in the MakingAn Elder Scrolls Retrospective
The Start of a Beautiful Friendship
It's always strange to watch history in the making. Most ironic
is that we rarely recognize it for what it is"history
in the making" is usually just some new tidbit until it actually
becomes ... well, history. Then it may grow and change over time,
improving, remaining in our collective consciousness. Whatever it
is, it's something that we know will not be forgotten for a long
time to come.
Naturally enough "history in the making" is not necessarily
an appropriate term to apply to computer games; we were, after all,
just told that computer games cannot communicate ideas and are therefore
not protected by free speech (thanks for clearing that up for us,
judiciary!), so to call a game series "history" may be
offensive to some Hayes Code-worshiping censorniks still lurking
out there. "Gaming history" will encapsulate things more
nicely and keep us safe from the pundits.
When Ultima hit stores, probably few aside from Richard
Garriot himself envisioned the future of the series. Same goes for
Wing Commander, Wizardry, and any number of other successful
first launches that have spawned franchises in their own right.
I was working in software retail when The Elder Scrolls: Arena
came out in 1993; I remember that buzz about the game was very
positive (it was one of the earliest first-person RPGs and had arrived
amidst the Doom craze, when everything was going to first
person), but I have no recollection of thinking that it, too, would
be the start of something or that The Elder Scrolls would
become such a favorite among gamers.
Nine years later, we know the series to be one of the most progressive
and forward-thinking franchises in the history of gaminga
quality that has blackened the eye and the pride of Bethesda Softworks
more than once, for the studio/publisher behind The Elder Scrolls
has committed just as many egregious errors as it has achieved
victories. Bethesda has developed a reputation for releasing games
too late, too riddled with bugs, and too insufficiently playtested
to be worth the accolades they might otherwise deserve. It's possible
to describe The Elder Scrolls as a study in the disgrace
and humiliation of a company that absolutely refuses to let go of
its vision for the future of CRPGsbut it's equally possible
to describe the series as the first step on the thousand-mile journey
that will finally bridge the gap between computer and tabletop roleplaying,
and certainly as a work so immense, so complex, and so stimulating
that we may be able to brandish it before the pundits who still
refuse to accept our pastime for what it isan entertainment
art form in its thrilling infancy. Like them or not, The Elder
Scrolls are part of something the medium needs, something that
may one day lift our perceptions of interactive media and our imaginations
alike to heights we've not yet imagined.
With the big release of Morrowind, it's time to do a retrospective
on the series to remind gamers where it has been and to speculate
on where it might be going. For many, many gamers, especially our
friends in XBox Country, Morrowind will be the first Elder
Scrolls game they play. Some may not realize that though Morrowind
is officially referred to as "The Elder Scrolls III,"
it is in fact the fifth title to bear that Elder Scrolls prefix.
The Youngest Scroll
According to the documentation, The Elder Scrolls: Arena got
the subtitle it did because the vast, sprawling empire of Tamriel
in which the game takes place is, by all accounts, a pretty rotten
place to live. Stuff is expensive, monsters prowl the landscape,
the provinces constantly wage war against one another, and aside
from a few relatively civilized areas, the entire nation bitterly
resents occupation by the Imperial Province of Cyrodiil, a land
of humans who decided, several hundred years before, that they should
just take everything for themselves. Each of the provinces is home
to a race of your usual fantasy peoplesDark, High, and Tree
Elves inhabit the provinces of Morrowind, Sumerset Isle, and Valenwood
respectively; exotic races, such as the tigerlike Khajiit and lizard-man
Argonian tribes, live in more distant Elsweyr and Black Marsh. Those
directly related to human beings are relegated to the northern provinces
of Skyrim, High Rock, Hammerfell, and of course Cyrodiil itself.
Something is rotten in the state of Tamriel, however. When Arena
opens we discover that Jagar Tharn, the Imperial Battle Mage
and advisor to Emperor Uriel Septim VII, has trapped his former
boss in a (presumably unpleasant) alternate dimension. In an unusually
well thought-out power grab for a fantasy CRPG villain, Tharn has
also assumed the Emperor's shape and form. No one except you and
a handful of others realize that anything is wrong. Your character
is stuffed in a dank prison cell for the somewhat dubious crime
of "knowing too much," and it's your lonely and largely
thankless task not only to expose Tharn for the imposter he is,
but to drag Emperor Uriel back from wherever he's been banished.
