Mechanical focus, RPGs, and the mastery of Morrowind

In what could well be the first of many longform articles set to appear in Gaming, Devon Young gives a tour of the mysterious island of Vvardenfell...

Devon Young
12th April 2020
Image: YouTube (ROSENROT)
Focus is key to impactful art, and that is no more prevalent than video games. Those built around a single gameplay mechanic, and cater all aspects of the game around it, are some of the most lauded games of the past century. But there is one genre that has always struggled with this concept: Role Playing Games (RPGs); a struggle clearly presented in the last couple of instalments in The Elder Scrolls franchise: 2006’s Oblivion and 2011’s Skyrim. Like most RPGs, they aim to fulfil the mantra of “go anywhere, do anything, play however you want”. So how do you focus an RPG around a single mechanic, while also providing mechanical player freedom? Is it possible for future Elder Scrolls games to do so? Well, as a matter of fact, one already has: 2002’s Morrowind.

But how exactly does that mechanical focus work? It can in several ways, with one of the simplest of them being centred around a verb (an idea popularised by designer Chris Crawford). This was present even in early video games, with Super Mario Bros. using the verb ‘jump’ to inform its 2D platforming gameplay. Every element of the game is built around the concept of jumping. Levels are traversed by jumping up or over obstacles. Items are collected by jumping into the underside of blocks. Coins are almost exclusively collected via jumping. Goombas and Koopa Troopas are defeated by being jumped upon, with the latter resulting in a projectile that is released - and potentially dodged - by jumping. The whole game is built around that one single mechanic.

Image: Wikipedia

Games can also be focused around more complex mechanics. At the start of the 2007 puzzle game Portal, the player is introduced to a unique concept: two portals - one orange, one blue. They each create a visual and physical connection between two points in space that can be passed through while retaining momentum. And… that’s the game. Every single one of the following puzzles are based around placing the two portals in different places, and then passing yourself or objects through. Puzzle games often are based around mechanics like this, such as Fez using the idea of rotating the viewpoint to reveal new perspectives on the level, and Braid, in which the player can rewind the flow of time. Each of the subsequent levels in these games continually build upon different utilisations of that single mechanic.

And finally, you have more abstract points of focus. The MOBA-FPS hybrid Titanfall 2 is a game built around movement and positioning, be it through the Tribes-like ‘pilot’ movement and abilities, or the chess-like ‘titan’ dashes and cooldowns. Even the MOBA-inspired ‘creep farming’ (easy AI enemies that fuel abilities and upgrades) is designed to reward inventive pathways and flanking. Another example is the co-op shooter Lead 4 Dead 2, which bases its design on the idea of cooperation. The stream of low-difficulty zombies synergises with the incapacitating healing items, forcing the players to communicate and defend each other. Similarly, the various special infected are designed to separate the players, once again forcing communication. Even though these concepts are not linked to a specific mechanic, they still act as a base point from which all other mechanics and design decisions are built off.

So, with such a varied array of mechanical expectations, how is an RPG able to keep a mechanical focus throughout the various design decisions?

So back to The Elder Scrolls. RPGs are sold around the concept of mechanical freedom, allowing the player to fulfil any role within the game world that they wish, whether that’s achieved through melee or ranged combat, stealth, magic, or various speechcraft-based options, and either individually or combined. Based on classic tabletop RPGs, they also include dungeon crawling, loot and bartering, NPCs and factions, levelling and player progression. The wrapper for all this is a deep and vibrant lore to the setting, told through books, conversations, enemies, and the world in which the player explores.

So, with such a varied array of mechanical expectations, how is an RPG able to keep a mechanical focus throughout the various design decisions? The secret of Morrowind is that, at its core, it’s not an RPG. It’s a mystery game, and its core mechanic is information.

The game begins with the wheels of the plot already turning...

