The Altered Scrolls, Part 2: Dungeon Sprawling

By Rutskarn
on Aug 13, 2015
Filed under:
Elder Scrolls

The first thing a player does in The Elder Scrolls I: Arena is give up on the game’s story entirely (after approximately forty seconds of the intro). The second thing you do is create your character.

Not pictured: Witchblade, Bladewitch, Sexy Troubadour, Democratic Candidate, Franklin.

Not pictured: Witchblade, Bladewitch, Sexy Troubadour, Democratic Candidate, Franklin.

This means you pick a premade class that has its own favored skills, restrictions on equipment, and schools of magic allowed. These classes would confer scaling benefits as players kill monsters and gain experience. Anyone who’s played a normal RPG was not going to be very surprised by this—unless they’re from the future and have played the other Elder Scrolls games. For those of you who are but haven’t, let me put it this way: it’s like finding out Conan the Barbarian had an internship at a small family-owned dressmaker’s shop. There’s absolutely nothing wrong or shameful about it–it just seems like the sort of thing they’d deny violent at a cocktail party.

Every TES game after Arena rejects traditional classes, skill point allocations, and levels in favor of more organic systems that convince the player they’re not just a stat block wandering a world of stat blocks, but a reasonable simulation of a person in a world of reasonable simulations of people. Levels and classes are more abstract systems entirely contingent on player choices, not on premade builds and abstract scaling. So why didn’t Bethesda do it like that in Arena?

What race is this? Khajit. Yup, that`s what the famous cat-person race looked like. The lore has broken its back justifying this and I will not under any circumstances discuss it.

What race is this? Khajit. Yup, that`s what the famous cat-person race looked like. The lore has broken its back justifying this and I will not under any circumstances discuss it.

You might well argue they didn’t know any better—and you’d probably be right. The intro of the game makes it clear that whatever its goals, Arena’s texture and setting were not put together with a whole lot of foresight or deliberate vision. The game was very forgivably thrown together out of spare Dungeons and Dragons sprockets and all-purpose public domain fantasy pap. It’s not fair to judge them for that; however, it is fair and by no means an accusation to point out that the less organic immersion-focused approach to character design is reflective of a less organic immersion-focused approach to the rest of the game.

In Arena, you are a member of the Emperor’s court. You are guided by a woman’s voice in your head to seek out the seven pieces of a magical artifact. She gives you an idea of what country you can find the item in, you fast-travel to one of the towns in that country and ask around using an interface that promises more immersive conversations than it delivers.

Literally 75% of your cutscene time will be spent watching this screen with different text at the bottom.

Literally 75% of your cutscene time will be spent watching this screen with different text at the bottom.

Eventually someone gives you a hint on who in the country you should talk to next. This person will know where to find the piece you need, but will want you to go to a dungeon and run an errand for them first. After you do so, they’ll give you another dungeon, this with a piece at the bottom. You’ll then be one-sevenths closer to the endgame and receive a hint as to which province the next item’s in.

That’s pretty much the whole game.

There are many towns in the game. There are shops to sell the stuff you find and occasionally buy better stuff than you can find. There are guilds that sell things. There are houses that you can even break into and rob. There are many towns. But pretty much every town in the game looks the same, literally every store and guild of a type has an almost identical interior with absolutely identical shopkeepers, and the houses are all impoverished, procedurally generated, and not worth bothering with. And while it is obvious that the game didn’t have the resources or technology to really go beyond this level of complexity and simulation, it’s equally obvious that the game wasn’t really interested in doing that either.

This is the conversation menu. `Rumor` usually leads to sidequests along the lines of `deliver a package` or...uh, that`s actually pretty much it.

This is the conversation menu. `Rumor` usually leads to sidequests along the lines of `deliver a package` or...uh, that`s actually pretty much it.

That’s because the open world has a very different function in Arena than it does in later games. It’s not about more content or more exploration, because those are intrinsically rewarding. It’s about a lot of other intangible benefits that set this game above other first-person experiences of the era.

For one thing, having an open and shallow world means that being the lone hero of Arena feels surprisingly empowering. If you don’t go where you’re supposed to, there’s going to be nothing but procedural white noise waiting for you—but that’s perversely part of the point.

I don’t want to get into the habit of comparing the game I’m talking about to later entries, but I think it’d be illustrative to contrast Arena with Skyrim’s approach to open-world gameplay. Skyrim’s priority is to make you feel like the world is chock full of possibilities, so it throws out all kinds of quest hooks and factions and random encounters and radiant quests at you–all of which are designed to make you feel like no matter where you go, that was the “right” place to go, because look at all this shit you found with your name on it. It wants you to embrace and follow up on these leads–wants it so badly that everything from the frequently clumsy hooks to the automatic quest log to the NPC invincibility is designed so that you’re obliged to, or else let a cloud of nagging wasted potential and tasks undone linger over your head forever. All of this from a system designed to make player choices feel meaningful.