Sadly, Arena came out before the fantasy RPG renaissance,
when developers realized that locating and assembling the disparate
parts of some magical object shouldn't necessarily represent the
end all and be all of the player's goals in such a game. So you
have towait for itlocate and assemble the Eight Pieces
of the Generic Magical Item (in this case, the Staff of Chaos) in
order to defeat Jagar Tharn and save the Emperor. Not a particularly
creative objective, but a very creative story.
Perhaps sensing this flaw in the execution of their game, the designers
did their best to sideline it. A major two-part undertaking is required
to locate each of the eight pieces of the staff (there's one piece
in each occupied province), and each instance of this is so difficult
that characters really have little choice but to spend lots of time
enhancing their own skills by doing odd jobs and adventuring on
their own initiative. Magical artifacts also pepper the game, and
if you're lucky someone might make mention of one rumored to be
nearby. Generally speaking, however, the side quests in Arena
were little more than the "Medieval FedEx Man" tasks
that reviewers like me joke about. However, at the time, it was
fresh enough that taking objects from one person to another over
and over again wasn't so bad.
Arena is often compared to Ultima Underworld, a game
only one year senior, and the comparison is generally a fair one.
Both were first-person, action-oriented, fantasy role-playing games.
Both involved puzzle-solving and communication with others but focused
on exploration of vast areas and use of magic and equipment to excel.
But Arena boasted more than 400 unique visitable locations,
nearly 12 million square kilometers of in-game landscape to explore,
150,000 words of in-game story, and probably 100 hours worth of
play assuming you did nothing but follow the main quest.
And remember that this was all done in 1993, when that level of
scope was frankly unheard of. It was, at the time, as close as anyone
had come to recreating the pencil-and-paper RPG experience on a
There was a certain sense of "sprawl" associated with
Arena; it was easy to get lost in a place as big as Tamriel.
Quick travel was available for crossing long distances, though theoretically
a player could walk from one end of the empire to the otherit
would just take a long, long time. It's interesting to note that
though the developers of Arena worked hard to create a realistic
world map with pleasant rolling landscapes, players rarely used
it. The truth is that the majority of the game was spent in town,
in dungeons, or looking for the samethough this did nothing
to detract from the fun and frolic that was Arena.
Technologically speaking, it was excellent for its time, with a
realistic weather system (I used to really dig the snowstorms),
day and night cycle, fairly strong sprite-based graphics, and plenty
of attractive interiors and exteriors to gawk at. MIDI-based sound
that would make gamers chuckle nowadays sounded just fine in 1993,
especially considering it was being pumped through a Soundblaster
16. Gameplay in general was just the sort of time-suck people like
from quality RPGs; I spent hours playing Arena, sometimes
simply to explore and have adventures, other times intent on progressing
the story arc. Bethesda did one better than most design studios
by allowing great flexibility to the player, including no fewer
than eighteen potential character classes to choose fromplayers
could also choose to hail from any of the eight occupied provinces
of Tamriel, and each race enjoyed unique benefits and drawbacks.
This was just a hint of things to come; the degree of flexibility
found in Arena was nothing compared to its successors.
I know Elder Scrolls fans who to this day swear that Arena
is their favorite Elder Scrolls installmentthough
I think that with Morrowind finally out, we'll see that opinion
changing. And it really did have just about everything you could
want from a CRPG: action, tons of adventure, reasonably good story,
side quests galore. Nothing was missing, because things that we'd
note as being absent today weren't considerations in 1993's technology.
Remember that most people played Arena on 486 computers with
8 megabytes of RAM, and you'll understand why persistent game effects
and NPCs that remembered who you were weren't exactly necessities
in the games of the time.
Ironically, the Elder Scrolls as we know them today almost
never were. Despite the story above, the truth is that Arena
is called "Arena" because the game was not conceived
as an RPG but as a first-person gladiatorial fighting game featuring
a wide selection of fantasy races and classes coming together to
do battle in a huge (you guessed it) arena. Apparently someone at
Bethesda thought that a CRPG concept had more promise, and the universe
of Tamriel was born.
