Because games are about more than headshots

The worst thing that ever happened (This Week): Morrowind

with 4 comments

After a week’s hiatus the much lauded feature returns! The reason for the delay of this (last) week’s column was a pretty integral one, being that there was no design decision so awful that I felt I could slowly analyse it over a thousand or so words. There were alot of little problems I encountered, such as in Second Sight, where not 4 minutes after the player gained the ability to deal with laser fields was one used as a dead end where the players abilities were strangely useless. Indeed, I have encountered many items fo gaming joy; the aformentioned Second Sight, the ‘it came out of nowhere’ demo for Trine (even wiki knows nothing about it) and the seminal Elder Scrolls series, which I’m revisiting for an upcoming Narrative Narcissism [/foreshadowing].

Check out the demo, screenshots cannot match the majesty of Trine in motion.

Check out the demo, screenshots cannot match the majesty of Trine in motion.

An issue that has perpetually dogged Bethesda’s open world RPG’s has been that of leveling. Specifically, how you balance a world against the abilities of the player in such a way to provide both challenge and freedom to the player. The company has essentially rebooted this mechanic three times in an attempt to get it right but unfortunately, Morrowind is cursed with the worst iteration.  Now as a forewarning, I have by no means completed Morrowind and am infact only about 20 hours into it (you can all stop laughing) so all of the following will be from my specific point of view. I have no knowledge if the problems described are endemic of the entire  game or merely the time I spent with it, however I would assume that if they were to clear up, then some signs of that would show by the 20 hour mark.

With the qualifications out of the way, let’s just jump right into it. My complaint is that Morrowind, by the nature of it’s difficulty system doesn’t offer anything remotely like a difficulty curve.  You are dropped into the giant world of Morrowind and aside from the first village the player encounters, the game offers no indication of which areas/questlines are next in the logical progression for the player to increase there power level (spoiler: It does not exceed 9000). Indeed what directions the player is given are misleading, with the difficulty of the main questline quickly spiraling out of control. To back this up I’m going to share some of  my own experiences.

The Silt Striders are giant insects with bits carved out for people to sit in, and internal organs exposed as a sterring mechanism.

The Silt Striders are giant insects with bits carved out for people to sit in, and internal organs exposed as a steering mechanism.


I started my quest as a sword wielding warrior with decent enough equipment for my level. After completing the tutorial and the various quests in the starting area, I was instructed to go talk to a man in a city called Balmora and encouraged to travel by Silt-Strider, essentially teleporting there and skipping all content between the two cities. Once there, I received a quest to talk to another guy who lived up in Gnisis, which is essentially across the entire map. This time I decided to see the game a bit so instead of teleporting again my warrior took to the open road. In completely the wrong direction. Eschewing the in game map and attempting to increase my immersion by relying merely upon the occasional road sign, it was not until I saw the  Silt-Strider station which looked oddly familiar that I realised I’d walked back to the starting village. So I walked back again to Balmora. Now 2 levels higher for my mistake, so I was fairly confident.

This confidence was quickly dashed when I came across a Damsel in Distress, who lamented the loss of her prized necklace to a Terrible Bandit. Seeing as this was directly on the path I was supposed to be taking to complete the main quest, I thought I’d lend a hand and smite the ne’re-do-well! I stocked up on potions and had my armour refined in the fires of the town’s forge. I set out to the villans hideaway, committing of small genocide of ‘Cliff Racers’ on the way.  I opened the door to his hideout and immediately see a guard peering through the low light towards me. I quickly removed my iron clad boots to silence my footsteps, allowing me to sneak behind the unsuspecting goon.  After gathering my strength, I plunged my sword in to his back greeted by the welcome ‘Sneak attack  for 3x Damage’ in the top left corner. My elation quickly turned to dismay however, when I realised that this mighty strike only dented the guards health. My dismay then turned to anguish as the guard proceeded to kill me in two quick chops of his axe.

