Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Opening Analysis: Morrowind

Earlier this week I took some time to lament what I feel is the lack of strong design in sandbox games.  In it, I used The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind as an example of, effectively, a game that gets "sandbox design" right.  Truth be told, however, there's more I'd like to say about Morrowind, especially in the lead-up to Skyrim's release, as not only do I think it's one of the best-designed sandbox games ever made, but it also serves as a fantastic example of how to build a game introduction and tutorial sequence which all designers can take something away from.

Show, Don't Tell

Morrowind starts out, as is rather customary for the Elder Scrolls games, with the player as a prisoner, this time aboard a ship on the way to Vvardenfell.  The introduction, especially by modern standards, is surprisingly sparse: the player's view fades in as he/she comes to, watched over by a Dark Elf, who gives similarly sparse words on the present situation.  From there, an Imperial guard approaches and commands the player to follow on deck, where he/she must select a race before proceeding on.

Immediately, Morrowind is smart enough to adhere to one of the most important tenets of good narrative and good game design: namely, show, don't tell.  Most games would be content to begin with a lengthy backstory and cinematic opening setting the stage, a huge wall of text for the player to absorb as an orchestra swells in the background, or a completely non-interactive scene full of action, violence, destruction, death, and so on in some attempt to evoke an emotional response.

Morrowind's opening scene immediately establishes fundamental qualities of the game world and its characters.
 Morrowind does none of that.  Instead, it allows the player to slowly absorb the world and take in the situation.  The Dark Elf at the very beginning implies that the world the player is entering is irregular, different from the standard Roman fantasy theme of the previous games in the series, or regular high fantasy for that matter, while also hinting at the location itself (largely populated by Dark Elves).  The initial treatment by the Imperial guard and his strict, brief orders suggest the player is of a low caste or otherwise in a position of little power or authority, and the difference in appearance between the Imperial and the Dark Elf also implies a degree of race and class distinction which forms the undercurrents of Morrowind's game world.

Without directly saying anything, we are already able to learn a lot from the opening of the game... an opening which has gone on for less than two minutes, with minimal dialogue, no cinematic cutscenes, and no violence or ham-fisted attempt at drama.

Suggestion, Not Coercion

From the docks, the player is brought into a census office for the rest of the character creation process.  While perhaps not the most clever character creation process ever, it does its job well and gives the player an overview of all the stats, character classes, and so on.  Afterwards, the player is told to head on out, with scant tutorial messages going over the most fundamental of controls, like interacting with objects and equipping items.  During this sequence, the player can search a conspicuous barrel to find a magic ring, and will likely equip it before moving on.  After an exchange with another Imperial guard, who instructs the player to deliver a package to Caius Cosades in the nearby city of Balmora, with a suggestion given to take the nearby Stilt Strider, a massive insect-like creature used as transportation around Vvardenfell.
At this point, the game is completely open.  The player can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and do anything, completely ignoring the main storyline if he or she chooses.  The entire introductory sequence is over in about five minutes, with several of those minutes devoted to the necessary task of character creation.  While the game does push the player in a certain direction, and the suddenness of the situation certainly encourages the player to follow the recommended path, the game does not force the player to do this, even though at this point the game has given only the barest of tutorial functions.  Instead, Morrowind expertly crafts an opening scenario, using its first locations, the structure of its opening quests, and the tasks the player is given to do the rest of the teaching.

Fargoth is one of the first NPCs the player encounters, and interacting with him teaches more about the game mechanics than a dozen tutorial messages could.
This becomes abundantly clear in the opening town of Seyda Neen (whose name and details the player can learn from speaking to NPCs in the world).  Going back to the magic ring found earlier, one of the first characters the player will spot is Fargoth, a Wood Elf lamenting his missing ring (who is conspicuous in being quite short and rather foppish, ensuring many players will speak with him).  The player, had he or she found the ring earlier, is given the option to hand it back to its owner.  If so, Fargoth is overjoyed and thanks the player profusely.  Even this simple exchange teaches the player a number of things about the game and its world:
  1. Morrowind is full of different races.  Only a few minutes into the game and the player has already witnessed Imperials, Dark Elves, and Wood Elves, as well as potentially others in the area, such as Argonians and Khajiit.
  2. Exploration can and will be rewarded, and the player should make it his or her business to talk to everyone and examine everything in the world closely, because it might be important.
  3. Similarly, the player learns that prior actions can have consequences even if they are unforeseen.
  4. Dialogue topics can grow, expand, and lead to one another as the player learns of new things to talk about in conversation - if the player goes on to talk to other NPCs, he or she will notice that those topics persist to those NPCs as well, representing a growing knowledge of the game world.
  5. The player has choice in how to deal with various situations, and will receive different outcomes depending on this.  In this particular case, the player must have a choice between a magic ring and a less tangible reward, which might also tie into the player's own role-playing fantasy of his or her character.
  6. Doing good deeds will increase one's reputation on a character-by-character basis, while bad deeds will lower it.  This is plainly demonstrated in Fargoth's disposition level drastically increasing or decreasing depending on whether the player gives Fargoth the ring or denies it.
  7. Though not explicitly stated, the mere existence of a disposition mechanic, along with its change, with noticeable differences in Fargoth's dialogue and behavior toward the player, implies that disposition is an important part of the game and will have more significant effects later on.
All of this, the player has been taught with a single encounter with a completely insignificant and minor character, which may or may not even occur depending on prior decisions the player makes.  No tutorial pop-ups, no hints, no quest compasses or big arrows pointing over the heads of NPCs to indicate they're "important."  Morrowind presents a scenario and leaves the pace and way forward up to the player, trusts the player to make a series of decisions, and, should the player not follow the intended path, then it's no big deal, he or she will learn later down the road anyway.

