On Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim.

So I've been diving a bit into the Elder Scrolls series lately. Specifically Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. My initial forays were triggered by two articles; the first "I Will Not Play The Elder Scrolls V: Why Morrowind is Better Than Oblivion" at The Big Pixels by Mike Rougeau. And the second "Old School Play - Explore It" by the Eponymous ChicagoWiz of ChicagoWiz's RPG Blog.

If you're not familiar with these games, they are lore rich adventure games where the player is free to exist within the world doing what they wish. They have deep character customization systems, and the worlds are lovingly crafted by hand. (I found myself in a merchants shop and opened his locked back door and there was a meticulously stocked storeroom. Someone had to build that by hand.)

In "Why Morrowind is Better than Oblivion" Mike brings up the point that Oblivion's leveling system is "broken" in the sense that everything always levels up with you. Now this is trivially fixed by mods if you're on the PC. 360/PS3 owners aren't so lucky. (And I say trivially somewhat lightly, though easy to install, I'm running close to 40 mods and have yet to begin the game.)

His point stands because anything you can "just fix by rule 0" doesn't magically make the rule not broken in the first place. Primarily the game is set up that way for the casual gamer - the guy who wants to go where he wants to go, and win all his fights and basically wants to feel like an awesome superhero.

Uh, a lot like new school role playing games actually.

That's sort of the point though; the above has a broader spectrum of appeal then a more challenging game. And that style is consequentially is less rewarding. It is not inherently containing of less value; in fact, the opposite could be argued because of the number of people it brings into the hobby (of being various shades of a fantasy and gaming nerd) bringing with it more money and attention. In addition, and this is key, the creators have given us the tools to correct the situation for ourselves.

The second point I'd like to discuss has to do with the lore. One of the most beautiful things about the game is the rich depth of history and the interesting (and confusing take) on the various factions and how this is completely irrelevant to the player of the game. One of my friends recently said, "I'll play Skyrim when it comes out, but I'm not sure I'll replay Morrowind and Oblivion" and I responded with the advice that he absolutely should not!

I have never seen anyone say "I can't go to the mall because I don't know the intricacies and minutiae of the American Revolution!" The games are about exploring, running around casting spells and stabbing stuff while looting dungeons and being the prophesied hero of legend. No reason to delve into older less fancy versions unless you're into that sort of thing. I am and there are a great many enhancements that make them look like the fanciest modern games, and with good reason. Interestingly enough, both games, Morrowind and Oblivion, use the Gamebryo Engine.

The lore is there if you want it. And it's good lore. It contains all the fantasy stables such as Dwarves (the Dwermer, a mechanically skilled class of elves that experimented with the heart of a god in an attempt to become immortal and all disappeared, turning into dust, except for one who was not in the plane at the time, and resides as a half-man, half-machine diseased with the incurable corpus in the corprusarium of the Telvanni mushroom tower of Tel Fry) the Mer (Altmer, Bosmer, and Dunmer, - High, Wood, and Dark elves respectively) Orcs (Orismer, corrupted elves) and Men (Bretons, Nords, and Imperials). It has magic, enchantment and monsters. And it even has the Aedrea and Daedra (obstinately Angels and Demons, but more complicated than that. Let us just say that mighty extra-dimensional powers must set your pants on fire, because they are lying liars, the lot of them).

It's good lore because it contains a bunch of the standard tropes, and yet each is changed and unique enough to be genuinely interesting. It is also awesome that all the lore comes to you from independent agents in the game (people, authors, etc.) Each of whom have their own agenda, so the truth is often left open to interpretation. (i.e. There is a series of books on the Dwermer by an author who only desired fame, so he just rewrote other common fables and changed a few names so that he could sell more copies). It rewards paying attention to detail.

In the article he points out that Cyrodiil (the location covered in Oblivion) is a lot more "boring" (i.e. less visually interesting, more like medieval England) then Morrowind (an quarantined island in the Vardenfell province). As any fan of the game knows, that's because Cyrodiil, the seat of the empire, containing the capital city is a lot more western European then the isle of Morrowind home of the Dunmer (dark elves) where the heart of a god fell into the earth creating Red Mountain.Cyrodiil never had a Dwemer occupation in the past, so no Dwemer ruins. No repeated invasions, so all the architecture is Imperial, hence consistent and classical.

