I wish I had a time machine so that I could go back and play Morrowind for the first time again. That was one of the first thoughts I had this morning. I could vividly hear in my mind the musique concrète of its soundtrack – the ambient noises that give it such an unearthly, magical atmosphere – and wanted to hear them again for the first time. It’s not something I could accomplish, I thought sadly, though I fired it up for probably the thousandth time. It looks old, which it should, after nearly a decade. For me, it looks like this
– better than the game-as-shipped but not as flashy as some have it. For me, I don’t see the point. You could spend hours or days with mods getting it to look like this
but what’s the point when you’ve played every quest a dozen times? The game has no more surprises. It’s a relic; a happy memory. It’s one we can revisit, though.
I spent a little time today, looking around my favourite old spots. I started a new character and used a cheat-ring to autolevel to 20, then took the silt strider (that big insecty thing in the top screenshot) to the village of Khuul. For once, I didn’t want to go to the touristy hotspots – old Mediterranean Balmora, olde-worlde Caldera or the mythically strange Sadrith Mora – and instead just went for a walk in the Ashlands.
I don’t use MGE’s Infinite View Distance. I like my world shrouded in mystery, revealing itself to me a step at a time. Strange shadows appear out of the fog – ancient ruins and bits of old buildings.
It’s not like Oblivion: things aren’t necessarily functional. Today I saw the outline of an impressive-looking ancient Dunmer stronghold, and wandered over to work out which it was. I walked all the way around it and climbed up to see if I could find a way in. Nothing. It had long been lost to rockfall, half-buried underground. It wasn’t there to be explored or to serve as a base for a quest; it didn’t care that I was there at all.
Fighting my way through the harsh, unforgiving landscape and shooting down at least a dozen cliffracers with my bow turned into a game in itself. I began to enjoy sneaking up on the pterodactyl-like creatures, finding the furthest distance from which I could pin them down in mid-air.
Morrowind‘s landscape is like its architecture: it feels like it has always been there. Oblivion‘s diversity feels forced and deliberate – every town is in a different style with no sense of natural progression. Morrowind feels like a genuine place with varying influences spiraling out from their cultural hubs. Redoran in the north-west; Telvanni in the east. As I’m wandering down the volcanic foyada, I can sense when I’m getting too close to Red Mountain and turn around to take another path.
Finding my way back towards the coast, I’m still finding it hard to summarise in my own mind exactly what makes Morrowind so special. Its sense of place is as vivid as Bladerunner; its strangeness as great as Dune. It has the scale and depth of Lord of the Rings, but … no, none of this gets it quite right. It’s like a darker, grittier Star Wars, I suppose: a world that’s outright bizarre at first glance, but to everyone who’s grown up with it seems as familiar and mundane as your local supermarket.
Even if you no longer bat an eyelid at the floating jellyfish-like netches, there are so many moments the first time I played Morrowind that made my mouth hang open in awe. I’m passing one of them and decide to venture in – the sprawling, imposing spectre of an ancient Dwemer (dwarven) ruin. This almost-prehistoric culture had harnessed some sort of electrical power that still lights the hallways of this forgotten relic. I realise after a few paces that I’ve stumbled into a vampire’s nest and make a hasty retreat.
Morrowind‘s vampires aren’t suave, suited goth types. There are various kinds – of course – but they range from rather ugly to practically feral. I figure my time would be better served doing a spot of tomb-raiding. Its inhabitants aren’t so impressed.
As usual, I don’t actually take anything. It’s always been about simple exploration. I’m just a nosy bugger. I do find quite a nice book, though, which I read and put back on the shelf.
Getting into a nasty fight outside a daedric ruin, I decide not to venture closer. I might happily pick fights with liches, but I’m not about to blithely waltz into a spiky temple to some hellish god.
Walking further around, I find other unique, adorable touches that make Morrowind such an incredible experience. There are carcasses of long-dead animals half-buried in the sands. It’s one thing to have a game that has a giant insect used as transport, and quite another to find the dried-out bits of a dead one lying forlornly in the dirt where most players will never even see it. Then again, it’s the game where some desert-dwelling nomad takes one of those hollowed-out husks and makes a tent from it.
After so long walking out alone in the murderous dark, it is sheer delight to stumble into an Ashlander camp just over the next hill.
Padding around the old campsite with its surly, unwelcoming natives – I just feel like I’m getting in the way – I’m charmed by the sound of windchimes and chatter. Eventually I find a trader who will talk to me (someone I placed there myself in a long-forgotten mod). She sells me a tent. I kick back by the fireplace and wonder if it’s time to eat. It’s certainly been a long day.
The funny thing is, I still haven’t heard that droning, other-worldly music I remember. Perhaps I’ll hear it another day.