‘Wake up, we’re here. Why are you shaking? Are you ok? Wake up.’ Jiub the Dunmer stands in front of you. He’s ragged, old. A scar runs down his face, right through one of his bright red Dark Elf eyes. You’re surrounded by a dark oaken hull. It’s creaking from the lazy waves pushing under it and Jiub is the only person you can see.
It’s 2003, and you’ve just loaded up Morrowind for the first time. The main theme has an intricate, beautiful, powerful tune that radiates adventure, fantasy; an epic. It’s a sedate start - there’s no burned down village to cry over, no family to avenge and no damsel in distress. There’s just this weary, mysterious ship and the Jiub’s hushed tones.
‘What’s your name?’
You tell him, after long consideration. Your name isn’t important to the world, but it’s massively important to you. It’s going to be with you for a long time. It has to be authentic, both to the race and character you’re going to develop. It has to be original, yours and representative of you.
‘Not even last night's storm could wake you. I heard them say we’ve reached Morrowind. I’m sure they’ll let us go... Quiet! Here comes the guard’
Rule #1: Don't mess with guys in gold armour
The guard walks up from the back of the boat. He’s clean, tidy, an Imperial and it becomes apparent that this isn’t just a boat. It’s a prison boat. You’re a prisoner.
You aren’t sure exactly what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much. Your life up to this instant is irrelevant and now you’re being landed somewhere new and alien. You don’t know anyone, anywhere, how anything works or what to expect. By severing any possible pre-connection with the world you and your character can properly unite as the same individual - there are no preconceptions or expectations of you; you're both outsiders.
‘This is where we get off, come with me.’
You follow the guard out, leaving Jiub alone on ship. He watches you go - the only person you know in the world and you'll probably never see him again. Outside the dark confines of the ship you’re met with a hazy dawn and slowly, you look around to take it in. There is a sea, land, buildings, a giant flea. What the hell..? You’re prompted into the Census and Excise office, filling in border forms as you go. First question; what race are you?
Race is a big factor in Morrowind. Besides having different starting statistics and abilities, they behave and interact differently too. In Morrowind, your lineage will define you more than anything else.
At first, the choices seem familiar and, yes, some of it is clearly Tolkien-inspired - Orcs and Men and Dwarves – but Bethesda built on the fantasy template, rather than just resting on it. Dwarves are mythologised engineers, not comic relief. They built steam-punk automatons and labyrinths; artefact's that are impossible to recreate. Likewise, Orcs aren’t mindlessly violent, merely a bit dim – they have a culture of their own and you can explore it deeply, if you have the urge.
Rule #1A: Or guys in red armour
Elves take an unfamiliar shape too, the trunk of their race dividing into highly specialised branches. The High Elves are natural alchemists, although their pretension brings them the disdain of the masses. Meanwhile, Wood Elves take a more typically fey form and trend towards the life of scouts and spies, while Dark Elves are a force of their own.
Dark Elves are the most interesting and enigmatic creatures on the continent; outcasts even though Morrowind is their native land. They’re shunned and disliked by all other races, but it’s subtle - passive aggressive. In fact, to play a Dark Elf means that you take a 'disposition' penalty whenever you talk to any other race, which makes every transaction more expensive and every peaceful resolution harder to make. It’s an undercurrent of racism.
The Tolkien set is then expanded further with a couple of Beast races. These are Argonians and Kajhit - lizard and cat men respectively. Argonians are quite mythical - they can breathe underwater and excel in magic use. Kajhits, on the other hand, are excellent fighters and thieves. Both races bear the physical benefits of a beastly heritage, but also suffer from social weaknesses.
These themes might seem common now after the mainstream success of Oblivion, Dragon Age and Mass Effect, but Morrowind explored these issues earlier and with unmatched subtlety. It doesn’t ram slavery or racism into your face. There isn’t an Alienage or a huge group of poverty stricken elves being spat on, or people constantly mentioning the 'slave problem.' These things just exist in commonplace, and it’s up to the player to pick up on them and deal with them as they like, if they like.