The Elderer Scrolls

Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Elder Scrolls.

Not Oblivion, mind you: I’m far, far too cheap to have purchased an Xbox 360 yet. Instead, I’ve been playing the previous game in the series, Morrowind. My initial thought was that this would be an effective way of curbing my urge to buy an Oblivion-capable PC, or an Xbox 360. You know. Kind of like how smoking lots of opium makes you not want heroin so much.

Well, OK. That part of the plan isn’t working so very well. But it has been entertaining and instructive, nonetheless. It’s given me some perspective on what in Morrowind – as a game – worked, and what did not.

I have played Morrowind on both the PC and Xbox quite a lot. Previous to this recent spate of playing, I had never managed to get very far in the game. I had logged many, many hours, mind you, but always found some excuse to throw away what I had done and start over from the beginning. I must have played the beginning parts of the game 20 or 25 times.

I initially started playing on the Xbox, and then switched to my PC because I wanted to use B. E. Griffith’s beautiful facial textures, and because I liked the idea of the “quest log.” Then, when I suffered a catastrophic hard drive failure on the PC, I switched back to the “Game of the Year” edition on Xbox. Having spent the last two weeks immersed in it, I’ve reached the conclusion that the Xbox version is superior, and I assert without proof that this superiority extends to Oblivion also. The console game may be inferior in every way from a technical perspective, and you won’t be able to install any of the free mods available on the internet. But all of that pales in the face of this one, simple truth: playing on my couch is better than playing at my desk.

At my desk, I have enough stamina to play for an hour. Maybe two, if I’m engrossed. On the couch, I start playing at 10, and then I glance up at the clock, and it’s 2 in the morning.

I am now further into Morrowind than I’ve ever been before. The reason it took me so long is, I think, because of a mismatch between the game’s design and the way I want to play. I don’t want to wait around for three years before I can tour the island. I want to go to potentialy dangerous places right away. But if you play the game the way it’s “meant” to be played, this is nearly hopeless. This time, rather than simply “role playing” and getting sand kicked in my face like a 98 pound weakling at the beach, I have Developed A Plan. My plan involves abusing the game’s levelling mechanism such that instead of my character getting just a little bit better at each task each level, he gets insanely better. Through techniques just on the ragged edge of cheating, I have become like unto a God. This means that R has increased just enough that I can wander around randomly and not get killed by the first wild animal I meet.

I will go so far as to say that this isn’t just a mismatch between me and the game, but something of a fundamental flaw. The thrill of the Elder Scrolls games is that they provide a very large “sandbox” to play in. But at least in Morrowind, when you start out it is a very large sandbox staffed with bullies who can kill you by breathing on you. R increases so slowly that most of the sandbox is deadly to you. In the Japanese-style RPG, this problem would be solved by simply not letting you wander in to the dangerous areas. Here, you’re free to wander up to Ghostgate and get killed any time. Exhilarating, yes, but also very frustrating.

My Morrowind solution, as I said, is to powerlevel. And now I can wander around, face moderate challenges, and not feel like I should be riding the Tamriel Short Bus. The Oblivion solution, apparently, has been to scale all enemies in the game to not be too difficult or too easy. This has caused some uproar among the “hardcore RPG fan.” “Hardcore,” in this context, is defined as “that segment of the market which, if every one of them bought your game twice, you’d still go bankrupt.” While I understand their feelings, it seems to me to be a reasonable compromise to make their painstakingly constructed world accessible to all.

It’s a truism among a certain sort of RPG player that the platonic ideal of a game is so large that most of it will never be experienced. As a software developer, I can’t share this sentiment. Every bit of text you write that isn’t read, every line of dialogue you record that isn’t heard, every tree you place that isn’t seen translates directly into man-hours and money wasted. What you actually want is a game that feels so large that it feels like most of it will never be experienced. Every player in fact plays through 99% of the game, but still believes there is an unexplored world just over the next hill.

Morrowind sustained the illusion of a huge, mostly unexplored world by creating a world that was huge and, for a large number of players, not really explorable without cheating. I suspect the level scaling of enemies in Oblivion was largely a response to this. It’s not that they were trying to make the game easier simply for the players. It’s that few designers like creating a large, detailed world that hardly anyone ever gets to see.

After all the hours I’ve put into it, I still enjoy Morrowind not for the game elements, but as a sort of extended travelogue. Even though I’ve been playing it for so long, I’m still finding entire towns I have never seen before, with completely different architectures. I visited a daedric shrine, and survived. I finally saw the Ghostgate. And yet I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the virtual landscape.

Morrowind’s greatest weakness, of course, is still apparent: the utterly flat characterization of just about every NPC in the game. It is something of an achievement that the characters in the game manage to be less interesting than the books. I don’t expect Oblivion to be substantially different in this regard.

But I still want to play it.

In summary: if I manage to not buy an Xbox 360 after dinner tonight, I will deserve a medal. Thank you, and goodnight.