This is the absolute best kind of tutorial - the kind that teaches the player something not just by incorporating it into gameplay, but in a way which feels natural to the player's own sense of discovery, rather than imposed upon him or her by a designer who assumes the player is too dumb to play the game the "right" way.

A World to Discover

Once the player has got his or her footing, one of the more significant choices presents itself: how to get to Balmora?  The player is given the option of taking the Stilt Strider for a modest fee (which, by the way, has its own minor side-quest uncovered further use of the persuasion system, and also establishes the importance of currency in the world), which is the easy and faster route... but it's also the least appealing, especially because in order to actually get to the Stilt Strider, the player will likely travel down a path, and find him or herself at a crossroads - in one direction, the Stilt Strider, and in the other, the open world waiting to be explored (with a nearby sign pointing the player in the direction of Balmora, no less).

View of Seyda Neen from the docks, including the Stilt Strider.  Reaching it requires the player travel just outside town, and in turn be tempted to explore the world.  Why ride when you can walk?
Even something as fundamental as the placement of the buildings, the direction of the road and the implied decision between the two routes all serves to reinforce that Morrowind is a game about choice: in this case, the doubtlessly more dangerous, but also more interesting and potentially profitable route through the swamp, or the quick, safe, but uneventful route via Stilt Strider.

Indeed, the player will shortly be rewarded upon wandering out into the wilderness just outside of town, with easy combat against Mudcrabs (the game's most basic enemy), as well as an interesting encounter wherein a man falls out of the sky and promptly dies - searching him reveals a few "Icarian Flight" scrolls (giving a taste of the powers magic will provide the player later on, but also likely ending in a swift death if used carelessly), and some fancy clothing to put on.  Almost immediately, the player sees the benefit in exploring versus taking the quick and easy route, but is also introduced to different types of danger in an entertaining and relatively consequence-free way.  From there, the player comes across the first optional dungeon just off the beaten path, and plenty more, all while still being able to follow the straightforward road (signposted for convenience) and reach the main objective in Balmora.

Upon arriving in Balmora, the player will likely be taken aback by the size of the city, which is much larger than Seyda Neen, without necessarily being intimidating or hard to understand.  The first buildings the player comes across upon arriving are likely shops, useful for offloading any unwanted equipment gained on the way over; if the player took the Stilt Strider, instead he or she will be treated to a nice view of the entire city from a high vantage point as something of a consolation prize.  Finding Caius Cosades in such a large place is difficult, so the player, likely in recalling previous interactions with NPCs, will find that asking for directions to his house yields useful information (reinforcing the value of talking to characters in the game world without making it mandatory).

Balmora is just large enough to get lost in, and requires the player take some initiative and employ the lessons learned in the first town to move the story forward.
 After meeting Caius, the initial quests will send the player off to buy better equipment (introducing the bartering mechanic if the player hasn't already figured it out), to sleep and rest (with a good chance the player will level up if he/she previously explored the outskirts of Seyda Neen), to the Fighters Guild (triggering the first quest-related dungeon-delving), the Mages Guild, and so on.  Importantly, in exploring the Mages Guild and Fighters Guild, the player is introduces to two fundamental character archetypes and philosophies, given a goal to strive for (mastery over martial or magical arts), and is allowed to join them and take the first steps in more substantial side-quests, which provide their own substantial rewards, a taste of combat, and require the player to do more exploration and investigation, as a bit of a test in learning the game's mechanics.

Suffice to say, the end result is effectively the same each time: the opening quests, interactions, and locations of Morrowind are all set up in a masterful way with the sole purpose of teaching the player about the game world, the game mechanics, and, provided the player has a bit of ingenuity, will also lead to additional rewards for above-average perseverance and exploration.  Everything you need to know about Morrowind is gradually doled out, not through endless tutorial messages, NPCs yelling orders at the player, or forcing the player down linear corridors, but simply by playing the game itself in the most natural and exploratory way possible... and it does so without ever actually forcing the player to do so.  When contrasted with Oblivion's opening sequence, an hour-long dungeon full of exposition, following NPCs from door to door, a tutorial pop-up every minute, and a contrived, almost arbitrary introduction of the main plot, it's hard to believe that the same developer is responsible for both games.


I really could keep going on with this.  Morrowind's early-game pacing is near-perfect and an amazing example of how to build not just a tutorial for any game, but also how to create a sandbox world with structure, cohesion, and which rewards the player in a way that doesn't feel like a dog being thrown a biscuit.  I often see deep analysis of the introductions and designs of some of the most famous and historically important games - Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Castlevania - and rightly so, but rarely do I see this sort of thought given to more modern games, which is a real shame in my eyes, because as games become larger and more complex, the need for intelligent design and direction only grows.

Hopefully with Skyrim, Bethesda will be able to recapture some of the design magic that makes the opening of Morrowind so great, and more generally, that other developers will be able to recognize and take away aspects to incorporate into their own games in the future.  Building an open-world game is a massive undertaking, but as Morrowind demonstrates, putting it together and presenting it to the player doesn't have to be a task performed with an iron fist, or left a guessing game.

1 comment:

  1. I still remember the effect of that first view of Seyda Neen with NPCs walking around, a fully open world, silt strider in the background, seeing things in the water, there was also a Netch floating past on my first play. An incredible opening shot.