Screenshot: Morrowind

Here in 2019, there are few companies making bigger video games than Bethesda Softworks—in multiple senses of the word “big”. Between titles like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Fallout 4, the Maryland-based company has swallowed literally hundreds of millions of hours of players’ liveswith their expansive worlds, to the point that even their failures—like last year’s awkward online offering Fallout 76—serve as major industry events. But that wasn’t always the case. Before the hype and the splendor and the power armor, there was Morrowind.

Released way back in 2002, Morrowind wasn’t the first of the company’s fantasy-heavy Elder Scrolls games. But it was the most ambitious, and the first to really try to do the “hey, go explore our giant 3D world” thing that’s since become the company’s hallmark. (It’s also their best game, but you didn’t hear us say that part out loud.) Now, Polygon has put together a truly in-depth oral history of the making of the game that made Bethesda, talking to story designers, environmental artists, programmers, PR people, and studio head Todd Howard about how a bunch of guys sitting at card tables in a warehouse basement ended up making one of the most successful RPGs of all time.

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It’s fascinating stuff, from the personality conflicts between Howard’s big picture thinking and Ken Rolston, an old-school D&D nerd with a taste for elaborate world-building. To say nothing about heated arguments about how high werewolves should jump, collective amazement that Microsoft allowed their brilliantly buggy game to pass its Xbox certification process on the first attempt, and the time that writer Michael Kirkbride—who designed large swathes of the bizarre, bug-and-fungus world of Morrowind, and wrote a number of the books that dot the games’ shelves—slipped an extensive and elaborate blowjob joke directly into the game’s text.

In some ways, it’s a very typical Silicon Valley-style success story, as inspirational speeches overcome institutional doubts, and layoffs and raised tempers loom. But also, again, werewolf jumping, plus that intoxicating sense of a bunch of people pulling something because they didn’t know that they couldn’t, or shouldn’t try to. Nearly 20 years on, Morrowind remains incredibly messy, buggy, and obtuse; it’s also big and brave in ways that almost no video game—including Bethesda’s later output—could match, and it’s fascinating to get a look at how that came to be.