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Morrowind and the Modern Games Industry

You may recall that I’ve discussed a game called Morrowind in the past. I wrote a post about it in my trademark retro-review-with-a-fresh-perspective format (don’t steal that idea, it’s MINE!) and I also streamed some sessions of it with my superstar tag-team partner Jarenth. You want to know why I stopped doing those stream sessions? I didn’t want to play the game anymore.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I stopped initially because of a very serious thing that happened to me, but I continued to not do it because I no longer had any desire to play it.

I’ve already said some mean things about Morrowind in that original post, but to recap: The movement speed is painfully slow, the combat is the epitome of a dull slog, and the stealth does not work properly. In the hours I spent with the game since then I began to learn more about it: namely, that it likes to bog you down with MMO-style “Collect X of Y” and “Go to X and interact with NPC Y” quests, which beautifully complement the atrociously slow movement speed, that the in-game economy is very easily breakable by exploiting potion brewing mechanics, and that the leveling system is convoluted, counter-intuitive and overly punitive.

Whenever people preach about how “old games were so much longer than the crap we play now” I roll my eyes, and this game is a perfect example of why. Yes, it occupies a lot of time, because it flagrantly wastes your time with slow movement and tedious fetch quests. Are we judging quantity over quality here?

Look, I did some digging through Morrowind and I just do not see any appeal. The game is revoltingly ugly (and I’m not just talking about graphical fidelity) and the combat is some of the worst I have ever played. Getting past that, the leveling system and economy system are both broken, and the quests provide no sense of engagement or satisfaction.

Is this really what we should hold up as the height of game design? Completing a million repetitive, meaningless quests so you can one day become the King Of Mages in a world of buggy robots? Exploiting an easily breakable economy and potion brewing scheme to get all the money in a dull, monotonous, overly brown world?

Is it out-of-line for me to call Morrowind a bad game? No, I don’t think so. I won’t begrudge you for your enjoyment of it, but it just does not function like a good game should. People have praised it for its setting and lore, but how much does that really mean when the game you’re playing is a fundamentally broken mess?

You know, back when I wrote that first impressions review of Fallout 1 and my site’s popularity [relatively] skyrocketed, people said I was being “unfair” toward the game because I was judging it by today’s standards rather than the standards of the time.

My response would be this: Yeah, I suppose I am being “unfair.” But if you want a “fair,” “unbiased” review of the game, I suggest you go back and find a review of it from the year it was released, because that’s the only way you’ll be satisfied. And I’ll also add that if you’re willing to criticize me for being unfair, you’ve missed the whole point of my retro review scheme.

A few months ago a certain blog post spread around the gaming community called “Fuck Videogames.” It’s a gross over-exaggeration of some genuine issues in the industry, but one part in particular really bothered me:

“Fuck developers for slapping a new coat of paint on an old game and selling it at full price. Fuck them for doing this every year, like clockwork, for the better part of two decades. Fuck developers for not taking risks.”

I’m not yelling about how these old games suck because I like yelling. I’m doing it to show that that line is bullshit. Many aspects of games have been steadily improving over the years. When I point out how egregiously flawed many of these so-called classics are, you respond with “Well, we have different standards today than we did back then.” And my reply is, “Yes, we do have different standards, because developers now have decades of experience and technology to make better games, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Many gamers complain that new games suck so bad and old games were so much better and the industry is totally stagnant and hasn’t improved in any way for like a decade. These same people will then turn around and tell me I’m being “unfair” in my criticisms of decade-old games simply because they’re a decade old. They don’t seem to be aware of the contradiction.

I understand if you think the industry has gone in a direction you don’t like. That’s understandable. It’s a very different place now than it was a decade or two ago, and I’m not going to argue it’s better in every way. But if you’re going to argue that everything about games is worse, then you’re literally, provably wrong. That attitude of yours doesn’t contribute to discourse. It’s thoughtless, pointless, ignorant, indignant bile masquerading as wisdom, and I do not have the patience to listen to that shit anymore.


