The Altered Scrolls, Part 4: The Dagger Falls

By Rutskarn Posted Friday Aug 28, 2015

Filed under: Elder Scrolls 86 comments

I said some unkind things about The Elder Scrolls I: Arena. I said that the open world was barely integrated, the storytelling was weak, the quests were repetitious, and the setting was a streaky photocopy of a late 70s metal album with none of the character. And all that’s true, but none of it really constitutes fair criticismâ€"Arena was trying something that nobody had really attempted before and that nobody else would attempt for some time afterwards.

The astounding thing is not how little Arena resembles what we'd think of as a proper Elder Scrolls game. The astounding thing is how much The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, released a scant two years later, does.

You can tell it's a 90s RPG because the first thing you see is a chunkily-CGI autonomously riffling volume of illuminated concept art.
You can tell it's a 90s RPG because the first thing you see is a chunkily-CGI autonomously riffling volume of illuminated concept art.

Daggerfall is a grainy sprite version of everything we think of as TES standards. Customizable classes. Lots of different guilds and factions to join. Scads of side content. Nonlinear main quest. Wilderness exploration. The Elder Scrolls lore coalescing from botched cliches drizzled in pseudo-Elizabethan doggerel to a bizarrely complete and fully-formed whole. Which all leads me to wonder: what happened in the two years this game was under development? Daggerfall feels three or four sequels ahead of Arena and it's young enough to be an expansion pack. Playing it in retrospect, one has the strange feeling that devs from 1995 caught a glimpse of Skyrim and made a cargo cult version with more moving parts than the real thing.

I mentioned that every Elder Scrolls game has a different design goal. That applies not just to what the game represents mechanically and aesthetically, but what kind of development culture produced the end product. Continuing the feature-creep theme of the first entry on a grander scale, Daggerfall is transparently what happens when you get a team of people willing to push absolutely any idea, no matter how fiendishly or even pointlessly complex, just to see if it'll work or not. The final product must have been a shock to contemporaries, because frankly, it was a shock to me as well.

Also a shock is the FMV intro cutscene, but for less inspiring reasons.
Also a shock is the FMV intro cutscene, but for less inspiring reasons.

Daggerfall has all the basic mechanics you'd get in later titles. You know what else it has? Ships that you can purchase, sail, and live on. Banks, bank loans, and notes of credit. Language skills. Several different types of lycanthropy (up from “absolutely none” in Arena and down to “absolutely none” by the time Morrowind launches). Classes you can customize down to the nitty-gritty details of what materials you can wear and what conditions you can recharge Magicka under. Witch covens with staggeringly complex systems for summoning Daedra. A fast travel system that took into account what transportation you were using and how quickly and comfortably you were going. More guilds than any TES title that came before or or would come after. And the world map…dear lord, the world map.

Picture yourself standing inside the general store of the charming, out-of-the-way little hamlet of Cromcart. How out of the way is it? Let me put it this way: nobody else in videogaming history has visited it. Cromcart is one of a little over one hundred villages in the region of Northmoor. Northmoor is huge. Northmoor is bigger than most modern games ever set out to be. In my entire main-quest playthrough, I don’t think I ever set foot in it. After all, the game has about forty other provinces and shockingly close to a million NPCs, almost none of whom are important or memorable.

Even if all you wanted to do was clear out the game’s dungeons, something tedious but doable in modern entries, you’d find your work somewhere between impossible and absurdly unfeasible. There are thousands of dungeons in the game, and they are big. How big are they? So big that the guy so obsessed with Daggerfall he wrote a guide that remains definitive to this day put “smaller dungeons” at the top of his wish list for the sequel. Inconveniently large dungeons. Obnoxiously large, labyrinthine, three-dimensional dungeons full of secret passages and strange fixtures and dungeon ecosystems. Fun anecdote: on my first playthrough, I accepted a quest to go to a dungeon and kill a certain amount of orcs. I was in that dungeon for three out-of-game weeks, countless real-world hours, discovering new rooms and levels all the time, and I didn’t even get to the part with the orcs.

And now that I’ve got you excited, this is a good time to mention that Daggerfall sucks.

Just kidding! It’s amazing.

No, it sucks.

Daggerfall is a pretty well designed and playable game.

Daggerfall is an unplayable pipe dream, a squalling vat-grown abomination, its skeleton warped and crippled by feature creep.

Daggerfall isn't too complicated as long as you take the time to understand it. Daggerfall‘s overcomplicated nature is inexcusable. Daggerfall should get points for how much it managed to get right. Daggerfall didn't really get anything right. Daggerfall takes the player much more seriously than Arena did and tells a story a hundred times more interesting. Daggerfall is the same kind of hack job Arena was, but by a different breed of insufferable pulp-raised gremlin even baser than the last.

All of these are things that go through my head pretty indifferently whenever I’m playing. Because one thing I’ll commit to in any mood, during good parts and bad, is that this game is a blue-ribbon corn fed mess. No matter how much you want to excuse it as ambitious and aspirational, there's plenty that objectively sucks about the game. Contrary-wise, no matter how pissed off you get at it, the good parts scratch an itch you're not going to get scratched anywhere else. It’s half fundamentally beautiful and half fundamentally ruined. How you feel about it depends on which side of it you see most often.

People who play Daggerfall often have one of two reactions. Either they load it up, get obscenely frustrated almost instantly, and quit…or they load it up, get obscenely frustrated, keep playing, fall in love, and keep getting more and more obscenely frustrated forever.