Image: Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages Wiki

Morrowind is set on the island of Vvardenfell, homeland of the native Dunmer (dark elves) and their warring Great Houses, now tenuously integrated into the Imperial Empire. The game begins with the wheels of the plot already turning. The Living Gods that rule the island send out their secret assassins, burning books and silencing whispers. The Empire’s grip ever-loosens as they play by their own motives, banning the retrieval of ancient Dwarven artefacts from abandoned steampunk fortresses. And dark forces stir beyond the Red Mountain as the ‘corprus’ disease spreads out. Corrupting the dreams of those infected, causing cancerous growths, and transforming them into horrific monsters, it can no longer be contained by the shielding Ghostfence and religious zealots that guard it. As Vvardenfell falls into total quarantine, the Imperial Emperor sends in one final ship, containing “a prisoner born on a certain day to uncertain parents” to meet with his own network of spies.

Not that any of that is known as you, the nameless prisoner, step onto the shore. After a few quick contextualised character creation screens, you’re given a handful of gold, a sealed package, and directions on whom to deliver it to. And that’s it. You’re sent out into the world, with one overarching piece of advice: learn.

All those plotlines described above, which go on to intertwine and define the main questline, are spawned from a single event. A mysterious event that occurred over three and a half thousand years ago - one that acts as the foundation for Vvardenfell’s present situation.

And it’s that mystery which acts as the mechanical focus for the entire game.

The unlevelled world of Morrowind organically creates progression within aspects of exploration itself

All the classic RPG mechanics are built around that mystery, each feeding back into that core. The locations, NPCs, conversations, items, and books are designed to help build out the wider context of the world, dropping various clues to the player as they explore and experience the game. But mysteries are built on information, and in a truly open world game, the whole world is open to the player from the beginning. This introduces a new problem: how is it possible to create progression in a mystery when the nature of an open world makes all clues available from the outset?

Morrowind does this by tying various aspects of the world and quests to the RPG character levelling system. Unlike Oblivion and Skyrim, the world of Morrowind is unlevelled: the difficulty of the various enemies and areas do not change and scale to the player’s level of power. This has its disadvantages, of course; early in the game, most pathways will be extremely difficult - essentially impossible - for the player, and later, the easier areas and enemies will provide no challenge whatsoever. But through the lens of mystery, the advantage far outweighs these detriments; an unlevelled world organically creates progression within aspects of exploration itself, meaning information and clues to the core mystery can be spread through these areas, and the progression of the mystery can be tied to the player’s own power level.

This is most clearly seen in Morrowind’s dungeons (a staple element of tabletop and digital RPGs alike). At the start of the game, you’re encouraged to venture into simple caves and mines, where you’ll usually come across low-level bandits or creatures. This introduces you to the basic lore of the world - the relationship between the Dunmer and the Empire, the laws around slavery and smuggling, and the removed lifestyle of the people. The next level up is the Ancestral Tombs, filled with ghosts, skeletons, and Bonewalkers, which put the religious customs of the Dunmer on display. Next are the Dwemer Ruins, filled with the abandoned Dwarven automatons, giving you hints about their culture and their mysterious disappearance. Then the Daedric Shrines give insight into other worships and powers and how they play into the wider world. And finally, there is the venture into the walls of the Ghostfence and,  by extension, the depths of the Red Mountain.

Image: Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages Wiki

Though it is not an exact correlation and has many outliers, this trend allows the clues to be controlled, paced and delivered across a playthrough, without sacrificing player freedom.

Factions also space their clues throughout a player’s levelling. To secure an Advancement within a faction, a player must have the attributes and skills that the faction favours at a certain level. Some faction quests are locked behind ranks, further tying the progression of the world and plot to the player’s level and skills.

And of course, there are the major questlines themselves. Since mystery is the core, every quest, however major or minor, is designed to drip-feed information and clues to the player, with longer questlines ordering and spacing said information throughout their stages. And the main quest is no exception - in fact, it takes this one step further.

There are still debates throughout the Morrowind community on what really happened in those past eras - arguments and contradictions continue to be brought up

It’s not just the mechanics of Morrowind that are built around that core. Like many games, Morrowind tells a story throughout a player’s time with it, and, true to its focus, that story is about mystery, information, and truth. It involves prophecy - the implications, interpretations, and theological implementations. It involves propaganda - how beliefs, cultures, and prejudices can be weaponised for political and religious gains. It involves history - those who write it, learn from it, and twist it. The story of Morrowind is just as ambiguous as the rest of its world; the game knows that, and revels in the concept.

