Why Morrowind Is Still The Best Fantasy World in Gaming

Over 20 years after its debut, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind's world-building set a fantasy standard that may never be surpassed.

Elder Scrolls 3 Morrowind
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

You dream of scorched vistas. A mysterious voice resonates through your fitful dreams, ensuring you that you are being watched. Shortly after, you awake in the sodden guts of a prison ship carried across the sea to a foreign land for reasons unknown. Little do you realize the true nature of this strange land upon which you set foot.

This is Morrowind: a land of prophecies, ancient secrets, and earth-bound gods. Much has changed in the more than twenty years since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind‘s release, but the world that revolutionary RPG gifted us remains one of the best in all of fantasy gaming.

The Perils of the Journey 

When designing a fantasy game’s world, there are often certain traps of the genre that a creator can fall prey to.

For instance, they can lean into those established tropes to more intuitively explain their world to the player, but relying too much on those tropes can cost a world its distinctiveness. Grumpy, but ingenious, dwarves and forest-dwelling elves may be efficient pieces of set dressing, but they can quickly cause a game’s world to be subsumed into the amorphous gray mass that is sometimes known as the “conventional Medieval European Fantasy Setting.”

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But the opposite end of the spectrum can often be just as dangerous. An entirely unique fantasy world that feels alien and strange often requires many explanations. A player knows what a dwarf is and why a dragon might be a problem, but you’ll need to do some serious work to explain why players might want to help a village being menaced by some galactic terror that apparently defies conventional explanation. 

Of course, there is the option to take pre-established fantasy elements and slap new names on them. In the wrong hands, that approach can be about as effective as putting flames on an old Volkswagen. However, that same technique can yield a “best of both worlds” result that entices us with a sense of familiarity and belonging while twisting certain cliches just enough to promote the thrilling sensation of the new. The difference comes down to the strength of a vision and the talent needed to make that vision come to life.

Thankfully, Morrowind benefits from both that vision and that talent. In its own ways, it manages to avoid certain pitfalls by taking pre-established fantasy concepts and exploring them from truly unique angles.

Simply Built Different

When you imagine a fantasy dwarf, what comes to mind? Probably a little man with a beard who lives underground and maybe builds things and drinks too much. It’s an archetype we’ve seen creators return to time and time again. You’re either following the cliche or you’re subverting it.

Well, for its dwarves, Morrowind takes the basic idea of a skilled race of craftsmen who live underground and evolves that concept by presenting those craftsmen as members of a mythical, lost civilization that used sci-fi-level technology to build vast, underground compounds staffed by robots. The hallmarks of the classic character archetype are there, but when you see the works and worlds of Morrowind‘s dwarves, you’re still treated to this fantastic “aha” moment.

Mind you, dwarves aren’t the only classic fantasy characters to get a high-concept facelift in Morrowind. The Elder Scrolls series features 10 different major races, and each one gets its own unique lore in the franchise’s third major entry. Wood Elves, for example, have made a pledge to the god of their forest to always eat everything they kill. This includes their enemies, which has earned them a reputation as being cannibalistic forest demons. 

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The Lizard-like Argonians, meanwhile, start their life as mindless reptiles who gain sentience by drinking the sap of intelligent, psychic trees. Even humans, usually the bland choice in any fantasy game, have unique and interesting cultures. Just look at the Imperials, who blend Roman and Qing Dynasty China together to create an expansive civilization whose emperor forged godhood by seeing past the fourth wall and realizing he was a character in a video game.

At every opportunity, Morrowind starts with ideas common to the fantasy genre and takes a hard left into something completely unexpected. The moment you land at Seyda-Neen (a seemingly standard, medieval European-looking coastal town), you hear a loud, mournful moaning so jarring that it seems to shake the very ground beneath you. Yet, none of the residents seem to pay it any mind.

Once you step out into the town square, you finally see the source of the noise: a colossal, insectile creature with a domed carapace set on six segmented legs as tall and thin as palm trees. You have just met a Silt Strider. This eerie goliath may look like a boss you need to defeat, but in reality, it’s this world’s form of public transportation. It’s just a big, chitinous metro bus. That moment of shocking scale and alien beauty is a perfect reflection of the game’s overall tone. This world is strange, beautiful, and above all, it’s alive. 

Chim And The Art of Visual Design

Of all the cliches that Morrowind uses and repurposes, the most important may just be “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Morrowind‘s art design is carefully crafted to remind you that this world is more than just strange; it’s believably strange. Elves are shown to have completely different skeletons than humans. Morrowind’s answer to demons, Daedra, are designed to look primordial (almost like dinosaurs), which instantly implies that these powerful entities are far older than we can imagine. The closest thing you have to a standard fantasy undead is the Ash Ghoul: an elf infected with a disease that causes your face to cave in and start growing tentacles from the hole.

The world’s unique touches are even woven into the very equipment you wear. Along with standard materials like leather, steel, and mithril, Morrowind’s weapons and armor are crafted from things like elven glass, insect chitin, and magical never-thawing ice. The same can be said for the game’s environmental design. As you venture deeper into the open world, you see things just as strange as that invertebrate taxi. You’ll meet with guilds in towers made of living fungal matter. You’ll explore alleys in a canal city built under a meteor that’s being held motionless by an androgynous god-king. Such sights would be the highlight of other worlds, but here, they are just small parts of a much grander design.