23 responses

  1. Man, these articles were so much better 10 years ago. They’re just so stagnant now and haven’t improved in any significant way.


    Okay, for real though, this is pretty much correct. While Morrowind itself was a good game at the time, it didn’t age well. I feel like it’s unfair to disregard any historical context, not’s not to say that we can’t judge it by today’s standards. Like most things, the median is the optimal position.

    In regards to games being worse now, they aren’t. In some ways they are, yes, but that’s the industry. Not the games themselves. The games themselves are better in most ways. Sure, we aren’t seeing Planescape: Torment writing or Masters of Orion strategy, but there were many terrible games. Plus they weren’t the most user-friendly things, so only the most HARDCORE dudes really enjoyed them.

    Hell, and entire genre died because it never became user-friendly as time went on.

    So yeah, videos games are better now. If you want an example of this, play Goldeneye on the N64. That game ages horribly. That’s not to say the industry is better (Look at all the developer issues that are happening in AAA games. It’s not a good sight) but the games are better on average compared to 1999.

    And to slam some Magic: The Gathering in here, there’s a big backlash against current design and development trends (WHICH ARE COMPLETELY WARRANTED), but it is in a better spot than 2001, despite what Jon Finkle says.

    September 3, 2012 at 2:30 AM

  2. Morrowind sucked. I really don’t get why people like it.

    September 3, 2012 at 2:51 AM

  3. I actually had many of the same reactions to when I played Oblivion right after its release and it’s one of the main reasons I never got Skyrim.

    But yeah, anyone saying games “were so much better before” is either viewing with rose-tinted glasses, or have their heads stuck up their arses. Gaming has been, and always will be (like everything else), made up of about 90% crap.

    I will however agree with PinkPutty that on average games seem to be better now than they were before

    And yes, there are definite criticisms to be leveled at the state of the game industry and game-making, and certain trends in modern videogames that can be viewed as less than healthy, but a lot of those issues were issues back in the “old days”, or they just had different, and often worse, issues.

    I would argue that there has never been a better time for games and gaming. Or at least, a more interesting one. With the growth of digital distribution, indies and alternate funding methods like Kickstarter plus heaps more there is a lot of weird stuff going on and no one can truly predict where it will take us. (If they say they can, they are talking out of their arses.)

    So while we have a lot of franchises being iterated to death, shameless copycatting and promising projects being dropped by clueless publishers; this is nothing new. And we also have strange success stories like Minecraft, Bastion, Fez and Limbo, not to mention games for the TRUE HARDCORE (and possibly insane) like I Wanna Be The Guy and Demon’s/Dark Souls.

    So please, everyone who’s complaining so hard, gain some bloody perspective and stop being angry that other people are enjoying the same things as you. If you don’t like sharing, then you’re a bad nerd/geek.

    September 3, 2012 at 3:09 AM

  4. Eldiran

    Mods, man! Mods!!

    Seriously, Morrowind sucks without them. But with them you can fix Morrowind’s economy, leveling, combat, and graphics, easy. If you want I can list the mods you need to have fun, and later if you ever feel like coming back to it you can use them.

    The reason Morrowind is held so high is not the mechanics. It’s the lore and the universe (and the fact that you can easily mod it to be fun mechanically). Compare it to something like Oblivion, and you can see it’s way out there in terms of creativity. Scribs, bull netches, silt striders, etc.

    But the truly beautiful thing about Morrowind is… you don’t have to do a single dang quest! I never completed the main storyline, and only barely advanced in any of the guilds, yet I played for tons of hours and reached level 60. Heck, I think you can win the entire game without talking to more than 2 or 3 NPCs.

    To illustrate: when I last finished playing Morrowind I was a godlike spellsword assassin riding a guar atop my floating, teleporting fortress island. I had just slain Vivec after scouring the land for all the artifacts necessary to save Vvardenfell, without a single part of the main quest completed. That is why I love Morrowind.

