When December rolls around, I get a hankering for a good RPG. Maybe it’s the feeling of the holidays, and the combined wonder and stress surrounding the dawn of a new year, but an open-world fantasy always gets me going around this time. And my preferred poison has always been Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise.
I’ve been a fan of these games ever since 2003 when I would play Morrowind with my sister for hours on end. I loved every second of it. The sound effects, music, and rich environments felt vague and earthy, which I loved. When Oblivion came out around 2006, we did the same thing. The land of Cyrodiil was at our fingertips, and at the time, there was no offering quite as realistic as Oblivion. Every character had voiced dialogue, and the world was intimately detailed. It was amazing for a little kid.
I stepped away from these games almost entirely after Oblivion began to die down, and it wasn’t until Skyrim that my interest picked back up. But I want to talk about Skyrim another time. Right now I’m more interested in talking about the two games from my childhood.
I played through Oblivion properly a couple years ago. The game was so dated that I picked up the GOTY edition for 5 dollars at my local GameStop. I was expecting to be let down by how poorly the game had aged. I had no illusions about it, and it showed in every moment. But I loved every last minute, even to about 80 hours in.
Morrowind has always been a tougher nut to crack. About once a year, I try to get back into the game with my own character and make sense of it all. It was definitely a game of its time, and it held onto the traditional western RPG roots for dear life. Stats were a core component of the game. There was no luxury of doing whatever you wanted, at whatever pace you wanted. You could easily wander into the path of some bandit or creature that would waste you in seconds. Even combat was based on random chance. You can stand in front of an enemy, and not land a single blow if your stamina is too low. To many people, this is like having a button to breathe. In a video game, it rubs most people the wrong way, especially nowadays when the action element of a game is so much more pronounced. People love the atmosphere, but don’t want to work with the machine behind it all. They want the freedom to walk on out into the world and see all it has to offer.
In a lot of ways, I think Oblivion was reactionary to what these people were feeling. Maybe it was Bethesda spotting a trend in games for the new generation of consoles. Maybe it was trying a different direction based on people’s response to Morrowind. Whatever the reason, there is a core difference between these two games: Morrowind is a slow burn, and Oblivion is a playground.
A lot of discussion has gone toward which of these formulas is “better,” but I think this really misses the point. Comparing one Elder Scrolls game to another is pointless. In reality, they’re all completely different games that share certain tropes. To say one is better than another means nothing. But I still find it infinitely interesting to look at how this series evolves with time, to take stock of what’s left in, what’s left out, and how things change.
I’ve been doing this kind of thinking a lot recently, which is why I thought I’d take some time to compare these games to each other one-on-one. I wanted to start with Oblivion vs. Morrowind because they’re polar opposites.
In Morrowind, I notice that I can spend five hours in a single city and not discover everything it has to offer. In Morrowind, nothing is ever handed to you. It makes you take notes by hand to keep track of what you learn, how every location relates to every other location, who’s important, and who might be important. You never know what might come in handy. Maybe you meet a person who you have to charm in order to obtain a favor. If you have enough personality, it might be easy. Otherwise you might need a certain vendor who sells a certain potion to give you just what you need. There are always different ways to approach a situation, leaving room for the player to deal with things as they would in real life. The opening of the game doesn’t tell you who you are or what your “end goal” is. You’re just a prisoner from a boat trying to survive until at some point, you’re not anymore. Heck, I had no idea what the story of Morrowind was until I looked online.
In Oblivion, you play through a very linear tutorial, and the story and your role in it are laid out instantly. And logically, you’re basically unbeatable anywhere you go. Partially, this is because of Oblivion‘s leveling system. It uses an infamous scaling system, whereby a given enemy in a given cave could be a rat or a troll depending on the player’s level. Bandits could be wearing cheap hide armor or a full set of the strongest armor in the game. The world grows with the player, which has drawn its share of criticism. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief in a world that’s clearly based around you and your needs. That’s why so many people value the brutality of Morrowind and, think Oblivion is kind of a joke.
Oblivion is a joyous experience, though. Sure, in a lot of ways I enjoy it for the “so bad it’s good” element. Dialogue and faces are awkward, the combat is laughably simple, and some scenarios are so unbalanced that they ruin a climax. For example, the last battle of the Mages Guild questline was so absurdly easy for me that I questioned whether it was worth my time. The thing is, I enjoyed almost every step of my journey through Oblivion. The setting is gorgeous, and really invokes that back-to-basics style of Arthurian fantasy that I remember from the old Errol Flynn Robin Hood or the vibrant illustrations of The Hobbit. All the characters are a little bit different, and the combat leads to a lot of laughs. Oblivion is one of those games that feels genuine for all of its flaws, and balances itself out with enough of a sense of wonder that it feels pretty great to play. Some of the quests are also really clever.
Morrowind, as I said, takes a completely different tack. Everything is uncompromising, and finding your way through the world is very difficult and time-consuming. When you finally do master the game, though, the satisfaction is unlike any other experience in a game. The thing is, Morrowind is a game that is extremely tough starting out, but which bends to the will of someone with the perseverance to find its weak points. Becoming a master alchemist or enchanter gives you the path to complete domination of the world. You can buy things for free because your personality is too damn high and destroy the most powerful enemies in the game. But no one’s going to tell you how to do it.
This idea of leading the player by the hand brings up another defining transition from Morrowind to Oblivion.
The quest marker.
In Morrowind, you have to intuit and remember locations of key figures and locations. Oblivion will mostly just give you a quest marker pointing to exactly the thing you must interact with to advance the quest. It also has free fast travel to any of the cities, or anywhere you’ve visited. As a result, the game feels much more focused on busy work than Morrowind. Sure, you need to find your way to the end of a dungeon, but the dungeon is marked neatly on your map, waiting for you to conquer it. The less patient player will enjoy having the first steps of each action done for them, but they inherently miss out on the satisfaction of discovering it for themselves. A lot of the mystery is lost from Morrowind to Oblivion.
Is it better? Is it worse? That’s all a matter of opinion. As I said, each one has its merits. I found Oblivion to be much more relaxing than Morrowind personally, because I could enjoy the narrative of a quest by going from location to location and unfolding it easily. Then again, the process of getting your hands dirty and making sense of a world like in Morrowind has a kind of value that modern games don’t replicate. It forces you to play by its rules, and I respect a game that must be tamed. That’s why comparing these two games in terms of which is the better iteration of a formula makes no sense. They are vastly different. In fact, if not for similar races and lore, I wouldn’t know they were from the same franchise at all.
What makes me curious is why Bethesda decided to make Oblivion after Morrowind, and call it a sequel? I think that in the moment, they thought it was a revamp and expansion of everything Morrowind set out to do. Instead, it handed the player a silver key to everything it offered. But…it’s fun. I like wandering through the Shivering Isles. I love fighting through the arena with my bare fists right after finishing the tutorial. It’s like eating a pile of candy starting with your favorite candy. Morrowind, meanwhile, is very sweet-and-sour. You have to experience the perspective and challenge of harsh NPCs, alien environments, and physical weakness before the world becomes your oyster. I love them both for opposite reasons. And honestly, I think that’s part of why The Elder Scrolls is so magical.