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Whether through narrative or visuals, Morrowind takes every opportunity to swerve on its players to create a world that looks and feels wholly distinct. From creatures to weapons and locations, everything is lovingly rendered to skirt the line between high strangeness and grounded believability. 

Consider, for instance, Morrowind‘s native race, the Dunmer (aka, the Dark Elves). They have a rich history of art, culture, and racism, and they’re more than happy to share that last little cultural export with you. It’s jarring, yes, but it all serves the bigger idea that this world is so much bigger than you and your adventure.

The people of Morrowind are, above all, people. They are farmers, blacksmiths, drug dealers, and state-sanctioned-assassins. And here you come: some heavily armored weirdo draped in magical gear willing to do violence for money without even a license. It only makes sense that they would be wary of you.

Unlike future Elder Scrolls games like Skyrim (and so many other fantasy titles) where everyone bends over backward to remind you that you’re the chosen one, the locals of Morrowind remain terse even when your mystic destiny reveals itself. Who would blame them? If some random tourist told you they were the second coming, you’d probably respond with more than a bit of incredulity. The world is jam-packed with details that help drive this idea that you are a foreigner in a land whose history and culture existed long before you and will last well after you’ve gone. 

Thorough Thematics

In the world of Morrowind, cosmic notions of fate and reality work side-by-side with more grounded themes like political corruption and the complex nature of organized religion. Your main quest is to foil an ancient god-king’s plot, but along the way, you may need to explore the seedy world of Morrowind’s drug trade or help oppressed cultures preserve their traditions in the wake of religious persecution.

All these moments serve the game’s overall theme of the many ways the corrupt and powerful use prejudice to further their own ends. Morrowind’s narrative design utilizes every possible detail to expand upon such complex ideas and explore the nature of this magical world and how it relates to our own lives. That’s something even otherwise great fantasy worlds neglect almost entirely. 

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Skyrim, for example, hints at the idea of The Empire conceding to a powerful elven government to forbid the worship of Talos (the emperor who became a god by seeing the fourth wall). However, the game goes on to do relatively nothing with that idea other than sparking a war between the bureaucratic and incompetent Empire and the racially-nationalist Stormcloaks. Morrowind, meanwhile, works its conflict between the Daedra-worshipping Ashlanders and the power-hungry Tribunal into the game’s main story. It lingers above and runs through everything that you do and everyone you interact with.

In Morrowind, your main antagonist is Dagoth Ur. Like the Tribunal, he’s an elf that attained godhood. Unlike the Tribunal, he’s dissatisfied with the world around him and wants to remake it in his own image. Throughout the game, he comes to you in dreams. He expresses his admiration for what you do, even using terms of endearment when referring to you. He wants you to help him because he knows how badly the world has screwed you over.

You, the player, have experienced discrimination and condescension from the locals of Morrowind. Meanwhile, here’s Dagoth offering you a way out. Wouldn’t it be better if you could just wipe it all clean and make something new? Something kinder? But his promise is a lie he’s used on countless other pawns. It’s the promise of a “way back” to an idealized world that never existed. It’s the same mentality that gives birth to notions of superiority and prejudice. The idea that “Everything was better until they came along.” 

Compare that to Skyrim‘s Alduin: a very big and angry dragon who is actually the cosmic concept of entropy. Skyrim could have done a lot with that character. Maybe he could represent grief, the feeling that the world is utterly screwed, and the despair that comes with all of that. Maybe he could talk with the player and argue the necessity of entropy to make room for new ideas. But no. He just flies around, burns a fortress, says two lines about how scary you are, and then dies. No big, difficult questions and no implications regarding the world around you. Just a war between idiots and a big, dead lizard. 

A Grand and Intoxicating Legacy

Morrowind is not immune from criticism. Its graphics and gameplay have begun to show their age. Even its once-revolutionary open world is bereft of modern conveniences like plentiful objective markers. Combat is clunky, making encounters with certain enemies (especially flying enemies) a nightmare. Later Elder Scrolls games (and those titles that followed in Morrowind‘s footsteps) improved upon Morrowind in so many ways. Yet, despite these imperfections, players keep coming back to Morrowind. Why? 

Because you could just as easily argue that for all its flaws (and, at times, because of them), the game does a fantastic job of creating a world that feels untamed, dangerous, and complex. A world that feels well and truly alive in a way no other game has managed since. This sense of exploring the alien and unknown creates an intoxicating appeal that lures players back to Morrowind time and time again.  

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Even Skyrim and Elder Scrolls Online couldn’t resist coming back to the scorched isles of Solstheim or the grand city of Vivec. But Bethesda isn’t the only one trying to bring back Morrowind’s magic. Modders are lovingly reconstructing the entire game using Skyrim’s engine in a truly colossal effort dubbed Project Skywind. Indie studios like Lovely Hellplace are creating games inspired by the feel of exploring a strange, open world with their debut title Dread Delusion. Countless fan tributes (like Dagothwave: a viral video that turns the monologue of the game’s antagonist into an 80s synth-wave ballad) can be found on YouTube. Years later, lore hounds are still trying to unravel the game’s greatest mysteries. Morrowind has left ripples in the creative spheres of game development, narrative design, music, art, and more. 

Morrowind is more than an interesting fantasy world. It’s an open challenge to reconsider how we define fantasy as a genre. That’s an accomplishment only previously achieved by the likes of Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, and Nnedi Okorafor. It is a lesson in the nature of history and how the past can be a symbol of hope or a weapon used by tyrants. It is a story, an experience, and an essential work for anyone who wants to understand what makes fantasy truly great.