Arena was big during that glorious gaming summer of 1994,
when X-Com, Doom 2, Ultima Underworld 2, Myst, and Wing
Commander 3 all vied for attention. That summer was perhaps
the best season for game releases in the short history of the industry.
Arena sold well and received very high critical acclaim thanks
to its potent degree of nonlinearity, action-packed style, and quality
of replayability. Arena was, and still is, a crucial achievement
in the world of nonlinear CRPGs. By all accounts it was among the
first of the true nonlinear fantasy roleplaying games. And for that
alone it would be a classic, but the truth is Arena was much,
much morenot only for itself, but for the foundation it provided.
Bugs by the Bucketload
And now for the story of how the sequel to Arena cost me
nearly five hundred dollars.
I was a senior in college and very ill the day The Elder Scrolls
II: Daggerfall finally came out in 1996. I remember it well.
A remarkably unfriendly flu had kept me horizontal for nearly ten
days, and I'd spent it weakly mousing my way through what passed
for the Internet at the time, looking for information on Daggerfall.
We didn't have sites that tracked the ship status of games back
then, so much of my intelligence gathering depended on calling EB
and croaking the same questions over and over again: Is it in? No?
When do you expect it? Can you hold a copy for me? A miraculous
feeling of health and well-being overcame me when the kindly EB
man told me that Daggerfall had finally arrived. Even that
foul swine flu couldn't compete with my pent-up excitement.
In the intervening years since Arena I'd unwisely upgraded
my computer to a Cyrix 6x86 processor. Not knowing at the time what
a floating-point unit was, I thought it was the bee's knees (it
booted Windows 3.1 in nine seconds)that is, until I first
The instructions had me in such a state that I could barely make
it through character generation. I was so excited to play a game
that promised to completely blur the line between fantasy and reality,
between computers and tabletop, that I simply didn't want to deal
with the mechanics of getting started. I wanted to be halfway through.
So I raced through chargen, tore through the opening dungeon, and
immediately began exploring Gothway Gardenthe nearest of more
than 5,000 unique visitable locations in Daggerfallonly
to experience ...
DOS Causeway Error #9. Dagger.exe Has Shut Down
Woe. Torment. Agony. For days I started over again and again. I
reinstalled. I formatted. I CHKDSKed. Then the [not particularly]
friendly tech support gnomes at Bethesda sent me a sad email. It
said, essentially, that Daggerfall was not compatible with
my processor. Period. The game would never stop crashing. And while
a patch was in the works, I shouldn't get my hopes up.
Though Bethesda and Cyrix eventually solved the problem, I'd long
since gone storming off to Geraldo's Casa de PCs and gotten myself
a genuine Intel processor. So by the time that the patch fixing
that particular error came along, I ... I was dealing with all the
other errors in Daggerfall.
It is impossible to start a discourse on The Elder Scrolls II
without focusing first and foremost on the fact that the game
was released unacceptably early and so riddled with bugs as to be
nigh unplayable. I and other players encountered dozens of crash
bugs, kindergarten-level spelling and grammatical errors peppering
the million-word text narrative, ghastly tearing and collision,
clipping problems, missing quest objectives, bizarre reputation
and crime errors, items and capabilities clearly described in the
documentation but missing from the game, map corruption, save-game
corruption, objects stuck in the walls, and so forth, literally
ad nauseam. I can't track down an official number of patches finally
released by Bethesda to make up for the humiliation that was Daggerfallit
appears to be between eight and a dozenbut the truth is, even
the final version of Daggerfall was horrendously buggy.
Far be it from me to forgive the company for this massive faux
pas; the crime cannot be excused, but it is only marginally offset
by the fact that Daggerfall was so unspeakably ambitious.
The amount of play available in Daggerfall cannot be measured
in hours. Sure, if you started at the beginning and went straight
through the game, focusing only on "story" objectives
and ignoring every single divergent path, you could expect to finish
in about 200 hours. But you'd be ignoring ninety percent of the
experience of Daggerfall, because the point of the game was
that you didn't have to follow the story at all. Here for the first
time was a game in which you could buy a house, settle down, meet
people, and, if you chose, keep your days full from dawn until dusk
fulfilling tasks without ever once repeating a job or embarking
on something that actually progressed the story. Daggerfall was
immense to the point of incomprehensibility.
