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Why Skyrim Can't Surpass the Success of Morrowind in the Elder Scrolls Series

It's difficult to place where Bethesda sits in the public consciousness. The RPG studio turned publisher has a great deal to be proud of – in recent years, it has bankrolled the beloved Dishonored franchise, overseen the resurrection of DOOM, and perhaps most impressively has built Fallout, a niche series largely thought deceased at the turn of the millennium, into a blockbuster property that makes a ridiculous amount of money across its mobile and triple-A iterations.

But if your only impression of them came from specialist forums, gaming Twitter and the like, you'd be forgiven for thinking them maligned. Hated, even. Their games are subject to a number of recurring complaints – poor combat, dated tech and bad writing among other grievances. Bethesda's self-developed RPG series, Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, occupy the same bizarre no man's land as the Call of Duty franchise: apparently nobody likes it, and yet everyone does. The charts don't lie, and neither does Activision's bank balance.

Much of this dissonance can be explained by taking the temperature of the community's impression of Morrowind, the third Elder Scrolls game that set the template for both of its blockbuster RPG strands back in 2002. That game, and its sequels: 2006's Oblivion, which became a massive, studio-defining success for Bethesda during the early Xbox 360 era, and 2011's Skyrim, the soon-to-be-reissued (and remastered) last entry in the series to date (discounting The Elder Scrolls Online, of which the less said the better).

The differences between Morrowind and its immediate successor are vast. While Oblivion is recognisable 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 favour 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 they 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 ten 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.

A considerable number amongst Bethesda's fan community consider Morrowind to be the pinnacle of the series, and this community has the company's collective ear. This relationship is evident throughout their games, which are littered with references to fan forum in-jokes, most blatantly via a recurring character, M'aiq the Liar, who routinely dispenses quips about the same forum's predilection for rumour and speculation, and has done in every game since Morrowind – making him, perhaps unwittingly, part of its creeping shadow. The developer knows its audience, and loves pandering to it.

One prevailing idea among this audience is that Oblivion's ambition to be accessible resulted in a "dumbed down" version of Morrowind – and, frankly, that's something that rings true with a direct comparison. There are no Oblivion-style map markers in Morrowind. Every quest comes with written directions. Go north until you find a strange tree; head east until you lose the will to live; that kind of thing. Oblivion essentially gives you a GPS and tells you to go kill stuff. Skyrim keeps the GPS, but makes traversing the land more difficult, with dangerous high-level zones, extreme weather and a new emphasis on verticality.

Oblivion raised the bar in Elder Scrolls presentation, but fudged much of the detail. Its denizens are conversationally stunted in comparison to Morrowind, where almost every character delivers a novella's worth of exposition via written text. Oblivion has full voice acting and, as a direct consequence, a lot less to say. Skyrim kept the actors, but gave them more lines of dialogue – around 23,000 more – and made sure that you'd have to play through the game more than once to hear them all.

Morrowind forces the player to role-play. You can join the thieves' guild, but don't expect to be able to complete the fighters' guild too – their quest lines cancel each other out. You can join one noble house, but not the others. Seeing all of the mission content Morrowind has to offer requires multiple playthroughs, varied character builds, and deep knowledge of the game's systems and branching points. It is built for nerds. Oblivion flattens the playing field, offering only one class of character: the player. They can join, rinse and become the head of every guild and organisation, regardless of skillset. There is very little thinking required to become, on paper, the most powerful resident of Cyrodiil, the president of every club. After a few dozen hours, it all becomes absurd.

Skyrim's quests intersect at points where the player is forced to make a decision between two warring camps, or whether or not to kill major characters. It's not quite the tangled web of branching narratives that Morrowind was, but it prevents players from seeing every possible outcome in one playthrough – something that drew fan ire when seen in Oblivion.

At the centre of Morrowind's map stood the Red Mountain, a domineering volcano that belched ash into the sky, blighting the land with ruined crops, poor visibility and terrible disease. At the centre of Oblivion was an Elven tower, pulled straight out of those popular Peter Jackson movies. It was so drearily conventional when compared to the giant of slag and soot that rose from the third game's landscape. Elder Scrolls fans would lament the loss of Morrowind's varied biomes, its giant mushrooms and monstrous wildlife.

Which may be why Oblivion's expansion DLC of 2007, Shivering Isles, signalled a reassertion of Morrowind's ethos, and its vegetation – fans would rejoice at the return of giant mushrooms, and branching narratives with distinct choices. It's widely regarded as Oblivion's best content, and it's filled with direct references to Morrowind; in the form of creature types and returning characters. As an addendum to Oblivion, it's a massive shift in tone. As a love letter to Morrowind fans, it's dead on the mark.

Skyrim also featured plenty of callbacks to Morrowind – but these were bittersweet. The game's lore establishes that the landmass on which Morrowind occurred, the island of Vvardenfell, has been destroyed in a catastrophic volcanic eruption. In the intervening centuries, Red Mountain belched its last, destroying the very ground upon which so many adventures had taken place, wrecking any hope of a much requested return to the region – and it's difficult to imagine that this wasn't, quite directly, the point.

Despite some folkloric allusions to Morrowind, and a heavily touted continuity with the events of Oblivion, Skyrim's story and setting were vastly different. Soaked with Nordic mythology and featuring, for the first time, actual fucking dragons, it felt like a great culmination of everything Bethesda had learned from a solid decade of producing Fallout and Elder Scrolls titles. Players were given big choices, intuitive systems, expansive lore and memorable characters. You could almost have sworn that they'd set a new bar, and would no longer need to remind their community of past glories to get them on side.

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 smouldering 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 they should remaster Morrowind.

The remastered "Special Edition" of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is released for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on October the 28th.