History in the Making—An Elder Scrolls Retrospective
Part 2

By Steerpike
May 2002

Like Eating Liver, Only More Repulsive

So all that excitement ended in 1996, and yet it was 2002 before Daggerfall's sequel shipped. What, you ask, happened in the interim?

Answer: the same thing that happens to successful TV shows. If something works, you spin it off.

Bethesda was riding high with its Terminator line of games. Daggerfall walked off with countless awards in 1996 despite the industry's complaints about it. Most consumers considered it a failure, and it suffered from a tremendous return rate. Unlike most other studios, Bethesda Softworks seems immune to the economic tribulations of the industry; they're part of the Zenimax Media Group and as such have access to dollars from other walks of the electronic world. So as studio after studio went on the DOA list, Bethesda just plodded on.

The Elder Scrolls III: Oblivion (soon to be retitled Morrowind) was in development all those long years, but the company took its time in the high concept stage. Before the release of Morrowind in late April of 2002, it pumped out two other titles set in the world of Tamriel—games that, while not officially part of the Elder Scrolls cycle, were certainly part of the mythos. These were the Elder Scrolls Legends, Worlds of Ultima-style subchapters intended to expand and expound upon the rich world created by the designers and writers at Bethesda. They quite wisely realized that it would be a waste to only produce a handful of games, when clearly so much work had gone into the world. In fact, I'm rather surprised we never saw a tabletop roleplaying version of Tamriel.

The Legends were intended to be tighter games, more encapsulated, with clearer goals addressing some small but intriguing aspect of life in Tamriel, rather than being the awesome, world-shaking adventures that the true Elder Scrolls represented. In their usual clever way, Bethesda's creative team took that concept to bounds most gamers had never imagined: The first Elder Scrolls legend, Battlespire, took place not in a single province or even a single town. Battlespire takes place in a building.

A very large one, it's true; the Battlespire, the mystical structural subdimension where Imperial Battlemages must go to prove themselves in a final cruciblic test before earning their pointy hat, is no 1,000-square-foot apartment. But it is a single building. I found that concept very appealing, especially after the oceanic expanse of Daggerfall. The character you play is a sort of graduate student in Battlemage University, with one final exam remaining: get to the top of the Battlespire alive. The only problem is that once you get there, you find everyone dead and the place completely overrun by Daedroth Lords, the slavering demons of Tamriel.

The cleverness in this story concept should be obvious, of course: here you are, supposed to claw your way to the top of this magical standardized test all alone. You arrive with your number 2 pencil, but something seems to have gone horribly wrong ... or has it? Could this not be, after all, just part of the ordeal that all Battlemages must endure but about which none are allowed to speak? If you get to the top, will you find the mighty Mehrunes Dagon, the most infernal of all the Daedra, waiting for you, or will you find a wine-and-crackers party set up on the roof, with all your friends there, to celebrate your final victory?

Since I'm possibly the only person stupid enough to have played through the entirety of Battlespire, don't ask me to give it away. Suffice to say that though the story was as clever as they come, the game was crap. And it was crap for so many reasons that I may have a hard time covering them all here, because this is already a big piece and no one likes to read page after page of nastiness.

Once again Bethesda chose to support DOS instead of leveraging industry-standard APIs. This is in 1997, long after both DirectX and Windows 95 are mainstays on everyone's computers, yet Bethesda, the Game Studio That Time Forgot, didn't seem to care—meaning once again, gamers had to manually configure sound and video to run the software. And despite absolute assurance that it would be their first 3D-accelerated title, Battlespire was a brick-pixeled fantasy of software-driven sprites. No compelling reason for this reversal was provided, and the obvious shortcomings of a first-person game running exclusively in software mode were made more offensive by the fact that Quake 2 had shipped only days before Battlespire. By this time most people had 3D accelerators—the Voodoo 1 was the reigning king—and everyone had Windows 95. But Bethesda just didn't care.

