The Altered Scrolls, Part 1: The Story of Arena

By Rutskarn Posted Friday Aug 7, 2015

Filed under: Elder Scrolls 68 comments

Hi, everyone, it’s Rutskarn. To goad Josh about his stalled Shogun LP I’ll be posting content to this site regularly–every Friday before Spoiler Warning, every other Saturday. Fridays will be old Altered Scrolls essays, edited and posted two at a time, until I’ve caught up and am onto the new ones. Saturdays? RPG stuff. You’ll see.


The Elder Scrolls games are some of the most popular in the world and almost no-one gives a desiccated ferret turd about half of them.

That's gaming in a nutshell, isn’t it? Nobody blinks an eye at going out of your way to rent a movie forty years old, but if a game was made before the Bush administration? Might as well be a stack of cuneiform punchcards buried in cow scrota in a haunted museum. Then again, “haunted museum” is a good way to describe many emulators, so perhaps our short memory's not such a mystery.

What I'm getting around to is that a year ago, I brushed all the bull scrota off of the Elder Scrolls franchise.

I wasn't planning to write a series. It was just clear, by the time I made it through Daggerfall's intro, that I'd have toâ€"because taken as a unit, this just might be one of the weirdest series of fiction I've ever seen in my life. Most franchises have a pretty straightforward arcâ€"games particularly so. There's a consistent thread of gameplay focus and purpose, a couple spinoffs to colonize new markets–and then at some point a big sea change happens and everything turns upside down and all the old fans hate it. Playing the TES games, I felt like that was happening every time. The lack of continuity of tone and objective is staggering.

The gameplay goals shift like crazy. The story and dialogue feel like they were written by five different authors who all can't stand each other. It's very easy to conceive of five diehard Elder Scrolls fans, each of whom can only put up with one of the games.

I feel like this is ignored in a lot of mainstream analysis, but Bethesda's absolutely aware of it. In a post celebrating the Elder Scrolls series' twentieth anniversary, Bethesda stalwart Todd Howard said of their design philosophy: “…as opposed to simply adding to the previous game for a sequel, we always started over. It was our desire that each game be its own thing; had its own tone, its own soul.”

'For example, we decided that the first one would be about a random tower in Greece or something.'
'For example, we decided that the first one would be about a random tower in Greece or something.'

I'm writing this series with one broad, overarching goal, and that's to capture and deconstruct the “soul” of each title in turn. I'll relate what they were doing and what they were trying to do. I'll demonstrate all the lessons they forgot and new eras they tried to bring forth. I'll share observations about the series that fall well outside the conventional wisdom–I'll tell you what the games have in common with James Bond and bad D&D campaigns, Soviet tanks and drunk college students. I'll tell you what playing each game felt like and why. And as we reach each game in the series, I will tell you why it's the greatest game ever made and why it's a loathsome piece of shit.

Let's start with Arena.

I'm not going to give you the full development history of The Elder Scrolls: Arena, or any of these games, because as a rule of thumb I don't bother offering any service that Wikipedia's better at. But I'll start with a well-known bit of trivia, which is that Arena, one of the world's first open-world RPGs, was not supposed to be that thing. Let me put it this way: you know how the game's called Arena? Here's how the intro justifies that.

In a place where life and death were two different sides of the coin tossed every day, the people of the known world began calling the land of their sorrow, the Arena

And here's how the original design's intro would have justified it:

You are a gladiator and you are in an arena.

Arena was a pit fighting game that went through so much feature creep it invented a new genre. It's a real testament to how insane projects can get if nerds are left unsupervised; the transition was so accidental, so calamitous, that the game literally had to be called Arena because all the materials were printed and they couldn't afford to do another run. By the time it was published, their simple pit-fighting action game had become a heroic fantasy epic with no gladiatorial combat whatsoever.

We many never know why Bethesda didn't make their modest little action game, but we should all be thankful they didn't. Not only because it allowed them to found one of the most breathtaking, epic, and history-making franchises in the history of videogamingâ€"but also, because Arena's first-person combat sorta sucked.

I miss these 'zooming in on a desk' styled RPG cutscenes.
I miss these 'zooming in on a desk' styled RPG cutscenes.

Which isn’t really a criticism of the game that was released. Arena‘s combat is perfect for the game that it is. But we’ll get to that later.