Almost everything comes back to a single and almost painfully predictable problem: the game couldn’t keep up with its own vision. Here’s a just a few things the game boasts that look great on the box while being completely disappointing:

1.) Language skills: One of the most heartbreaking things about CRPGs of this era is what I like to call the Interesting Choice Phenomenon. It's where you're given a choice of which skills to focus on, and you scroll down to see something like, “Guns, Medicine, Magic, Erotic Dancing.” And of course, you do a double-take. “Erotic Dancing? See, stupid modern games with their narrow focus and combat emphasis and committee design would never let me create an Erotic Dancing Gladiator! This is why I roll DOSBox, baby!” So you sink all your points into the skill, you set out with Cliveander, Duke of Badonk, and of course you get wiped by all the mandatory emphasized combats the game narrowly focuses on. You ragequit before you even get to a tavern and find out the developers straight-up forgot to include any use of the Erotic Dancing skill in the game whatsoever, and if you think I'm exaggerating, you haven't played enough old CRPGs.

This part's pretty cool, though. I can tweak my XP gain, starting skills, and a lot of really in-depth and exciting variables the premade classes don't bother with. It's self-balancing and very easy to break. Protip: create a fighter class with a lot of silly, redundant spellcasting restrictions and you'll REALLY rake in the points.
This part's pretty cool, though. I can tweak my XP gain, starting skills, and a lot of really in-depth and exciting variables the premade classes don't bother with. It's self-balancing and very easy to break. Protip: create a fighter class with a lot of silly, redundant spellcasting restrictions and you'll REALLY rake in the points.

It's easy to get nostalgic for older games when we read the manuals and see all kinds of cool skills and features that invite so many possibilities, and that's because it's also easy to forget that the developers never actually got them working. This was the era of Choice, but it was also an era where every Choice but one or two were often punishingly bad with no warning. Daggerfall, Fallout, Arcanum, Realms of Arkaniaâ€"all of them had this problem, and it's part of the reason fans and non-fans can't discuss the games without getting into snipe-y tantrums. For half of the people who played the game, the entire experience was ruined because a choice they made that seemed perfectly reasonable, encouraged, and interesting at the character creation screen ended up landing them a big ol’ screw you from the developers.

Language skills in Daggerfall are a perfect general example. I defy anyone to say that the (multiple) language skills in Daggerfall improved or even affected their gaming experience at all. The average player would never even encounter half of the races that have language skills devoted to them, and even if they did, the skill’s only function is to maybe flag a monster as non-hostile. A waste of points from any perspective and toothless as a roleplaying aid because of the scarcity of the creatures and the arbitrary, abstract function of the skill. And for the exact same investment, you could specializing in murdering things with axes.

I regret taking these skills enough that I wish they hadn't been in the game. Don't get me wrongâ€"I'm all for letting a player make bad choices. But if the choice isn’t informed, it’s not the player’s fault–it’s the developers. Don’t ask me to choose between Coke, Pepsi, or Cactus Cooler and then–when I order the latter for a change of pace–revealing I’ll have to mop it up from a spill and drink from the bucket.

2.) Dozens of Playable Factions, Huge Sprawling World: Let's get this out of the way, because this is about half of Daggerfall‘s disappointments right here. This is why all the impressive statistics and audacious claims in the world can't save the game.

Riddle me this: how does a studio as small as the Arena team produce a world with 750,000 NPCs, thousands of dungeons, dozens of factions, and a world the size of an actual country? The same way you cover a football field in gold: you take a respectable volume of content and stretch it as thin as it will go.

This is the cave you start in. You know how people say every Elder Scrolls game begins in jail so you can decide why you were put there? Arguably that principle only applies to Morrowind. Arena tells you you're in jail because you're an Imperial agent, Daggerfall starts with a shipwreck, Oblivion arguably implies via a mandatory dialogue option that you woke up there due to destiny, and Skyrim starts in a cart after you're caught crossing the border.
This is the cave you start in. You know how people say every Elder Scrolls game begins in jail so you can decide why you were put there? Arguably that principle only applies to Morrowind. Arena tells you you're in jail because you're an Imperial agent, Daggerfall starts with a shipwreck, Oblivion arguably implies via a mandatory dialogue option that you woke up there due to destiny, and Skyrim starts in a cart after you're caught crossing the border.

Most of Daggerfall is the output of a procedural generator. Dungeons are sprawling, but so is the New York sewer, and exploring dungeons in Daggerfall isn't a lot more rewarding. Every city is the same as the last one, only bigger or smaller, containing a certain kind of store or missing it. Even the town names are transparently created by sticking a library of prefixes to suffixes, which is never more clear than when you sort a list of names alphabetically on the wiki. The product of all of this is random generation is noise that isn't contextualized or filtered in a very interesting way, and so once you've seen one blast of static, you've pretty much seen all of them. There's a reason I don't think anybody visited the town held up as an example in my last postâ€"it's because there probably wouldn't be a point.

Which, I’m not really asking for Northmoor to be interesting. But there’s not a whole lot of reason for it to be there if it isn’t and frankly, it’d be nice if somewhere was.

The guilds are in a similar boat. The quests are generated in a way suspiciously similar to the Radiant Quests in Skyrimâ€"and that's all of them, not just the filler. What's more, about half of the factions are knightly orders that are difficult to distinguish and thematically very similar.

In the Homestar Runner universe's fictional Dangeresque film series, there's a kiddie pool that get relabeled to serve as whatever the scene needsâ€"in one scene it's shark pond, in another it's pie factory. That's pretty much Daggerfall in a nutshell. All this sprawl is supposed to create an illusion of vastness that's reinforced whenever a quest sends you to one of the random towns on the opposite side of the worldmap, but the illusion is shaky and the effect isn't worth the bother.

3.) Nonlinear Storyline: This is both a good and a bad point. The game presents its essential questgivers in a way that makes them more or less indistinguishable from regular questgivers, and in many cases, makes them easy to overlook. Often it makes new options or questlines trigger according to hidden and totally obtuse criteria. On the one hand, this is impressively trusting of the game. On the other hand, there are 750,000 NPCs in the game and most of their problems are stupid and not worth paying attention to, so even a clever player can be forgiven for breezing past errands they actually needed to do. If you listen to every wacko who wants their laundry done, you will never finish this gameâ€"and conversely, if you don't half-listen to every wacko who wants their laundry done, you'll also never finish this game. I wandered around for hours once because I didn't figure out that my next essential questgiver was a random servant in a random room of one of the palaces of one of the regions of the game map. If this were back in the playtesting stage, I'd ask that they make the narrative a little more cohesiveâ€"it's okay to make the player figure events out for themselves, but for them to do that, you need to actually give them some thread to follow or clues to assemble.