Skyrim, in brief, is a game about making the player feel empowered by insistently presenting them with opportunities. Arena is a game about making the player feel empowered by presenting one opportunity in the absence of pressure. The world has just enough detail and just enough content that when the player calls the game’s bluff and travels to a random city, there will be something to show that the players’ choice was a choice after all—but that content doesn’t exist as another way to direct a player’s experience, just as proof that the experience isn’t being forcibly directed at all.

Even though most Arena players will stick to their quest, the open world serves as a constant reminder: you are sticking to your quest. The game’s not making you, you’re just doing it. The game’s not pulling you along the path, you’re just walking it. Just like there’s no virtue without temptation, there’s no being a badass self-starting hero without the possibility to do something else—even if that “something” is just wandering around crashing taverns and chatting up NPCs.

It’s a subtle thing, but it’s noticeable. It helps that the only quest-related hints or direction you get are sporadic, apologetically half-informed pieces of intelligence from Ria Silmane—all other quest aren’t orders, but deals you personally broker with heads of state. For how simple it is, it’s actually a pretty nifty experience. You remember the scene in The Bourne Identity where the protagonist finds a secret compartment full of passports, weapons, and currencies, and realizes he’s on his own from here—but at least he’s got the tools to succeed? In a weird way, that’s sort of how Arena makes you feel. Like you’re a free agent given absolute trust and agency to accomplish a dangerous, continent-wide operation of national importance. Surprisingly, this isn’t always how TES games feel.

So how’s Arena’s gameplay? Like I subtly hinted in the last post, it sucks.

No, no excuses—you can stand it or you can’t, but it’s not very good.

Looting is your only source of income and absolutely necessary.

Looting is your only source of income and absolutely necessary.

Playing Arena feels like riding a slow-turning sports bike down a lot of very similar dungeon corridors. Sometimes an enemy appears and you’ve got to kill it by tapping the spell button, which you’ve hopefully loaded with the desired spell via an annoying interface, or by clicking and dragging your cursor across the screen to swing a weapon. Again: no excuses. First person combat was not exactly a brave new frontier even in those days, and Heretic, which came out the same year, demonstrated that passable fantasy-styled combat with simple one-click prompts were possible. One thing that can and must be excused, technologically speaking, is that enemies don’t make much noise and can’t be seen from far away. One thing that will not be excused is that when you get bushwhacked, you’re never going to be able to turn your character around to face them before they rip your head halfway off.

I`m in a canal. I can only get out by climbing the side of it. I can`t attack while I`m climbing or on the ground. Things on top of the canal can attack me with impunity. I need to exit this canal to continue.

I`m in a canal. I can only get out by climbing the side of it. I can`t attack while I`m climbing or on the ground. Things on top of the canal can attack me with impunity. I need to exit this canal to continue.

Combat in this game isn’t really about the heat of the moment, the dance of steel against claw. It’s too crude to do it well and it’s smart enough not to really try. No, like most RPGs of the era, combat in Arena isn’t so much a string of skills tests as a test of your ability to plan ahead and manage a character. A single fight with a golem isn’t about checking your reflexes or aim, it’s about checking that you bought enough potions, that you’ve been resting frequently enough, that you upgraded your weapon when you went into town. That’s why the random number generator for weapon swings doesn’t feel out of place yet—the whole game’s less Princess Bride and more Adventurer Management Sim 1992. Again, it seems fair to say this was a technological limitation, but it’s not as if they couldn’t have made a Doom clone instead. No, this system was the most direct means to their goal: to make the player feel like they’re planning ahead and accomplishing a great, self-directed quest.

Which is all fine. Fun in the planning stages, fun in retrospect. The actual dungeons are unbearable. It’s all well and good to say the combat’s just a due diligence test, but performing those tests hundreds of times over every single dungeon is unbelievably tedious. There are a lot of enemies, they will attack you from behind, they will respawn behind you, they will respawn in front of you. You will slowly grind your way down a lot of wrong turns and dead ends only to have to slowly grind your way back, and across, and up, and down, and back again, and all over the goddamn level looking for the potentially hidden way to the downstairs level…where you will find more of the same, and very probably another staircase, until you’re at a loss to even describe the concept of sunlight. For the first twenty minutes or so of a dungeon I wouldn’t like the combat. For any time after that, I’d hate it. And while it’s a huge relief to finally find the thing you need—it’s not that much of a relief.

Because now you need to grind your way back up.

