It’s a heavyweight ask. And you’re often dogged by incoherence. Sometimes, people notice you stealing even though the onscreen icon that indicates that you’re not being detected is lit. Sometimes crimes aren’t even reported; wronged folk just get violent – until you leave their homes, at which point they won’t follow you. Other times, murders without witnesses are instantly acknowledged by the apparently psychic and teleporting guards. While Morrowind has a day/night cycle and a weather system, its citizens are static, despite the simple paths they sometimes traverse back and forth within a town on a curt, never-ending loop. They never sleep. In contrast, of course, to the population of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Much of Morrowind’s fallibility is true of Oblivion, despite its perforated beauty and physics-driven solidity. Oblivion made strides for accessibility, and a somewhat more elaborate world – people, for example, actually have routines, and sleep in their beds at night, a rather affecting presence for after-dark housebreakers. Fast travel is possible to any town, or any previously visited key location. Players recover fatigue – a measure that dictates how effectively they can wield weapons, among other things – even when running. A quest log keeps finer tabs on your heroic accounts, in a much friendlier manner than Morrowind’s quickly clogged journal. Objectives are tagged. Cursor details help the player keep tabs on criminal activity. And so on (incidentally, the levelling systems in both are equally cumbersome to unravel).
Morrowind, however, remains the least constrained of the two. Plot-dependent characters can’t be killed in Oblivion; in Morrowind, the quest line can be broken – a small text box alerts you to the fact – and you’re still free to remain an adventurer. Towns aren’t separated from the outside world by a loading screen. Aspects that could never be held up as sleek game design are nonetheless powerful: character dialogue – apart from passer-by soundbites – is never spoken, instead metered out via rich clumps of text, and conversation strands are far more profuse than those of Oblivion. Walking is the only way to conserve fatigue, forcing you to stroll the land; fast travel isn’t available, but silt strider creatures, boat rides and Mages’ Guilds offer a shortcut between major settlements. Such aspects may be dissuasive to the received gaming mentality but, while it’s likely that the average Oblivion player spends more time in the game before walking away, it’s just as likely that those who managed to submerge themselves in Morrowind felt connected and invested all the deeper.