For some reason, the image of my character wont load. So you get the IGN.Com drivel instead :P

For some reason, the image of my character won't load. So you get the IGN.Com drivel instead 😛

Crestfallen, I reload my quick save and try again, instead attempting to kite him around with spells and arrows. Alas, for it was to no avail. His health was too great and his damage too high. This pattern was repeated with every other quest I found, including the one’s which progressed the game’s narrative. They all threw me up against character’s whose stats were too padded for me to have a chance in high hell to succeed. The game presented my with an dichotomy, anything outside a dungeon or quest was pitifully easy and anything within was impossibly hard. Now, maybe I was merely supposed to follow a different path as the narrative does diverge into four paths depending on which factions you align with, however there are no circumstances under which the player should be punished in such a way for a choice about which the player had no information. I had grinded for hours due to my directional difficulties so to encounter this sort of difficulty merely from following the central narrative was ridiculous. If there’s going to be a way to go about things such that the difficulty ramps up gradually then it should be signposted, however this arbitrary increase in difficulty merely led to large amounts of frustration.

Compounding this was the nature of the difficulty hike. It’s not as if I stumbled into a legion of crack troops, it was some oversized ants and some not too bright henchmen. The game increased the difficulty without any adherence to it’s own internal logic, by providing me with an instance of a foe which was identical in every respect save for having 4 times as many hit points. If the cave had contained instead four henchmen who had quickly run me out I would have easily accepted the defeat, however the instead defied it’s own conventions and thus shattered my immersion in the process. This difficulty technique is also frustrating for the player as it requires an increase in PC power as opposed to player skill and while the player may gain some join from the former, it is the achievement of the latter that creates a lasting feeling of accomplishment within the player.  Indeed this is something I have found consistently throughout Morrowind’s combat system, that it is the numbers which increase instead of the players options and ability.

Originally Greater Bonewalker was supposed to have his own concpet art, however as budgetting constraints made themselves felt, he was given the same art as his lesser brother.

The Problem

Arbitrary and uneven difficulty spikes, orchestrated in such a fashion as to break player immersion

The Solution

  • Have the main narrative guide the player through an appropriate advancement curve. This ensures players always have a way to return to achievable content while still allowing them the freedom to go out and get killed in high level zones if they wish.
  • Make the increases in difficulty more believable. Instead of having Identical Orc A and B where B has four times the health, consider making Orc B actually Dragon A, or at least Heavily Armoured Orc B.
  • Change the advancement to place a greater emphasis on player skill, by changing the ‘level up’ to provide more abilities instead of merely increasing the damage an existing one does.  Particularly a problem in melee combat.
  • Change the difficulty progression from Enemy A – Enemy A +1 to Enemy A- Enemy B, where B may merely enemy A with a new ability. Vary up the nature of the enemy attacks and force the player to adapt to new situations, rather than presenting them with the same fight a hundred times over. The game does do this to an extent. But no enough, due the the lack of variety in melee combat.

Written by Aonshix

July 1, 2009 at 9:07 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Pussy! Go play world of GAYcraft if you are so inflexible as to be unable to conquer or appreciate such a valuable input to the RPG genre as Morrowind.
    Only homos like you rely on the predictability of games that have caused the downfall of this genre.
    Go hard or go home. Sissy.


    January 25, 2010 at 11:10 pm

  2. ^bump


    June 4, 2010 at 10:51 pm

  3. morrowind does have a steep curve to it. try stealing things, selling them at the orc house near the blacksmith via the “Creeper”. use the money to train, i suggest armor skill, weapon, then shield skill. dont bother with arrows or magic in this one, doesnt do enough damage fast enough.

    stick with it, morrowind is the best game ive ever played. the theme song still takes me back, even these many years later =)


    January 14, 2011 at 8:11 pm

  4. “..logical progression for the player to increase there power level…”
    You mean “their”?


    April 4, 2011 at 4:12 pm

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