2002 was probably a year of some of the most substantive bridges in game design between the old 90s RPGs and the modern first-person sandbox ones, or at least, RPGs that told you where to go more than they simply told you what to do. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was released. Neverwinter Nights was released. Deus Ex saw a more approachable version made for the PS2. The days of quest logs and hints were around, but map markers and location guides were still in their infancy. Morrowind teases you with general locational hints, but rarely points you to the specific house in town, or the specific floor of a 3 story canton.
I've found myself playing Morrowind a lot, recently, having reached into my ever established fondness for The Elder Scrolls series, and I find that the game still is just a remarkable feat of alien settings, weird characters, and excellent character building. Stilt Striders howl and stand like creatures out of some amalgamation of Lovecraft and sci-fi. Dunmer, the elves who are the natural population of the area in which the game takes place, sometimes accost my character, an Imperial, with suspicion and arrogance. I have stepped into their land, and their land is not the generic Roman-inspired high-fantasy, but something wholly different, a weird mix of appendages, psychedelics, the Middle East, and more.
I love Oblivion, and between the two, picking a favourite is like picking a favourite pizza. But it's clear that the series has lost something. Particularly by Skyrim, whose console friendly menu system of endless scrolling frustrates, whose opening sequence featured more gore than any in the series, with a beheading on camera, who embraced dragons as an antagonist and not mad gods, and who delineated skills to a more streamlined, and admittedly more balanced form, the future of Elder Scrolls seems less "weird" and more in your face. More hemmed in by a desire for violence and simplified skill trees that allows you to jump back in to whatever fight beckons. Exploring is rewarded, but all exploring now must have a carrot. I don't deny that carrots are useful design tools, but sometimes I wonder why Skyrim has only grabbed me for about 55 hours, according to Steam, while my years of Morrowind and Oblivion has gone on for hundreds, and I find myself going back to them instead of the former when I went a TES fix. Perhaps there's value in not knowing quite precisely where to go, of not always having your build formulated by the third level, of not having dragons and elves slowly morph into something that feels Tokien-esque. There's beauty in the bizarre, and TES has shown that. I just hope that it can continue to do so.