History in the Making—An Elder Scrolls Retrospective
Part 1

By Steerpike
May 2002

The Start of a Beautiful Friendship

It's always strange to watch history in the making. Most ironic is that we rarely recognize it for what it is—"history in the making" is usually just some new tidbit until it actually becomes ... well, history. Then it may grow and change over time, improving, remaining in our collective consciousness. Whatever it is, it's something that we know will not be forgotten for a long time to come.

Naturally enough "history in the making" is not necessarily an appropriate term to apply to computer games; we were, after all, just told that computer games cannot communicate ideas and are therefore not protected by free speech (thanks for clearing that up for us, judiciary!), so to call a game series "history" may be offensive to some Hayes Code-worshiping censorniks still lurking out there. "Gaming history" will encapsulate things more nicely and keep us safe from the pundits.

When Ultima hit stores, probably few aside from Richard Garriot himself envisioned the future of the series. Same goes for Wing Commander, Wizardry, and any number of other successful first launches that have spawned franchises in their own right. I was working in software retail when The Elder Scrolls: Arena came out in 1993; I remember that buzz about the game was very positive (it was one of the earliest first-person RPGs and had arrived amidst the Doom craze, when everything was going to first person), but I have no recollection of thinking that it, too, would be the start of something or that The Elder Scrolls would become such a favorite among gamers.

Nine years later, we know the series to be one of the most progressive and forward-thinking franchises in the history of gaming—a quality that has blackened the eye and the pride of Bethesda Softworks more than once, for the studio/publisher behind The Elder Scrolls has committed just as many egregious errors as it has achieved victories. Bethesda has developed a reputation for releasing games too late, too riddled with bugs, and too insufficiently playtested to be worth the accolades they might otherwise deserve. It's possible to describe The Elder Scrolls as a study in the disgrace and humiliation of a company that absolutely refuses to let go of its vision for the future of CRPGs—but it's equally possible to describe the series as the first step on the thousand-mile journey that will finally bridge the gap between computer and tabletop roleplaying, and certainly as a work so immense, so complex, and so stimulating that we may be able to brandish it before the pundits who still refuse to accept our pastime for what it is—an entertainment art form in its thrilling infancy. Like them or not, The Elder Scrolls are part of something the medium needs, something that may one day lift our perceptions of interactive media and our imaginations alike to heights we've not yet imagined.

With the big release of Morrowind, it's time to do a retrospective on the series to remind gamers where it has been and to speculate on where it might be going. For many, many gamers, especially our friends in XBox Country, Morrowind will be the first Elder Scrolls game they play. Some may not realize that though Morrowind is officially referred to as "The Elder Scrolls III," it is in fact the fifth title to bear that Elder Scrolls prefix.

The Youngest Scroll

According to the documentation, The Elder Scrolls: Arena got the subtitle it did because the vast, sprawling empire of Tamriel in which the game takes place is, by all accounts, a pretty rotten place to live. Stuff is expensive, monsters prowl the landscape, the provinces constantly wage war against one another, and aside from a few relatively civilized areas, the entire nation bitterly resents occupation by the Imperial Province of Cyrodiil, a land of humans who decided, several hundred years before, that they should just take everything for themselves. Each of the provinces is home to a race of your usual fantasy peoples—Dark, High, and Tree Elves inhabit the provinces of Morrowind, Sumerset Isle, and Valenwood respectively; exotic races, such as the tigerlike Khajiit and lizard-man Argonian tribes, live in more distant Elsweyr and Black Marsh. Those directly related to human beings are relegated to the northern provinces of Skyrim, High Rock, Hammerfell, and of course Cyrodiil itself.

Something is rotten in the state of Tamriel, however. When Arena opens we discover that Jagar Tharn, the Imperial Battle Mage and advisor to Emperor Uriel Septim VII, has trapped his former boss in a (presumably unpleasant) alternate dimension. In an unusually well thought-out power grab for a fantasy CRPG villain, Tharn has also assumed the Emperor's shape and form. No one except you and a handful of others realize that anything is wrong. Your character is stuffed in a dank prison cell for the somewhat dubious crime of "knowing too much," and it's your lonely and largely thankless task not only to expose Tharn for the imposter he is, but to drag Emperor Uriel back from wherever he's been banished.