    September 3, 2012 at 4:09 AM

  5. Honestly I agree. Morrowind was not fun to play. I tried for 2 hours and I just couldn’t get into it. The only thing I found fun was using the console to get Hircine’s Ring and beat the crap out of everyone as a werewolf.

    September 3, 2012 at 7:12 AM

  6. The more I think about what you’ve written here, the more concurrent comments I want to write. Maybe I should get my own non-strictly-review-based webspace for things like this, but hey.

    In scientific literature on education (which I’ve been reading as part of my Ph.D) there’s this theoretical framework that claims knowledge is not just some abstract quantity that’s learned and transferred, but rather that knowledge is constructed (from memories, environmental factors and input) whenever required. It basically claims that absolute knowledge doesn’t exist, but rather that all knowledge is contextual, forever. I’m simplifying, but you get the idea.

    I’m starting to believe a similar idea should hold for game reviews and enjoyment.

    See, I agree with all the technical details you put forward. Morrowind is butt-ugly, incredibly slow, bugged up the face and rather fond of sending you walking from place to place. All of that is objectively, verifiably true.

    And yet, when I close my eyes and think about playing Morrowind again, I can’t help but have a smile creep over my lips. The last time I replayed Morrowind was about a year back, and I had a great time doing so. And this piece of music still sends a shiver down my spine, every time, without fail.

    Does that mean either of us is wrong? Of course not. It just means our experiences with Morrowind were different. Gameplay different, context different, situation different, lifetime different. The first time I really played Morrowind, it was side-by-side with my best friend, and we spent three consecutive days playing our own single-player games, comparing and boasting and laughing. I can’t play Morrowind nowadays and not have some of that seep into my view.

    I can’t speak for everyone, of course. There’s bound to be people who still hold Morrowind as the literal best game ever; this is the Internet. But when I say “For me, Morrowind is one of the greatest games ever made“, what I really mean is:

    I had some of the greatest experiences in gaming I’ve ever had while playing Morrowind, and I wish I could share that with you.

    September 3, 2012 at 7:40 AM

  7. I tried playing Morrowind a few years back. I wanted to like it, really, I did, but I just couldn’t get in to it–too many problems, like you said.

    That’s why I want to try the Morroblivion mod. Has anyone tried that?

    September 3, 2012 at 9:13 AM

  8. Okay, actually, I’m going to be slightly more verbose now.

    When I say “games were better”, for the most part I’m talking about one of two things; if it’s a game primarily about gameplay, they were largely (though not universally) “better” due to having simpler controls. The games simply weren’t as complex, which makes them better for mindless playing, or for introducing new people to gaming. Super Mario Brothers is an exceedingly simple game, and modern Mario games don’t even come close.

    Secondly, there was a lot more variety to the gameplay. Every major game wasn’t a shooter, for one thing – there were big budget titles that had nothing to do with shooting, didn’t need to have a first-person perspective, some didn’t even have fighting at all (there don’t seem to be many games where you have to avoid enemies altogether these days.) Turn-based strategy is a thing of the past – for the most part, TURNS are a thing of the past (Civilization excepted).

    There were less games back then, but there was somehow more variety, which is mind-boggling.

    I won’t go off on narratives; Fallout and Planescape: Torment remain two of the gold-standards in game narratives, but I can see how the gameplay might deter from them – heck, even I cannot play Torment (or any other of the golden age DnD RPGs) because second edition DnD sucked and after playing 3e, I just cannot go back to it.

    September 3, 2012 at 1:20 PM

    • JPH

      I find it fascinating that you say old games were better because they were simpler, because I’ve heard the exact opposite complaint from countless others. The “dumbing down” argument is probably the most common one I’ve ever heard with regard to new games sucking.

      September 3, 2012 at 2:58 PM

      • Those people are retards. Any idiot can see that games are far more complex these days. Just look at our controllers.

