Morrowind takes place on Vvardenfell, an island in the Dunmer province of Morrowind, far from the typically "European" lands to the west and south depicted in Daggerfall and Arena. Along with graphical improvements, one of the most obvious differences between Morrowind and the earlier games in the series is that Morrowind takes place in a much smaller area than the previous games. While Arena featured the entirety of Tamriel as an explorable area, and Daggerfall featured sizeable portions of two provinces of Tamriel, Hammerfell and High Rock, Morrowind includes only the "relatively small" island of Vvardenfell within the province of Morrowind. The change was a result of a conscious choice on the part of the developers to feature more detail and variety in the game. Whereas Daggerfall and Arena's dungeons were randomly generated, each area in Morrowind was specifically detailed, and each item specifically placed. As a result, reviewers were generally impressed with the game-world's variety, as this maintained the perception of an "enormous" game-world. The game area expands to Mournhold on Morrowind's mainland in the Tribunal expansion, and to the island of Solstheim to the northwest of Vvardenfell in the Bloodmoon expansion.
Morrowind's developers, rather than developing the common Medieval European setting of fantasy games, chose a more eclectic route, taking elements from Egyptian, early Japanese, and Middle Eastern cultures, with Middle Eastern architecture cited in particular for its major influence on Balmora's Hlaalu architecture. Executive Producer Todd Howard felt that the use of Morrowind as a backdrop was integral in the development of the game's style. While admitting some elements of the partially medieval Imperial culture more typical of fantasy to retain familiarity with the earlier installments of the series, Morrowind's dark elven setting "opened huge new avenues for creating cultures and sites that are not traditionally seen in a fantasy setting". The development team also gave particular credit to the Ridley Scott film Gladiator, high fantasy, The Dark Crystal, and Conan the Barbarian as influences.
The game has over 300 books (not counting scrolls). One particular compilation of the text was 1,241 sheets of 8.26'' by 11.00'' paper. PC Gamer weighted the in-game text as equal to 6 standard-size novels. Many of these books provide long, serial stories, and provide hints as to the background and history of the game. One critic in particular, Phillip Scuderi, remembered Morrowind for its great literary richness. To him, the in-game literature and its integration within the game was Morrowind's "most original and lasting contribution to the history of games", one that would place it beside Planescape: Torment as one of the most important games of all time. Such themes are echoed in other responses to the game, such as that of RPGamer's Joseph Witham, who found a story "discreet" in its progression, with a dungeon-crawling feel, standing alongside a "whole world of unique history" with books forming the greater part of the player's interaction with that world. Most of the books were reused in Oblivion.
The game has a great deal of geographic variety in climate, flora, and, to some extent, fauna as well. Beside that there is also some variety in politics and culture among the in-game population, combination of which adds to the uniqueness of different parts of the island. On top of that there is an archaeological aspect to the game, which gives a certain degree of depth to the story as well as the option for further exploration. Additionally, there are various kinds of limits in visibility such as fog and dust, which are countered with "clear day/night" effects that also enhance visibility to some extent.
The in-game exploration is chiefly based on walking and running; however, there are instances when swimming and sometimes flotation is involved. Transportation of other kinds, such as teleportation, traveling by boat or on the back of giant flea-like creatures named "Silt Striders", is available for a fee when moving between the various settlements on Vvardenfell.