Sadly, Arena came out before the fantasy RPG renaissance, when developers realized that locating and assembling the disparate parts of some magical object shouldn't necessarily represent the end all and be all of the player's goals in such a game. So you have to—wait for it—locate and assemble the Eight Pieces of the Generic Magical Item (in this case, the Staff of Chaos) in order to defeat Jagar Tharn and save the Emperor. Not a particularly creative objective, but a very creative story.

Perhaps sensing this flaw in the execution of their game, the designers did their best to sideline it. A major two-part undertaking is required to locate each of the eight pieces of the staff (there's one piece in each occupied province), and each instance of this is so difficult that characters really have little choice but to spend lots of time enhancing their own skills by doing odd jobs and adventuring on their own initiative. Magical artifacts also pepper the game, and if you're lucky someone might make mention of one rumored to be nearby. Generally speaking, however, the side quests in Arena were little more than the "Medieval FedEx Man" tasks that reviewers like me joke about. However, at the time, it was fresh enough that taking objects from one person to another over and over again wasn't so bad.

Arena is often compared to Ultima Underworld, a game only one year senior, and the comparison is generally a fair one. Both were first-person, action-oriented, fantasy role-playing games. Both involved puzzle-solving and communication with others but focused on exploration of vast areas and use of magic and equipment to excel. But Arena boasted more than 400 unique visitable locations, nearly 12 million square kilometers of in-game landscape to explore, 150,000 words of in-game story, and probably 100 hours worth of play assuming you did nothing but follow the main quest. And remember that this was all done in 1993, when that level of scope was frankly unheard of. It was, at the time, as close as anyone had come to recreating the pencil-and-paper RPG experience on a computer.

There was a certain sense of "sprawl" associated with Arena; it was easy to get lost in a place as big as Tamriel. Quick travel was available for crossing long distances, though theoretically a player could walk from one end of the empire to the other—it would just take a long, long time. It's interesting to note that though the developers of Arena worked hard to create a realistic world map with pleasant rolling landscapes, players rarely used it. The truth is that the majority of the game was spent in town, in dungeons, or looking for the same—though this did nothing to detract from the fun and frolic that was Arena.

Technologically speaking, it was excellent for its time, with a realistic weather system (I used to really dig the snowstorms), day and night cycle, fairly strong sprite-based graphics, and plenty of attractive interiors and exteriors to gawk at. MIDI-based sound that would make gamers chuckle nowadays sounded just fine in 1993, especially considering it was being pumped through a Soundblaster 16. Gameplay in general was just the sort of time-suck people like from quality RPGs; I spent hours playing Arena, sometimes simply to explore and have adventures, other times intent on progressing the story arc. Bethesda did one better than most design studios by allowing great flexibility to the player, including no fewer than eighteen potential character classes to choose from—players could also choose to hail from any of the eight occupied provinces of Tamriel, and each race enjoyed unique benefits and drawbacks. This was just a hint of things to come; the degree of flexibility found in Arena was nothing compared to its successors.

I know Elder Scrolls fans who to this day swear that Arena is their favorite Elder Scrolls installment—though I think that with Morrowind finally out, we'll see that opinion changing. And it really did have just about everything you could want from a CRPG: action, tons of adventure, reasonably good story, side quests galore. Nothing was missing, because things that we'd note as being absent today weren't considerations in 1993's technology. Remember that most people played Arena on 486 computers with 8 megabytes of RAM, and you'll understand why persistent game effects and NPCs that remembered who you were weren't exactly necessities in the games of the time.

Ironically, the Elder Scrolls as we know them today almost never were. Despite the story above, the truth is that Arena is called "Arena" because the game was not conceived as an RPG but as a first-person gladiatorial fighting game featuring a wide selection of fantasy races and classes coming together to do battle in a huge (you guessed it) arena. Apparently someone at Bethesda thought that a CRPG concept had more promise, and the universe of Tamriel was born.