        September 3, 2012 at 3:07 PM

      • I suppose the one way that argument might make sense is from the viewpoint of an exclusive PC gamer, who has only played PC games for the past twenty years. As more console titles move onto the PC, I suppose a “dumbing down” might seem to happen, as controllers STILL lack the input options of mouse+keyboard.

        But it’s still a dumb argument. Exclusively PC games are far far far more complex than their equals in the past.

        September 3, 2012 at 3:10 PM

        • JPH

          That’s what the argument seems to stem from — PC gamers playing action games that are ultimately intended for consoles.

          I remember X2Eliah complaining about games being dumbed down during the Spoiler Warning Assassin’s Creed 2 season, and he started comparing it to games like X-Com. The problem isn’t that games are “dumbed down,” the problem is that these two games are meant to appeal to completely different audiences.

          September 3, 2012 at 3:18 PM

          • Did he do that? Wow. X-Com cannot be compared to Assassin’s Creed. They’re not even in the same genre. Hell, just the difference between real-time and turn-based is enough to divide video game genres to the point of near incomparability (TBS vs RTS, for instance).

            September 3, 2012 at 4:39 PM

            • it isn’t that games are getting dumbed down its just that they are being designed for different platforms. Dragon Age:Origins was awesome even on the consoles, but some of the more annoying console gamers felt that the controls didn’t translate well so Dragon Age 2 was designed for consoles and compared to DA:O it felt “dumbed down”.
              Also the most vocal and annoying gamers are the ones who want more console styled games and the industry sees that they are complaining and whining and bitching more than anyone one else so they think that they need to cater to them more than other gamers. Which makes a lot of other gamers mad, but they are the more level headed gamers (read as either: not spoiled brats or one with lives) so they don’t make themselves heard as much.

              September 3, 2012 at 8:05 PM

  9. Well i guess i got here a bit late but……..
    I recently re-bought Banjo Kazooie and Banjo Tooie on XBLA mainly because i love them to death and don’t have my N64 with me at college, but also to see what upgrades (if any) they got.

    First i noticed that the STYLE of graphics stayed the same but the quality of them got upgraded, which made me very happy.

    Next I quickly realized that the over all control system stayed relatively the same despite the Xbox 360 and N64 controllers being vastly different, it took a bit to reprogram my brain to press X instead of B or Y instead of UP-C but the only problem i found in the control system was that i couldn’t change my control stick sensitivity which was really high for some reason, but other than that the controls got a nice upgrade to a modern controller.

    It took me a while to die so i didn’t notice this until about half way through Banjo Kazooie, dieing doesn’t reset all your collectibles for the level. In the N64 version if you died you lost all of the music notes you had collected for that level, and seeing as there was 100 in each level dying when you had 99 was extremely aggravating, especially for a kid. They had a life system but losing all your lives just put you back at the first area of the over world. In the XBLA version, if you died but still had an extra life you got to keep all the collectibles and just continue from the level start. when i realized this, i was on the verge of crying due to shear happiness, they fixed the only problem i ever had with Banjo Kazooie! I went back a looked at my best time (100% completion) on Rust Bucket Bay for the N64 it was over ten hours (waaaay over but I’m to embarrassed to post the exact time) the XBLA version was just over 1 hour. Maybe i just sucked as a kid but i still died like 7 times in the part i remember being hard.

    A one of the smaller things i noticed was that they left most of the dialogue unchanged and just replaced the images of the N64 controller’s buttons with the 360’s which did affect the rhymes a bit, (X doesn’t rhyme with B) but that was only once or twice and not a lot of words rhyme with X and still could make sense in the sentence.

