If I had to pick a favorite computer roleplaying games (CRPGs), the one I have the fondest memories of, I’d probably go with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. It was such a brilliant new move in the realm of CRPGs. It hit at the right point in time to take advantage of technological improvements, and could pull off its 3-dimensional, first-person perspective without looking like crap. (cough Might & Magic cough.) Just about everyone who played it back in 2002-03 will recall walking out of the starter village to get to the plot, past a two-story-tall sand flea, down a bumpy cobblestone road, past some isolated farms and a lizard-dog, and watching two red moons rise up over the mountains. The immersion level was intense, and there really wasn’t anything to compare it to at the time—that was back when “Grand Theft Auto-esque” was the terminology for “sandbox game.” And even today, the prime candidates for first-person sandbox games are either in the Elder Scrolls or Fallout game lines, both by BethSoft.
After TESV: Skyrim came out, I got to thinking about why I favor Morrowind over the newer, games, which are better looking, better balanced, and have better AIs, all from an unarguable objective standpoint. And one thing that immediately comes to mind is that Morrowind is one of the few fantasy RPGs that felt like it was taking more advantage of “fantasy” in its setting. You start out on a swampy jungle island, until it becomes the ash cinderland desert, or you move into the barren wastes of the center. The aesthetics are incomparable to traditional fantasy: a hodge-podge of Arabic, Indian, and Asian influences dominate the continent, from Vivec’s stepped pyramids looming over a marsh, to the Telvanni clan and their freaky plant buildings. That’s not even getting to the ruins of the Dwemer (long-lost Dwarves), underground cities of crystal and clockwork and phosphorescent mushrooms. Or the snow-capped wastes of Solstheim, an island just to the north of Vvardenfall, the island upon which Morrowind takes place.
Since you’re a prisoner sent to this penal-colony-esque island, you’re eased into the immersive alien setting at a perfect pace: it looks normal at first, and gets progressively new and interesting. The starting city of Sedya Neen is pretty straightforward, as are the houses and legion fort you’re most likely to encounter next. But at some point, you stop and wonder: when did I start going to towns made out of giant plants? When did I start delving Dwarven clockwork dungeons? No matter where you go, you’re going to find some other kind of unique vistas: just about every terrain type is crammed into this one island (two if you count Solstheim). It’s the kind of fresh, bold, sense-of-wonder that I dig.
Oblivion fell into the Western RPG trap where Fantasyland is nothing more than Medieval Britain, with some Roman elements in the weapon and clothing design. Pretty, and expansive, but we’ve already been there in just about every other fantasy game where you set out across flowing fields of grass towards craggy pine forests. And when it did go interesting with its setting, it took another traditional fantasy staple: the demonic incursion. The hellish dimension of Oblivion was also aesthetically cool but something fantasy has frequently touched on. “Oh, gee, it’s red and spikey out. We must be in hell.” It had some interesting design features, such as plants that tried to attack you or drain your abilities, the weird overlap of organic and inorganic construction material (like “crates” that were a cross between a cocoon and a polyp), and the jagged ruins of some collapsed former hell scattered across the demonic pocket-dimensions. But at the end of the day, “demons did it” sounds like a predictably bad D&D adventure.
Skyrim is back to pushing some envelopes in its setting, but for the most part, it’s Vikingland. The aesthetics have this definite Norse theme to them—Nords, Norse, it’s always been there—such as the fine filigree work and the looming stone-and-thatch buildings that give me a draft just looking at them. It looks less like Fantasy Denmark than Oblivion looked like Fantasy Britain-Rome, thanks to some neat locale design and a return to the bizarre magi-tech designs of the Dwemer (a long-lost race of Dwarves). And some of the exterior scenery looks downright amazing. But it throttles that sensawunda new weirdness that Morrowind gave under the somewhat predictable pine forests and stone keeps that dominate the surface.
I’m not sure what this says about either gaming or fantasy. Maybe Morrowind’s exotic-ness was a fluke, or going wild after the constraints of the blocky towns and dungeons of TESII: Daggerfall. Maybe fantasy fans prefer the familiar Dark Ages Europe tropes to baroque weirdness. Maybe BethSoft will move back to this “unique to the Elder Scrolls” style in its world design when they deal with the Black Marsh, or Elsweyr, or the Summerset Isle. There’s no “maybe” about me being too hard to please, though.