Arena was big during that glorious gaming summer of 1994, when X-Com, Doom 2, Ultima Underworld 2, Myst, and Wing Commander 3 all vied for attention. That summer was perhaps the best season for game releases in the short history of the industry. Arena sold well and received very high critical acclaim thanks to its potent degree of nonlinearity, action-packed style, and quality of replayability. Arena was, and still is, a crucial achievement in the world of nonlinear CRPGs. By all accounts it was among the first of the true nonlinear fantasy roleplaying games. And for that alone it would be a classic, but the truth is Arena was much, much more—not only for itself, but for the foundation it provided.

Bugs by the Bucketload

And now for the story of how the sequel to Arena cost me nearly five hundred dollars.

I was a senior in college and very ill the day The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall finally came out in 1996. I remember it well. A remarkably unfriendly flu had kept me horizontal for nearly ten days, and I'd spent it weakly mousing my way through what passed for the Internet at the time, looking for information on Daggerfall. We didn't have sites that tracked the ship status of games back then, so much of my intelligence gathering depended on calling EB and croaking the same questions over and over again: Is it in? No? When do you expect it? Can you hold a copy for me? A miraculous feeling of health and well-being overcame me when the kindly EB man told me that Daggerfall had finally arrived. Even that foul swine flu couldn't compete with my pent-up excitement.

In the intervening years since Arena I'd unwisely upgraded my computer to a Cyrix 6x86 processor. Not knowing at the time what a floating-point unit was, I thought it was the bee's knees (it booted Windows 3.1 in nine seconds)—that is, until I first installed Daggerfall.

The instructions had me in such a state that I could barely make it through character generation. I was so excited to play a game that promised to completely blur the line between fantasy and reality, between computers and tabletop, that I simply didn't want to deal with the mechanics of getting started. I wanted to be halfway through. So I raced through chargen, tore through the opening dungeon, and immediately began exploring Gothway Garden—the nearest of more than 5,000 unique visitable locations in Daggerfall—only to experience ...

DOS Causeway Error #9. Dagger.exe Has Shut Down

Woe. Torment. Agony. For days I started over again and again. I reinstalled. I formatted. I CHKDSKed. Then the [not particularly] friendly tech support gnomes at Bethesda sent me a sad email. It said, essentially, that Daggerfall was not compatible with my processor. Period. The game would never stop crashing. And while a patch was in the works, I shouldn't get my hopes up.

Though Bethesda and Cyrix eventually solved the problem, I'd long since gone storming off to Geraldo's Casa de PCs and gotten myself a genuine Intel processor. So by the time that the patch fixing that particular error came along, I ... I was dealing with all the other errors in Daggerfall.

It is impossible to start a discourse on The Elder Scrolls II without focusing first and foremost on the fact that the game was released unacceptably early and so riddled with bugs as to be nigh unplayable. I and other players encountered dozens of crash bugs, kindergarten-level spelling and grammatical errors peppering the million-word text narrative, ghastly tearing and collision, clipping problems, missing quest objectives, bizarre reputation and crime errors, items and capabilities clearly described in the documentation but missing from the game, map corruption, save-game corruption, objects stuck in the walls, and so forth, literally ad nauseam. I can't track down an official number of patches finally released by Bethesda to make up for the humiliation that was Daggerfall—it appears to be between eight and a dozen—but the truth is, even the final version of Daggerfall was horrendously buggy.

Far be it from me to forgive the company for this massive faux pas; the crime cannot be excused, but it is only marginally offset by the fact that Daggerfall was so unspeakably ambitious. The amount of play available in Daggerfall cannot be measured in hours. Sure, if you started at the beginning and went straight through the game, focusing only on "story" objectives and ignoring every single divergent path, you could expect to finish in about 200 hours. But you'd be ignoring ninety percent of the experience of Daggerfall, because the point of the game was that you didn't have to follow the story at all. Here for the first time was a game in which you could buy a house, settle down, meet people, and, if you chose, keep your days full from dawn until dusk fulfilling tasks without ever once repeating a job or embarking on something that actually progressed the story. Daggerfall was immense to the point of incomprehensibility.