    All in all, they didn’t just “Slap new paint on an old game”, they modernized it and gave people a chance to play a game from their childhood (or share it with their kids) without having to find a ROM and Emulator or finding a working cartridge and N64 system. Which i wish more companies would do, Phillip DeFranco said on his show today (in response to the ABC I Player allowing the Doctor Who Season premiere to be viewed online only an hour after the show aired) that “there is a huge chunk of that group you label criminals that would totally just watch stuff with ads or pay for it if they could.” A sentiment that i believe is applicable to all forms of entertainment. People want to support things that they like, Kickstarter proved that, and if the only place to access your content is via piracy or downloading ROM’s then you as developers are only hurting yourselves.
    This kind of thing needs to happen more as it is good for both developers and gamers.
    The developer can sell a product they know with do well, and gamers get to play the games that they love with modern things like Leader boards and Online multiplayer. If developers would offer modernized versions of games like Banjo Kazooie they could see find the aspects of the older games that still make people want to play them and maybe apply them to newer games. However modernizing games is different from remaking, or just putting out a sequel (see any BK Nuts & Bolts review).

    With the tools we have nothing is stopping developers from modernizing some of their top selling games, meaning nothing should be stopping us from doing a “retro-review-with-a-fresh-perspective”. A lot of games will still hold up and modernizing them might even make them better. So keep up JPH! You got the right idea.

    September 3, 2012 at 7:56 PM

  10. aldowyn

    Ah, the rose-tinted lens effect.

    The industry evolves, and some things become better and some things become worse. I doubt there’s many people that would argue that games are TECHNICALLY worse now, but many people seem to think that with its growing popularity it is going the way of hollywood – we’re losing our amazing, creative, innovative games, and getting Call of Honor: Modern Gearfare 9001 instead. And I don’t blame them for that. Those games are usually technically GOOD, just not what we (and by we I mean the kind of people that read this kind of site) want.

    Of course I think that just means you have to look harder for the gems in the rough…

    September 4, 2012 at 11:29 AM

    • JPH

      I think it’s easier to find the gems now than it’s ever been before, what with the internet being a big thing.

      September 4, 2012 at 11:42 AM

    • JPH

      Also, we’re not losing our “amazing, creative, innovative games.” That’s what the indie market is doing right now. Small dev teams, small budgets, niche markets — that’s exactly what these nostalgic people are crying for, and that’s what indie devs are delivering.

      That’s what I think is great about the industry today. There’s room for everyone.

      September 4, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    • JPH

      Also also also, I’m doing this review shtick to show that those “amazing, creative, innovative games” you people go on about aren’t as “amazing” as you think.

      September 4, 2012 at 12:12 PM

      • Your biggest problem with Fallout boiled down to the fact that you’re not a fan of turn-based gameplay, though. I seem to recall you complaining about how slow it was, which is a general hallmark of turn-based play.

        September 4, 2012 at 12:38 PM

        • JPH

          Depends on the game, really. Earlier Final Fantasy games and Chrono Trigger generally had relatively fast turn-based battles.

          And I wasn’t just referring to the combat when I complained about slowness.

          September 4, 2012 at 3:04 PM

          • aldowyn

            By the way I meant that as a general opinion of the AAA game industry, ignoring indie titles.

            September 6, 2012 at 1:47 AM

  11. Bah, Morrowind doesn’t have the best sneaking, the best combat, the best graphics, the best NPCs, the best story or even the best writing… but it has all of them and does them all reasonably well. Most importantly, of course, it lets the player choose how to play it. You don’t like the quest you’re on? Do a different one. You don’t like any quest? Ignore them all and go exploring! You don’t like combat? Sneak past or fly over enemies. This super-powerful NPC is annoying you? Kill him, make the main quest impossible to finish and continue playing anyway! All of the individual elements have aged so badly that you can’t even play the game anymore (you mileage may vary)? Mod away. You can’t bear a 100-hour game? You can finish Morrowind in 16 minutes, without cheating, using only in-game items. You know, if you so choose.

    One thing that hasn’t aged is the openness and the freedom to do whatever you want. There are many games that do any single thing better than Morrowind. There are very few that do them all.

    September 15, 2012 at 8:59 PM

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