4.) Engine and Dungeons: Let me be blunt. Daggerfall does not control well. Controlling your avatar in Daggerfall is like being handed a junked Soviet prototype tank from the sixties, then being asked to demo it on a motocross track. People gripe about the platforming at, say, the end of Half-Life only because they've never played the final dungeon of Daggerfall as anything but a levitating wizard.* And it's not just the platformingâ€"somehow the combat is harder, too. Not harder as in “more challenging,” harder as in “surprisingly difficult to execute an attack even after completing the previous game more or less flawlessly.” It's difficult to find a game contemporary to Daggerfall that had clunkier in-game violence, and that includes Arena, which somehow managed to be smoother, more responsive, and more involving. Most of the cumbersome nature of the engine was growing pains associated with the jump to more-3D environments, and as nice as those are, it's hard to say it was worth it.


*Hearing “What, you didn't play a wizard, you can't complain because you were doing it wrong,” spoken in earnest is a classic sign that a.) you've just played a game with a terrible case of Interesting Choice Phenomenon, and b.) you should probably stop talking to this person.


From The Archives:

86 thoughts on “The Altered Scrolls, Part 4: The Dagger Falls

  1. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I said that the open world was barely integrated, the storytelling was weak, the quests were repetitious, and the setting was a streaky photocopy of a late 70s metal album with none of the character.

    So exactly like skyrim then.

    1. Bropocalypse says:

      Yes, and (insert politician here) is as bad as Hitler!

    2. Jokerman says:

      Oh… beat me to it.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        Well you know the saying:You snooze…means youve been playing a TES game.

    1. nerdpride says:

      Well, I thought it was neat.

      Wish it were just a little less surfy though. If only the styles could mix better.

      N’wah out, dude!

  2. Galad says:

    Thank you for playing this, we don’t have to.

  3. Piflik says:

    I have to say that I can’t agree to your third point…

    1. Limeaide says:

      Point number three here doesn’t have any substance, does it? There’s no real argument there at all.

      1. MrGuy says:

        What are you talking about? Point three is the strongest argument Ruts has made in this entire series, including (spoilers) the stuff that’s still only on Chocolate Hammer.

    2. Rutskarn says:

      Future scholars: in the original uploaded draft, there was no point 3. It’s since been fixed.

      1. MrGuy says:

        Now, there is simply no point.

      2. Lanthanide says:

        Are these scholars from the future, or scholars of the future?

      3. Olivier FAURE says:

        Oh yeah, I was wondering. It seemed like a joke, so I scrolled back and n°3 was there with nothing special. Then I read your answer.

        Also, from the distant future of 2018: LOOK OUT FOR FIDGET SPINNERS!!!

  4. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Those old games may give you a bunch of useless choices,but they teach you one very important thing:Never go for the cool sounding skill on your first try.Also dont experiment until you are familiar with the game.

    So two important things that those game teach you are not to rush for the cool sounding skill and not to experiment on your first go through the game.And not to get too attached to the first character you make.

    The three important things those old game teach you are not to rush for the cool sounding skill,not to experiment too much,and not to be attached to your first character.And then to find out about the world and mechanics as much as you can with your first character and then restart.

    AMONGST the important things those old game teach you are such varying lessons like not rushing for the cool sounding skill,not experimenting too much,not being attached to your first character,having a test run in order to learn about the mechanics and the world.Also to figure out the optimal path through the first few quests and shops.

    Damn it!

    1. keldoclock says:

      Let’s not forget the game-breaking crashes and bugs! Someone has to go and find and document these to save us time, but nobody can really say which of us will step up to the plate.

      I guess you could say that nobody expects the game-breaking inquisition!

    2. Couscous says:

      One of the first things these games teach you is to just look up a FAQ because the games were just poorly designed like that so the FAQs can allow you to avoid a lot of the headache of having crippled yourself or made the game unwinnable in a way you only discover well into the game.

      The other thing these games teach you is that the developers often seem to have garbage knowledge what good characters in these games look like if all the premade classes and parties in CRPGs are any indication. Or if the fact that the original version of Daggerfall was unwinnable is any indication

      1. Lanthanide says:

        It’s not surprising that the pre-made characters typically suck in terms of gear, stats and skills.

        Those things (particularly gear) are usually very rough in development and not finalised until very near the end, at which point all of the pre-made characters are already finished so they typically don’t get re-worked at that point.

    3. MichaelGC says:


  5. keldoclock says:

    “The final product must have been a shock to contemporaries, because frankly, it was a shock to me as well.”

    Rutskarn, did you plan to go back and revisit this statement and forget, or what?

    From a GameSpot review by Trent Ward on September 26, 1996 (a moment in time just over a week after my birth):
    “Although Daggerfall does sport an absorbing storyline (several, in fact), it’s the potential for adventure outside of the standard plot that is so exciting. No longer forced to play the way The Man wants, we are now free to ignore the pleadings of the princess, wander off, and get involved in other complex tales that change and evolve in response to our actions! Here lies the greatest strength and weakness of Daggerfall.”

    I am particularly amused by the conclusion of this review:
    “The bottom line is this: RPGs have always attracted a fanatical core group, and this title was designed with those hard-core gamers in mind. For the rest of you, play another round of Quake and leave the adventuring to the pros.”

    Which sounds very much like “git gud scrub”, a sentiment which provides true insight into the keen intelligence and journalistic integrity of the writer.

    Here’s another from November of 96.

