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Full Steam Ahead: The Elder Scrolls III – Morrowind

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 57 minutes

Oh dear.

During the a Steam sale at some point in 2012, not long after the release of the wildly popular Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim, I purchased Elder Scrolls III – Morrowind. I did this partly because all of the Bethesda games were on sale, and I think Morrowind was the cheapest one. I also remember at one point, many years prior, having some fun with the character creator. I also remember having fun with Fallout 3, another Bethesda game. Also, to be perfectly honest, I liked the idea of playing a ten year old game while everyone was busy raving about Skyrim, because I was a bit of a hipster idiot.

Since that point, I have played Morrowind a grand total of 57 minutes. This game occupied so little of my interest that I couldn’t even spend an hour on it. Furthermore, I’ve tried playing other games in the Elder Scrolls series, most notably Skyrim, and found it very difficult to engage in the game in any way. The world of Elder Scrolls doesn’t fascinate me the way some games do.

Well, that’s what this series is about. Unfamiliar with the setting, unfamiliar with the game itself, with nothing but some fond memories of character creation, it’s time to dive into Morrowind.

I can practically hear the main theme already.

I have reason to be optimistic. Some of my friends who are familiar with the Elder Scrolls games are were quite excited to hear that Morrowind was next up on Full Steam Ahead. They’ve told me that although it certainly would look and feel dated by now, the game’s quality at the time of its release, 2002, was spectacular. Also the story shouldn’t have suffered any.

Knowing nothing about the world of Morrowind, or the greater world it is part of, Tamriel, I figure there’s no good reason not to have a little fun with character creation. Meet Local Pineapple! Local Pineapple is named after a personal favourite story from work. Local Pineapple is, as I decided during character creation, a wood elf agent, born under the sign of the shadow.

Hello, Local Pineapple!

I have no clue what any of this means, but it’s fun enough to get me started. Bethesda’s games tend to be set in utterly massive worlds, and the Elder Scrolls series in particular is famous for having plenty of side quests, adventures, and ways to get lost. Since this will be my first time really making an effort at engaging with the world, I’ve decided to, whenever possible, stick to the main storyline. While I’m sure the rest of the world is truly fascinating, with plenty to discover, I’ll never make any progress in this game if I get distracted by every little thing. Fortunately, the main story seems to act as something of a crash course in history and geography. The game takes place, not surprisingly, in the province of Morrowind, a holding of the Tamriel Empire, and the cultural homeland of the dark elves, also known in this world as dunmer.

However, I am almost immediately distracted. I learn from a helpful commoner in the starting village of Seyda Neen that there’s a den of bandits close to the town, and the guards are too lazy or too corrupt to do anything about them. Sounds like a good place to start! I scrounge up some money, buy some armour and weapons, and head out.

I die almost immediately. This is annoying. The game autosaves upon resting, not upon entering new areas, such as bandits’ dens; I have no saved game. This is more annoying. After rushing through the character creation process from the very start for a second time, I’ve learned my lesson; This is not some game released post 2010, when you can’t walk two inches without autosaving. Me and the quicksave key (F5, for those who are curious) are now good friends.

So, round 2 with the bandits. Combat in this game is… choppy. Not in the sense that I do a lot of chopping, more in the sense that I have a very difficult time telling, from one moment to the next, what is actually happening. I don’t really know how many times Local Pineapple successfully hit the bandit, and I even have a hard time determining how many time Local Pineapple was hit, All I know for certain is that I clicked several times, and now a dead dark elf lies at my feet.

My best guess is the low polygon count deflects blows, like a stealth plane deflects radar.

To be fair, they attacked me first, but I think it’s time to get on with that story mission. I take a silt strider (read, giant bug) to the next stop, Balmora, a bustling metropolis!

This experience would have been 100% improved with chirping crickets.

Okay, so in a game released this long ago, it’s not surprising that there are fewer NPCs wandering around than one might expect to find in a modern release, but it still lends an eerie, deserted feel to the game. However, the small number of random citizens means it’s relatively easy to find Caius Cosades, the spymaster in these parts. I’m to be an Imperial Blade, a spy in service to the Emperor of Tamriel, Uriel Septim. The first thing they send me to do is get a cover identity, so I join up with the Balmora Fighter’s Guild.

