(Questions answered as of August 21, 2015)
For all my joking around in Part 1, I recognize the significant time investment required to play Arena and Daggerfall. Not only does a would-be videochrononaut need to get DOSBox working (not always a trivial feat), but someone unused to older titles will need to scale sheer walls of obsolete mechanics and old-school sensibilities to get far enough to really experience the thing. It’s by no means impossible to do so, but it’s certainly cumbersome. That’s why this post isn’t just an essay; it’s an I Played It So You Don’t Have To. I’m doing one of these for Arena, I’ll do one for Daggerfall, and I might well do one for Morrowind depending on reception.
Directly below the fold will be my final reflections and notes on Arena. Beneath that will go the answers to questions you pose about the game in the comments. These can be simple factual questions, subjective considerations of tone and effect, or, I suppose, more abstract queries. I’ll post responses to each question I get over the remainder of the week.
Then, next Friday, we’ll begin my essays on Daggerfall.
It’s interesting to look the mechanics various TES games introduce, but even more interesting to note which are introduced and then immediately abandoned. It’s actually a testament to how individualistic entries in the franchise are that this happens all the time, but it’s also a bit of a pity. Many an Elder Scrolls fan has eagerly waited to see how their favorite features will look expanded and improved on next time around–only to find all of them unceremoniously binned come next E3.
Arena was the first game in the franchise, and it’s not surprising that the template was altered quite a bit for the sequel, but there are two features which are prominent enough that their removal from Daggerfall is noteworthy.
For one thing, riddles. In classic old-school gaming fashion Arena contains quite a few areas where you can’t progress unless you answer a classic, “I am X and Y, what am I?” sort of riddle. They’re not multiple choice, either–a text box appears and you’ve got to type in your response. I found this terribly novel. It’s easy to see how this is antithetical to more modern RPG game design–and surprisingly difficult to articulate why. “Because games assume players are thick” hardly seems satisfactory.
A few other obvious answers: it tests a different and arbitrary skill than the rest of the game and makes progress dependent on that skill; there’s a tonal discrepancy between answering a riddle (seen as a frivolous activity) and the enormity of bloody, polygonal, viscerally-realized slaughter; and then, there has, of course been a general movement of the genre towards kinetic proficiency as a problem-solving tool. All of those are decent reasons to minimize the role brain teasers have in the franchise. I have to say, though, that after a few dozen dungeon floors full of samey grindy obnoxious monsters every chance to jut sit down and solve a riddle was like a glass of ice water on an August afternoon. If riddles became a mandatory alternative path through every dungeon in TES6 I’d welcome the change, I really would.
No less prominent–or abandoned–is the game’s curious approach towards its magical artifacts. Later games place these throughout the gameworld for players to collect, either through random exploration or directed questing. Since Arena‘s dungeons are self-contained, and wilderness nonexistent, this approach wouldn’t have worked back in The Day. Arena‘s approach is a bit more obtuse.
To find an artifact in Arena, you have to: ask around various cities until you discover somebody’s looking for an artifact, go to the tavern they’re waiting in, learn the location of a nearby dungeon, fast travel to that dungeon, fight to its bottom, find a lead on the actual location of the actual artifact, head to that dungeon, and slog through additional monotonous tunnels of bloodshed and carnage until the damn thing’s in your hands. But that’s not the weird bit. The weird bit is, you can only have one artifact at a time and you can’t sell them once you’ve got them. So the only way to get rid of an artifact and get another one is to use it up (because eventually it will disappear from your inventory) or throw it into a ditch like an empty bag of tacos. It’s a bit frustrating to scrounge around looking for leads on an artifact only to discover it’s one you’ve no interest in, and I imagine that’s why they changed their minds down the road.
Now: post your questions below. I’ll get to them in the order they’re received.
“What is the sound design like at the start of the series?
Are we still in the land of a couple of swishes and grunts for combat and a few bars of midi music for occasional reminders that you have a sound card?”
You nailed it. Copious midi music–classically foreboding and faux-medieval, if you’re familiar with older games of the stripe–with triumphant pipings for taverns and low dum-dums for dungeon scavving. Attacks make sound effects as broad as possible to cover as many bases as possible. It could really be the sound design for any RPG of the era.
“How much of the weirdness of Arena could be a product of the era in which it was made?”
All of the Elder Scrolls games are very much products of their age. I’ll defer a more thorough answer, since this essay series will very much prove this, but the short version is that Arena is not a subversion of any particular or gameplay tropes of the era but a reconfiguration into a product that, given the circumstances, is surprisingly novel.
“The dungeons seem to be built on a square grid, like the graph paper dungeons many tabletop players will be familiar with. Do monsters (and the player) occupy squares on the grid or do they occupy actual 3d space?”
Players move freely. The dungeons are heavily gridlike, which is one of the reasons they’re so repetitive and monotonous, but the player can at least move freely. Technically, they can even move along a z-axis, although the only levels are “even” and “trench.”
“You've complained a few times about the combat mechanics. What do you think would have been the best way to improve them in the context of Arena? Going click-to-hit like Diablo? Going turn-based like Final Fantasy? Going ‘swing based’ like later iterations of the series? Something else?”
All of this is with the benefit of hindsight, but the game’s ponderous turning and moving controls and needlessly clumsy melee mechanics are the most serious offenders. The game would have benefited massively from more fast-paced and responsive keyboard movement (tricky to get right, doubtlessly, with the variable player speeds) and one-click combat that varies damage based on skill, not hit chance. This game could have done with a LOT more Doom in its DNA, and I can’t think of any obvious technological reasons it couldn’t have been so–chalk it up to different fantasy RPG precedent and developer experience, or, possibly, to some vagary of the stats system I’m not considering.
Da Mage asked:
“Though it wasn't mentioned in your essays, how did you find the level scaling in Arena? It's really no different from the Oblivion level scaling, however I felt when playing that it felt fine, rather than in Oblivion where it wasn't much fun.”
I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself by getting into Oblivion, but I found the level scaling in Arena to be largely inoffensive. The game’s linear enough that it barely matters. It does, however, exacerbate the monotony of the game’s combat.
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