[i]I wrote this in 2010 and still abide by it.[/i]
MORROWIND (ELDER SCROLLS III) - 2002 - RPG Bethesda, Rockville (MD). Lead : Todd Howard
And now, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the greatest game of all times : The Elder Scrolls III, Morrowind. There are two schools in the RPG world, Bethesda and Bioware. We'll discuss Bioware later. Bethesda's focus is size and freedom : you create your character and go anywhere, do anything. Of course there is a main storyline (the Main Quest), but there are so many other things to do, other factions to join, other locales to explore, that the game is bounderless and open-ended. In such an ambitious setting, it is execution that makes the difference, and the devil (or rather in that case the angel) is in the details.
Technically, Morrowind was a landmark because it was the first game to make use of awesome 3-D graphics permitted by the revolution in video cards ushered by Nvidia and ATI. End of God-like isometric views : you now see the world through the eyes of your character, but you can step out whenever you like. The downside of being a tech leader is that you require big upgrades in hardware, and using the typical kid's rig of the day resulted in stuttering framerates, ugly pictures and bugs. This cost Morrowind a lot of bad press with low budget players, all the more because the game's content is too sophisticated, and requires too much independent thinking, for most of them. However the game's graphics are still simple compared to the slick photo-realism of today.
One of the great achievements of Bethesda is that they used these limitations to their advantage by creating some of the weirdest, boldest and grandest and original looks ever made for faces, monsters and buildings. Morrowind is a very complex game and the learning curve is long, but not steep. This is because there is no pressure : you evolve and learn at your own pace. The richness of the game's fabric, the great number of alternative ways and means is also what makes replay so enjoyable. The gameplay benefits from a coherent lore, the civilisation of the Tamriel empire.
Contrary to other games limiting their background to Lord of the Ring or King Arthur genres, this is much more original. You can see influences from Mesopotamian archeology and ancient religions to Machiavelli and Darwin. The lore is detailed in numerous short books : reading them is part of the immersion process. Politics, Sex, Religion, Business are as important as Combat, and treated in a highly sophisticated style, sometimes cynical, sometimes emotional. Life is rich and rewarding in Morrowind.
The icing on the cake is Jeremy Soule's superb soundtrack.