All the creative energy the team had was spent concocting the clever storyline of Battlespire. Once you actually get into the game, you find absurd dialogue and ridiculous, out-of-place, Jar Jar-quality humor peppering the narrative. Your own character, who could be constructed using tools similar to those in Daggerfall, was as poorly written as the NPCs. Battlespire was a much more linear game than its predecessors, and if Warren Spector will forgive me, it, in fact, had more in common with the linear nature of Ultima Underworld than Arena did. But where Ultima Underworld was a watershed game, and spectacularly fun to boot, Battlespire was just a waste of time.

It had its moments, especially on the creative and scripting side. It was wrenching to come across the desiccated skeletons of a human and dragon, curled up together in a massive chamber. A diary at the feet of the human told the sad story of these two unlikely friends, trapped by the Daedra, starving, the bond of their affection preventing one from consuming the other simply to buy a few more hours' life. Elsewhere, an abandoned town contained on one of the tower's huge floors gave up few clues to explain its Roanoke-ishness, the lonely tendrils of creeping ground fog obscuring vision in the mournful landscape, meals half-eaten on tables and books sitting by chairs testament to the fact that the place had been recently inhabited. But these moments were few and far between. And even the best of them couldn't save the game.

Combat was impossible; even on the first floors of the Battlespire, the player would encounter mighty Daedroth Lords that could not be harmed by anything but the most magical of weapons. Locating anything on the useless automap was a lesson in futility. Access to upper levels required passwords, and in some cases they were not provided anywhere in the game and were in fact simply nonsense words—a plot to sell strategy guides, perhaps? Medical equipment of any kind—healing scrolls, potions, whatever—were far more precious than gold. Weapons fell into disrepair and broke so quickly that System Shock 2 was put to shame.

They also saddled it with multiplayer, blowing God knows how much of their development budget on a feature they should have known no one would use, since it's unlikely that two people would be willing to play Battlespire long enough to get a multiplayer game set up. Perhaps if less time and money had been focused on this useless feature, we might have seen a game that was more endurable. However, thanks to the ebbs and flows of the game industry and Bethesda's own ignorance of its strengths and weaknesses, the popularity at the time of first-person multiplayer all but demanded that the feature be present in every game that hit shelves.

And then there was the nudity. Bethesda has always loved nudity (and honestly, who doesn't?), having flirted with the ability to remove your character's dainty things as early as Arena. But up until Battlespire, some standard of decency had always reigned supreme. In this case, however, you were treated to a monitor-sized nude of your character, male or female, depicted with absolute shamelessness. To imply that the goal of this was anything but stroke justification for minor programming trolls deep in the Bethesda cellars is absurd and offensive. There's frankly nothing about Battlespire bad enough to earn it a "Mature" rating except for this, and it was totally without justification in the game mechanics. Female characters, especially and as usual, were objectified well beyond the pale in this little gem. In regard to movies, we're constantly hearing actresses say that they'll do nudity if it's appropriate to the story. Here in Battlespire we have just about the least appropriate nudity I've ever seen, and I'm a male with high-speed internet access, so I've seen a lot of inappropriate nudity.

Daggerfall was a well-intentioned failure, but at least a kindly soul could claim that Bethesda had lofty goals in mind when it created the game. So while Daggerfall failed, it failed aspiring to the very peak of greatness. Battlespire, on the other hand, had no goals at all. There was nothing in it that built or expanded upon an established genre. There was no technology that made it stand out from the crowd. It was simply there in its own special way. And most people I know who played it wished that it wasn't.

Setting aside the altogether grotesque topic of Battlespire, we can cheerfully move forward to 1998, when the next (and much more agreeable) Elder Scrolls Legend came onto the scene.

Glimmer of Hope

Bethesda took a big detour with the next Legend, both mechanically and in style. The Elder Scrolls: Redguard was billed as a "swashbuckling action roleplaying game," and that's what it stood out as: a third-person 3D game with lots of swordfighting and brilliant, lavish 3D graphics courtesy of an XNGine so colossally revamped that even its mother wouldn't recognize it.