    My cursory search turned up just these two reviews, with modern re-visitations of Daggerfall dominating the results. But I’m even more of a layman than you are, and I’m sure if you take the time to look you’ll be able to unearth some more prose; you might even have to dig around in an archive, fumbling with the ink-and-paper blasphemies to modern sensibilities our primitive ancestors called “magazines” and “journals”. You’d be doing God’s work, surely.

    EDIT: The thought occurred to me that I would very much like to hear Shamus’s thoughts on the game; being the most representative gamer from the time we have around, he might remember something of the feelings he had when he first heard of this thing, and maybe even could tell us what he probably would have thought if he had played the game at the time (I’m assuming he was too busy strafing around people with rockets at the time to pay this one much attention).

    1. 4th Dimension says:

      Back then Shamus was a Shooter guy, so Dagerrfall was out of his concerns as F2P multiplayer shooters are today.

      1. Shamus says:

        Pretty much this. I don’t have any memory of the game at the time. I imagine I sort of glossed over it the way I did all the other “medieval fantasy”.

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          The key question now is:Are there races in this game?If there are,well,we all know how much you pine for procedural racing.

          1. Trix2000 says:

            You, sir, are a terrible terrible person.

        2. Jokerman says:

          And even more so than Baldurs Gate, this game is really hard to go back and play in 2015.

          1. Muspel says:

            I think that the most compelling proof for how difficult Baldur’s Gate is to enjoy is this:

            I played BG1 and 2 when I was a kid. I can go back today, replay them, and enjoy them a lot.

            I cannot do the same with Planescape: Torment. I badly want to play it and enjoy it, but I just get so annoyed by all of the archaic mechanics, and there’s no nostalgia to get me past it.

            1. Matt K says:

              Honestly, I played PS:T back in 2000 and even then the mechanics were kind of rough. The one saving grace was that combat wasn’t as big a deal (at least as a wizard, from what I recall).

    2. Rutskarn says:

      To be honest, particularly from those early days–only a few years before I was reading the magazines myself–I find magazine reviews pretty poor indicators of common consensus.

      As you yourself point out, the reviewers tended to come from the sorts of people who probably shouldn’t have been playing the game in the first place or else the kind of jaded megaenthusiast who might dedicate one sentence to a huge technological innovation and then unleash their inner crank. CGW’s infamous 4-star review of Baldur’s Gate leaps to mind.

      The other major problem with old game reviews? Not a whole lot of archives hang onto them.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        I dont know,I find those more honest than the current ZOMG!10of10!BESTGAME!Nowwheresmymoney?

        1. Supahewok says:

          Honestly? Read the whole of that first review. Take out the bits about specific mechanics (like the class system), and I don’t think it’d be that much different from the reviews for Skyrim a few years ago. The reliability of reviews has not changed one whit over 15 years, they just have different window dressing.

    3. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      I played this when it came out -recall that I would have been about 7th grade.

      I didn’t know it had a story. As far as I was concerned, this was a game where I got to go from town to town and dungeon to dungeon and be a knight, or a rogue, or a scoundrel.

      It was Sid Meier’s Pirates for medieval sword and sorcery.

      It was Mount and Blade before Mount and Blade existed.

      It was after Oblivion came out (I’d somehow missed Morrowind) that I realized, “oh, there was a plot to that game?”

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        Doubchecked and I was 13 at the time the game came out, I think I got my hands on it that year or next. While I was only vaguely familiar with the first person RPG genre this came as an absolute shock, it just felt like it was going on forever. Most of the time I restarted the game I didn’t even end up in the same climate zone as on my previous run. On the other hand, you think coming back to a game after a few weeks/months and not remembering where you were and what you were doing is bad nowadays? Try that with a Daggerfall savegame, especially since the game gives you very few pushes in any direction whatsoever.

        I wish this game was more focused on making the freeform exploration and missions more purposeful, more Mount & Blade’y I guess…

      2. Decius says:

        I likewise never discovered that there was a main plot. I just loitered around in shops until after they closed and stole everything, starting with the horse and cart to haul it all off in.

  6. Kalil says:

    I loved – and still sort of love – Daggerfall, so much so that I’ve been trying for years to convince my programmers friends to help me make a modern sequel to it. The game is clunky and awkward with awful controls and oodles of bugs, but the ambition is astounding, and the dungeons… The dungeons were immense and tremendously fun to explore. It had a really good map system – and it needed it. No game before or since has allowed me to get lost the way Daggerfall did. That feeling made it incredibly immersive, even if it was at times frustrating. As you say, it’s easy to spend two weeks in a single dungeon. One of thousands. And yet… When I go back to the game, I find I still know my way around Privateers Hold and a few of the other common quest locations.

    Yah…. I’m a fanboy. Daggerfall remains my favorite elder scrolls game.

  7. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Question:Is there a waterfall in this game that is named dagger falls?With a convenient hamlet nearby?

  8. Da Mage says:

    Played about 10 hours or more of Daggerfall over the years….barely scratched the surface, and the dungeons turned me off. There are only so many times that you cannot find your target in a dungeon and fail the quest before you don’t want to play anymore.

    Though the scope of the game really is impressive, only game that has truely felt like an actual world to me (after I sat back and thought about it).

    1. MichaelGC says:

      Blimey. So he wasn’t kidding about not getting to the part with the orcs, then! :D

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        He wasn’t. Though in my experience with the game the quests to “kill X mobY” can be exploited quite easily. When you try to rest in a dungeon the game will roll for monsterspawn, as the quest target mobs are inhabitants of said dungeon they are on the spawnlist. To be honest it’s been very long since I’ve played the so I’m not sure if it worked on orcs, or it could be one of the scripted, rather than generated, quests and it could not work then.

        Now, quests to recover an item or otherwise find one specific target on the other hand…

  9. Lachlan the Mad says:

    Is that Anthony Head at the back of the FMV?

    1. Andy_Panthro says:

      Alas no, but perhaps if we Kickstart a remake we could get him to do it?