Some people will tell you there’s a spell in the game, Passwall, that lets you remove entire chunks of dungeon wall. They will tell you this mitigates a lot of the frustration of dungeon crawling. I put it you that they’re exaggerating. Firstly, Passwall is only really useful if you know where you’re going—and you don’t. Secondly, you will still have to fight what’s on the other side of the wall you just budged. Thirdly, Passwall does not work on magic-immune walls—increasingly common in the late game. Fourthly, Passwall is a spell, and if you chose about half the character classes you physically cannot cast it. Fifthly, if you can cast it, you’ll probably need that magicka to deal with the endless monsters. Sixthly, if you get it on a magic item, you will have to deal not only with the obnoxious interface for those but with a dwindling pool of charges that might well leave you high and dry in the middle of a dungeon. Chances are you’ll find it on a magic weapon. Chances are it won’t be a weapon you want to use in combat. Have fun changing out your tanto and axe every five seconds, pal. Seventhly, there are a lot of twisting passages in the game and you honestly risk complicating the maze by boring random holes in it—I know it’s made me more lost at least once or twice, especially when you put a corridor in the middle of a big patch of solid stone that leads to nowhere in particular. Eighthly, screwing around facing walls is a great way to get tediously ambushed by patrols in the back and look the game’s just really irritating, okay, it’s understandable, but the game’s unrewarding and nettlesome and there’s no getting around it. I wish I could report otherwise, but every dungeon in the game was a chore.

NEXT FRIDAY: EVERYTHING ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ARENA PRETTY MUCH FOREVER

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20209Feeling chatty? There are 49 comments.

From the Archives:

  1. Bropocalypse says:

    The moral of the story is: Being a hero sucks and isn’t fun, but if you choose to do it anyway you really are a hero.

  2. Ilseroth says:

    While I had fun with Arena when I went back and played it when it became free; its difficulty curve seemed… awkward.

    It started kinda on the hard side, then I got a few levels, some decent equipment, and I crushed through the rest of it until the final dungeon which it became practically impossible for my character. I managed to beat it anyways by exploiting the nature of the game Levitate + just running by every enemy in the final area of the last dungeon.

    That being said, one thing I truly miss nowadays were the riddles. I was actually genuinely surprised when I played Elder Scrolls Online and they straight ripped one of the riddles from Arena as part of a quest… granted they simplified it substantially (have to pick which item it is off a table, as opposed to out of your brain), but it was still cute.

    The riddle was
    Two bodies have, yet joined in one, the more I sit still the faster I run

    I mean, it is a classic, so I knew it as soon as I read it in arena, but was still neat.

  3. Benjamin Hilton says:

    “….and I will not under any circumstances discuss it.”
    Oh will you please Professor Rutskarn?

    • MichaelGC says:

      Well, there are hairless cats in the real world, so perhaps Reginald, a huge Rick Astley fan, is the Khajit equivalent of one of those? Not entirely sure why he’s inexpertly cosplaying as Green Arrow’s sidekick, though.

    • Raygereio says:

      To explain the difference in appearance over the games, someone (probably Kirkbride when he on the good stuff again) came up with the idea that there are several “breeds” of Khajiit and the phase of the moons at the time of birth determines what Khajiit will grow up as.

      So you have Khajiit that are basically human in appearance (Arena). Ones that are still human in appearance, but with a tail & fur (Daggerfall). Ones that look like bipedal cats with digitigrade legs (Morrowind). And ones that are essentially a cat heat on a humanoid body with fur & a tail (Oblivion & Skyrim).
      To make it weird, you also have Khajiit sub-species that look like housecats, or as huge tigers (who are used as steeds by other Khajiit).

      Argonians have a similar thing in the lore where their appearance can range from lizard-like to practically human depending on how much hist sap they drink on their naming day.

  4. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Both rogue and thief?My,how nuanced the class selection system is.

    • James says:

      I distinctively see that Mercenary is not an option, because as we know Reginald is NOT a Mercenary.

    • Michael says:

      Elder Scrolls’ Rogues are a kind of stealth fighter. So they get access to heavier armor than a thief, and are better suited for fighting their way out of trouble, but are less adept at, well, stealing stuff.

      That said, I can’t remember how much of that is actually in Arena, and how much was added to later games.

  5. Regarding the hovertext for classes: Did you mean that “Democratic Candidate” and “Franklin” are two classes, or did you mean “Democratic Candidate, [Ben] Franklin” is a singular class?

  6. Bubble181 says:

    I know I’m seemingly all alone but, while I didn’t especially enjoy Arena’s fighting (seriously, who can?), I do really honestly enjoy the *type* of combat – dicerolls behind the curtain – far more than any kind of player skill check. I don’t have any gamer skill. That’s why I like my character to have some.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      You arent alone.Some games indeed are fun because of the dice rolls.Though I prefer having an extensive log of those rolls,so I can see what works and what doesnt.Also how often the rolls are rigged.

