A couple of weeks ago, I got back into playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, after a hiatus of a couple of years. I initially stopped playing because the game, for some reason, seemed to lack something that, back in the day, made it impossible for me to pull myself free from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which is one of the best games I’ve ever played. This time around, I’ve been able to remain interested in the breezy world of Skyrim much better than even the first time around, and I’ve even figured out why.
Skyrim, as well as Bethesda’s previous titles, including Fallout 3, have been a dear subject of bashing by a wide selection of gamers, and for a large part for good reason. Bethesda, while doing a fantastic job with their games in general, tend to release their games with several running problems, starting with bugs and glitches and ending with some half-baked gameplay features that leave the player all but satisfied. With Skyrim, however, aside from crashes and bugs, I’ve noticed there aren’t many actual problems with the content to give people a decent reason to complain. Nonetheless, I wasn’t pleased with the game myself initially, so something was wrong, even if it was really difficult to pinpoint what it was.
Going back to Morrowind, there were a lot of things that were different, and definitely not all of them were better. Obviously, looking at the third major installment of the Elder Scrolls series with what we’ve seen up until today, Morrowind doesn’t exactly look all that pretty. But that shouldn’t amount to anything, since graphics alone are rarely what keep a player invested in any game, and besides, back when it came out Morrowind looked spectacular. Morrowind’s combat was frustrating at best, and I believe no one found fighting monsters to be the best feature of the game.
Morrowind featured a dialogue system that, while lacking a full voice acting (which is severely overrated, especially when said voice acting isn’t exactly on par with Dragon Age: Origins, for example), allowed for much more depth than that of its sequels. Even though every NPC had a voice based on their race and sex, the dialogue was silent, and while reading the transcript of a conversation allowed for the player to imagine a more personal voice, to some degree. And the dialogue itself was more interesting, since you could talk to a given NPC about a variety of subjects, depending on what you already know about so that you could realistically ask them about it. There are some upsides to Skyrim’s “only say things that matter” principle, such as immediately being able to see what distinguishes a certain NPC from others. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion featured a horrible in-between system that mostly pronounced the flaws in both.
Even though the NPCs in Morrowind were actually pretty plastic, for some obscure reason, the text-based dialogue created the illusion of social depth in the world’s characters, and for myself, I can still name way more NPCs from Morrowind than from Skyrim, even though I played Skyrim just last night, and it’s been years since I visited Vvardenfell. For some, this does not affect the game’s quality in the least, but it holds some significance to me.
I’ve come to notice that this wasn’t the most important thing that made me drop out of Skyrim, however. Neither was the much-criticized journal system of Morrowind, which many found messy and unpractical but I felt brought the game a great deal of immersion.
Like so many other gamers, I’ve been dabbling with a huge amount of mods to improve gameplay or just for the fun of it. I did it with Oblivion so much so that the game eventually became unplayable, and I’ve tried dozens upon dozens with Skyrim as well. Most of them I’ve had to remove due to stability issues, but I’ve come across a number of mods that bring new challenges or make the game prettier to watch. Surprisingly, one very simple mod type turned the game from a disappointment into something that very vividly reminds me of the magic of Morrowind. I’ve actually had said mod for a long time, but it was buried under loads of other mods that actually had a counter-productive effect on my interest in playing the game. After I removed most mods and held on to just a few, I noticed how much this mod improved the quality of the game for me.
To tell the truth, I’m not sure if this is actually a single mod or two mods contributing to the same end – nonetheless, the desired effect is to disable map-click fast travel in its entirety, and changes the cost of horse-carriages, bought horses and rented inn rooms based on the player’s preferences. So with this mod active, you can avoid travel by foot only by hiring a carriage from any of the bigger cities, and even then it costs around 300-400 gold (with my settings) – a realistic sum while still enough to prevent overuse, especially early in the game. I’ve set a horse to cost 3500 gold (if memory serves – I don’t buy horses anyway, I play a thief), and a night at an inn to cost 100, as opposed to the practically rent-free setting of vanilla Skyrim.
The most important feature here is the lack of fast travel. This forces you to not only travel by foot most of the time and in the process allows you to find more new locations in the wilderness as well as get to know the countryside (you don’t get that in vanilla Skyrim, but I swear I could still navigate my way through southern Vvardenfell without a map, that’s how well I learned the landmarks when forced to travel by foot), but also calls for a bit of planning in your travels if you don’t want to backtrack a whole lot and end up running back and forth between two locations.
For example, I recently left my home in Riften for a trek to the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary near Falkreath. I spent the night in the inn in Falkreath for 100 gold, then headed northeast to Ivarstead, after an assassination contract. From there, I continued northwest towards the Eldergleam Sanctuary to get the sap for Danica in Whiterun, and en route there I came across a small farming settlement. There I met a former adventurer who told me of a bandit hideout and asked me to take out their leader. I checked my map and realized said hideout was just barely off my route, so I thought I might as well take care of it. So I continued to the Eldergleam Sanctuary, retrieved the sap, ran for my life from the Spriggans, and continued towards Windhelm for another quest.
In Windhelm, I started investigating the gruesome murder that had taken place there, commenced a sweep job for the Thieves’ Guild, and retrieved one of the items Wylandriah from Riften had lost. I also received the quest to retrieve the White Phial, and decided to tackle that before anything else, since it was not a big detour. Then I continued my trek up north, towards Winterhold. En route there I made a detour to the bandit lair to eliminate their chief as instructed by the retired adventurer, and then went on to visit the Winterhold College. Then the road took me west towards Dawnstar, where I completed yet another assassination contract, and spent the night in the inn before setting for the northeast to delve through another dungeon for a quest I didn’t actually remember what it was about.
That trip would’ve probably taken a few hours if I had the possibility to just teleport from Ivarstead to Windhelm, and from Winterhold to Dawnstar, and so forth, and also I would’ve missed a lot along the way. Now, it took me two days of playing the game, and I had a blast. I’ve come to the conclusion that before the mod, it was just too easy to complete quests even one at a time if so desired, and before you knew it you had done every quest that had crossed your path, and you felt too lazy to go into the woods just to look for more things to do. But now, it has taken me much longer to complete a smaller number of quests (and I haven’t even returned for the rewards yet), and the satisfaction is much greater, since it has involved some logical thinking as well as investing some more time into it.
So after trying all sorts of immersion and content improving mods, I was a bit surprised to find something so simple to be the key to infusing Skyrim with some of the same unique flavor that made Morrowind so memorable to me. But there it is. I know this probably doesn’t apply to all players, or maybe even a majority, because I am fully aware that a lot of people found Morrowind’s travel system off-putting. But for those that don’t feel satisfied with the exploration of Skyrim, I feel this may be the answer.
With Oblivion, I actually went even further with making exploration and travel more immersive, challenging and rewarding: I enabled mods to disable fast travel, disable compass markers, disable the player marker in the world map as well as the automatic centering when opening the map, and a tweak to location discovery that didn’t add a newly discovered location to the world map unless it was roughly within visible distance from another, already discovered location. Alternatively, any discovered locations could be marked on your map for a fee by a guard.
Another improvement that I would recommend for players looking to keep the game more interesting would be mods to decrease the frequency of dragons, and make them more difficult and possibly more versatile in terms of their abilities. During my first playthrough I quickly found the appearance of yet another dragon provoke a sigh of frustration, followed by a brief tangle with the monster that didn’t really even give me the feeling of threat after killing the first couple of them. This way, when they appear less frequently and are truly fearsome, they don’t become a grind, but an exciting occurrence that calls for whatever skills you have at your disposal to fight them.