      (as an aside, I actually really like the little FMV bit. I thought it was a better idea than doing more CGI, that’s for sure!)

  10. Orillion says:

    Hey, I’ve actually been to Northmoor! Well, I’ve been to a Northmoor, because they do recycle town names like crazy. In just one playthrough I was sent to the same town twice, only to discover later that it was actually two different towns with the same name, but one of them had a space between the prefix and suffix.

    Daggerfall is probably the single game I want to see a modern reimagining of the most, with the original design documents kept intact but the lessons of the present set to affect some of the decisions. Lessons like “make the dungeons 1/10 the size but let them still be procedurally generated.”

    The sad fact, though, is that even if anyone were to do that (and Bethesda certainly won’t), everyone who remembers Daggerfall probably has something different about it that they believe changing would fundamentally ruin the experience. One man’s “overly stupid big stupid dungeons” is another man’s “the only part Daggerfall got right.”

  11. Zaxares says:

    I never really got into Daggerfall, but you know the one thing I remember most of all? THE SHOP MUSIC.

    My brother was way more into this game, and he actually developed a spell that was so incredibly powerful, it would also kill you the moment you cast it. UNLESS… you hit enough targets with it that the life steal made up for the health it drained from you for casting it. So, this resulted in him doing ridiculous things like gathering up 30 town guards, slaughtering them all with a couple casts of this spell, but if he tried to use it on a single orc, he would commit suicide.

  12. John says:

    Bethesda just released a bunch of older games on GOG: Elder Scrolls games up through Morrowind and ID games up through Quake. If you buy any of the Elder Scrolls games, they’ll throw in Arena and Daggerfall at no extra charge. Of course, Bethesda made Daggerfall an absolutely free download at one point. The drawback was that you had install and configure DOSBox all on your own–whereas the GOG installer will do that for you.

    Daggerfall is actually the game that got me started with DOSBox. It was tricky going at first and I still don’t consider myself an expert, but I think that I mostly know what I’m doing now. I managed less than 20 hours of Daggerfall, all told; Daemian’s Monty Python riff up above is disturbingly accurate. In the end, the dungeon designs drove me nuts and I quit. But learning DOSBox has paid off, since it means I can still play my older games like Command & Conquer and Tie Fighter. (One of these days I should really get around to installing the DOS version of Red Alert rather than futilely trying to get the Windows 95 version to run well.) It also means that I can get DOS-based games from GOG running under Linux, even when GOG doesn’t release a package installer or a tarball. (GOG is pretty good about releasing Linux installers for Microprose games, but not so much for other games, it seems.)

    1. Andy_Panthro says:

      GOG has even got the two forgotten Elder Scrolls games: Battlespire and Redguard! I played the demos of each of them back in the day, so can’t say how good they were (probably not good). I do remember Redguard requiring a 3D video card of some sort, and if you didn’t have that specific model (or compatible), it wouldn’t run. Amazed they managed to get it working.

  13. Rich says:

    Back then I got all the Daggerfall I needed from the demo. Never got around to buying the game.

  14. Kylroy says:

    I do not mourn the passage of the “Interesting Choice” era of gaming. Realms of Arkania was another series that had dozens of skills and handled them poorly; heaven help the ranger who showed up for the wholly city-based second and third games.

    Even 4 years later, Diablo 2 had giant sprawling skill trees with literally millions of ways to play, which is to say millions of ways to play gimped useless builds and maybe a dozen effective ones. People screamed bloody murder when D3 narrowed the available options, but I enjoy being able to play a game without either fumbling through a test run or extensively researching it first.

    1. Rutskarn says:

      I took a good three skills on my initial party that I discovered, via an FAQ later, literally don’t exist in the game except for the purposes of wasting your points.

      1. Kylroy says:

        Yeah, I seem to recall that the first game tried to make every skill do *something*, even if it was just score you some extra loot in a random encounter. By the time they made the sequels, they had apparently run out of damns to give. RoA had the excuse of being based on a tabletop game; I have no idea what was motivating the folks behind Daggerfall, beyond a deep-seated love of fiddlyness.

        (Incidentally, remember “Toaster Repair” in the original Wasteland? It served no purpose but to grant you access to about a half-dozen caches across the game that happened to be tucked into toasters. So game designers were already parodying the concept in *1988*.)

        1. Richard H says:

          I’d say that’s because this was a joke straight from tabletop RPGs. I have seen some fantastic stories about people trying to figure out what having a skill specialization of “Limner” even means. (It turns out, it’s someone who draws lines, that is to say a drafter or copyist, but if your DM doesn’t know that, you won’t be allowed to use the skill to draw a picture.)

          1. Matt Downie says:

            If your GM doesn’t know what a Limner is, that sounds like a great all-purpose flexible skill.
            “So unless any of you are experts in shoring up collapsing mineshafts, it looks like you’re all going to die…”
            “Wait! I’m a Limner.”
            “A Limner?”
            “A Limner! A mine-engineer.”
            “Uh, yeah, I knew that.”

        2. Decius says:

          Wasteland 2 certainly parodied Toaster Repair. I think Wasteland was playing it straight.

          See also Combat Shooting.

    2. Erik says:

      I remember playing Diablo 2, and spending way too many skillpoint from my barbarian into the “create potion out of corpse” skill. D’oh!

      1. Kylroy says:

        And the best part? No way to get those skill points back! Yep, your barbarian is now forever weaker because you made the mistake of playing the game and doing things that seemed useful, rather than meticulously researching every decision before proceeding.

        Much like D3, I remember the uproar when WoW changed from a skill tree to a half-dozenish skill tiers where you pick one of three choices. Given that I don’t think you had even a half dozen skill points to spend without speccing into stupid under the old system, I was stunned at all the people complaining about losing choices.

        1. Trix2000 says:

          On the plus side, you could spend money to respec and do it again. So it wasn’t permanent damage.

