The Rise and Fall of Environmental Storytelling in Video Games- Part 2- Morrowind- An unsurpassed masterpiece

Morrowind’s Vivec City, in all it’s wonderful, impractical glory

Caius Cosades is one of the first major characters you meet in Morrowind. He’s a guy who gives you quests and teaches you about the game world and mechanics. In any other game, he’d be a stock “helpful NPC” character. But this is Morrowind, so of course, he’s a crackhead secret agent. You know the type. His, ahem, habit is such a well known meme in the Elder Scrolls community, and so ingrained in my mind that I didn’t even think about it when I mentioned it off handedly to a friend I had recently gotten into the game. Which is why it came as a bit of a surprise when said friend asked me how exactly I learned about this fun fact. You see, despite this being one of the main personality traits of an important NPC, the game never tells you about it. There’s not one piece of information, written it plain text that tells you as much. It just paints a picture and lets you draw your own conclusions. In fact, Morrowind never tells you much at all.

The face of a man who enjoys his hard drugs

So many people remember Morrowind as being the best written of Elder Scrolls titles, but it’s really not. In fact, there’s barely any actual writing in it, and whatever there is is pretty damn dry. Most of the game’s dialogue is lore dumps and exposition. Most NPCs are basically vaguely humanoid wikis, devoid of any personality. But that’s not really what you remember. The greatest trick Bethesda ever pulled was teaching you everything there is to know about one of the most original, detailed, and captivating worlds in video game history without saying a single word. Morrowind is a vivid, unique experience, that relies completely on it’s level design to immerse you in it. It sticks in your mind as a living, breathing, place despite being, in practice, almost entirely static. It’s sound, music, atmosphere, all serve to instill the most powerful and defined sense of place I have ever experienced in a video game. From the cries of the majestic silt striders, to the oppressive rain and ash storms, every single resource the developers have at their disposal is put into one goal: the transport you to the breathtaking, and utterly alien land of Vvardenfell.

The architecture of a place can tell you a lot about it’s inhabitants. In this case, it’s that these guys can fly, and don’t give a damn that you can’t

Almost every design decision in the game is was made with storytelling in mind, rather than gameplay concerns. Dungeons are shaped a certain way because it makes sense for their inhabitants or builders, cities are shaped by their environments and people. You can know everything there is to know about a character by rummaging through their belongings. “I am Guls, Peddler”, he says with a blank expression. But his pockets tell a different story.

Vivec would be an amazing tourist destination in real life. But that’s because real life doesn’t have loading screens.

Morrowind is a truly unique achievement, and one that I don’t think will ever be truly surpassed in terms of environmental storytelling. But it’s also a game that’s entirely consumed by it. Although I love it dearly, so much of it has aged poorly because of the concessions they refused to make. Merely getting around some places is a huge pain in the ass. Most dungeons are extremely convoluted, and the map isn’t exactly helpful. Traversal makes Levitation a must(although you can certainly improvise with, say, fortify Acrobatics and Slowfall).And even though I love it for it’s integrity, there’s certainly a solid argument to be made about most games not needing to go this far. Especially since there’s another game that comes pretty damn close without having to sacrifice player comfort.

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