One of the good things about Daggerfall was in fact a feature I'd rushed to get through the first time around—the character generation process. New players could choose from a list of predefined classes; create their own by assembling, puzzle-like, the different skill sets, advantages, and disadvantages, or instead answer a dozen questions with varying moral choices and have the system suggest a class based on the answers they gave. Additionally, Daggerfall was the first CRPG to eliminate "experience points" as a tool for advancement. No longer did a thief become a better thief by killing a dragon but not by picking a lock; no, leveling up in Daggerfall depended on your ability to improve key skills related to your class. If you were a thief and you wanted to go up a level, you needed to improve your thiefly skills. All the dragons in the world wouldn't help you. While this made tremendous sense and has been adopted by many other systems since, there was and still is a small drawback: classes whose key skills were routine requirements (running, say; or jumping or talking to people) were more likely to advance than classes whose key skills were called upon less frequently. Still, it's much better than a silly and arbitrary numbering system that provides rewards based on actions taken rather than skills gained.

If you did choose to follow the story, you'd find a spectacularly conceived and wickedly intricate murder-and-revenge plot dealing largely with the presence of a very angry ghost—the ghost of the recently killed King Lysandus of Daggerfall—who is inexplicably haunting his former hometown with a spectral army. Unlike Arena, which took place in the entire vastness of Tamriel, Daggerfall (and indeed all future Elder Scrolls games) focused on what was in fact a very small area of the huge empire. Daggerfall is a city-state in the province of High Rock, at war with a few neighboring city-states in the same province. The entire game takes place in an area around a bay on the western seaboard of Tamriel. Your character is an imperial agent sent to discover the reason for the spirit's bad-kitty behavior, and, in an oh-if-it's-not-too-much-trouble sort of way, to track down a missing letter sent by the Emperor to Lysandus's wife. The letter was "of a sentimental and personal nature," and the Emperor doesn't want it falling into the wrong hands, because stuff like that would command a fortune on eBay. Now, if you're thinking the Emperor Uriel is just getting it on with Mrs. Lysandus ... well, if you think that, then you have no idea how devious the writers at Bethesda really are. The reality of Daggerfall's plot is infinitely more complex.

A new paradigm for RPG design is what allowed the game to be so colossal in scope: terrain, dungeons, and many interiors were generated randomly and didn't exist at all until you actually approached them. This made it possible for Daggerfall to ship on only a single CD, but it led to serious problems, especially in the honeycomb of underground ruins beneath the surface of the landscape. The word "large" does not adequately describe the extent of hugeness that every single one of the literally thousands of dungeons offered. It was so easy to get lost in this underworld that a spell had to be specifically created to get you out once you were in. Weeks of game time could be spent down there, first looking for whatever objective you were supposed to deal with in the dungeon, and then wandering until you find your way back out. The worthless automap did little to help matters.

If you find your life dissatisfyingly lacking in frustration, try this on for size: grope your way through the haunted darkness of a nineteen-floor dungeon just to kill a goblin that's been eating someone's cattle. Arrive in the goblin's room and find it half clipped into the wall so you can't touch it. Return to the guild that hired you for the job and accept a demotion and decrease in reputation because you "failed" a quest. Because quest objectives were placed randomly inside the randomly generated maps, the object or target you were looking for might just as easily have been ten feet from the entrance as in the deepest, darkest corner of the underground vastness. More often than not, it was impossible to find your objective at all. If you did, there was a good chance it was stuck in the wall and inaccessible. If it wasn't, there was a good chance you'd get stuck in the wall.

Unlike Arena, the world of Daggerfall was a persistent one. People remembered you if you'd done something to warrant remembering; if you committed any crimes, the city guard would certainly remember you and passers-by would be less likely to help with directions. This had to be patched, of course; in the original release of Daggerfall, your reputation went up every time you committed murder. I came out of prison one time and found the city idolizing me as a god. Just another bug in a box full of bugs. Another personal favorite was that though the designers had incorporated the ability to catch vampirism and lycanthropy—on the plausible ground that if you hang out with vampires and werewolves, you might become one yourself—getting bitten by a were-creature always turned you into a wereboar, no matter what, and getting vampirism was simply impossible. When I emailed Bethesda about this, curious as to why a werewolf had turned me into a wereboar, I got the electronic equivalent of a shrug in return. The bug was so insignificant compared to all the others that it wasn't even on their radar.

