Morrowind Impressions I

Observations playing Morrowind

I started Morrowind a few years back. I couldn't get into it. This was after playing Skyrim for quite some time, which I enjoyed a great deal, and which had made me curious what the earlier games were like.

Morrowind certainly has it's adherents, but in the taciturn world of videogame fandom this itself can be a bit of a red flag. Social media and internet forums will happily produce straw men, and this might be one, but there seems a contingent who resent Skyrim and feel Morrowind is the truest expression of... whatever all this was supposed to be. My gut feel going in is that Skyrim is not liked by some because it made what was good or great about Morrowind to be more accessible.

That said, I have a sincere interest in this. I want to understand what the strengths of this game are, and also hopefully see the origins of the kinds of systems that I think make Skyrim-- and other games which probably inherit from this lineage-- games that I am mostly ignorant of-- so great.

It's striking to me that the Stilt-Walker has no transition. When you choose to travel to a new location, the screen blanks out and you appear there. I like the prioritization this hints at.

Transitions are really expensive. In 2021, both high budget and low budget games dedicate a large budget to transitions. Someone (Derek Yu?) pointed out on twitter last year that small (indie) developers waste a lot of time polishing games that may not actually be fun. I think this is correct because I count myself within that group.

To name two games I admire: Towerfall and Celeste. These have menu transitions which are absolutely glorious, but you know, they are just the sprinkles on the icing of a pair of very delicious cakes. Without the sprinkles the cakes would not catch the moonlight in their special way but they would still be delicious.

The lack of transitions expresses itself everywhere in Morrowind. I mean this very broadly. For instance, the textures generally do not attempt to fade or blend between boundaries in any way. The ground, where it meets the water's edge, does not have any special rocks, sand, or other detailing. The water cuts into it like a 1985 raytrace. The same is true of buildings or trees where they meet the ground.

I don't believe this lack of transitions is a function of when Morrowind was made. I lack the encyclopediac knowledge of games to show this, and I also have no real desire to prove this out, but I do know that for instance Ocarina of Time definitely did edge and other transitions and this was certainly pre-Xbox era.

Some other examples:
- NPCs seem to mostly just stand permanently in one place; they don't move or change in any way, not for time of day and not casually within the area they occupy. (They sometimes walk around towns.)
- Many player animations zip instantly from one pose to another.
- Text does not gradually appear when you converse, but instantly plonks out.
- Purchasing training and other non-barterable things is instant; they even did away with a confirmation screen, which is a kind of transition.

This kind of economy encourages a wider variety of "things".

Suppose you have N things within a given category (animations, menu states, behaviours, purchase states, etc.) Then, as a general rule, you will need some way to transition from any of these to any other. This means you'll need N^2 transitions.

To solve this, you'll have either a content problem (e.g., we need a separate fringe texture for grass to sand, grass to water, grass to rock, grass to dirt, grass to bubbly mud, and so on) or a programming problem (e.g., we need an animation tweening system.) And the programming problems tend to create content problems: for instance, animation tweening might require more complex rigging or otherwise place constraints on poses, or an automatic terrain texture blending system (in addition to probably not looking that good anyways) might place constraints on how many terrain textures can be used in once place.

So, kill your transitions and you are freer to chonk more content in.

I'm trying to complete essentially my first quest which is to first kill a rat, then kill two rats. I died 10-ish times killing the first rat. I have no idea how I'm supposed to survive two at once.

I did buy armour, but it was for my shoulders. I bought it to fight the rats. I assumed the game would not be smart enough that armour on my feet would be effective vs. the rats, whereas armour on my shoulders would have no effect, but either way the armour on my shoulders has no effect. I will be pleasantly surprised if when I sell enough junk to afford feet armour, it makes any kind of difference.

The other thing I will try is training up my spear skills. It seems I can swing at a rat dozens of times without hitting it at all. When I do make contact it seems to do effective amounts of damage. The rat hit rate is much, much better, which is why it took so many tries to kill, I suppose.

I picked a lizard man for my character and if you go into third person (don't do this) his walk cycle is absolutely freakishly hilarious. I do not mind. It's amazing the developers were well-humoured enough to ship it that way.

One thing that was funny to me about Skyrim is how it's all fantasy races like orcs, elves, cat men, lizard men, and then... ancient imperial Roman people, middle ages British people, and people from Norway (Vikings?)

In general I love the weirdness of the Morrowind/Skyrim fantasy worlds. I love that whoever created this is just super into the idea of total nonsense political intrigue that takes itself way too seriously. I love that it's a very personal-feeling selection of seemingly arbitrary fantasy details, collected into a giant mixing pot. It just goes so hard on what it is.

April 8, 2020

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