I originally wrote this a few months ago and posted it on my Facebook and 1000Fraggers.com just after Skyrim’s release. But somehow it seems appropriate for Collateral Rantage.

By today’s standards, Morrowind doesn’t play all that well. It’s quite unwieldy in places, and it’s downright hideous to look upon. Yet it has three elements that make it a more immersive experience than its sequels, in my opinion. Two – the strange setting and the almost total absence of fast travel – will go unremarked here. My purpose today is to take a quick look at the third element: ambiguity.

In all the other Elder Scrolls games I’ve played, the enemy is clear. Take Oblivion for example, the game most directly comparable to Morrowind. Mehrunes Dagon is evil, no doubt about it. The world is in danger. I thought I saw some hints of grey when Martin Septim started requesting Daedric artifacts – after all, these are known to corrupt their bearers. But no. It’s all very black and white.

Morrowind is different. I imagine you could easily prance obliviously through the main quest thinking everything is simple, if you don’t bother to stop and read books or listen to some of the more interesting characters. Nerevar and his friends – Vivec, Almalexia, Sotha Sil and Dagoth-Ur – tracked down the potentially apocalyptic items created by the Dwemer craftsman Kagrenac, known for obvious reasons as Kagrenac’s Tools. Dagoth-Ur betrayed and murdered Nerevar in order to take Kagrenac’s Tools for himself. The remaining three companions managed to overpower Dagoth-Ur and use the Tools for themselves in order to seal away their former friend and protect Morrowind from his malice.

Simple enough, right? When Dagoth-Ur starts to rise again, he is clearly the enemy. The thing is, there are at least two alternative versions of these events, one of which is reminiscent of the controversial real world text, the Gospel of Judas. This account has Nerevar actually choosing to leave Kagrenac’s Tools in Dagoth-Ur’s hands, because he knew the other three would be susceptible to corruption by their ambition and vanity should they get hold of this enormous power. They, not Dagoth-Ur, killed Nerevar. And then, having collaborated to wrest the Tools from Dagoth-Ur’s hands, they used their new power to set themselves up as the Tribunal – the government and later dominant religion of Morrowind – and seal away the only person who could tell the world what had really happened.

So what does the evidence point to? Well, at the time of the game’s events the blight is spreading rapidly out from Dagoth-Ur’s isolated stronghold, tainting more and more of Morrowind’s wildlife. The eerie Sixth House cult, brazenly affiliated with Dagoth-Ur, is on the rise. Their sleeper agents have infiltrated major population centres, and their concealed hideouts are full of hideous mutated people dubbed ‘ascended sleepers’. Dagoth-Ur certainly seems monstrous and evil.

What about the Tribunal though? Vivec, Almalexia and Sotha Sil undeniably used Kagrenac’s Tools to set themselves up as the rulers of Morrowind after Nerevar’s death. That’s fine; it fits with the official story of the Tribunal Temple. But why does the Temple come down so hard on anyone claiming to be the long-foretold reincarnation of Nerevar, known as the Nerevarine? Consider the nature of the Tribunal Temple. The Ordinators are terrifying armoured zealots who live and breathe the worship of the Tribunal. They clamp down on anything remotely unorthadox. The Tribunal themselves, rendered nearly immortal by Kagrenac’s Tools, are hardly saintly once you examine them more closely.

Vivec is aloof and distant, refusing to ever make a public appearance. For all anyone knows, he might not even be inside the heavily guarded building that is supposedly his home. (He is, as it turns out, but I was very suspicious for some time.)

Sotha Sil is essentially a mad scientist – a recluse who spends his time building a huge, elaborate clockwork palace.

Almalexia, as I discovered upon visiting Mournhold, is a psychotic megalomaniac, drunk on her own power and perfectly happy to exterminate any obstruction to her self-aggrandisement.

The distinction between the ‘evil’ Dagoth-Ur and the ‘heroic’ Tribunal blurs rapidly. Only one thing can be said with any certainty: Dagoth-Ur and the Tribunal are enemies. Unlike Mehrunes Dagon and the other frequently malevolent Daedric Princes, the enemy here isn’t clear. The spread of the blight across Morrowind must be stopped, certainly, but is Dagoth-Ur really the enemy? The blight is centred on Red Mountain, the location of his stronghold, but is he actually causing it? Red Mountain is also the location of Kagrenac’s Tools – the source of the Tribunal’s power. It’s written repeatedly that the Tools are a malign influence, and only the purest of people could even attempt to resist their corruption. Can we be certain that the Tools themselves aren’t the source of the blight? Perhaps the mutations of the Sixth House cultists are not a sign of Dagoth-Ur’s evil, but a symptom of grotesque attacks on Dagoth’s followers by the Tribunal. If the Judas-like story is true, they can’t afford to allow the freedom of the only person still living who can tell the world that they are the true betrayers. So what is the truth? The Tribunal Temple is oppressive and unyielding. The members of the Tribunal are deranged demigods whose power clearly exceeds their judgement. They know the truth of Nerevar’s death and the use of Kagrenac’s Tools, but they’re saying nothing. Consult the official texts if you want a history lesson. But given Almalexia’s psychopathy, I don’t think it’s safe to assume that the official story gives us the whole truth.

It was with an uneasy conscience that I hiked up Red Mountain to kill Dagoth-Ur. Once I met him I was left in no doubt that he was a threat, but after slaying him and saving Morrowind from the blight and an assortment of other dangers, I still couldn’t feel comfortable with any of it. Even now, I’m not sure that I didn’t just choose between two equal evils. At first I enjoyed the cries of adulation from the general populace that resounded in my ears everywhere I went, but it wasn’t long before they began to ring hollow.

There are many other examples of ambiguity in Morrowind. The disappearance of the Dwemer is mystery I never solved to my satisfaction, and there are as many theories as theorisers. The wealth of books in Morrowind compared to Oblivion, and the various peripheral characters who reveal snippets of intriguing information, give it a deep mythology that other games in the series lack. Nothing is clear in Morrowind. And that ambiguity, more than any feature of gameplay or setting, is why nothing has beaten it yet. Not even Skyrim.