Daggerfall was the first game Bethesda produced that used their proprietary new game engine, the XNGine. XNGine was a sprite-based tool, supporting 3D only in software and depending heavily on software fogging to look good. For the time, XNGine looked great, and Bethesda continued using it long after it had ceased to be competitive with other game engines. It was designed to be highly scalable, though that turned out to be slightly less than true in future iterations of the engine.

One of the issues that shortened Daggerfall's life was that it shipped in the absolute earliest days of the 3D revolution. Sadly, the game never supported hardware 3D—not even in a patch—which took years off its shelf life. Though the blocky, sprite-based graphics looked outstanding at the moment Daggerfall hit shelves, the world was about to be treated to GL Quake and accelerated Tomb Raider. Once gamers saw what the future held, they had little patience for single-surface sprites, inadequate fogging effects, and water that looked like the televised snow that appears when you unhook your cable. Also, though the workhorse DirectX 3 was being widely used, Bethesda chose to ignore it, deciding DOS support was more important. Thus Daggerfall also represented one of the last games that required users to manually configure their hardware to play. Gamers are spoiled now, and we want our titles to work straight out of the box. Lack of DirectX support and refusal to patch the XNGine to support Direct3D may have doomed Daggerfall's replayability potential.

This is important, because as I prepared to write this article, I gave a lot of serious thought about what really killed Daggerfall for me. Obviously I hated the bugs, I hated the insanely huge dungeons with their absurd jumping and lever-pulling puzzles, their clipping problems, their missing quest objectives. I hated that so many things were promised in the documentation that never turned up in the game. But the truth is, I could live with all that because despite the bugs, the game came really close to blurring the line I wanted it to blur—the line between true nonlinearity and the "faked" nonlinearity of a game like Myst. Too many people think that the ability to accomplish objectives in any order somehow equates with nonlinear play. That's not true: actual nonlinearity means the ability to do anything, period. Daggerfall nearly offered that, though the bugs ruined the execution. And because better-looking RPGs came out, and they didn't have the problems that Daggerfall did, I looked elsewhere for the promise of nonlinearity. If Bethesda had ever added Direct3D support, I might be playing the game today, bugs or no.

Bethesda created Daggerfall to prove that a computer game could mimic the tabletop roleplaying experience. They failed miserably, due in part to the inadequate technology of the time and in part to their own unwillingness to sufficiently playtest their own creation. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and the best anyone could say about Daggerfall was that it came close to achieving Bethesda's goals.

Though it was supposed to turn the CRPG world on its ear, in truth Daggerfall wound up being a massive stopgap between Arena, which everyone loved, and Morrowind, which everyone is currently loving. Many of the things they did in Daggerfall were brilliant. Guild affiliation, enchant-your-own-stuff services, reputation, persistent worlds, political intrigue and the value of story, not to mention, of course, the freedom of a nearly true nonlinear gaming experience; all these things were present in Daggerfall. But in the end the mixture wasn't right. Daggerfall drowned in itself. Gorged on ambition, it choked and withered away, buried under the weight of its own too-muchness.

—Continued in Part 2—

The Lowdown

All Games

Developer: Bethesda
Publisher: Bethesda

Arena

Release Date: 1993

Available for: DOS 

Daggerfall

Release Date: 1996

Available for: DOS 

Battlespire

Release Date: 1997

Available for: DOS Windows

Redguard

Release Date: 1998

Available for: Windows

Screenshots

Arena

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Daggerfall

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Battlespire

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Redguard

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System Requirements

Arena

386/25 IBM or 100% compatible
4 MB RAM

Daggerfall

486/66 MHz IBM PC or compatible
8 MB RAM
2x CD-ROM drive
50 MB hard disk space
Local bus (or equivalent) video card
Mouse

Battlespire

IBM and 100% compatibles
DOS 5.0 or higher
P133 MHz or better
SVGA with VESA 2.0
4x CD-ROM drive, MPC Level 2 or better
16 MB RAM
150 MB hard drive space
Soundblaster or compatible

Redguard

Pentium 166 MHz
32 MB RAM
350 MB free hard drive space
Windows 95
16-bit sound card
Supported: 3Dfx video card, 4-button gamepad

Arena
Where to Find It

Daggerfall
Where to Find It

Battlespire
Where to Find It

Redguard
Where to Find It



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