During the transition from Daggerfall
the Elder Scrolls
ceased to be a medieval fantasy and took on a life of its own. The island of Vvardenfell is the most memorable settings for an RPG I've ever had the pleasure of playing on. Morrowind
set the bar high for video game world-building. I want to devote this piece to seeing what it did right and how other games can take from its example.
There are two important parts to creating a fictional world. Firstly there's the world itself. The Elder Scrolls
is one of the best known fantasy series in gaming and its world has had plenty of time to evolve. Morrowind
in particular stands out as unique. I could write an entire essay detailing all the wonderful aspects of Morrowind
's world, but that's maybe something for another day. The second part, and what will be the focus here, is the way in which the world is presented to the audience.
The issue of infodumping – unnecessarily large bulks of exposition – is one that plagues fantasy writing in particular. It's an understandable trap to fall into. When a writer goes to the effort of creating and culture or world there's obviously going to be a desire to show the details they've crafted to their readers. The problem is of course this often conflicts with the wishes of the audience. Some won't care about all those details, and even if they do like them they might not want them being interjected at that moment in the story.
It's also an issue in games. No one really likes having their playing interrupted to listen to some long winded speech or cut-scene. Morrowind
however presents us with a good example of how to reveal a world to the players.
The Elder Scrolls
series is known for having a mountain of in-game books, all of which are filled with lore content for players to dive into. From the scandalous biography of Barenziah
to guides on faith like the Monomyth
and The Anticipations
to the strange poetry of Vivec in the 36 Lessons
. The existence of these books is one of the major things that give Morrowind
and the world of Tamriel a strong sense of history and uniqueness.
The most important thing however is that players can explore this lore whenever they choose, and at whatever pace they feel like. There are some who will pick up every book they encounter and read them through, but there will also be players who just want to focus on their objective and don't care much about learning every detail.
It's always impressed me how Bethesda put so much effort behind something that a lot of players won't even bother looking at in any great depth. It's also a very natural way to put information about the world into a game. I'm not a fan of audio logs, such as you ones you see in Fallout 3
. It seems a bit unbelievable at times that there would be all these audio logs lingering around in ruined buildings. By contrast, books make a better fit. In-game book stores and libraries offer lots of material in a believable fashion.
This I feel the first point to good world-building in a video game, the addition of lots of extras to explore. This is also perhaps the hardest from a development standpoint. After all, it's spending resources on something only a fraction of players will care about. It's a hard idea for big blockbuster triple-A games to swallow. It requires subtlety and restraint rather than just throwing the entire budget in the faces of the audience.
's main quest is also a masterpiece of video game world-building. The plot is heavily centred around local lore and mythology. Unlike in Skyrim
, where there is an impetus to save the world from the very start, Morrowind
's main quest has humble beginnings. The game eases your character into their role into the world rather than thrust them at breakneck speed. It also gives you in-game excuses to divert from the main quest and explore the land and the guilds. When conversing with NPCs during a quest many optional topics will appear. Just like with the books there is no requirement to click them, they exist for those who want to know more.
The success of Morrowind
's main quest comes down to how it plays on the strengths of an Elder Scrolls
game in a grand away. It promotes reading the material and going on long hikes in the wilderness of the Ashlands. In my opinion it's best enjoyed when you take the time to do these things, not to mention the game will make more sense.
This is also where Oblivion
don't hold up so well. Skyrim
felt it was trying to funnel me from one spectacle to another. The pace was too fast, and from the perspective of someone who likes to role-play, such as myself, these main quests present a dissonance. On the one hand I want to play in character, but on the other I don't always want to be herded from one quest to the next. Morrowind
understood the need for this balance and catered to it.
However, let's not ignore the other side of a video game here. When it comes to mechanics, optimisation, and stability Morrowind
was not exactly a well built machine. The fighting was clunky and repetitive, the magic system was ambitious but rubbish (fun fact; the blind effect in vanilla Morrowind
increased your chance to hit rather than decreasing it). Many bugs had to be stamped out over the years by the modding community. Morrowind
is to me what Lancia is to Top Gear. It's rather obvious from playing the game that compromises had to be made on quality and refinement.
So while going to the extremes that Morrowind
did to build up a world might be beyond the reach or scope of most other games I do believe there are good lessons to be taken.
One criticism of the recently released Remember Me
that stood out to me was the problem of the linear corridor nature of the game in spite of the interesting world it was set it in. It's a terrible waste to create a fascinating setting only to bar the player from experiencing it in full. I'm not suggesting that Remember Me
should have been some open world RPG, but perhaps the game would have benefited from opening up a little bit and letting the players explore some of the details in the world.
Good world-building in a game requires sprinkling plenty of extras and giving the players the option to explore rather than making it a requirement. It also should involve building the game to try and encourage an appreciation of said world. If a game like Remember Me
has incorporated moments where you could stop and take in scenery more often then perhaps its world would have shined through better.
Maybe I'm too bias in favour of my nostalgic feelings, but I genuinely believe that Morrowind
set a precedent for excellent world-building that even the Elder Scrolls
itself seemed to lose track of. I think this is a game very much worth digging up again and taking a long hard look at.