Welp, it's late and I'm not sleepy. Here goes!
Morrowind is my favorite game. It doesn’t have perfect gameplay, most of its NPCs are extremely one-dimensional, and there’s almost no voice acting. People who like it are often accused of being blinded by nostalgia. Well, I didn’t play it until 2013, after playing Skyrim, and I’d never even heard of The Elder Scrolls until shortly before the release of Skyrim. So why do I like this game so much?
The best thing about Morrowind is twofold: it creates an extremely detailed world, and the main quest forces you to learn about it in an engaging way. Instead of teaching you about the world purely through infodumps, you learn by doing quests. As you go, each quest teaches you something about the history of Morrowind: who the Dwemer were, why the Ashlanders worship Daedra instead of the Tribunal, the relationship between Dagoth Ur and the Tribunal, etc.
A sample quest: you’ve just contracted a deadly disease. To cure it, you’re told to seek help from a certain Telvanni mage. Who are the Telvanni? Ask just about any NPC and they’ll inform you that House Telvanni is one of the three Great Houses of Morrowind, and is comprised of anarchic, xenophobic mages. Go to the mage, and he will agree to try to cure your disease if you get him an item from someone in the equivalent of a leper colony. Go there, and you’ll discover that the person you’re supposed to meet with is the last of a long-extinct race that is very significant to the game’s backstory. He will give you some insight into the events leading to their extinction, which are of particular significance. Then, you return to the mage, who cures you—but the cure has a side-effect that, depending on how you interpret things, may be an indication that you are a prophesied Messianic figure. As you can see, each step of the quest ties in with a broader concept in the lore that you need to know to understand the game; the quest objectives themselves are simply “bait” to entice you to learn. Many quests in the game are designed in this fashion, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
Adding to this, you will often find multiple, sometimes conflicting, versions of the truth. For instance, to some, the Tribunal are gods worthy of worship; to others, they are usurpers of the Daedra; to others still, they are powerful but unworthy of worship compared to the Aedra. It’s left for you to decide who, if anyone, is right. In fact, there are some players who think the main villain of the game is more worthy of support than the Tribunal, the self-proclaimed good guys, because he makes a very compelling case for his cause.
The main quest also has several built-in “breaks” where you’ll be told to go do other stuff until you’ve leveled up some more. This is diametrically opposed to the design of the later Elder Scrolls games' main quests, which constantly encourage you to rush through them by acting like everything is a dire emergency, even though there is never a penalty for waiting. Morrowind wants you to smell the roses, learn about the world, and do things for yourself without hand-holding. There are tons of factions you can join, as well as stand-alone quests. Many of these help flesh out other aspects of the world: the relationship between the Empire and the native Dunmer, the feuds between the three Great Houses, different feuds and alliances between Great Houses and other factions such as guilds, and so on. That leads me to my next point:
The world in Morrowind has a believably complex political and religious situation. There are three or four religions, five or six political factions, and several non-political groups. All of them have their own views on each other and the world in general, creating a complex web of relationships in which almost every group is allied with at least two groups that oppose each other. This means that there are no clearly-defined “sides” across factions. You can be a Dumner mage who worships the Tribunal and is loyal to the empire, or a Dunmer mage who worships the Tribunal but thinks the Empire are scum who must be driven out, or a Dunmer mage who hates the Empire and worships the Daedra. (And whatever set of allegiances you choose, you can join factions the reflect your beliefs, unlike the later games which don't encourage you to create such a complex nexus of beliefs, and if you create one on your own, it will mostly be mere background information.) But despite all that, the main quest involves uniting all of the primary factions in a singular cause—which, as you may imagine, is no simple feat.
A related great aspect of Morrowind is that there is a good deal of variety in its quests. While most of them are ultimately fetch-quests, many of them have a unique twist that keeps them from feeling repetitive as such quests are wont to do. One quest has you visit shrines as part of a pilgrimage; another has you act as a go-between for unlikely lovers; yet another has you wander through a maze to get to an ancient tomb. This level of variety sets Morrowind apart from most other open-world games, in which too many of the quests involve retrieving items from mook-filled dungeons. (Skyrim is particularly guilty on that account.)
A consequence of having all these factions and creative quests is that you can easily spend more time talking to people and hanging out in civilized areas, and less time engaged in violence, than you do in the later games. Of course, if you want to spend most of your time hacking and slashing, you can, but Morrowind has lots to offer apart from that. While not everyone will feel this way, I find it very refreshing to have lots of nonviolent things to do in between my rampages of bloodlust. This also, in my opinion, does much to mitigate criticisms of the combat. It doesn't matter that much if it's clunky if you don't spend most of your time doing it.
As far as gameplay goes, Morrowind is one of the most poorly balanced games you will ever find—and that makes it awesome. At high levels, and with careful application of enchantment and alchemy, you can kill every enemy in a single blow, leap across the entire island in a single bound, and create massive town-annihilating fireballs. But the key is that you have to be at a high level and know what you’re doing—the game doesn’t just hand you the keys to infinite power and say “have fun!” It makes you earn that power by making you start as a pathetic weakling and gradually working your way up from there. Thus, when you’re powerful enough to unbalance the game, it feels like a reward you’ve earned, instead of bad design.
Before I conclude, some responses to the common criticisms I mentioned at the beginning. The boring NPCs are a necessary consequence of making a game this huge—there’s not time to flesh out every character. What counts is that there are notable characters, such as Vivec (about whom essays can be and have been written), Divayth Fyr, Dagoth Ur, and Yagrum Bagarn. As for the lack of voice acting—the fact that almost all dialogue is delivered via the written word means that there are no limitations on how much dialogue can be recorded, and that the developers could revise it as they went. This is a big part of the reason the game's lore and factions have so much depth, and why you can spend so much time outside of combat. The depth, time spent in conversation, and text together make the game feel almost like a huge interactive novel, which is quite exciting if you're into that kind of thing. The looser constraints on dialogue writing also mean that, when it comes to quest-relevant NPCs, they have have much more interesting and better-crafted dialogue than NPCs in the later games. Furthermore, because the dialogue is text-based, the modding potential is unlimited. New characters can be added, or existing ones can be given larger roles, by anyone who can write decently; there’s no need to hire a voice actor.
In conclusion, Morrowind creates a fantastical but seemingly credible world like no other game, and like few other works of fiction. It’s not for everyone, but if you think it might be for you, I highly recommend checking it out. There’s nothing else quite like it out there.