The Elder Scrolls has a reputation for its writing and storytelling. Whether or not you think it's deserve, it's worth reviewing where the series began: the Emperor of Tamriel (called either Uriel Septim VII or Uriel Septim IV, depending on which half of the opening cutscene you want to believe) is “summoned by Jagar Tharn, Imperial Battlemage of the Empire, on rumors of treachery.” That's so confusingly put that the first time I published this series, I wrote erroneously that they had summoned him. I guess it's the other way around? “Emperor, I have heard rumors that I am treacherous. Please come to my secret dimensional portal so we can have a cup of coffee and talk about it.” Anyway, Jagar betrays Uriel and throws him into another dimension.

The cutscene also makes a point of telling you that there is bearded man named Talin, that he is the leader of the Imperial Guards, and that he was there at the time. This doesn't seem particularly relevant unless you answer the character creation questions in the next part and realize that Talin was supposed to be your father. This plot point is so important that if you're playing the CD release, it is never followed up on again.

Pictured here: the life, death, and many accomplishments of Talin.
Pictured here: the life, death, and many accomplishments of Talin.

Other versions of Arena establish that Talin is actually the Emperor's bodyguard, and that he is imprisoned in the other dimension as well. When you defeat Jagar and save the Emperor, so too is Talin rescued. He doesn't express a huge amount of gratitude or in any way mention your familial connectionâ€"all considered, he seems about as confused as anybody. Maybe he read the game's manual which states outright that he's supposed to be the main character.

If the plot of Arena is coming across as a little patchy and stitched-togetherâ€"good. That means you know pretty much everything you need to know about the story of this game, and I can drop the subject for good. There's just three more key plot details you need to know: Jagar Tharn disguised himself as the Emperor, he threw you into prison because you were a member of the Imperial Court who could identify him, and to defeat him and rescue the Emperor, you're going to have to break out of jail and find the seven pieces of the Staff of Chaos.

You may be surprised to find that getting these seven pieces will mean doing quests for people and visiting lots of dungeons.

I really don't want to be too hard on Arena, but there's no getting around the fact that it goes for the most generic fantasy storyline possible and chokes. It's not that the story is unimpressive so much that it's a constant distractionâ€"the game is bloated with ponderous, difficult-to-skip sequences of redundant exposition. And oh, before I forget, I've got to bring up the quasi-medieval stylings of some of the tooltip text. Like, here's the popup you get when you decide to play a dark elf:

Know ye this also:

Thy race is as deadly as the thorns of the black rose which blooms only in thy mother's breast. Thou hast all that is graceful in thy brothers of the day, yet thy mother is the moon, and thou art her children of the night…

Don't be alarmed if you experienced some sort of physical reaction to that.

So to put it mildly, Arena was not designed as a writing showcase. Nothing it tries to do with its world, characters, or storyline is any good kind of remarkable. So what? Why have I started this series on such a negative note?

Three reasons. Firstly, all this is the first thing you'll see when you begin the game. The time elapsed between loading the game and actually getting to move around, not counting character creation, is about ten minutes of cutscenes. It's a little bizarre and noteworthy that they spent so much time on something they didn't even have time to do a cursory revision of.

Secondly, because it's a clear and immediate departure from the storytelling employed by later games. This is the only Elder Scrolls game that puts so much emphasis on events that happen before you enter the game world. Even the sequel, Daggerfall, puts you in control much more quickly. What's more, it borrows much more from recombinant, TSR-styled, Tolkeinesque fantasy than later games. It's important to remember that the Elder Scrolls you know wasn't born fully formed, but guided over time.

Thirdly, because I'm going to be talking about what the game does do successfully in all the rest of these posts, and talking about how the story is structure will speak significantly to that.



From The Archives:

68 thoughts on “The Altered Scrolls, Part 1: The Story of Arena

  1. MichaelGC says:

    For a moment I thought my bookmarks had freaked out.

    1. psivamp says:

      As did I.

      After I realized that they had not, I was thrilled. I look forward to regular content from Ruts. CH has been sadly inactive recently.

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Hi, everyone, it's Rutskarn. To goad Josh about his stalled Shogun LP I'll be posting content to this site regularly”“every Friday before Spoiler Warning, every other Saturday. Fridays will be old Altered Scrolls essays, edited and posted two at a time, until I've caught up and am onto the new ones. Saturdays? RPG stuff. You'll see.

    Kids these day.Always trying to outstage adults with their regular updates and stuff.

    1. MrGuy says:

      Regular updates? More like “hey, Josh, you have MAYBE two episodes left to finish the series and it’s been a few years.”

      1. He’s giving you the experience of warfare in that era, where you didn’t name stuff “The 100 Years War” until after it was over. He’s doing an historical re-enactment in real time.

        You people have no appreciation for performance art.

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          Like I said:Kids these days.Wanting the ending to their precious series right there,after merely two years.No patience.