Redguard was antithesis to the free-flowing nature of its predecessors; you were handed a premade character with no option to customize him. Cyrus was a disarmingly unrufflable swordfighter who had returned to his home province of Hammerfell to track down a sister he hadn't seen or spoken to in fifteen years. The reasons for this sibling breach were explained in a pretty comic book tucked away inside the Redguard box. As usual, thanks to the hard work of Bethesda writers, it's better than the typical "rid the world of your village's destroyer" or "rescue your missing girlfriend who looks suspiciously underage" plot that we're used to in fantasy RPGs—because though the sister certainly looks underage, there's much more to the story than her location.

The bargain-basement storyline is quickly catapulted into bottomless intrigue as the plot unfolds. It's no kidnaping mystery, Cyrus soon finds; it's the key to exposing a political conspiracy of epic proportions brewing in the tiny island community that serves as Redguard's setting. Our hero is drawn into a three-way battle between the insidious Forebears, supporters of Hammerfell's independence; the noble Crowns favoring a restoration of its ancient monarchy; and the world-conquering, inexorable Imperials slowly and brutally advancing from the south. At this point Elder Scrolls fans may pause to appreciate irony: Redguard takes place several hundred years before Arena, so we know the political ending here—which won't stop you from trying to change it.

Where Redguard truly won was in its ambience. Like all the Elder Scrolls games, the lengthy documentation sold it as immersive to an unimaginable level. In many ways, Redguard came much closer than its predecessors, though still not as close as Bethesda wanted it to be. It was intended as a much simpler game than Daggerfall, not even in the same league—barely an RPG, really—but its ability to evoke a believable and persistent world is worth comment. The tiny island of Stros M'kai, with its one-road fishing village, was a place you could feel part of. The environment unfolded before you like a vista—players had no problem believing that this place was real, no problem believing they were there. Redguard bit deeply into the suspension-of-disbelief requirements that all games have.

As mentioned above, Redguard, like Battlespire, was an XNGine game—albeit a heavily tweaked and optimized version of one. 3Dfx acceleration and a redesign to make the interface more Max Payne than Quake breathed a little life into the aging codebase, but it wasn't enough to conceal the fact that this game engine should have long since passed into the silicon sunset. What's worse, the stretch marks left behind by XNGine's surgery openly revealed the massive tinkering it underwent. What was meant to hurl Redguard fast-forward into High Technology was unfortunately its major shortcoming: like Tomb Raider, it suffered from hideous polygon tearing and collision problems, a critical deficiency in a melee-based combat system. The camera constantly collided with or got stuck behind opaque objects; proof positive that XNGine was never designed with third-person play in mind. Bethesda can hardly claim that these problems never occurred to them. They'd have been better off with the angle-changing camera of Ecstatica. It's yet another nit that could have easily been worked out in QA, but we've already established that playtesting is not something for which Bethesda is famous.

Striking graphics—and they were gorgeous (each and every texture in the game was hand drawn)—couldn't conceal the fact that 3Dfx implementation was disappointing. Though the visuals were wonderful, and the moody settings through which you ventured evoked an emotional immersion that was nothing short of astonishing, the game was slow and choppy even on the high-end machines of the day. Bethesda's decision to support Glide only rather than including general Direct3D support (again) was by this point a sign of simple laziness; Redguard was a pixelated mess in software and not worth the time of a non-Voodoo gamer. Once again Bethesda chose not to support DirectX at all—on a game that shipped in 1998. What they were thinking is anyone's guess.

The combat system was real-time, like the other Elder Scrolls games, but more swashbuckly in nature—Redguard's third-person swordfights ranged across huge areas and focused as much on the dramatic as they did on the ass-kickery. And while they looked and felt cool, for my money I'd still take the less-realistic but more-fun swordfighting of Heavy Metal FAKK2. I'm not sure whether it was the placement of the controls, the difficulty most players had remapping the keyboard, or something more inexplicable, but combat in Redguard seemed a lot more arbitrary than skill-based—perhaps because there were no stats in Redguard. Like Diablo, in fact, this title walked a very fine line between the admittedly nebulous border separating RPG and action/adventure.