          On the other hand, though, WoW actually had TWO revamps in which Blizzard tried to fix the system. The first time, they simply rearranged and changed out parts of the existing trees, with the goal being to remove the non-options and allow more flexibility. It… didn’t work as well as they hoped, so they ended up changing the whole system to the three-option stuff.

          Even then, there were often ‘best options’ for a number of tiers, but the lines became a lot more hazy. It was still easier for them to tweak and balance that way, though.

    3. Daemian Lucifer says:

      People screamed bloody murder when D3 narrowed the available options

      Except it didnt actually.True,there are less skills,but the ways in which you could customize them are more plentiful.People that screamed bloody murder were just whining before even trying.

    4. Muspel says:

      The useful rule of thumb for game design I like to use is this:

      “Is it plausibly possible for players to make a wrong choice before they can adequately understand the consequences of that choice? If so, then you either need to redesign that choice, or add the ability to respec.”

      And, frankly, I usually prefer games that take the second option, because most games aren’t worth the time to play through them again just to try out different skill builds. If I can respec and experience all of the playstyles on one playthrough, all the better.

  15. Ilseroth says:

    I played Morrowind first and was absolutely excited for Oblivion, and while I enjoyed playing it I decided to try one of the older games, after all, there were two games I hadn’t played.

    So I got Daggerfall and was immediately smacked in the head by the character creation. I had been playing RPGs for a while but having that many options was just crazy. Thankfully I managed to pick mostly useful skills, but I did make my character unable to regen magicka…

    This culminated in my character getting bit by a werewolf. When the full moon rose, my character was supposed to transform, but I didn’t have any magicka so it couldn’t cast lycanthropy on myself. What happened? I got all the stat bonuses for being a werewolf without transforming. Permanently.

    Pretty funny stuff.

    1. Andy_Panthro says:

      It’s exactly these sorts of things which made Daggerfall so good. I still think the character creation is brilliant, and it’s a shame we don’t see more games take some of the ideas from it.

      I remember making a pseudo-vampire, harmed by both sunlight and holy places. This gave me tons of extra points, and made my char very powerful. Absolute pain to play though. (and then I found out you could become a vampire actually in-game).

  16. MadTinkerer says:

    “This was the era of Choice, but it was also an era where every Choice but one or two were often punishingly bad with no warning. Daggerfall, Fallout, Arcanum, Realms of Arkania”“all of them had this problem, and it's part of the reason fans and non-fans can't discuss the games without getting into snipe-y tantrums.”

    In Ultima VII, one of the greatest RPGs of all time and the one I recommend above all other Ultimas (bearing in mind that I’m combining Serpent Isle into the recommendation for U7), Dexterity does nothing. The game isn’t any poorer for it, it’s just that they started by creating a new engine and interface and combat system and it turns out that Dexterity wasn’t needed for the new combat system (Dexterity did matter in prior and later games).

    It’s not actually a problem because character customization is undermined by quest rewards that boost all of your stats at the same time and there’s even a few cheating (as in exploits, not codes) ways to boost your Strength and Vitality. In other words, since combat wasn’t the point of the game, combat was allowed to stay broken (in the player’s favor) and unless you paid really close attention to the Official Hint Book you might not even figure out that Dexterity did nothing.

    1. Andy_Panthro says:

      I made it through large parts of the game without levelling up (training), which shows you how little combat mattered in U7. The game was all the better for it, in my opinion!

    2. Elric says:

      I’m not so certain Dexterity doesn’t matter in Ultima 7 (which, as you are absolutely right, is one of the greatest RPG’s of all time). Most people seem to think that the combat in U7 sucks, especially for lack of control. I suppose this comes especially from fans of the earlier Ultimas, where you could control every step and attack of your party.
      But personally, I think the combat in Ultima 7 is deeper than most people think. First of all, I think the real-time, fast paced combat was a good design decision, as combat resolves much faster this way. So you can have lots of smaller fights without it becoming an annoyance for the player. But the combat itself is also very interesting to watch. Faster NPC’s will actually maneuver and step back from a stronger NPC, take another quick strike when he approaches, and take another step back again, repeating the process. I’ve seen fast NPC’s armed with a light weapon, such as a lance in SI, beat stronger but slower NPC’s with a two handed sword.
      But sometimes, the faster NPC doesn’t get the timing just right, he gets whacked by the stronger NPC a couple of times, and goes down quickly.

      Therefore, it always looked to me as if Dexterity actually did play a large role. But almost every time you raise Dexterity, the “Combat” skill also raises. So maybe it’s the combat skill that is producing this behavior. Either way, I think the implementation of the combat was pretty cool and interesting.

      But you will have to play the original game in Dosbox too see it. The combat in Exult is much different and simplified.

      The most annoying thing about combat was that NPC’s low on health might flee, possibly dropping some random items in the process… on one occasion I lost a quest critical item this way and had to use hackmover to move trees out of the way, until I finally found it.

  17. somebodys_kid says:

    I’m loving this series, Rutskarn. I’d be delighted if they went all the way to Skyrim.

  18. Dwip says:

    This is about where I came into the series. We used to play this absolutely obsessively in high school in the 90s. There was a point in time where I could have told you all about that one way to glitch out character creation for huge amounts of magicka, and how to jump just right in that one dungeon piece so you could walk around outside the level. Fun times.

    It’s funny to me how the Soviet tank UI of Daggerfall (and let’s be honest, lots of other 90s games) really didn’t bother anybody at the time that I can recall, but in the WASD era are pretty much unplayable. I tried a couple of years ago and got handily murdered by the tutorial rat. UI design in gaming has come a long, long way since the good old days. Same with the useless skills. I don’t recall thinking much of it at the time beyond being genre-savvy enough to just skip the dumb ones.

