Notes on Morrowind I - How Time Never Passes But Always Does

on Wednesday, May 20, 2015
This "Notes on Morrowind" series of posts will be brief remarks on small topics related to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Game of the Year Edition (dev. Bethesda Softworks, dirs. Todd Howard & Ken Rolston, 2003 [original game release 2002]) for PC rather than a holistic or fully-researched game analysis. All posts refer to the unmodded, version 1.6.1820 of the game played with maximum graphical and AI quality settings, a 1280x960 resolution, and all other settings at their defaults.

Citizens disbelieve even very recent history.
Morrowind is a game deeply concerned with the nature of history and prophecy, as well has how one becomes the other. History, and its various different interpretations, are presented directly in the extensive writings that can be found throughout the game world, and numerous characters are happy to discuss their knowledge of history. In many cases, such as those that lead to the events of the main quest of the game, differing knowledge of history leads to differing interpretations of prophecy, which the player is then left to disentangle by enacting a path for the player character, thus transforming nebulous prophecy into precise events and back into nebulous history. This effect of time on knowledge is occasionally made explicit, such as when the player is unable to convince other characters of the deaths of the gods Almalexia and Sotha Sil after the events of the Tribunal quest. It is perhaps strange, then, that Morrowind, with its temporal obsession, so deemphasizes the passage of time through its mechanics. Though many of these aspects at least partially result from technological and development cycle limitations, they nonetheless suggest some of the priorities of the game.

Much of the presentation of the game world suggests a static nature of time. NPCs are primarily unmoving, always to be found at the same locations, always willing to give the same responses as if you had never met them before. The land rarely evolves, with no seasons, growing plants, or evident geological processes, though a quest as epic as that of the main quest story must have taken months or years to complete. There is no urgency to any quests, which can be completed at the player's leisure, with the exception of a few that have delays built in to force the player to do other things first.When the main quest stories are all complete, the world still exists just as it was (with a couple few changes to dialog, weather, and enemies), for the player to continue exploring.

Moons, stars, and clouds move
relative to each other.
There are rare exceptions to this static world, however. Most obviously, the game has a clock in its user interface which records the date and time of day in the game world, and the world becomes light and dark with blue and red atmospheric hues according to time of night or day. This notion of daily time is enhanced with changing weather (though not seasons), which varies among sunny days, ash storms, and rain, among other climate conditions. Even the moons and sun move across the sky, but they do so in a physically impossible way. The star-field is static with the moons moving across it, suggesting that the planet on which the player-character stands does not rotate on axis or orbit its sun. Instead, it must be that the planet is orbited rapidly and impossibly by the moons and sun, suggesting an unreality to this universe or, perhaps, direct intervention by the gods that seem to roam the land. The moons themselves maintain an unlikely static and photogenic configuration relative to each other that defies orbital mechanics. Astronomy seems to have a impossibly dual nature in Morrowind, in which time is static on some scales and moving on others. (The within-narrative lore of The Elder Scrolls series has a complicated cosmology that is beyond the scope of this post. For further reading, see this page with general information on the planets (retrieved 2015-05-19), the cosmology section of The Imperial Library website (retrieved 2015-05-19), and the astronomy page at UESP (retrieved 2015-05-19).)

Other exceptions include certain locations, such as Holamayan (retrieved 2015-05-20) or the Cavern of the Incarnate (retrieved 2015-05-20),  which can only be accessed at dawn or dusk. This again suggests a connection between time and the god-like beings of Morrowind, in this case the major character Azura, because these locations are holy places dedicated to that being. By associating some of the few aspects of the land that are dynamic in time with god-like beings, it suggests the limited scope of history seen by humans in comparison to beings who operate on larger time scales. The predictability of the opening and closing of these locations further associates them with prophecy, suggesting its validity within the game world when it is originating from reliable characters like Azura (and this in turn suggests her reliability).

The final major time-sensitive aspect of the game is construction. The construction of a handful of buildings and other structures can be triggered if the player undertakes certain quests. These structures include the Great House strongholds (retrieved 2015-05-20), the Shrine of Boethiah (retrieved 2015-05-20), and the Raven Rock colony (retrieved 2015-05-20). Notably, these building projects are one of the few ways that the player can directly impact the physical layout of the land in Morrowind, whether by choosing which quests to complete or by making actual construction decisions in the case of Raven Rock quests. However, construction of the projects does not proceed in real time. Upon initiating a construction project, the land and building change in phases, moving from no progress to discrete levels of construction in quantized leaps forward. This progress always occurs when the player cannot see the building site, giving a slight illusion of time continuity. Taken in context with game's themes of memory's interplay with history, this phenomenon seems to be an embodiment of people's tendency to remember things in terms of discrete, important moments leading to important events that changed history, rather than being able to simultaneously perceive the ensemble of small, continuous events that lead to change. The players view of construction is distorted and artificially discrete, and this warping of perception reflects the distorted perspective of the history of the region that the player encounters in books and conversations throughout the game. (The discreteness of the player's journal entries also serves this purpose.)

Straddling the seemingly conflicting themes of static time and moving time are the minor enemies, such as animals, that populate the game world. The player can clear an area of these enemies, and for a time, that area will be safe. Eventually, however, the enemies will respawn and repopulate the region. The player's efforts to eliminate the enemies are thus nullified on larger timescales than a typical play session, suggesting the difficulty of enacting lasting change on the game world and relative equivalence of different points in history. This contrasts with how the game treats NPCs from intelligent species. There, the game enforces the permanence of actions, removing the character entirely if the character is killed and potentially removing the ability of the player to access certain quests and items. Because this seems to occur only with intelligent characters, it suggests an importance that lasts in time to decisions that the game deems moral decisions.

Taken as a whole, the odd way that Morrowind presents time dually, as static and flowing, couples with its narrative emphasis on history and prophecy in interesting ways. The player is made to observe the difficulty of trying to enact lasting change on the world, which lends weight to the main quest's narrative. The player is made to understand that the faulty ways that time and history are remembered has made the player's understanding of the narrative suspect, and whatever the player achieves within the narrative will be, inevitably, misunderstood and misremembered by the future inhabitants of the game's setting. How all of this relates to prophecy is left unclear, perhaps because the player's perspective is too limited compared to beings such as Azura. Though many of these time-related aspects of the game's mechanics are likely related to limitations of the technologies upon which the game was built, their integration with games themes plays a large role in the success of Morrowind.

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