If I were to make a top 10 list of my favorite video games (which I may do in the future), The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind would easily have the top slot. The sheer amount of time I put into the game guarantees its position, but the game is nothing if not deserving.
A friend of mine described Morrowind as a "single-player MMORPG," and this is not entirely inaccurate. In fact, the game shares many similarities with MMO's, from the unrefined combat system, to the massive set of skills, to the quest-oriented gameplay, to the natural barriers. In fact, the biggest difference is the lack of other idiots. Pic related.
Few other games boast the scale and pure ambition that Morrowind represents. The world is alien, with strange creatures, buildings that are grown, not built, and giant insects used as transportation. The world had its own history and legends, if you cared to know them, and more than enough to do if you didn't. There were 3 joinable great houses, 8 joinable Imperial guilds, 3 joinable Morrowind guilds, 3 vampire factions, and a massive array of side-quests. If you wanted to do the main quest, you could, and if you didn't, no big deal.
The reason Morrowind trumps modern open-world games, is that it is truly, truly open. No other game allows the same measure of freedom. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded. You can open any door if you have the skill to do so. You can levitate over obstacles, if you have the spells or potions. You can go anywhere, and the only limiting factor is if you can survive it. You are even free to mess up and make the main quest impossible.
Ok, enough of me praising Morrowind, let's tear into some other games, namely The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3.
Now, I'm mostly a PC gamer. I'll use consoles on occasion, but for the most part, my favorite games and my favorite kinds of games work best on the PC. PC aficionados often refer to Oblivion and Fallout 3 as being "dumbed down for the console idiots." I'm guilty of having said this. However, it's not true. May I remind everyone that Morrowind was released for the Xbox and PC, and although the interface was better on the PC, the game was the same. Oblivion and Fallout 3 were not "dumbed down for the console idiots," they were just dumbed down for idiots.
I won't attempt to identify the source of this unfortunate phenomenon, but I will point out some of its effects. The decline of adventure/puzzle games like Myst, the addition of compasses or arrows pointing to your next objective, the addition of journals and hand-holding in-game tutorials, these are just a few symptoms of this strange blight on modern gaming. And along with them comes the shredding of my beloved freedom.
It's story time. I was exploring (well, graverobbing) in the Ashlands, when I found a tomb with a 100pt. locked door. I marked the location, and ran back to Ald-ruhn and got an Open Lock 100 points spell made at the mage's guild. I had a 3% chance to succeed in casting this, because my Alteration skill was so low. Then I recalled to the tomb. After trying about 20 times, I succeeded in opening the lock, and inside, I nearly died to a clanfear and daedroth. There were some dead bodies, and another 100pt. door. Inside the door were a few more daedra, and finally, behind the last door, I found a dead guy with a note on him.
The note was to the dead man's brother, and it detailed the last hours of the man's life. The man, named Tyronius, had been a smuggler, who had been double-crossed by a necromancer, who decided he would like the payment he'd given them back. The 3 bodies I found earlier had been Tyronius' friends, and all had died to the undead creatures the necromancer called Goris had sent. The note ended with a plea for vengeance. I took the key from his lifeless body, and headed for Tel Mora, the city mentioned in the note.
After a few Silt Strider rides, I arrived in Tel Mora. I searched 3 tombs before I found the one my key fit. I drew my axe and went inside. There I found Goris the Maggot King, and Luven, one of Tyronius' dead friends, now raised and standing alongside Goris. The fight was brief and brutal. Goris began summoning bonewalkers, which I ignored. Striding past them, I smote him down with three hits from my axe. Then I turned and put Luven out of his misery. I took my prize, the Bow of Shadows from its resting place, and stepped outside, feeling accomplished.
It's important to note that Morrowind has a journal, which logs quest information so you can refer to it if you forget where you're going. Not once during this story was my journal updated with any information, and yet, it was something I felt needed to be done. When it was over, I felt that I had avenged Tyronius' death, even though I had not known him in life.
Here's the problem. I have no stories like that for Oblivion. I could rage for hours over the smaller skill set, fewer factions, etc, but the biggest problem is, in Oblivion, simple exploration is meaningless. It's nothing but grinding, pure and simple. There are no unique items, no mysteries to unravel, no lore to learn. In Oblivion, bandits are nameless bandits, necromancers are nameless necromancers, and vampires are nameless vampires. There is never a feeling that there might be a story here.
Ok, on to the Uncanny Valley. If you're not familiar with the term, it was introduced in 1970 by a Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who hypothisized that as a robot becomes closer and closer to the likeness of a human, an almost human appearance causes a reaction of revulsion from an observer. Have a graph, lifted from Wikipedia.
Morrowind's NPC's had a few things they could say when you were near them, but all of their dialogue was in text-form. You could ask them who they were, about rumors, or local services. You could ask their opinions on factions, or other people of note. For those who can't read anything longer than the back of a cereal box, this was tedious. For the people who matter, it was great.
When I heard that Oblivion was going to be fully voiced, and that some high-profile voice actors had been hired, I thought it was fantastic. Surely this would make the world more vibrant and alive. Conversations between NPC's also sounds great on paper. Supposedly, you were supposed to pick up quest information by listening to people converse.
In practice, however, neither of these things work. At all. It seems that Bethesda hired one voice actor per race, and each character responds exactly the same way to any given question, so that a beggar and a noble have the same thing to say, in the same voice, about the same topic. Furthermore, the characters don't...move. They stand stiffly upright, look you dead in the eye, and refuse to gesticulate any sort of emotion. It's creepy. Here's an example. The first video is one I just made, of a beggar in the Imperial city. The second is from a game called Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, released almost 2 years before Oblivion. The difference is astounding.
On to Fallout 3. It was an improvement in many ways. I enjoyed it immensely, and still do. The weird thing is, It uses the same engine as Oblivion, and suffers from many of the same problems. Animations are unnatural, the pathing is terrible, and the nameless raiders and mercs still evoke no emotion.
What Bethesda managed to do is put some of the fun back into exploring. Finding out that the raiders in Springvale school were trying to tunnel into vault 101, or that one of the vault's experiments was trying to make artists and musicians into killers, actually makes you want to look around, to just wander the wastelands.
But the biggest thing that made exploring fun was the connection the player feels to the world, and this was something completely absent in Oblivion. The connection is apparent as soon as the player exits the vault where he grew up, and can see a destroyed world, with the spire of the Washington monument in the distance. But it's not just a destroyed world, it's your destroyed world. The sight of the Washington monument, this instantly recognizable landmark, instantly establishes a bond with the ravaged landscape.
But of course, both of them suffer from "Oh, sorry, even though you have maxed out your lockpick skill, you can't go in here because this is a magical quest door!" syndrome. Oh well.