Friday, August 13, 2010

Antagonists: Morrowind

Morrowind is a curious game for me. It took me half a dozen goes before I actually enjoyed it enough to play more than a couple of hours, but once I got over that hump, I played it with a moderate amount of dedication. Now, while it's an open world game and so the focus isn't necessarily on the main plot, there was actually a fair amount involved in the main quest line. Thus with the requisite spoiler warning, let's dive into the (lengthy) plot summary.

You are shipped to the island of Vvardenfell (in the province of Morrowind, hence the game's title) at the Emperor's command. You were a criminal but released upon his command. You are told to assist one Caius Cosades, a member of the Blades who are effectively the Emperor's "secret police" to protect the Empire. You are tasked to investigate the cults of the Nerevarine and the "Sixth House". Through a series of quests you discover that the Nerevarine is a prophecy that will see the rebirth of Nerevar, a former hero of the island. His rebirth will mark the end of the "blight storms", storms of red dust that causes disease and are slowly destroying the entire island. The "Sixth House" is trying to bring about the rebirth of a "great house" (akin to a major political faction) which was destroyed centuries ago.

After some more machinations, Caius Cosades reveals that the Emperor intends to use you to fulfill the Nerevarine prophecies. You are the means by which he ensure that the stability of the Empire is not threatened. You are sent to one of the Ashlander tribes (specifically belonging to a Nerevarine cult) to find out more about the Nerevarine and to attempt to convince them that you can fulfil the prophecy. After some convincing, their "Wise Woman" agrees that you may be able to. As such, she asks for your help in finding a set of documents: the lost prophecies on the Nerevarine.

Are the walls keeping the monsters inside... or us outside?

By this time, you have learned a little more about the troubles of the island, and most likely its history. This is actually crucial to the plot, as the whole reason for the blight storms is due to the actions of several mortals who became Gods through their actions. The cause of the island's troubles is Dagoth Ur, who is hiding deep within Red Mountain. The blight storms seem to emanate from this volcano, allegedly due to Dagoth's influence. Even worse, the magical barriers protecting the island are weakening, and the Sixth House is attempting to regain power on the island for Dagoth Ur. As a result, Caius Cosades sends you off to destroy a newly discovered Sixth House cult base. You do so, killing its leader, Dagoth Gares, but at a terrible price - you contract the deadly Corprus disease, a fatal wasting disease that can come from the blight.

However, recovering from Corprus is one of the prophecies regarding the Nerevarine, and with some assistance, you are able to do just that, becoming immune to the disease's ill effects in the process. You then must break an associate out of a prison that is a giant floating rock who has the lost prophecies regarding the Nerevarine, because the temple which rules the island believes them to be heresy. Because of your actions, you gain the respect of the Nerevarine cult, who task you with fulfilling the next parts of the prophecy: gaining the respect of the three major Ashlander tribes and the Three Great Houses by having them declare you the Nerevarine and Hortator (war leader) respectively. After a long and involved process, you do so.

The location of one of the best prison breaks ever

At this point, your status makes you a criminal in the eyes of the temple ruling the island in the name of the god Vivec (another former-mortal-turned-deity like Dagoth Ur). But, in a strange turn of events, you meet with Vivec himself, who co-opts you into performing a series of tasks to retrieve the necessary tools to defeat and kill Dagoth Ur. These are legendary items by which their rise to immortality was performed, and you must undo their actions of so many years ago. However, through your actions that allow you to kill Dagoth Ur, you destroy the very thing making Vivec immortal. But due to your success, the blight storms end and the future of Vvardenfell seems assured.

Now the curious thing is that Dagoth Ur is never really presented to you directly as your antagonist. You're basically given the role of Nerevarine (whether you like it or not), effectively forcing your hand to deal with Dagoth Ur at the Emperor's command. He does take a personal interest in you, and you get Corprus disease from Dagoth Gares more or less at his behest. However, the plot does not directly revolve around him as a personal antagonist to you.

That said, Dagoth Ur still makes a fairly convincing villain, in that his presence and actions will see the blight storms spread over the entire island and ultimately everything and everyone being destroyed. You didn't necessarily have a personal vendetta against him, but the pure fact that his continued existence would result in your death (along with everyone else's) was sufficient motivation. I'll confess that it actually made me develop a strong desire to dispatch him. I think perhaps the major weakness was that I didn't feel like I got enough of a sense as to what Dagoth Ur's plan was through his actions. His entire character as an antagonist seemed to be that he was entitled to the godhood that he had "earned" through his actions with the magical artifacts you collect and use against him.

