A plume of volcanic ash spews out from Red Mountain, heralding the arrival of deadly diseases and horrifying monsters. Below the Blight cloud, screeching pterodactyls drive countless adventurers to their deaths as squabbling political factions vie for power on the ground.
Welcome to Morrowind. It’s a beautiful place.
When The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind launched on PC on May 1, 2002, it was a revelation. The scope of its simulated world and the depth of its lore were unmatched at the time. Even the best RPGs struggle to approach its immersive power today. On Morrowind’s 20th anniversary, it still stands as a towering achievement of imagination — one even its developer, Bethesda Softworks, could stand to take a few more lessons from.
There were certainly massive open-world RPGs before Morrowind; even Bethesda’s Daggerfall was technically far larger than Morrowind, though its procedurally generated map was a barren wasteland in comparison. So while it didn’t invent the genre, Morrowind laid the groundwork for the modern blockbuster RPG, though few of its successors come close to its ambitions. The descendants of Morrowind may boast bigger maps, more quests, and better voice acting, but they miss out on what made it such a special game. Morrowind’s enduring appeal ultimately lies not in any nifty back-of-the-box feature, but in how it weaves history, myth, politics, and a good deal of slapstick humor to build a compelling world then simply opens the door and lets you run wild in it.
It would probably take an entire college class to fully understand the lore of Morrowind, and even then you’d be dealing with a mountain of legends, half-truths, and conjectures. From the history of Morrowind’s rulers to the acts of the living god Vivec, everything in the game’s lore is up for debate. Players have spent years cataloging the events leading up to the game and arguing over interpretations, driven by the ambiguity intentionally built in to Morrowind’s story.
Fortunately, you don’t need to do any of that. In Elder Scrolls tradition, your character arrives in Morrowind as a stranger, freed from prison for some mysterious reason by the powers that be. Your character is just as ignorant to the politics of the Tribunal, the Nerevarine Prophecy, and why cliff racers are a scourge upon the land as you, the player, are. Morrowind may be more enjoyable if you dive deep into the titular province’s history, but that decision is yours in the end.
While you don’t need to be a history scholar to play Morrowind, you do need to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Unlike the more recent Skyrim, Morrowind doesn’t point the way to quest objectives with glowing UI markers. In many cases, you’re just given travel directions and vague instructions and left to sort things out for yourself.
Complicating things further is the lack of easy fast travel. You can pay to ride giant bugs called Silt Striders from one city to another, but you’ll mostly explore Morrowind on foot, trekking through vast swamps and over craggy mountains like a maniacally dedicated hobbit LARPer. The result can be deeply disorienting, but completing quests this way feels way more fulfilling. It’s like the difference between taking a scenic road trip and just following the GPS to your location. The latter may be easier, but you’re not likely stumble upon any intriguing surprises along the way.
A journey through Morrowind is packed with those surprises. Isolated from the rest of the Elder Scrolls’ setting of Tamriel, the province is a truly alien place, all but devoid of familiar Eurocentric fantasy tropes. Instead of dragons and medieval castles, the landscape is dotted with massive, floating jellyfish and mushrooms the size of skyscrapers.
Morrowind’s gameplay may feel just as unfamiliar to people accustomed to modern RPGs. Enemies don’t level with your character and each piece of loot is placed in the world specifically, rather than being pulled from leveled gear lists. That means any cave or ruin you stumble upon has a chance of containing an artifact of legendary power or an over-leveled monster capable of taking you out in one swipe. Morrowind never feels safe or predictable; it feels full of potential.
That includes the potential to royally screw yourself. If you set out in the right direction from the start of the game, you’ll see a man fall to his death from seemingly nowhere. In his possession is one of Morrowind’s most famous items: the Scroll of Icarian Flight. This powerful scroll greatly boosts your Acrobatics skill, letting you jump hundreds of feet in the air. There’s only one catch: it doesn’t make hitting the ground any less deadly. And that’s just one premade example. Morrowind’s spell crafting system lets you devise spells so powerful you can’t even gain enough mana to cast them — at least not without also twisting its alchemy system to boost your stats.
It’s that sense of freedom, the feeling that you’re fighting the world and maybe even breaking the game for every inch of ground you gain, that makes Morrowind unique. Your actions truly shape your character and their journey, whether you decide to save Morrowind as an all-powerful mage or kill enough plot-important NPCs that the game becomes unbeatable. Morrowind’s do-it-yourself attitude is anathema to modern RPGs, but maybe the popularity of games like Elden Ring proves players are hungry for a deeper experience that forces them to think for themselves.
It’s a bewildering game by today’s standards, but once you’ve played Morrowind, starting it again always feels a little like coming home.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is available on PC and Xbox Game Pass.