It’s not often you’ll hear about a sequel that manages to shrink its playable world while almost equally widening its scope. When The Elder Scrolls: Arena and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall came out, they offered a hugely expansive world to explore and established that wide-open standard for the series. By comparison, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind offers a smaller tour of the wide world of Tamriel and yet the amount of lore and playability packed into the small island of Vvardenfell presented in the game makes it feel more rich and alive than any of its predecessors. Many years ago today, Morrowind hit the shelves, giving us much more than a sequel. It gave us a content-packed living and open world that was set a standard even above those set before it and become the new bar by which all other games like it would be judged.

Morrowind was actually conceived at Bethesda Game Studios while Daggerfall was still being developed. The ideas around it encompassed using all of the province of Morrowind. Morrowind is native land of the Dunmer, who are the Elder Scrolls equivalent of dark elves in other fantasy-fiction creations. Elder Scrolls III was originally intended to be as wide in scope of area as Daggerfall, which allowed exploration of several entire provinces of Tamriel. However, with the technology available at the time, this concept was deemed too grand for the team to handle properly. In a 2001 interview with now-inactive Russian gaming magazine Game.EXE, Game Director Todd Howard claimed “we wanted to do it right after Daggerfall, but we looked at this and said ‘We’re not ready for it, we don’t want to jump into this and fail.’” Thus Morrowind was put on the backburner while the team developed side projects in the Elder Scrolls universe.

Bethesda Game Studios

Following the release of Battlespire and Redguard, the Bethesda team would return to Morrowind with a better idea of how to tackle it. The concept of using the whole province was scrapped in favor of using a new game engine that utilized Direct3D and filling a smaller space with extensive texture and scenery. Where older Elder Scrolls games utilized randomly generated dungeons, Morrowind had deliberately created areas and items the player could find. This allowed the team to create a much more detailed product that would feel expansive despite its limited arena of play.

The gameplay employed skill systems and open-ended progress in the spirit of earlier entries. Players gained proficiency in a number of skills by using them and gained personal attributes by leveling up. Meanwhile, while there was a core quest, it was largely wide-open and allowed the player to take on most of it either by sheer exploration or in order of their own interests, with the addition of supplemental side quests. This method of gameplay was both considered to be one of the biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses of the game. Critics argued that having such a wide-open approach to progress somewhat trivialized the core journey, but also agreed that these elements made for a game that players could play however they wanted to play.

Bethesda Game Studios

Morrowind was a turning point in the Elder Scrolls series. It marked a bullet point that size wasn’t everything in these games, but rather that quality of content could serve to fill an appropriately smaller space to create a greater effect. Future games in the series would give players a more distinct direction of main progress, but Morrowind’s environment still offered what was a ridiculously rich landscape at the time. As the first of the series to come to home consoles, it achieved success in both PC and console circles and would serve as the perfect emissary of what all players could expect out of Bethesda RPGs thereafter.