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VICE has published an article that attempts to investigate why, in spite of millions more copies sold, Morrowind still seems to cast a long shadow over Bethesda's following productions in enthusiast circles. A couple of excerpts to get you started:
The differences between Morrowind and its immediate successor are vast. While Oblivion is recognizable as a sequel, it tossed out a lot of what made the series so appealing, much of what connected its predecessor with a passionate audience. The Eastern-inspired, alien world of exotic fauna and giant mushroom trees was cast aside in favor of a distinctly Tolkienian setting, with its European architecture, European wildlife, and European forests. This was a disappointment for many of the preceding game's admirers, and the differences were more than cosmetic. Oblivion's job was to be The Elder Scrolls but accessible, palatable to a wider, more general audience at a time when the big-budget cinematic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings still felt fresh. It didn't matter if some of the old magic was lost—it was all about bringing extra punters to the party. For the first time, Bethesda was genuinely gunning for the console market—however, these guys achieved it, they had to sell The Elder Scrolls to living rooms, not desktops.
And the gambit worked. The accessibility of Oblivion propelled The Elder Scrolls from a niche PC gaming pastime to a sat-on-the-sofa phenomenon. The game sold 1.7 million copies in a month, a figure that's since risen to closer to 10 million, and critical coverage was incredibly positive. Skyrim followed five years later and preserved that accessibility—and yet the fifth Elder Scrolls game proper also attempted to return the series to what made Morrowind special, pulling back where Oblivion had been so keen to push away. Because, despite being the least commercially successful of the 21st-century Elder Scrolls games—the original, Arena, and its sequel, Daggerfall, date from 1994 and 1996 respectively—Morrowind dominates the fanbase's discourse. Skyrim struggles with itself to invoke Morrowind, and emulate it, at every possible opportunity—but it's difficult to understand why unless one examines Bethesda's relationship with its "core" audience.
However, Skyrim would almost allow people to return to Morrowind in its final expansion, Dragonborn. Revisiting the island of Solstheim, the location of Morrowind's Bloodmoon expansion from a decade earlier, it gave fans a tour of old haunts, a chance to wander the ruins of places they once visited and—perhaps most significantly—a front-seat view of the smoldering remains of Vvardenfell.
It's tempting to think, as I do, that this was symbolic. Bethesda wants to move on from Morrowind. It wants its fans to move on from Morrowind. But you can only see the ruins of Vvardenfell from Solstheim. The journey comes full circle. The Elder Scrolls remains locked in a Morrowind-shaped prison, doomed to keep referencing itself for eternity. You can visit Morrowind in The Elder Scrolls Online. You can even run into M'aiq the Liar. For Bethesda, it's impossible to escape, and perilous to ignore.
Maybe it should remaster Morrowind.