      And good news:The next spoiler warning game has precisely that.

    • Andy_Panthro says:

      I found the combat perfectly acceptable, but then I had played the far superior Ultima Underworld previous to this, which has a vaguely similar sort of combat style.

      edit: and of course the later Elder Scrolls games still have dice-rolls, but just for damage now I think rather than to-hit. So basically the Oblivion/Skyrim combat is closer to first-person Diablo.

  7. McKracken says:

    Re passwall:
    Back in the day (late 80s/early 90s) we used to just make maps on paper for every dungeon we came through in Bard’s tale and Dragon Wars. So after you’ve come down to the bottom, you could then take the shortest way back. I suppose that’s what you should have done: Make a map and then figure out what the most effective shortcuts were you could make with passwall.

    … yes, of course that means you’ll take twice as much real-world time to get through a new dungeon, why the question?

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Maybe not twice as much,because without a map you would get lost constantly,plus reloading if you die pointlessly.With a map,you would probably even save time(unless you have perfect memory).

      • Zak McKracken says:

        The really really correct answer is: It depends on how complicated the dungeon is, compared to your ability to remember where everything is.

        That determines how much time you save from having an overview and knowing where walking through walls will help you.

        Oh, another factor, of course, is whether the dungeons are static or not. If a map can last for more than one replay, that’s of course a bonus. If some things get randomized during a single play-through (happens!), you’re in bad luck.

        Haven’t played Arena, so can’t comment on this particular game.

  8. TMC_Sherpa says:

    Logitech trackman marble. I didn’t have it for Arena but I bought one when I got Daggerfall.

    The combat still kinda sucked but at least it felt better with a ball mouse.

  9. John says:

    Reginald the thief looks rather a lot like disco-era Nightwing. Tell me, are there any character classes that look like Batman?

  10. kdansky says:

    I’m not entirely convinced that they went for “planning fits the theme” deliberately, and didn’t just throw game mechanics at the wall until the code stopped crashing, and then called it a day.

    Considering how far they’ve come (that is to say: all game mechanics of Skyrim are still embarrassingly bad*, and can only be explained by complete lack of competence), I really can’t fathom that they had more skills then than now.

    *Stealth doesn’t work, even the most basic combat balance is shitty (2h is OP as fuck), spells don’t scale, talent trees are between lousy and horrible (making vanilla WoW from 2004 look brilliant), the conversation systems are non-existent (or in the case of Oblivion perfectly solvable) , the economy and game balance breaks as soon as you make a weak first try to break it, and so on and so forth. There isn’t a single game mechanic in Skyrim that is of “good” quality. Just look at the number of mods that exist that are not about content, but about trying to fix basic damage numbers on spells and swords.

    Don’t get me started on mechanics that are not trivial to get right, such as buying property and gaining fame or interacting with NPCs.

    • swenson says:

      “Stealth doesn’t work”

      Not sure what game you were playing, but in my experience, even without chameleon, high levels of stealth are ridiculously OP, at least on normal difficulty. (not sure how difficulty level interacts with sneak, actually…)

      Or is that what you’re saying? That the system is broken? Totally agree in that case.

      • kdansky says:

        Yeah, that’s what I meant. In my mind, if a mechanic is blatantly OP, it “doesn’t work”, because that’s not intended. It’s the game designer’s job to make sure that all mechanics in the game are meaningful and interesting. I doubt Bethesda knows that.

        • Sleeping Dragon says:

          See, that’s part of what I liked about (many of) the ES games. I’m not really one to look for the insanely broken stuff, like the crafting Josh demonstrated, but I like that I can play the game at just the right amount of OP to make them fun for me.

    • silver Harloe says:

      “I’m not entirely convinced that they went for “planning fits the theme” deliberately, and didn’t just throw game mechanics at the wall until the code stopped crashing, and then called it a day.”

      Honestly, I thought the “faux open world” with the expansive but empty outlands filled with cut-and-paste towns full of people who have nothing useful to say was just because they cribbed from Ultima 1… though the timeline suggests otherwise, since Ultima was up to 8 by then and onto pseudo-isometrics and trying to make dungeons smooth with the landscape… but otherwise, the “top down 2d view” for outer world, and “limited 3d view” for dungeons is exactly like earlier Ultimas.

      (culled from wikipedia: Ultima 1 in 81, Ultima 2 in 82, Ultima 3 in 83, Ultima 4 in 85, Ultima 5 in 88, Ultima 6 in 90, Ultima 7 in 92, Ultima 8 in 94, TES: Arena in 94)

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