Flashback Friday: Morrowind

Source: Ocean of Games

Source: Ocean of Games

It’s been awhile since my last Flashback Friday, but this (belated – sorry!) post goes out to the game that cemented my love of the medium and took me from kid who gets her dad to kill the big bosses to capital ‘P’ player–The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Morrowind is an open-world, fantasy RPG released in 2002 by Bethesda Game Studios. Set in Tamriel, the game takes place on the island of Vvardenfell in the Dunmer province called (you guessed it) Morrowind.

You play as a prisoner kidnapped and sent to Morrowind on a slave ship, and are eventually recognized as a reincarnation of the Dunmer hero Indoril Nerevar, prophecied to defeat Dagoth Ur and his followers, The Sixth House. If that sounds like a bunch of crazy gibberish to you, that’s just the beginning.

The dense, beautifully complex universe and lore of The Elder Scrolls series are just one of the many things that make the game so enjoyable. The series’ free-form gameplay also contributes to its wondrous immensity; when you arrive in Morrowind, you are an unknown with little skill or money and even less direction. A herd of rats or a (g*ddamn piece of sh*t) cliff racer could kill you with ease, and in fact they do, many times over.

This difficulty, along with the game’s openness, depth, and (at the time) stunning graphics, makes Morrowind a challenge you can’t wait to face. It received generally good reviews upon release, but has accrued a large and incredibly dedicated cult following since then. So dedicated that a group of fans are working together now to create a non-commerical mod for Skyrim that remakes Morrowind in the Skyrim engine.

Of course, any remake (and especially one that plans to re-imagine many of the smaller quests and plot points of the game as it changes the mechanics behind them) is going to lose a little something of what made the original so important to its die-hard fans. For Morrowind, that list is longer than the 36 Lessons of Vivec, but a few stand-outs would be:

Combat

The fighting mechanics are…special. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Wiki describes Morrowind combat as “straight-forward,” but first time players more accustomed to the combat of Skyrim and other contemporary RPGs do not find it quite so simple. And really when you think about it, a lot is going on behind the scenes of each fight in the game. On top of that, you can conceivably kill people who are important to your quest without knowing it and totally screw yourself over, which while frustrating, adds gravity to your decisions that is absent in many other games.

Once you have a decent understanding of this deceptively complicated system, however, you can take advantage of it in countless ways, from levitating everywhere you go to smithing a weapon or making a spell that damages and heals your opponent at the same time to up your skill. You get as much out of Morrowind as you put in, and the game rewards creativity.

Skills and Attributes

Speaking of skills and leveling, there are a LOT of skills in Morrowind. 27 to be exact, compared to 21 in Oblivion and 18 in Skyrim. Skills are distinct from attributes like race, class, and gender. You can create your own class from scratch, and are best off if you map out your skill trees in advance, which makes the characters and role-playing delightfully immersive and customizable, but also very time-consuming.

NPC Dialogue and Voice Acting

This has got to be one of my favorite things about the third ES game. NPCs are not fully voiced, and many of the recorded lines are randomly repeated by different characters. This produces, in my opinion, some of the funniest character interactions in gaming history (and I say that having heard the bizarre, sometimes offensive, always hilarious things students yell in the halls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter games).

There are entire forums devoted to this topic, so I won’t list all of the famous NPC lines here. The combat lines were the most memorable for me (“There is no escape!!!”) and are most enjoyable when you picture the character saying them as you’re decimating them in a fight. Of course they probably stick in my mind because I became irritated hearing them over and over as my character once again succumbed to death.

Music

This aspect of the game may not change much with the Skywind mod, but of all the Elder Scrolls games I’ve played, Morrowind has the best soundtrack hands down. The soaring, epic tones of the main theme hit me right in the nostalgia, and some of the more playful pieces lift my mood as soon as I hear them. While the soundtracks of Oblivion and Skyrim are by the same composer, neither have quite the same awe-inspiring, world-conjuring effect on me.

Morrowind can be a quirky, buggy, and frustrating affair and, like any video game you grew up loving, the graphics and mechanics have aged rapidly as the industry makes leaps and bounds forward technologically and artistically. (Just look at the difference between the original Duke Nukem or Tomb Raider graphics and their 2013 reboots) But many fans would argue that the game is a masterpiece not in spite of those aspects, but because of them. And the massive world, intricate lore, beautiful art direction, and inspiring music don’t hurt.