One of the good things about Daggerfall was in fact a feature
I'd rushed to get through the first time aroundthe character
generation process. New players could choose from a list of predefined
classes; create their own by assembling, puzzle-like, the different
skill sets, advantages, and disadvantages, or instead answer a dozen
questions with varying moral choices and have the system suggest
a class based on the answers they gave. Additionally, Daggerfall
was the first CRPG to eliminate "experience points"
as a tool for advancement. No longer did a thief become a better
thief by killing a dragon but not by picking a lock; no, leveling
up in Daggerfall depended on your ability to improve key
skills related to your class. If you were a thief and you wanted
to go up a level, you needed to improve your thiefly skills. All
the dragons in the world wouldn't help you. While this made tremendous
sense and has been adopted by many other systems since, there was
and still is a small drawback: classes whose key skills were routine
requirements (running, say; or jumping or talking to people) were
more likely to advance than classes whose key skills were called
upon less frequently. Still, it's much better than a silly and arbitrary
numbering system that provides rewards based on actions taken rather
than skills gained.
If you did choose to follow the story, you'd find a spectacularly
conceived and wickedly intricate murder-and-revenge plot dealing
largely with the presence of a very angry ghostthe ghost of
the recently killed King Lysandus of Daggerfallwho
is inexplicably haunting his former hometown with a spectral army.
Unlike Arena, which took place in the entire vastness of
Tamriel, Daggerfall (and indeed all future Elder Scrolls
games) focused on what was in fact a very small area of the
huge empire. Daggerfall is a city-state in the province of
High Rock, at war with a few neighboring city-states in the same
province. The entire game takes place in an area around a bay on
the western seaboard of Tamriel. Your character is an imperial agent
sent to discover the reason for the spirit's bad-kitty behavior,
and, in an oh-if-it's-not-too-much-trouble sort of way, to track
down a missing letter sent by the Emperor to Lysandus's wife. The
letter was "of a sentimental and personal nature," and
the Emperor doesn't want it falling into the wrong hands, because
stuff like that would command a fortune on eBay. Now, if you're
thinking the Emperor Uriel is just getting it on with Mrs. Lysandus
... well, if you think that, then you have no idea how devious the
writers at Bethesda really are. The reality of Daggerfall's plot
is infinitely more complex.
A new paradigm for RPG design is what allowed the game to be so
colossal in scope: terrain, dungeons, and many interiors were generated
randomly and didn't exist at all until you actually approached them.
This made it possible for Daggerfall to ship on only a single
CD, but it led to serious problems, especially in the honeycomb
of underground ruins beneath the surface of the landscape. The word
"large" does not adequately describe the extent of hugeness
that every single one of the literally thousands of dungeons offered.
It was so easy to get lost in this underworld that a spell had to
be specifically created to get you out once you were in. Weeks of
game time could be spent down there, first looking for whatever
objective you were supposed to deal with in the dungeon, and then
wandering until you find your way back out. The worthless automap
did little to help matters.
If you find your life dissatisfyingly lacking in frustration, try
this on for size: grope your way through the haunted darkness of
a nineteen-floor dungeon just to kill a goblin that's been eating
someone's cattle. Arrive in the goblin's room and find it half clipped
into the wall so you can't touch it. Return to the guild that hired
you for the job and accept a demotion and decrease in reputation
because you "failed" a quest. Because quest objectives
were placed randomly inside the randomly generated maps, the object
or target you were looking for might just as easily have been ten
feet from the entrance as in the deepest, darkest corner of the
underground vastness. More often than not, it was impossible to
find your objective at all. If you did, there was a good chance
it was stuck in the wall and inaccessible. If it wasn't, there was
a good chance you'd get stuck in the wall.
Unlike Arena, the world of Daggerfall was a persistent
one. People remembered you if you'd done something to warrant remembering;
if you committed any crimes, the city guard would certainly remember
you and passers-by would be less likely to help with directions.
This had to be patched, of course; in the original release of Daggerfall,
your reputation went up every time you committed murder. I came
out of prison one time and found the city idolizing me as a god.
