Morrowind – the third chapter in the Elder Scrolls franchise published by Bethesda Softworks – is a classic in Western computer role-playing games.1 2 The plot follows a player protagonist in his or her quest to discover the secret of the Nerevarine prophecy – which fortells the reincarnation of a legendary dark elven hero from ages past – through adventures on the volcanic island of Vvardenfell in the mythical Morrowind province. The player is never required to follow – let alone finish – the main quest; Morrowind, like its Elder Scrolls successors Oblivion and Skyrim, offers an open-ended world where the player hand-crafts their own experience via choices made through one’s interaction with other characters, decision to train certain skillsets, and exploration of the landscape.
The previous two Elder Scrolls games made use of a procedurally-generated world – whereby terrain is randomly created by the game engine as the player enters a new area – of enormous size; upon release, Daggerfall was announced to contain a map the size of Great Britain.3 By contrast, Morrowind retained a smaller land area (but still huge: approximately 9.3 square miles)4 but passed on random content generation in favor of a rendered landscape with thousands of unique non-player character sprites and hundreds of quests. Several factions are exclusive to one another, a concept that rewarded repeated playthroughs by making certain outcomes exclusive based on the faction of which a player is a member at a certain point in time. The landscape incorporates several zones with their own unique flora and fauna, architecture, and cultures; and the designers wrote over three hundred books that incorporated and expounded upon the history, legends, and current events within the game world.5
Such concepts are rather common in today’s RPGs: Fallout 3,6 RuneScape, The Witcher series, and NEO Scavenger boast enormous, intricately-detailed worlds in which the player may interact with just about anything. Back in 2002 though, the concept heralded an enormous change in fantasy and sci-fi RPGs, and intricate worldbuilding mostly superseded the roguelike, procedurally-generated worlds of Diablo (and the two previous Elder Scrolls games Arena and Daggerfall) in the public eye for the next decade.
Morrowind marks the first soundtrack for the Elder Scrolls franchise by composer Jeremy Soule, who would later score Oblivion and Skyrim in addition to Guild Wars, Dota 2, and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Soule’s work on Neverwinter Nights, Morrowind, and Dungeon Siege earned him a nomination by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences for Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Composition in 2002 – his second in as many years.7
Upon release, Morrowind‘s soundtrack received polarizing reviews from critics, who in one breath would praise the music’s depth and bombast and in another lambaste it for achieving little emotional resonance in the context of gameplay.8 9 The total length is only forty minutes; this is a long game – on the scale of hundreds of hours in a single playthrough – and such a short soundtrack is bound to become stale. Unlike Oblivion and Skyrim, the towns and cities do not have their own theme, so the bustling metropolis of Vivec cycles through the same music as the shantytown of Seyda Neen. In addition, the discrete regions of the game do not have their own soundtracks; in a world that is so vibrantly and intricately colored, the lack of specificity in music is underwhelming. Compare to if Super Metroid used the Crateria, Norfair, and Maridia motifs in Brinstar: the immersion would be broken.
That isn’t to say the music heard as one explores Vvardenfall cannot be beautiful. The opening score to Morrowind is one of the most exhilarating and recognizable themes in video game history. The “Explore” motifs are gorgeous in their own right, and they hold up surpassingly well when played outside of their original context – in particular numbers two, four, and five. The “Battle” series of music is a bit grandiloquent for its own good, but the tracks occasionally have their moments of tension; perhaps their biggest flaw is simply in length, as a two-minute runtime precludes much room for storytelling.
The Elder Scrolls franchise continually elicits the words “groundbreaking” and “innovative” in the press, and rightly so: each game succeeds in even the minutiae of worldbuilding through histories, characters’ personalities, and ecosystems. The first two chapters of the franchise – Arena and Daggerfall – captivated players with their dazzling, colossal worlds but were marred by rocky gameplay and buggy interfaces; by Morrowind, Bethesda grew the beard, to say nothing of their music. Jeremy Soule’s foray onto the continent of Tamriel is a shaky but frequently riveting soundtrack to accompany the exploration of a new world, which would become all the more splendid of an experience upon the arrival of Oblivion and Skyrim.
Note: the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Soundtrack track information used in the star ratings are those files copied directly from the game data.10 Physical releases may differ. Take the individual star ratings with a grain of salt; naturally, listening to soundtracks outside of their original context will change interpretation.
1. Title – (1:54) – ★★★★★
2. Battle 1 – (2:06) – ★★★☆☆
3. Battle 2 – (2:04) – ★★★★☆
4. Battle 3 – (2:13) – ★★★☆☆
5. Battle 4 – (2:18) – ★★★★☆
6. Battle 5 – (2:33) – ★★★☆☆
7. Battle 711 – (2:11) – ★★★★☆
8. Battle 8 – (2:03) – ★★★☆☆
9. Death – (0:17) – ★★★☆☆
10. Triumph – (0:14) – ★★★★☆
11. Explore 1 – (3:04) – ★★★☆☆
12. Explore 2 – (3:05) – ★★★★★
13. Explore 3 – (3:15) – ★★★★☆
14. Explore 4 – (3:16) – ★★★★★
15. Explore 5 – (3:11) – ★★★★★
16. Explore 6 – (3:13) – ★★★★☆
17. Explore 7 – (3:27) – ★★★★☆
1It came out on XBox as well, but I consider the Elder Scrolls games to be better made for computers. No snobbery toward consoles here; I just think such RPGs function on computers more effectively than consoles, in no small part to the modding communities.
2“The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind for PC Reviews – Metacritic,” CBS Interactive Inc., accessed 29 September 2015, http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/the-elder-scrolls-iii-morrowind
3“The Elder Scrolls Official Site | The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall,” Bethesda Softworks LLC, accessed 29 September 2015, http://www.elderscrolls.com/daggerfall/
4Citations for this number are difficult. The Wikipedia page for Daggerfall cites two webpages for Morrowind’s size – one of which does not have the information listed and the other is inaccessible. Other sources are almost exclusively forum posts and reddit topics that state the same number but do not show from where it originated.
5You can read the entire Morrowind library – over 1300 pages of material, including scrolls and notes – at http://www.imperial-library.info/sites/default/files/The%20Elder%20Scrolls%20Treasury%20Vol.%20I%20Ed.%203.pdf
6Published by Bethesda, the makers of the Elder Scrolls franchise.
7“2003 6th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards,” Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, accessed 29 September 2015, http://www.interactive.org/awards/2003_6th_awards.asp
8“GSoundtracks – Review: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind,” GSoundtracks, accessed 29 September 2015, http://www.gsoundtracks.com/reviews/morrowind.htm
9“Gamasutra – Enhancing the Impact of Music in Drama-Oriented Games,” UBM Tech, accessed 29 September 2015, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/2189/enhancing_the_impact_of_music_in_.php
10The game files are in 192kbps. Like, whaaat?
11You might be asking: “but wait, where is Battle 6?”; to which I answer: “Good fucking question.” The data files of Morrowind don’t list a “Battle 6,” or at least not on my GOTY copy from Steam.