  3. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Well the series may radically change from game to game,but two things seem to be exactly the same every time:the writing is terrible,and you are a prisoner at the start.Though Im not 100% sure about that second thing.

    1. Raygereio says:

      You start as a prisoner in all the main TES games and in several of the spin-offs.
      Only in Battlespire, Redguard & Shadowkey you’re not a prisoner.

      1. WaytoomanyUIDs says:

        You aren’t necessarily a prisoner at the beginning of Daggerfall. You inexplicably appear in an unlocked room the bottom of a dungeon after a shipwreck, with all your equipment in a chest in the same room.

        1. Raygereio says:

          During the events of Arena the Agent (Daggerfall’s PC) is imprisoned. After the emperor is freed, he released the Agent and sends him on a mission.
          So basically you start out as a prisoner in the opening cutscene, but not during gameplay.

    2. JakeyKakey says:

      It amused me even more to watch some gameplay videos of Arena and notice Skyrim’s combat is roughly the same f*cking thing two decades later.

      Even before Dark Souls getting the weapon inertia right, Dark Messiah Of Might And Magic had the whole combat thing being fun down, back in 2006.

      You’d think Bethesda could make it less about left-clicking enemies to death by now.

      1. Penultima says:

        Actually, Arena didn’t have you left-clicking enemies to death. You had to hold down left-click, then waggle the mouse to do different types of attacks. Morrowind changed it so that the direction you were holding determined what type of attack you would do when you left-clicked (I don’t know if it’s in the original version, but GOTY edition has an option in the menu to always use the best type of attack for your weapon, so it’s largely an unimportant system). It also allowed you to charge up an attack. Rapidly clicking the mouse would do the minimum amount of damage the weapon could do for that type of strike, while holding it down until it automatically attacked would do the maximum amount of damage that type of strike could do. All this is assuming you don’t “miss”, which is based off your skill level with that type of weapon. In later TES games and modern Fallout games, your weapon skill determines how much damage you do, while your actual player accuracy determines whether you hit or not. That makes it a lot more fun deciding whether to go with a light or heavy attack, but it’s still rather barebones. Fallout: New Vegas adds in some special moves to spice things up, one of which being a way to throw sand in people’s eyes. And in my opinion, the melee and unarmed weapons in it are a lot more fun than the ones in Skyrim.

      2. Bropocalypse says:

        Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. Yeah, that game had the most satisfying non-shooter real-time combat of any game I’ve ever played.
        The dialogue is laughably bad, the story doesn’t make much sense, but man, kicking orcs into walls of spikes or laying down a patch of ice so they slide off a cliff is fun as hell.
        Come to think of it, I wonder if it would make for a good season of Spoiler Warning? Though, it’s pretty obscure and old, and they tend to only do newer, more main-stream games.
        Pity. I can imagine Josh shenanigans and frustration in equal measure with that game.

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          Rutskarn already did a full playthrough,so theres no point for a spoiler warning.

          1. Bropocalypse says:

            He was kidnapped by the Joker, so it’ll work out :V

        2. Rob says:

          I could see it as a special, but I don’t think Dark Messiah would work as a full season. A significant chunk of the game drops the fun melee combat against humanoids in favor of spiders in caves, undead in tombs, and spiders in undead tombs. It would be difficult to come up with interesting things to say while stomping your two hundredth spider* onto generic grey stone floor, or while running through an entire level because you ran out of antidotes and are slowly dying of poison again.

          *Although I will say Dark Messiah is the only game I’ve ever played that’s done giant spiders properly. It’s a shame they tethered them to the awful poison mechanic, which creates entirely the wrong sort of dread when fighting them.

          1. Bropocalypse says:

            That part of the game got a lot better when I just ran past them

  4. MaxEd says:

    I remember trying to get Arena to run. It was hell: I couldn’t find the right combination of autoexec.bat & config.sys settings, despite having some years of experience with running various hard-to-start games already.

    Then, after a few evenings, I get it running, get to the part where you can control a character… And get baffled and confused. I walked around the prison for a few minutes, and kind of remember fighting some enemy. This was where I discovered this game has first-person real-time combat, at which point I promptly hit quit button (or rebooted PC) and deleted it from my HDD. So, yeah, I never got into Elder Scrolls franchise at all. Even in my teens, real-time combat in RPGs seemed to me like the worst idea in the world. Still does.

    1. Bropocalypse says:

      I find the opposite to be true; that anything but real-time combat is annoying.
      In any case, I don’t think what makes a game an RPG isn’t what style of combat it uses. Mostly the genre seems to be associated with worldbuilding-centric storytelling.

