WORLDWIDE FANTASY MONTH #9: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, by Bethesda Game Studios (2002)

Type of Media: Video Game

When I first started coming up with entries for this month’s theme, video games were at the front of my brain. There are so many games set in generic European fantasy universes, repackaging the same Arthurian, German, and Nordic legends in a hundred different ways. Ironic, since one of the most influential modern open world games, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, specifically avoided classic fantasy influences to build something unique. Morrowind led players into a world that was somber, exotic, and unwelcoming, and those traits are why people continue to remember and adore it.

Like other Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind starts with you as an Imperial prisoner aboard a ship. Only, instead of fighting your way out like in Oblivion and Skyrim, in Morrowind you’re just kinda... dropped off. The ship captain plunks you onto the swampy, volcanic island of Vvardenfell and orders you to talk to the local Imperial census taker. From there you’re jumped into the Blades, basically the Empire’s CIA, and thrust into a world of intrigue and mysticism. Something is stirring up tension in the religion of Vvardenfell’s natives, the Dark Elves, and it’s your job to figure out what’s going on.
This means you’re going to have to get real familiar with the Dark Elves (or Dunmer, as they prefer to be called) and their culture. The first thing you learn is they don’t like outsiders much. Many Dunmer won’t even talk to an outlander like you, and even though Vvardenfell technically agreed to join the Empire without violence the more traditional Dunmer talk about the Imperials like they’re an occupying force. The split between the Imperials and the Dunmer is immediately apparent in the visual design of the two cultures. While the Imperials build timber-framed houses overseen by neat stone castles, the Dunmer’s cities look distinctly Middle Eastern: smooth clay buildings with lots of stairs and terrace roofs. The Imperial guard tramp around looking like Roman centurions, while the Dunmer Ordinator guards wear ornate golden armor and full helmets that look like Japanese war masks.

That’s not even getting into the religious differences between the two, which play a major factor in the story. The Nine Divines, a promising contestant in the race for “Most Generic Fantasy Religion Ever”, is the Empire’s pantheon of choice. The Nine are distant, placid benefactors that supposedly communicate through dreams or visions. The Dunmer, though, split their worship between the Tribunal and the Daedric Princes; the first a group of three living immortal god-kings, the second a collection of demon lords from another plane of existence. The Dunmer prefer their gods close at hand and willing to talk, even if they make for unforgiving masters.
All of these differences converge to make Vvardenfell feel like an alienating place. Oblivion and Skyrim put you into settings that were familiar, and in a way comfortable. In those two games you felt like, if you were tired of facing down dremora and dragons, you could go to a pub and kick your feet up by the hearth. In Morrowind, you’re a stranger in a strange land. Go to a club and you’ll be met with a room full of cold shoulders, or outright hostility if you accidentally wandered into a ‘locals only’ joint. Talk to someone and half of the conversation topics will be confusing things like “Ashlanders”, “the Nerevarine”, and “House Hlaalu”. If you need to get somewhere fast you’ll be pointed towards a silt strider, a giant flea with a hole cut into its back that you can ride around in.
And yet… Vvardenfell is strangely enchanting. It has a mysterious, desolate beauty to it. Once you get out of the swamp you start in you’ll find fields with giant mushrooms growing and jellyfish-like creatures floating lazily around. Eventually you’ll head to Vivec, the capital city that’s so massive there are gondoliers to take you from one district to another. Those silt striders you thought were so freaky at first become trusty steeds, ferrying you from town to town. Vvardenfell is like a sweater that starts out itchy, but eventually becomes the warmest, most comfortable thing you own. It’s even more special to you because you know a lot of other people would have discarded it immediately, not taking the time to draw out its perfection.
That’s even more relevant today, in an age where Morrowind’s controls and graphics are clunky and outdated. Combat is a slog, you run intolerably slowly, and bugs can make some quests a pain. Luckily Morrowind has a fervent fan base who regularly put out mods to make the game smoother. You can also hit the tilde key to open up the console command menu, which lets you put in codes to modify the game to your whim. If you’re stuck on a particularly janky quest or sick of running at a snail’s pace, there’s nothing wrong with spawning a key or buffing your speed to get past a bump in the journey.

If you’re a fan of open world games, particularly Skyrim, you should definitely give Morrowind a try. It laid the blueprint for creating deep, massive game worlds that you can get lost in. And if you’re playing on a PC and you’d like to make Morrowind a lot prettier in exchange for some stability, the MSGO mod upgrades the sound and graphics with not a lot of fuss.