Levitation. A cool trick of an immortal.

Perhaps more interesting is that a significant amount of the back story behind his rise to god status is not given to you explicitly by the characters. If you're not making an effort to get involved in the plot, much of it can be left out and you can be wondering exactly what is going on. I greatly appreciated the effort that had been put into creating the story behind the individuals involved in the machinations that saw the creation of the Tribunal (the three "gods": Dagoth Ur, Vivec and Almalexia). Their actions, rise to power and the subsequent effect that they had on the island are documented in many books through the game, and effectively permeate the entire societal structure and religious beliefs on the island. Dagoth Ur is so much of a legend in their history that he is the bogeyman used to scare children into their beds at night. Except he's real.

For me, the main problem with the game was the lack of a hook. After meeting with Caius Cosades the first time, the player could literally be tossed out with a "come back when you've levelled up" message. For me, even though I wanted to play it, the game proven impenetrable (and got me utterly destroyed in early fights) the first few times I tried to play it. I got progressively further each time I returned, but it was months after I'd first bought it before I finally was able to actually get past the initial hurdle. I was extremely happy when I did get over it, because I really enjoyed the game once I started to make some progress. I was a contented gamer upon dispatching Dagoth Ur and freeing Vvardenfell from the blight storms.

I see skies of blue, clouds of white (okay, brownish white)

The thing is that hook did not need to be, nor should it have been, the antagonist. The power of Dagoth Ur's character comes from being so entrenched in the history of the island on which the game is set. In that sense, I'm actually reminded of Arcanum, which developed its antagonist in a similar fashion. This very different narration style of developing the overall picture of the ultimate antagonist through the lore of the game's setting is a really interesting design approach.

This style rewards the player who gets into the setting, and by its nature practically encourages them to accept the reality of the game. This is a very powerful technique to draw the player in, but may demand an inquisitive mindset and a player willing to invest themselves in the setting. I wonder if the number of players that are willing to do so is sufficient to justify the expense of a modern AAA game title? If it means that we will see more titles like Morrowind, where the world created by the game's writers is so closely tied to the narrative of the game itself, then I surely hope so.


  1. This sounds very similar to my own experience with this game. I didn't come further than the very early quests where you have to go some mines and clear out an infestation. At this point I took interest in the guilds and sidequests, never looking back at the main quest. I repeated this cycle a few times as I created new characters.

    One or two months later I gave the main quest another try. I managed to come far enough to get a sort of momentum out of it. At this point the game became a lot more interesting. I was comfortable within the game world and began to appreciate the ...superfluous lore. At this point, Morrowind became one of my favorite games.

    I especially remember the sense of adventure this game would give me. I would stock up potions and items before I decided to travel across the map and follow whatever path it led me. The feeling I got from it was unlike any other game.

    I know Ken Rolston is now working on a new RPG now with Todd MacFarlane, I can't wait to see how that turns out. I also think Grant Kirkhope is working with them, the composer of the awesome interactive Banjo-Kazooie soundtracks. Big Huge Games seems to be a dream team of developers. Easily one of the most anticipated games for me.

  2. First you get me to try the Witcher again, now I'm going to re-install Morrowind and give it another chance.

    Keep these things coming!

  3. Very interesting posts about The Witcher and now Morrowind. I agree with a lot of points you made.

    I wonder, did you try Drakensang? I am curious to know what an experienced gamer and modder like you think about this game!

  4. I haven't actually tried Drakensang, although I did hear from a few people that it was worth playing. I'll try to pick it up at some point and do a playthrough.

  5. The funny thing is that i played morrowind mostly for the side quests. At one point i even jumped over that magic wall and killed some monsters on the other side before jumping back.
    When i got "the items" they were not really that powerful compared to what i had in my inventory so dispatching Dagoth Ur was not that difficult.

    As to the Witcher, i never played beyond the town where you have to convince some people. I really hated that one quest where you had to escort some woman and she constantly got stuck and was eaten by those spectral hounds.

    Being from Germany, i recogment Drakensang. It is based in roleplaying world created for Pen&Paper-RPG which i played and am still playing so i like the world but the game is just ok not great. I am not sure about the aspect of translation (which was also an issue with the Witcher, i heard for some friends who understand polish or ?chek?).