to plan your route, just as you would in real life. The game comes with a printed, hand-drawn map of the world (amazingly detailed, a work of art in itself), which, along with the in-game map, aids you in planning your adventures.

The artists that created the world lavished attention on the textures, "painting" them by hand, rather than having a computer randomly generate them. This attention to detail shows, everywhere, especially in the fields and forests, where you'll find bright patches of all kinds of flora. These can be picked and used to create potions.

Realistic day/night cycles present an ever-changing backdrop, with brilliantly colored clouds during the day and twinkling stars by night.

The Dark Side:

There's always someone standing between you and your goals.

Naturally, the game is not only about wandering around admiring the scenery. There are numerous places scattered about the land where trouble can be found and gotten into. Smugglers' caves, full of loot (and angry smugglers); tombs of wealthy nobles; strange temples to even stranger gods; gloomy, underground hangouts of deranged cultists–these are only a few of the places you can go to test your mettle, and acquire the ever-important equipment you'll need on your journeys.

There are also ruins scattered about, remnants of a race of people called Dwemer who disappeared, en masse, leaving their mechanical creations behind. This is one of the stories you can follow and discover more of by reading the aforementioned books.

Your Role:

The approach to the story makes Morrowind truly unique. Unlike many role-playing games, your progress through the story feels entirely natural. The quests nudge you along, almost without your even realizing it, through the main story. Even the side quests seem to support and complement the direction in which you are already going. This makes for a very satisfying visit to a fictional world, and a feeling that you are, in fact, woven into the tapestry of the story itself.

Depending on the quality of your personality, as well as what you've achieved, the citizens of Vvardenfell react differently towards you in different situations–some hostile, some helpful. There consequences for breaking laws, as well as ways to get away with breaking laws if you're crafty enough. You'll meet many different kinds of people of varying races, and have the opportunity to join many groups and guilds, gaining assistance and experience as you aid your new group in various matters. The main story is riveting, especially if you can steel yourself not to look any of it up online. Gradually, the dawning of what is at stake begins to take shape, along with your own role in it, making for a real "page-turner" feel.

In Summary:

Worth Visiting Score: 10/10

If I could recommend one game to friends who enjoy fantasy novels, but are not avid gamers, it would be Morrowind. This is no button-mashing time waster, but an interactive fiction experience that draws you in and piques your curiosity to know more, just like a good epic fantasy should. Play it while you still can!

Technical Notes:

Morrowind is an oldie-but-goodie. Though designed for the original XBOX, Morrowind still plays on an XBOX 360 just fine, though the graphics are better if you play the PC version (provided that you have a good enough video card, which you probably do, given that this game is circa 2002). There have also been many mods created by users, via the kit provided by the developer, that give you more quests, more items, and more places to explore. Some mods also improve upon the already-gorgeous graphics, making the visuals even more immersive. These would only be available for the PC version.



Morrowind is © Bethesda Softworks LLC, a ZeniMax Media company