The early 2000s were a critical moment for console gaming. With the Xbox being built with off-the-shelf PC components, PC developers began to cautiously migrate to consoles in greater numbers than ever before.
Bethesda was among the first wave of PC developers to make the leap in a major way. Originally founded in the mid-80s, Bethesda was mostly known for publishing licensed games like IHRA Drag Racing and Terminator. Bethesda's Elder Scrolls RPGs had developed a cult PC following in the 90s with their ambitious but buggy open worlds (sound familiar?), but were otherwise mostly unknown in console circles.
Then came Morrowind. Initially a straightforward follow-up to Daggerfall, it eventually mushroomed into a project that required a huge technological investment from Bethesda. A new engine with top-end lighting and texture effects was introduced, and in-game objects were handcrafted rather than algorithmically generated. Bethesda tripled the size of its development team, which spent its first year just working on the set of tools that became the Elder Scrolls Construction Set, which later shipped with the game.
The result was a world considerably smaller than the absolutely massive Daggerfall, but it was far more beautiful, with a tighter story and design. Bethesda was still the company that was putting out Pirates of the Caribbean games, but Morrowind was a massive step toward becoming the company of Fallout and Skyrim—an ultra-successful publisher with a following across multiple platforms.
The Seeds of Elder Scrolls' Success
You could see the seeds of Bethesda's later successes in the way that it handled the introduction of Morrowind's open world. In the first few minutes, you got your first taste of what you might call "The Bethesda Reveal"—the moment when you would step out of a Vault or prison for the first time and see the world in all its glory. In Morrowind, you began in the hold of a ship, experiencing strange visions during a storm before eventually emerging to look upon a shimmering ocean and an alien, mushroom-covered shore.
This was Morrowind's money moment, and maybe the moment when things began to change for Bethesda. It was the moment when Elder Scrolls began to shift from a cult favorite founded on a handful of pen-and-paper RPG campaigns to the juggernaut we know today. It would be a few more years before mass audiences really embraced the likes of Fallout 3, but in hindsight, it was a significant first step.
And yet Morrowind was also much closer to Elder Scrolls' pen-and-paper roots than any of its successors. Modern audiences playing for the first time are apt to find an RPG that's obtuse by modern standards. It's no coincidence that one of the most popular requests in the community is for a quest marker mod.
It's an RPG that's intended to be explored at a leisurely pace. Rather than mainline story quests, you're meant to wander the world, join a guild, and talk to passersby on the street. Instead of looking for a telltale quest marker, you're supposed to parse through reams of text, sometimes conversing with them several times before finally getting a request.
If you're willing to embrace it, it can be a fascinating experience, one that puts you squarely in Bethesda's fantasy world. It reminds me a bit of the way that Red Dead Redemption 2 eschews convenience for immersion and realism, but in an even more granular way. Half the fun is in rising up through the ranks of the Thieves Guild or the Dark Brotherhood through odd jobs, then watching how they all interact with one another.
The island upon which the story is set reflects Bethesda's preoccupation with world-building. Unlike the much more staid Skyrim, which cribs equally from Lord of the Rings and Viking mythology, Vvardenfell feels almost prehistoric with its massive belching volcano. Looking at it, you can almost hear D&D players excitedly exclaiming, "And our herd animals will look like a cross between a chameleon and a dinosaur!"
Morrowind's art and architecture draws from Middle Eastern and East Asian influences, which likewise stand in sharp contrast to the more conventional Scandinavian look of Skyrim. At every turn you're meant to feel immersed in a wholly unique fantasy world, and it works. Even naysayers will agree that Morrowind's world is distinct and memorable to this day.
For console players, it was a novel experience. Console RPGs were still a relatively new phenomenon in North America, with Final Fantasy VII having been released just five years earlier. Sandbox games were even newer. Morrowind was less than a year removed from the release of GTA 3, which was in the process of revolutionizing the genre on PS2.
The Right Game at the Right Time
With Morrowind, Bethesda was able to offer the right game at the right time. It provided console gamers autonomy and immersion on a scale they had never experienced before. The quintessential Morrowind story is of the player who gets utterly lost in Bethesda's fantasy world, not even realizing that the story is there until 50 hours have passed. This was a very new and enticing experience on console in 2002.
It wasn't an overnight success. Critics complained about its bugs (a Bethesda staple), and it sold a relatively modest 200,000 units in its first few months of release. But word of mouth was strong, and by 2005, it had sold more than 4 million units, setting the stage for the breakout success of Oblivion on Xbox 360.
Today Morrowind is remembered fondly for its unique world, relatively hardcore mechanics, and surprisingly strong story, which takes the "chosen one" narrative and subverts it in a handful of interesting ways. It retains a strong cult fandom and a vibrant modding community—another Bethesda staple. Waypoint contributor Jim Trinca argues that the more popular Skyrim and Oblivion nevertheless remain trapped in the shadow of Morrowind. "The Elder Scrolls remains locked in a Morrowind-shaped prison, doomed to keep referencing itself for eternity," Trinca writes. "You can visit Morrowind in The Elder Scrolls Online. You can even run into M'aiq the Liar. For Bethesda, it's impossible to escape, and perilous to ignore."
If Bethesda finds itself struggling to top Morrowind, it's because Bethesda itself has changed. Its move to the mainstream demands that everything be simpler and easy to understand. Where there were dozens of recipes to be discovered in Morrowind, you won't even find half that in Skyrim. Spell crafting is gone. The complex interlinking relationships between quests and guilds have been dramatically simplified. That's the price of success.
Morrowind sits at the inflection point between when Elder Scrolls was just a dense, nerdy open-world PC RPG and when it became an all-consuming force of marketing. In that, it manages to offer the best of both worlds. But the moment players stepped on the deck of their boat and gazed upon Vvardenfell for the first time, Bethesda began to change. And in many ways, so did RPGs.