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.”
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.
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.
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.
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