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.
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.
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. Daggerfallâ€˜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.
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 Daggerfallâ€˜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.
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.
NEXT WEEK: CREEPY PULP AND THE BOURNE PROPHECIES.
*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.
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