    Aside from all the addictiveness of Daggerfall, the other big thing I remember was just how incredibly, over the top, infamously buggy the thing was in ways that later Bethesda titles struggle to live up to. Game breaking, crash on launch stuff fixed by a plethora of patches downloaded from crazy websites decked out with that one mid-90s animated flame gif. Which, at least for me marked the end of the era in which games getting one patch was a big deal and the beginning of a more modern era in which constant patching is no thing (we were pretty angry about it at the time). I think this was also the first game I actually talked about with people on the internet, and one of the first where just looking up WTF to do on GameFAQs was a real thing versus the sort of patchy handed down wisdom of the ancestors way we used to handle things. Boy was that nice.

    Heady stuff for the day.

    1. Orillion says:

      To be fair it really isn’t that hard to die to the first rat in the game, compared to (say) the first assassin in Baldurs Gate.

  19. Deadpool says:

    Hmmmmm… I never thought of Fallout as an Interesting Choice game. Perhaps I just lucked into a proper build off the top?

    What WERE some of the Interesting Choices?

    1. Kylroy says:

      Having low agility. Trying to use Big Guns as your main weapon skill. Playing a character with 3 Int or below (though they did throw some easter eggs in for this, the character is gimped both story- and gameplay-wise).

      1. Deadpool says:

        Yeah, I don’t see that. Big Guns was a useful skill. Not being able to be the ONLY weapon skill you use (same with Energy and Thrown weapons) doesn’t make it an Interesting Choice.

        Low Agility and Low Intelligence don’t quite fit. These are stats that HAVE uses, and having them at low points hurt you (although they don’t actually break you the way you imply). That’s sort of the opposite of Interesting Choice Syndrome really…

        1. Kylroy says:

          In Fallout 1 at least, Big Guns was an awkward middle child – you didn’t get any weapons for it until mid-game, and they were far behind the Energy Weapons you got shortly thereafter (barring degenerate builds like taking the +range damage perk three times and wielding a minigun). Thrown was frankly another borderline useless skill – grenades were vastly more expensive than any other option for killing opponents, plus they could splash damage you.

          Admittedly neither is as completely useless as Traps, but it’s hardly obvious at character select that Melee will be a viable endgame skill but Thrown won’t.

          1. Deadpool says:

            The idea of Interesting Choice isn’t something that’s sub optimal so much as something that is completely or mostly useless.

            Thrown weapons do quite a bit of damage, and have a use. They can’t be your ONLY weapon, but they make a fine side weapon for specific purposes. Same with Big Guns. Miniguns and Rocket Launchers and Flame Throwers are all capable and useful weapons, even if they can’t be your ONLY weapons.

            Traps is largely useless. There aren’t a lot of traps to spot, and they aren’t hard to power through the few times they come up. There are NO dialogue options about it, and the bonus of setting dynamite to a specific time is pretty much irrelevant.

      2. Decius says:

        Strength of 1 (moreso with Small Frame). Perception of 1. Endurance of 1. Agility of 1. Intelligence of 1.

        Any of those four options gimps your character in a significant way that makes it a challenge mode.

    2. Andy_Panthro says:

      Things like First Aid and Doctor have very limited uses, as did Gambling and Traps IIRC. You could potentially sink lots of skill points into these with little positive effect. Not to mention that Stimpaks are pretty easy to come by, and money too, making Barter and Gambling not very useful.

      1. Deadpool says:

        Holy crap! I’d forgotten Trap and Gambling even WERE skills. First Aid was pretty crap, but Doctor… That was more of a metagame issue actually.

        Broken limbs were severely debilitating, and fixing them couldn’t be done with Stimpacks back then. You had to travel to a town with a doctor (not common) and pay him (expensive) to fix it, or use the skill. The PROBLEM is that most players just quick loaded when a limb was broken and moved on…

        Also, Barter wasn’t just useful, it was the best skill in the game and flat out broken.

        But yeah, Trap, Gambling and First Aid WERE indeed Interesting Choices I’d flat out forgotten…

        1. Matt Downie says:

          So Trap Skill was a trap skill?

        2. Decius says:

          You could afford to sink a fair amount of skill points into anything and still have a playable character. There’s a long list of skills that lack the universal ‘usefulness’ of small guns.

  20. SlothfulCobra says:

    There is something charming about old games that are so badly designed that they seem like they’re from another planet. Mechanics that are explained wrongly by the game, or were abandoned halfway during development, or contradictory lore. It’s always really neat to dive into a world like that.

    …And then fail to do anything, maybe get killed horribly, and then you can just imagine what it would be like if all the mechanics actually worked like the manual said they were supposed to.

  21. Blackbird71 says:

    Daggerfall first came out while I was in high school, and I remember several of my friends talking about it frequently. I didn’t have a computer that could run it at the time, so I didn’t play it until a few years later.

    It was an amazing experience in that day and age. I loved the game because it let me do whatever I wanted to do and be whatever I wanted to be; to build characters that were truly unique and then to play them however I wished. Sure I could be the shinning hero, just like any other RPG out there. But I could also be the unscrupulous rogue, who once free cared nothing for the royal quest he had been tasked with, and instead spent his time sneaking into shops and homes to see what hidden secrets and valuables he could uncover and pilfer. It was the first game I ever played that I felt had set a whole world before me and let me engage with it any way I chose.

    It was also the first game to introduce me to modding, and the first time I ever used a hex editor. The ability to mod the game let me truly shape the game into the experience I wanted to play, and it made Daggerfall feel more and more like my game. Needless to say, I haven’t been able to play any Elder Scrolls game since without heavily modding it. In fact, I think I’ve spent more time installing, adjusting, changing, and fixing mods in Oblivion then I’ve ever spent playing the game.

    I only ever “finished” Daggerfall once; but I could not even begin to estimate the hours I spent exploring it’s vastness and enjoying the experience. For all its bugs and flaws, it was still something unique. To this day, I’m still chasing after that same experience, waiting for another game to offer something on that level. Other Elder Scrolls games bear a lot of resemblance to this, but lack the sheer scope and openness of the world in Daggerfall. A few MMOs with a more sandbox-style play have come close, but I’ve really never found anything quite the same, and I doubt I ever will.