The level of immersiveness in Redguard was impressive indeed, right down to the aptly composed and varied orchestrations, which were always appropriate to your setting and made amazingly smooth transitions as the action changed. Each and every NPC in the game was voice-acted—most very well. Since time in Redguard never really stopped, such features were critical. The scripting of events was done with a keen eye for narrative pacing, and often things happened even when you weren't there to see them. The island of Stros M'Kai had been designed as a living place, not some two-dimensional fantasy world revolving entirely around your character. Be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you'd miss something pivotal. Unlike better-designed nonlinears, however, if you missed that pivotal something you wouldn't be able to finish the game, so it behooved players to keep their eyes open.

Playing Redguard is a lot like watching a good movie when suddenly a video game breaks out. You'd find yourself maneuvering into the coolest possible venues for swordfights, wishing death and sulphurous rains on those bastard Imperials, pondering the game's fiendish logic puzzles when you should have been at work or school, and possibly shouting "I'm quick!" to your bewildered friends. But unlike the abhorrent Battlespire, Redguard was logical and well-rooted in the world of good sense and cleverness. It still was not the intellectual leap forward that Bethesda was hoping to make with its CRPGs, but it was a big step in the right direction. With all else said and done, Redguard was a lot of fun.

Scroll Bridge

Many folks may be interested in testing out some of these old games. Morrowind is so great that there's bound to be some interest in earlier Elder Scrolls titles based simply on the strength of the newest one. However, times have changed a lot since Arena shipped, and as I think we've probably already established, Bethesda Softworks is often too shortsighted to think about the future when it comes to development.

Not one of the previous Elder Scrolls titles, not even 1998's Redguard, supports DirectX. Redguard was the first Elder Scrolls title that required Windows at all—Arena shipped during the DOS period, Daggerfall, designed for DOS, should have been updated for Windows 95 but never was, and Battlespire was created under Windows but supported DOS as well. However, until fairly recently, that fact alone would not have spelled doom for a motivated gamer seeking to unroll an Elder Scroll.

Nowadays things are different. After a lot—and I mean a lot—of tinkering, I can say that any attempt to run Arena or Battlespire on a Windows XP machine will likely fail without the help of a DOS boot disk that completely bypasses the operating system. Redguard and Daggerfall may run, but you will encounter highly erratic behavior, missing functions, serious audio problems, and general instability. It appears that the lack of even the phantom of a 16-bit kernel in Windows XP and 2000 is just too much for Bethesda's older games.

Arena, even when running in compatibility mode, returned a DOS 4GW error when I tried to run it on Windows XP. Daggerfall would run (in compatibility mode) under XP but without sound and very, very slowly. An appalling screech nearly blew out my speakers while I tried to manually configure my sound card for Redguard; once audio was sorted out, the game worked with sound effects but not music. Battlespire didn't work at all. Gamers who haven't made the switch from Windows 98/ME, however, shouldn't have too much difficulty with any of the titles. There are several websites devoted to The Elder Scrolls out there, and many have further suggestions on getting these old games to run on your newer systems.

The best way to ensure good compatibility on Windows XP/2000 machines may be to set up a dual-boot with Windows 98 using a utility like System Commander. If that seems like too much trouble, another option may be a system-in-system software solution like VMWare to create a virtual machine that runs a legacy operating system without requiring an actual partition. Normally games wouldn't work well under VMWare because the overhead of the virtual machine itself is too great, but I'd bet that the age and minimal system requirements of the older Elder Scrolls titles would probably work to a player's advantage in this case. Even with the required overhead, there should be plenty of computing power in today's PCs to handle XP/2000, the VMWare instance, and your game.

Another challenge may be finding the games at retail. Redguard and Daggerfall should still be available in boxed versions if you're willing to do a hard target search; I found several copies of both Arena and Battlespire for sale at various online auction sites. Tracking any of these games down online shouldn't be too hard; you're not looking for a Konstantinov jersey, after all. Don't waste your time trying to find Arena at places that sell new stuff—Arena is "out of print," and your best bet is to get your paws on a used copy. If you do find a reliable source, be sure to post the intel at the Henhouse so that anyone else who's interested can take advantage.