I'm not saying he's not correct, that a more alien environment can be more interesting then a more classical one, but their staying true to the lore is quite rewarding. I would feel a bit betrayed if they shoehorned in something just because they wanted to make it 'cool'. There is plenty of interesting stuff already. And to Oblivion's credit, the dungeons and their integration into the environment is very well done, much nicer than Morrowind's "Door in the side of a hill" technique.

One of the most entertaining parts of the game is how it models the leveling process. In the beginning when you are building your skills, every adventure is a challenge. Then, once you become more powerful, instead of exploring random dungeons, you're challenged to a greater degree by the quests, and the tasks given to you by quest givers. This is interesting because it closely mirrors the experience of old-school table-top play. The first levels are focused on survival, and the later levels completing quests that grow organically out of your earlier choices.

My own opinion is that Morrowind is a better game then Oblivion. It's more complex - it is not possible to complete every quest in a single play-through, because completely some quests set you at odds with other factions; whereas in Oblivion you can complete every quest line on a single play-through. In Morrowind, you can kill anyone you wish, even if that would prevent you from completing the game; whereas in Oblivion, killing a critical NPC just knocks them out for a bit (10 seconds). The cities are part of game world cells instead of interior cells in Morrowind, allowing spells like jump and levitate. The skill system is larger with Major and Minor skills, along with more skill divisions, making each character more unique versus Oblivion's system of "pick 7 skills". Also, I'm fairly certain it's a longer game. My play-though of the original oblivion clocked in at around 60 hours and I completed all the quest lines (mage/fighter/thief/darkbrotherhood). There were lots of places I left unexplored however, and I didn't complete any of the unoffical quest lines (Daedra temples, etc.) I'm at more playtime than that in Morrowind, and have yet to complete any quest line.

Regardless of these differences, both are excellent games and are worth your time. With Morrowind Graphics Extender and the various Oblivion mods, both games act and look like modern games containg hundreds of hours of play. Most importantly they contain that exploratory old school spirit.

I can't wait for Skyrim. :-)

6 comments:

  1. Own both games. Love both games. Quality stuff

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  2. I'm playing through them both in preparation for Skyrim.

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  3. My old gaming computer died and from what I've heard, the XBox Morrowind sucks, so I'm not able to go back there. I do enjoy Oblivion because I purposely play characters as if I'm roleplaying at the tabletop. I have a sneaky Nord. Next, I'll play a completely academic magic user. And so on. That makes it more fun for me, by adding my layer on top of the world.

    GREAT post, thanks for the link.

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  4. Thanks for responding to my article! It's strange, I really did have a lot of fun with Oblivion at the time. But the further away in time you get from an experience, the more selective your memory becomes. When I remember a great game I played years ago, I only remember the good parts. With Oblivion I can only seem to remember the bad parts. That's how I know that to me, it was far from a great game.

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  5. I've moved on (temporarily) to playing modded oblivion, and I have to be honest - not only is my current experience at the least equal to that of my Morrowind one, my memories of my original playthrough are also pretty positive.

    When you leave the sewers and realize you can go anywhere - that's a pretty awesome moment. My best memories of the game aren't really as much about me playing, as they are about sitting around and recounting what you did with other people, and sharing the crazy random experiences of what you saw while you were playing.

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  6. I agree with roguecheddar, when I remember oblivion all I seem to remember is its flaws. I spent a lot of time on it. I think I was just sick of the gamebryo engine and exploration was a bit dry for me. I didn't want to go spend hours looking for something when I had nothing to find. Yeah, it was fun, but I always expected that there was nothing really fun in store. Oblivion didn't rock my world. Bioshock was a game where I enjoyed the game because of the new odd environment and atmosphere. Oblivion had a chance at making a grand and creative landscape for the oblivion gates, which I believe they didn't do so well on. As for skyrim, I'm sure that it will be better.

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