  22. Daemian Lucifer says:

    By the way,if we want to use it in our games,what skills does “not a mercenary” class have?Besides drinking and taking all the drugs.

    1. Rutskarn says:







      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        So many languages!I guess you need them if you are going to tell anyone you meet “I am NOT a mercenary!”

      2. WarlockOfOz says:

        In later games, having no combat skills as part of your class would permit level 1 characters with massive combat skills, since you could then advance your combat skills without levelling up.

        1. Decius says:

          That characteristic can be made nonexploitable by making your character level not determine things about the game world, like who lives in that cave.

  23. newdarkcloud says:

    Hearing you talk of Interesting Choice Phenomenon really reminded me of Alpha Protocol. I love that game, I really do.

    However, it is one of those games where there is objective one way to play that’s better than anything else. It is nearly mandatory to take Stealth/Pistols to have fun with Alpha Protocol. The third specialty skill is up for debate (I usually take Sabotage, but I could see Technical Aptitude or Martial Arts), but Stealth/Pistols is objectively better than any other skill combination.

  24. Don Alsafi says:

    Riddle me this: how does a studio as small as the Arena team produce a world with 750,000 NPCs, thousands of dungeons, dozens of factions, and a world the size of an actual country? The same way you cover a football field in gold: you take a respectable volume of content and stretch it as thin as it will go.

    Oh! Like the infamous 1983 text adventure that boasted over 7000 locations, at a time when most games only could fit about 200. (Hint: 6800 of these rooms were identical, and empty.)

  25. Alderic says:

    Amazing article! Daggerfall, despite everything, still one of my favorite games.

    Daggerfall had a very curious fixation on Shakespear, it is all around in the manual with a lot of quotes and in the game itself:

    – Wayrest appear to be somewhat inspired by King Lear.
    – Daggerfall and Sentinel war is a bit Henry V, with the current king of Daggerfall begin somewhat a Henry V kind of character.
    – Talking about Daggerfall, the whole thing about old king of Daggerfall haunting his realm is very Hamlet like.

    Also the fact the manual as likely written much before the whole game was done result in this strange situation where half of it mention stuff that don´t exist in game or fail to mention stuff that actually is there. Which lead to a quite memorable moment I had:

    After, like many other players, figured that there was no adult dragons like the manual said, I didn´t take anything it was written there seriously. But how I could guess that the whole lycantropy (much like vampirism) was real? I mean it was only quickly mentioned in what appeared to be your average fluff monster description.

    So imagine my surprise, after leaving a dungeon full of werewolves, thinking not about it (since I had faced them before) and a few days later when I used the rest option: the screen fade to black, fade out again now showing cutscene with a naked man crying tear of blood with a almost incomprehensible narration and the screen fade to black again and I found my character had contract lycantropy. I was so shocked that I hit the reload button in almost instant.

  26. Bubble181 says:

    Daggerfall was one of the first big RPGs I played, and definitely the one that defined the genre and the playing style for me. I sunk in easily over a thousand hours in there (my god! The time investment! Imagine! I can’t even finish 50 hour games these days!). It’s for me what Fallout or Baldur’s Gate was for many other people. It is still the benchmark I compare other RPGs to.
    Of course, I’ve tried replaying it recently and it’s absolutely beyond replayable because of the UI and the graphics, but that doesn’t matter.
    Of course, of note is that most of those hours were spent BEFORE I ever got internet. Looking up things on GameFAQs? What now? A patch? How would that even work?! So yes, I figured out vampirism and lycanthropy on my own. I joined all those knightly orders, and figured out the differences (and yes, there ARE differences if you progress high enough).

    Obviously a whole lot of it was completely useless and bonkers. But you have to admire a game where there’s whole mechanics you don’t ever meet if you stick anywhere close to the main story. There are whole clans, and factions, and whatever, you’ll never meet.

    And btw, some of the languages actually *do* have a use in getting some extra quests and being able to go to some extra towns. Except they’re not hinted at in any way or able to be found without ridiculous random travelling, or paying attention to some texts hidden in some books you’re not even very likely to find.

  27. mechaninja says:

    Late, sorry, hard to read all the things.

    My brother and I played Final Fantasy VI (then III) together. He would run it for a couple hours, then I would. We basically cleared it over our Christmas break during college one year. After the [major spoiler], we discovered (via gamefaqs of course) the dinosaur forest, and learned that you could get the low drop rate Optimizer (all spells cost 1 mana) from the Brachiasaurs in that forest. Except you couldn’t kill them, because they would use a sneeze and shoot your characters off the screen. This wasn’t a wipe, per say, as much as it was a simple loss. And the Brachiasaur was a rare encounter. Mostly you’d run into the … Allasaur looking things. But either was great EXP and MP (MP was for leveling your spells). So my brother decided he was going to grind the Dino Forest until we had four optimizers. We started this particular gaming session probably around 8pm, and I spent part of the time looking for things we’d missed up to this point, and part of the time providing moral support as he wiped and reloaded and killed Allasaurs and just ground his face against that forest, until finally he managed to kill a Brach. But of course it didn’t drop an optimizer.

    I fell asleep in the early AM. We had one optimizer, and were I think something like level 60. I woke up to him shouting “hallelujah!” when he got our fourth optimizer. All our characters were something like level 85/90.

    I tell you this Final Fantasy story from about 20 years ago because I want you to know who my brother is when I tell you that he played the absolute shit out of Daggerfall. He printed everything from Gamefaqs on how to make the best whatever or grind it or whatever, I can’t remember. He played it I swear for 6 months.

    I spent about an hour with it and just threw my hands up.

Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!

You can quote someone like this:
Darth Vader said <blockquote>Luke, I am your father.</blockquote>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.