The Phantom Menace

Though I noted earlier that Bethesda seems immune to the slings and arrows of our industry, that may change in the near future. Depending on how Morrowind sells, we may or may not see Bethesda around for long—the company has certainly endured enough critical and retail failures to warrant it being placed on a watch list.

Remember that we're scarcely a year out from the fall of Looking Glass Studios, which could be lauded for making games as clever, as forward-thinking, and as progressive as Bethesda's. The difference is that Looking Glass games were almost universally spectacular, while Bethesda has produced some titles so bad that I wouldn't line my catbox with them. Again, it's Bethesda's access to money outside the industry, its rapacious snapping up of surefire franchises like the Terminator and Wayne Gretzky Hockey series, and the relatively free hand it's been given to operate that have kept it alive so far.

Perhaps a more apt comparison for Bethesda than Looking Glass would be Interplay, another medium-sized company that, despite being owned by a larger conglomerate, is nonetheless practically independent in its behavior in the PC and console gaming space. Bethesda and Interplay both fall into a very narrow category (it's occupied by exactly two companies)—that is, studios that publish themselves. Considering that we as an industry are currently bearing sad witness to what appears to be the spectacular implosion of Interplay, one may wonder how much time Bethesda truly has.

There are no answers here; only speculation. The truth is pretty simple: Bethesda doesn't produce many games. If the outside money dries up, they're through, because they cannot support their infrastructure and burn rate based on their own sales. Considering their history of delays, bugs, and bad customer support, it seems unlikely that a big publisher like Activision or Microsoft would bail them out, despite Bethesda's newfound friendship with the XBox. Remember that no one came to the rescue of Looking Glass once Eidos bowed out of a deal to save the beleaguered studio, and Looking Glass, too, developed in the console space. Plus, Bethesda Softworks has nowhere near the gamer community support that Looking Glass did.

Keep your eye on sales figures for Morrowind. Bethesda, also responsible for the Sea Dogs and Art of Magic franchises, may be able to pull something out of its sleeve. We've come to think of the studio as eternal—it's been around since 1986—but as the economy of the PC gaming industry changes, Bethesda may find itself in an unusual position.

Cinnamon Scrolls

So let's assume for a minute that Bethesda stays afloat, due to good sales for Morrowind. I paid my fifty bucks, I've written a positive review of it for other gamers to read; hopefully that qualifies as my doing my part. Where do we go from here?

This grizzled veteran predicts that the Elder Scrolls Legends lineup is through. Like Worlds of Ultima, it was destined to run only two titles. Unlike the Worlds of Ultima, which were great games that sold poorly (thus leading to the cancellation of that spinoff), the Legends consisted of one relatively okay game and one unbelievably terrible game, both of which sold poorly. In a way it's a pity, because there is plenty that can be done with the amazingly detailed world of Tamriel. Anyone who's played Arena knows how much there is to explore; anyone who's played Daggerfall knows how much magic and mystery even a small corner of the empire holds. Part of me is eager to experience as much more as possible. On the other hand, I'd rather see fewer games and a universe not fully taken advantage of than be party to the same shameful prostitution of the Elder Scrolls that we're seeing with the X-Com franchise.

It takes Bethesda between three and six years to release an Elder Scrolls sequel. Barring the release of another Legend or some other spinoff, I think we can assume that it's going to be quite some time before Morrowind is followed up. I'll start the betting at 2006 before Elder Scrolls IV sees the light of day. By that time we'll all have neural shunts and be floating in sensory deprivation pools to further enhance our VR experience.

But despite the inconvenience, despite the ambivalent history, there will always be something special about the Elder Scrolls. They're history now, in the Hall of Fame. They made it there not just by being so open-minded, so ambitious; the Elder Scrolls are blessed with longevity and apparent immunity to critical shortcomings. Like the Wizardries, the Might and Magics, the Ultimas, the Bard's Tales, the Elder Scrolls have a grand and storied history. With luck and more than a little hard work, there is still more ahead than behind for the franchise. Here's one gamer who will crawl out of his VR tank, towel off the goo, and drive his hovercar down to the nearest software store for whatever magic the future of the Elder Scrolls chooses to offer us. The End

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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