  5. Da Mage says:

    Unlike most others, I was actually introduced to the Elder Scrolls series through Arena when it was released free in 2007 (?). It is the only Elder Scrolls game that has ever (and to this day) makes me feel scared when playing. The short view distance in the dungeon and the ability for monsters to suddenly spawn (sometime above your level) around the corner often leads to a mad dash to the exit once I’ve completed the dungeon.

    It’s not a deep game, but the mechanics are fairly sound. The biggest problem nowadays is how poor it looks graphically. The blurry 2.5D can be very jarring to try and play.

    1. Charnel Mouse says:

      Not to mention the lack of movement sounds meant they’d frequently come up from behind you without any warning. Or that, if I remember correctly, getting diseased would begin reducing your attributes permanently, levelling system be damned.

    2. Bropocalypse says:

      That seems more like a “please don’t screw me over” type of scare than anything.

      1. Da Mage says:

        True, but the fact that the longer you spend the more likely you’ll get something bad does make it fun. Also, if you keep moving you should be able to outrun most threats.

  6. Cinebeast says:

    I haven’t read this since you first posted it, so this is great. And if it prods you into finally continuing the series, even better.

    (No, I’ve not been impatiently counting the days since you last uploaded one of these, why do you ask.)

  7. Neko says:

    I didn’t really get into the series until Daggerfall had been out for a while, although my friend insisted I try out Arena because that’s how he got into it. It was technically impressive but not gripping. I remember wanting to find out what the game was about at the time it was released, but that may have had something to do with the box art…

  8. Raygereio says:

    When talking about Arena I can’t help but feel that special mention has to be made of the the box art.
    I mean just look at it. There’s only so much that it being from the 90s can excuse.

    1. MichaelGC says:

      It’s like they looked at the Gauntlet box art and said: “Like that. Only moreso.”

      1. Zaxares says:

        In fairness to the Gauntlet box art, it looks like ALL the players are equally poorly armored for battle.

        1. Joe Informatico says:

          They were. Well, at least the valkyrie had a shield. But you spent 75% of the game fighting ghosts or Death himself, so maybe they figured armour was pointless.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      It lacks pouches though.

    3. Hal says:

      She looks like she has an early case of Liefeld Syndrome. Hopefully she can get that treated before it progresses to full spinal deformation.

        1. Hal says:

          Indeed, that’s where I first heard “Liefeld Syndrome.” The problem is that people understand exactly what you mean when you call it that; Green’s Disease, not so much.

    4. Bropocalypse says:

      That actually made me laugh.

  9. Zaxares says:

    Strangely, I don’t look too harshly on the faux Ye-Olde English-style writing from Arena. But then again, I grew up with some of the early Ultima games, which used similar prose styles, and I guess it just feels nostalgic instead of cringe-inducing.

    1. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      As a fan of Shakespeare, that language actually does kinda hurt. It sounds like a sophomore failing to write in the style of.

      The most grievous offender, though, is not the style, but the prose itself:

      “thorns of the black rose which blooms only in thy mother's breast.”

      What in the sam hill does that even mean.

      I mean, in context I can figure that “mother” is the night, and maybe mother’s breast is the moon, so the black rose blooms under the moonlight.

      But “cast off thy nighted color and look as a friend on Denmark” this ain’t.

      1. Joe Informatico says:

        I’m by no means a Shakespearean scholar, but when I read the first sample chapter of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars and saw they weren’t using “thou” correctly, I bounced.

        1. Matt Downie says:

          ‘Thou’ is weird. It used to be the word used when talking to a friends or social inferiors. ‘You’ was the polite one you used when you were talking to someone who ranked above you. But ‘thou’ is now associated with the bible and Shakespeare, which lends it an automatic classy respectful air.

          Understanding the older meaning lends a different tone to religious verses like, “And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

          1. Bubble181 says:

            Compare to German (Du) and French (tu) and it makes sense “thou” is more friendly. It’s only weird the English-speaking decided to just completely forget about it :-P

            1. Matt Downie says:

              The English decided it was better just to be polite all the time.

              1. Daemian Lucifer says:

                You mean the brits decided that.What I dont get is why havent the americans adopted “thou” then?

                1. JAB says:

                  Because they adopted ya’ll or you’uns instead?

  10. GTB says:

    I own arena but never really played it. I’m pretty sure I still have the box and everything packed away somewhere, but i’m not sure I ever even pulled the disk out of the paper protector thing. I can’t recall why now, except that there were so many amazing games during that era.

    The first game I really remember from the series is Daggerfall.

  11. Lanelor says:

    In the games before Morrowind the characters look a bit less ugly -_-

  12. Cybron says:

    Super hyped for eventual new essays.

