Morrowind was a tremendous achievement that has endured through nostalgia beyond reason, but no remaster or remake will ever take us back to what we truly love and responded to the first time we played it.
On May 23 Skyrim became as old as The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was when Skyrim was released. That’s a long time for a game to hold onto the popular imagination. And while Skyrim may have been ported to everything imaginable, and will likely continue to be ported well into the future, it’s Morrowind that we clamor for. It’s Morrowind that we recognize as the True Experience. The peak of Bethesda’s creative output. Yes, I’m guilty of this too. We’ve all want a grand Return to Morrowind. A Remaster.
But this is wrong of us. We can never get back what we actually want.
Remember when Skyrim added the DLC that promised to take us to Solstheim, that island situated north of Vvardenfell, where Imperial, Nord, and Dunmer all “shared” the land with werewolves in the Bloodmoon expansion to Morrowind?
Once the initial nostalgia wore off, it kinda felt like a punch in the dick, didn’t it?
Oh sure, we got to see some of the architecture we’d missed in stunning 1080p, even pick up some Bonemold armor, and visit the ruins of Moonmoth. But it was desolate. A new kind of desolation for the region. This is the desolation that comes as a warning—a dessicated, decomposed body hung up on a signpost.
It sure did feel like a punch in the dick, once the initial “WE’RE GOING BACK, BABY!” wore off. Because it wasn’t weird. It was familiar. Even with the lore destroying much of what we knew, the land of mushroom spires and scrib jelly completed the colonial project through our explorations. We, the Outlanders, made Morrowind our home so thoroughly that it became our prison. And, descending from on high like the great Dagoth Ur, himself Todd Howard was here to set us free the only way he could: by destroying Morrowind.
What’s your first memory of Morrowind? Is it the strange blue-grey-green face of Jiub, his eye piercing and red, standing over you shirtless, offering up the briefest moment of friendship? Or is it Ergalla, drilling you about your astrological sign, and in that moment impressing upon you that the fault is extremely fucking in our stars—because in Tamriel, The Stars literally affect genetics. Was it spending half an hour stalking a strange dude you just met in a tiny bogtown that somehow serves as a marshy, weird Ellis Island where the only things of note are a lighthouse, a general store, and an insectoid Trailways station? Maybe the man falling out of the sky. Or maybe it was none of that. Maybe something else hijacked your imagination and instilled in you the dissociation of the weird. Regardless, if Morrowind landed for you, it’s because it was alienating, not in spite of it.
Morrowind is weird. Deeply weird. That’s the point. In most games, players are set as an outsider. It’s how game designers can most easily orient a player to the world and the systems without breaking diegesis too much. Morrowind gladly tells players how its systems work. Exposing its mechanical guts more or less readily, even more so with the inclusion of the terminal prompt. But it’s far from willing to orient players. The designers of Morrowind took the concept of the outsider seriously. Not a single NPC will ever let you forget it. Even long after you’ve become a maybe “Dunmeri Jesus.”
What makes Morrowind work is our encounter with the alien on a fantastic and treacherous island. It’s the engine that drives The Odyssey, The Tempest, and Jurassic Park. Morrowind uses the concept of the island to be weird and place us into conversation with that weirdness. The game would fall apart without it. It has to drive our need to explore, and it does so beyond loot and riches the way most CRPGs had until this point. It was an outlier both in its genre, and within its own franchise, which, until this third installment, had been a fairly rote, often punishing, and sometimes procedural Western Europe fantasy adventure series. Morrowind was tired of crawling around Medieval Europe, so it did what the Europeans did—set sail for a new island to “explore” bringing with it those fantasy sensibilities to slam against the weirdness of the Other on the island of Vvardenfell.
And Morrowind surely uses those pieces and tropes. There are taverns and shopkeepers, knights and wizards, townsfolk with needs for aspiring questors. But everything is at an oblique angle. The menace of cthuloid flora abuts the normalcy of a hillside. A god asking you to kill a giant domesticated bovine with a fork is arguably one of the most normal things you’ll encounter. You can join a mage guild, a thieves guild, a fighters guild. And the assassins guild will visit you while you sleep, dressed like steampunk ninjas and probably slaughter you because you killed someone you shouldn’t have. A freed prisoner will expose the world of violent drug cartels and black market traders lurking in the long shadow cast by imperial settlement.
Just in case you hadn’t put it together, I’ll wait while you realize that the weird, shirtless, divorced/foreign exchange family dad who is responsible for sending you out into the world to learn how to be a hero is literally fueling that same drug trade. Who exactly is “the good guy” is complicated in Morrowind, especially when you factor in all the indigenous factions of dark elf who indulge in murder the way people gorge themselves on Flintstones vitamins or run a bustling slave trade of Argonians.