Morrowind doesn’t give you anything easy, but the work you put in to advance through and even help write the story makes playing much more meaningful. The game magnifies what makes gaming special: the interactive and collaborative storytelling that allows you not just to experience a world, but to shape it.

Advertisements

Flashback Friday: Mass Effect

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) wrapped up June 18th, but in its three day span it brought us more information about the most anticipated games and most beloved series of the year than the other 362 days bring us combined. One highlight of the E3 coverage was Bioware’s announcement of the fourth game in the sci-fi action RPG series Mass Effect.

While Mass Effect: Andromeda takes place in the same universe as the first three Mass Effect games and brings back some familiar elements (like that damn Mako), it takes place in the Andromeda Galaxy rather than the Milky Way, and will not revolve around the trilogy’s hero Commander Shepard. Instead, an entirely new human protagonist will take his/her place.

When I saw the N7 logo and heard the familiar chimes play at the end of the trailer, a wave of nostalgia passed through me. I actually played the Mass Effect games after they’d all three been released, but the effect they had on me and my life is irrefutable, so I figured I’d take a few moments this Friday to honor what I unabashedly call my favorite video game to date.

In Mass Effect, the player can customize their character’s race, gender, and appearance. The female Commander Shepard, voiced by Jennifer Hale and affectionately nicknamed ‘Femshep,’ was one of the first female protagonists I played who really resonated with me. Yes, I’d played Tomb Raider growing up, and I’ve made no shortage of female Elder Scrolls characters in my time, but no other female playable character in a game has made the same impact on me as Femshep.

source: Bioware

source: Bioware

There are a few factors that play into this. First, as I mentioned, Jennifer Hale is a phenomenal voice actor who brings humor, strength, empathy, and nuance to her performance in the trilogy. Without her skillful portrayal of Femshep, I doubt Manshep’s female counterpart would have received anywhere nearly as much love from the fans as she did.

In addition, Femshep’s story arc breaks from storytelling tradition. There are literally millions of stories about one man saving the world from imminent doom, but how often do we see a woman take that role in a game? And how often is she able to do it not as a brusque anti-hero, but as a compassionate and generally well-adjusted human being?

Of course, playing Paragon is a choice, which is another thing that helped Mass Effect succeed. The player is in total control of Femshep’s abilities, what she says in conversation, which missions she takes, and with whom she starts/maintains relationships. If Mass Effect weren’t a choice-based game within a rich and well-designed universe, her character would not feel nearly as relatable. (Those of you who are already starting your rant about the ending, stay with me.)

source: Mass Effect Wiki

On that note, the friendships and romances available to Shepard bring another layer of meaning to the experience. In all three games, Femshep is given both male and female romance options (the Asari gender debate aside). And Manshep has male love interests in the third game. This romantic and sexual fluidity allows the player to see their lives represented by the hero character. LGBT people–and particularly bisexual, asexual, and trans folks–rarely see themselves depicted on any screen, so seeing themselves reflected in an accomplished and important character is incredibly meaningful.

Of course, it’s not just Femshep who fans find inspirational. Kaidan, Ashley, Garrus, Liara, Thane, and the other characters in the game each have passionate followings, because their personalities and back stories were carefully and intricately constructed. (And come on, have you heard Garrus’ voice?) Bioware chose not to shy away from those relationships, even releasing downloadable content after the end of the trilogy that allowed the player to get closure from those relationships regardless of how their playthrough ended.

Mass Effect certainly hit some stumbling blocks along its journey. As I touched on before, the ending left something to be desired for many players. The sexualizing makeovers female characters like Femshep, Jack, and Ashley received from game to game were puzzling for lots of folks (do biotic implants also refer to…well, implants??), and the lack of gay male romances in the first two games was frustrating for some as well. We can only hope that Bioware has learned from those mistakes.

source: Bioware

source: Bioware

But at the end of the day, I’m as excited for ME4 (which Bioware insists we NOT call it) as I’ve ever been for a game. And since it’s not coming out until ‘Holiday 2016,’ I have plenty of time to complete my…would it be the fourth playthrough? Eh, who’s counting…