The books throughout the game regularly conflict in their depiction of events. Sometimes this divide is simple - Barenziah, the first Queen of Morrowind, has two books chronicling her life: the Biography of Queen Barenziah, sanctioned by the Empire and written by Imperial scribes, and The Real Barenziah, a more elaborated publication apparently revealed by the Queen herself in private confessions to a friend, that was later censored and circulated. While in that example, it is clear which political stances spawned each copy, the motives in others are far more murky. And that heart is central to many aspects of the gameplay: trawling through texts, be it poetries or prophecies, sermons or songs, ancient records or first-hand accounts, and analysing their contradictions is part of you piecing together the story that lies beneath.

There are still debates throughout the Morrowind community on what really happened in those past eras - arguments and contradictions continue to be brought up. Even later games have been careful to avoid giving the events a clear definition, and I’m glad they have: to do so would harm the essence of mystery that still prevails seventeen years later. Morrowind may be set in a world of elves and beasts, but - like all the best science fiction - it uses the alien and the inhuman to explore humanity, with teachings that have never been more relevant in this current age of anti-science politicians, “fake news”, and institutionalised manipulation.

The fact that Morrowind was designed by such a small and like-minded team was probably one of the key components to its success

So, by following Morrowind’s formula, could The Elder Scrolls VI solve the RPG problem of mechanical focus once again? Of that, I’m not so sure. For one thing, the size of modern development teams is tenfold that of those in the early 2000s, usually more. ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ is not always the case, but with the segmented nature of game development, a strong focus throughout all the mechanics becomes a difficult thing to control. This is compounded by the current nature of most AAA design leads, which tend to err on the business side of the industry, and shareholders, which can affect many of the design decisions of publicly traded software companies such as EA, Ubisoft, and Activision Blizzard. There’s also a lack of auteurs in the industry, with figures like Tim Schafer, Jonathan Blow, and Hideo Kojima being few and far between. The fact that Morrowind was designed by such a small and like-minded team was probably one of the key components to its success.

But the other, far more interesting argument against it is the current culture of gaming and the Internet. When Morrowind was first released, the World Wide Web was still very much in its infancy, and most of gaming culture was offline, be it through manuals, LAN parties, and word of mouth. Mystery was far more prevalent, as shown by the various urban legends that spawned from those decades such as Street Fighter II’s Shen Long unlock, the nude Tomb Raider code, and GTA: San Andreas’ Bigfoot sightings. But now times have changed. Most of the community and discussion around games is now primarily based online, along with the overload of information that it provides. Wikis, walkthroughs, ‘Let’s Plays’, and streaming have never been more popular, and the oversaturation of content only encourages their use. Could a mainstream game place mystery at its core, knowing full well that its players are only a Google search away from the answers? Can this type of game survive in the age of spoilers?

Maybe the problem is also the solution. The Internet has also provided a platform where online communities can work together to solve far more complex problems and mysteries, as shown in modern examples such as the Call of Duty Zombies Easter eggs, GTAV’s Mount Chiliad Mystery, and Destiny’s various raids. Tying into the procedural exploration of titles such as Minecraft and No Man’s Sky, clues could be hidden throughout expansive worlds that - rather than fighting - necessitate a communal effort between players.

It’s a far cry from its Elder Scrolls roots, but as the gaming community evolves, so must the games that they play. And who knows? Maybe under these limitations, a whole new masterpiece will birth and flourish.

Morrowind is a game of politics and religion, of magic and prophecy, of racism and colonialism, of oppression and division, of propaganda and history, and of metaphysics and dreamscapes and reincarnation, but above all, it is a game about truth. By building the game around a core mystery, the designers were able to focus around a single vision - both mechanically and thematically - with it standing above countless modern RPGs, including the later instalments of its own franchise. The state of modern gaming culture and development may mean we’ll never get a game like it again, but with the recent OpenMW engine, the Linux/Mac/Android ports, the multiplayer servers, the completed Oblivion engine remaster, the progressing Skyrim engine remake, the numerous graphical overhauls, and the ever-vibrant modding community, the game isn’t going away any time soon. So give it a try. Maybe you yourself can solve the mystery within the heart of Morrowind.

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