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.
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 thisâ€"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?
You might well argue they didn't know any betterâ€"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.
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.
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 youâ€"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 allâ€"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 elseâ€"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 Silmaneâ€"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 hereâ€"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 excusesâ€"you can stand it or you can't, but it's not very good.
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.
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 yetâ€"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 needâ€"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 goingâ€"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 wallsâ€"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 itâ€"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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