    Also for RPG stories. Twenty sided name, justified once again (even if ruts wouldn’t be caught dead playing D&D).

    1. James says:

      Adam “Rutskarn” DeCamp

      Whitest Ma…. Boy Alive

      he has done many things, i think DnD would be the least of his worries to admit to

      1. Galad says:


      2. Cybron says:

        No, it’s not because of that. He has just ascended on to other, greater games and has no need for such plebeian pursuits anymore. He’s got RPG hipster cred to maintain.

        Before someone gets mad, I play both D&D and many, many other pen and paper games. Please do not take this seriously.

  13. Galad says:

    Waiting to hear Josh’s rebuttal in this epic rap battle of nerdiness :)

  14. Bubble181 says:

    Oh hey! let’s revisit all of TES again :-) Can’t wait to go all Daggerfall Fanboy on everyone over here, too :-D

  15. Cuthalion says:

    Yaaay! I enjoyed the series when it was started on Chocolate Hammer and am hoping to see it make it to the end this time. :)

    Also, taunting Josh is a good reason.

  16. Diego says:

    I don’t care that much for TES but this was very amusing. I’m waiting for more :D

  17. Andy_Panthro says:

    Everyone knows the best part about Arena is that the loot you find is completely random, so you could save scum for super equipment in the opening dungeon.

    One time I found a wand that could destroy dungeon blocks (an entire cube of the dungeon would disappear!). Needless to say, that spell never made an appearance in later games. I expect it would have been useful later on in the game, but I think I sold it for lots of money (that was more important at the time).

    1. Charnel Mouse says:

      Hell, you didn’t even need a special wand for that, you could buy it as a preset spell. I remember the Skeleton Key being decent if you could find it, because you could skip most of the blasted riddles as well.

  18. Epopisces says:

    You will relate how they relate, in a relatively relatable rendering?

  19. Hey, Rutskarn? How similar is the rod you have to put back together to the 1976 D&D artifact, The Rod of Seven Parts? I know nothing about Arena, so is this an homage/ripoff or just a wild coincidence?

    Also, how about this for a writing challenge: Could you re-write the text seen on the various screens (and dialog? Is it all text, too?) such that the game has a completely new premise yet still makes sense?

    1. Syal says:

      I’d say it’s an homage, considering that’s the Rod of Law and this is the Staff of Chaos.

    2. MrGuy says:

      Also, how about this for a writing challenge: Could you re-write the text seen on the various screens (and dialog? Is it all text, too?) such that the game has a completely new premise yet still makes sense?

      I’m pretty sure the game’s writers already did this once, so it’s surely possible…

      1. Yeah, but I was thinking with a more coherent concept of a plot.

  20. Angelo says:

    A couple of typos:

    “Whether or not you think it's deserve”
    “there is bearded man named Talin”

  21. Don Tzu says:

    Shaming Josh until he finishes The Shogun LP? I am so on board with this. Come on, Josh. Get with it! After you finish your Shogun LP (which was a fantastic read), you can do your own personal LP of Dragon Age: Origins on YouTube. I for one, will tune in.

    1. James says:

      that sounds great lets get josh and some twentysiders to do a rivial spoiler warning lp on DA:O where 75% of the eps are moaning about either the fade or the deep roads.

  22. Jabrwock says:

    Back in the day, I had never heard of TES, I was introduced to Ultima instead.

    “What’s a paladin?”

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Im not entirely sure.

  23. Blackbird71 says:

    I’m looking forward to this, as I missed Arena the first time around (Daggerfall was my introduction to TES).

    However, may I respectfully recommend that Rutskarn have some proofreading done on these articles? I’m noticing several typos and other errors; some minor, but some which do affect the readability and clarity of the article.

  24. abacaba says:

    “Arena, one of the world's first open-world RPGs”

    How do you define “open world” here? I’m curious what definition you use that would place the roots of the genre into mid-90’s instead of early 80’s (Ultima series, Omega and such).

  25. Gwiny says:

    There is some sort of corruption on this (and later) pages of this series. The whole words are being swallowed. Would be really nice, if someone would fix it.

  26. aradinfinity says:

    Popping in years late to say that Uriel Septim could be both the fourth and the seventh of his name at the same time, if he’s got the blood of two royal families in him. Say, if one side of his family is from Skyrim and the other from Cyrodiil, and there’s been a king Uriel Septim six times in Cyrodiil but only three in Skyrim, he would be both the fourth and the seventh Uriel Septim. It’s happened in real life, too; there’s a king of I think England who had two numbers.

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