Morrowind is a paranoid game. It’s about the colonial experience from a newly arrived outsider’s perspective. No one is going to trust you. They may engage in commerce with you, they may want something from you, but you’ll always be an outsider, and you’ll absolutely experience forms of prejudice and oppression—either directly (depending on how you create your character), or through observation. But even your “own kind” will be suspicious. And rightly so, this is a colonial occupation and the fractures formed among the indigenous population are only further highlighted here, with new ones forming daily. Most NPCs encountered in Vvardenfell are on edge, which only serves to be even more destabilizing to the player. This is also a game where overwhelmingly the other faces you’ll meet are not white. Sure, they’re the blue-green-grey of the Dunmer, with some reptilian Argonians (and their jarring dissociated walk animation), and cat-like Khajit. But even with their occupation, Men (meaning not Mer) are much less common here. Red eyes will glare out unblinking at the player for the majority of this game.
Morrowind is a daring and ambitious game, with choices more convoluted and complex than the binary of Paragon or Renegade, and conversations that understand that most people know the same little bit about the world they live in. That’s why everyone seems to have the same things to say about IMPERIALS or FORT MOONMOTH or NEREVARINE or any of the other weird conversation topics you’ll pick up.
I know, you wanted more. You wanted to only have questions that would elicit new and real answers show up in the UI. But that isn’t this game. Those are later games that are streamlined and made to be easily engaged with. Games that don’t have steampunk assassins visiting you in the night because you accidentally killed someone. Where magic “just works” instead of the wet fart that issued forth from your fingertips despite having min-maxed with even the stars in your corner. Games that care about “Quality of Life” and not forcing you to walk the entire game, only letting you fast travel by engaging with the weird and limited public transit system of Silt Striders.
Let’s face it. We can never go back to the overwhelming cantons of Vivec. We probably wouldn’t want to honestly. It’s big and easy to get lost in and there’s no good map and everyone there is an asshole to us. That’s just not where big games are anymore. And while it is perhaps a bit sad, it’s time to move on. It’s just not who we are as gamers anymore. We encountered the weirdness of Morrowind, and it changed us and our expectations. The very gnawing want we experience is testament to that fact. Our explorations, our mastery of Vvardenfell is over. It’s time to return to Milan.
The meteor finally fell on Vivec. The Red Mountain erupted. And the Dunmer either died or fled. It’s a fitting capstone to our intrusions in The Elder Scrolls III.
Todd Howard—and we’re blaming this on Todd Howard because we need someone to pin this on for our own emotional well-being—obliterated Morrowind. It’s gone.
For a long time, I thought “well, this sure is a kid taking his toys home.” But it isn’t. It’s a creator setting us free. Todd Howard knows that there will never be another Morrowind. Between the tastes of gamers (which have been informed by the industry’s output, to be sure), the financial stakes and needs of stakeholders of AAA development, and the fact that weirdness is fleeting, a Morrowind can’t happen again. We are familiar with Morrowind. Overly familiar. The oddity of the Argonian walk cycle is now just “games looked bad back then” and we could never go back to the scripted hilarity of Tarhiel without it being an “easter egg.” We know what it is to look up at a colossal water flea with stilt-like legs and say “Today, I’m using public transit.”
Morrowind doesn’t need to be explained or figured out anymore. The mysteries it holds have been screenshotted, streamed, written and Wikia’d. This time next year it turns 20. And while Skyrim may feel shallow and un-crunchy, and as much as we miss building spells and running through the countryside half naked, punching Dremora to death, we’re not the Outlander anymore. What was once magic about this place lies only in our minds now. We can revisit it, but we can’t recapture it. There’s only the hollowness of nostalgia in returning, and even if we were to get a gloriously overtextured, 4K at 60fps remaster, it wouldn’t be our Morrowind. It wouldn’t be weird and broken and alienating.
I love Morrowind, but we have to kill the Morrowind in our minds. Our nostalgia for the bizarre isn’t going to get us anywhere new. Returning won’t give us the high we’re chasing, Bethesda as a studio has long since moved on, knowing that this moment is the result of a confluence that is unrepeatable. Todd Howard has set us free, to either embrace the unsophisticated but expensive grandeur of Tamriel as open world spectacle, or to venture off in search of newer and truer oddities outside of the massive networks of publicly traded corporations.
And if you really, really, can’t not return to Morrowind, I guess The Elder Scrolls Online is there for you, even if it’s mysteries are neither as mysterious or novel as they once were.
Morrowind is dead, long live Morrowind.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.