The Balmora Fighter’s Guild sends me to go kill some cave rats. They very nearly kill me, but the cave rat infestation has been dealt with. Then they send me to go kill some egg poachers. Pretty standard RPG stuff.

Wandering through even a small portion of the Morrowind wilderness, I can’t help but admire the creativity of the designers. Massive mushrooms are scattered throughout the landscape, giving it an otherworldly feel. I encounter an adorable insect/lizard/thing called a scrib. Upon reaching the egg mines, I discover that scrib are the larval form of kwama, insect like creatures whose eggs are immensely valuable to the Morrowind economy. While none of this gives me a better idea of the story the game wishes to tell, it all helps build Morrowind as a setting that is interesting at least.

This is a scrib. I want one.

The setting that is slowly, and surely, growing on me. Morrowind might be pretty ugly by modern graphic standards, the controls are not exactly what I’d call intuitive, and it takes a long time to get anywhere, but I’m finding myself enjoying it. What’s more, I’m a sucker for an interesting story. It becomes quickly apparent that not everyone in the province of Morrowind is pleased with Imperial control. What’s more, I keep hearing whispers of Nerevarine, a reincarnation of some long-dead dunmer hero who will drive the Empire from Morrowind.

My next mission for the Fighter’s Guild involves tracking some spies who are stealing from a nearby mining company. I head north, pick some flowers, kill some cave rats, and get to Caldera, home to the Caldera Mining Company. Locals here are immensely proud of the mining company, except for one khajit (cat person). He informs me that the mine uses slave labour, and that while he doesn’t approve, out of sight, out of mind, right?

Because of who I am, I decided to check out the mining operation before hunting spies. I found that not only were all the slaves khajit, but their living conditions are horrible. Small, crowded cabins, with no food. They are kept under a strict curfew, and not allowed to speak to one another. They are regularly disciplined with magic. Further investigation shows me a note to the company’s mages warning them not to use too much fire, as it could potentially set off gas pockets.

No jokes, in this picture I’m afraid.

In a game that grows more interesting with each passing hour, the addition of slavery as a story angle is fascinating to me. As a Canadian, the setting of a far-flung province under strict imperialist control speaks very much to me. However, slavery as a practice is banned in all parts of the Empire of Tamriel, except Morrowind; the dunmer maintain it is a traditional practice. I think, usually, that the most interesting stories are not tales of good versus evil, but of good versus good, or evil versus evil,. Obviously I can’t say I much support the idea of Imperial control, but the dunmer are not a kind group of people. However, the Empire of Tamriel, despite exercising such control over other aspects of Morrowind, allows the dunmer to continue holding slaves. There is a lot to unpack here, and Local Pineapple hasn’t even levelled up yet.

Admittedly, I don’t know if the game will go anywhere or do anything with this storytelling decision, but it gets me thinking. I really, really like it when my games make me think.

At this point, I’ve logged 7 total hours in Morrowind, and I am torn. I fully expected to install Morrowind, play a couple of hours, find nothing to engage with, and then struggle to write about much of anything. Instead, I find an experience I have not yet had with Full Steam Ahead. For Shogun 2 and Assassin’s Creed 2, I felt quite confident I’d played enough to understand what these games meant to me. With Morrowind, I feel I could spend twice as long in this game and still barely have scratched the surface.

Local Pineapple, with a silt strider in the background.

Make no mistake: the graphics are unimpressive in this day and age, combat is a slog, getting anywhere in game takes far too long, and the user interface is, put kindly, poorly designed. All the inhabitants of Morrowind begin to feel the same after 5 minutes of talking with any given NPC, and rather than let you experience the world to learn about it, a lot of the backstory and lore is presented through massive walls of text in the form of books scattered around the world.

Despite all that, this game has absolutely sparked my interest. I’m not ending my playthrough here because I’ve had enough of Morrowind, I’m ending it because I don’t know how much would be enough. Given a choice at this moment between playing Skyrim or Morrowind, I would not hesitate to choose Morrowind. Making discoveries like this are what make the challenge of Full Steam Ahead a lot of fun for me.

Next Episode: Arma 2 – Operation Arrowhead

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