Just another bug in a box full of bugs. Another personal favorite
was that though the designers had incorporated the ability to catch
vampirism and lycanthropyon the plausible ground that if you
hang out with vampires and werewolves, you might become one yourselfgetting
bitten by a were-creature always turned you into a wereboar, no
matter what, and getting vampirism was simply impossible. When I
emailed Bethesda about this, curious as to why a werewolf had turned
me into a wereboar, I got the electronic equivalent of a shrug in
return. The bug was so insignificant compared to all the others
that it wasn't even on their radar.
Daggerfall was the first game Bethesda produced that used
their proprietary new game engine, the XNGine. XNGine was a sprite-based
tool, supporting 3D only in software and depending heavily on software
fogging to look good. For the time, XNGine looked great, and Bethesda
continued using it long after it had ceased to be competitive with
other game engines. It was designed to be highly scalable, though
that turned out to be slightly less than true in future iterations
of the engine.
One of the issues that shortened Daggerfall's life was that
it shipped in the absolute earliest days of the 3D revolution. Sadly,
the game never supported hardware 3Dnot even in a patchwhich
took years off its shelf life. Though the blocky, sprite-based graphics
looked outstanding at the moment Daggerfall hit shelves,
the world was about to be treated to GL Quake and accelerated
Tomb Raider. Once gamers saw what the future held, they had
little patience for single-surface sprites, inadequate fogging effects,
and water that looked like the televised snow that appears when
you unhook your cable. Also, though the workhorse DirectX 3 was
being widely used, Bethesda chose to ignore it, deciding DOS support
was more important. Thus Daggerfall also represented one
of the last games that required users to manually configure their
hardware to play. Gamers are spoiled now, and we want our titles
to work straight out of the box. Lack of DirectX support and refusal
to patch the XNGine to support Direct3D may have doomed Daggerfall's
This is important, because as I prepared to write this article,
I gave a lot of serious thought about what really killed Daggerfall
for me. Obviously I hated the bugs, I hated the insanely huge
dungeons with their absurd jumping and lever-pulling puzzles, their
clipping problems, their missing quest objectives. I hated that
so many things were promised in the documentation that never turned
up in the game. But the truth is, I could live with all that because
despite the bugs, the game came really close to blurring the line
I wanted it to blurthe line between true nonlinearity and
the "faked" nonlinearity of a game like Myst. Too
many people think that the ability to accomplish objectives in any
order somehow equates with nonlinear play. That's not true: actual
nonlinearity means the ability to do anything, period. Daggerfall
nearly offered that, though the bugs ruined the execution. And
because better-looking RPGs came out, and they didn't have the problems
that Daggerfall did, I looked elsewhere for the promise of
nonlinearity. If Bethesda had ever added Direct3D support, I might
be playing the game today, bugs or no.
Bethesda created Daggerfall to prove that a computer game
could mimic the tabletop roleplaying experience. They failed miserably,
due in part to the inadequate technology of the time and in part
to their own unwillingness to sufficiently playtest their own creation.
Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and the best
anyone could say about Daggerfall was that it came close
to achieving Bethesda's goals.
Though it was supposed to turn the CRPG world on its ear, in truth
Daggerfall wound up being a massive stopgap between Arena,
which everyone loved, and Morrowind, which everyone is
currently loving. Many of the things they did in Daggerfall were
brilliant. Guild affiliation, enchant-your-own-stuff services, reputation,
persistent worlds, political intrigue and the value of story, not
to mention, of course, the freedom of a nearly true nonlinear gaming
experience; all these things were present in Daggerfall. But
in the end the mixture wasn't right. Daggerfall drowned in
itself. Gorged on ambition, it choked and withered away, buried
under the weight of its own too-muchness.
in Part 2
Release Date: 1993
Release Date: 1996
Release Date: 1997
Release Date: 1998
386/25 IBM or 100% compatible
4 MB RAM
486/66 MHz IBM PC or compatible
8 MB RAM
2x CD-ROM drive
50 MB hard disk space
Local bus (or equivalent) video card
IBM and 100% compatibles
DOS 5.0 or higher
P133 MHz or better
SVGA with VESA 2.0
4x CD-ROM drive, MPC Level 2 or better
16 MB RAM
150 MB hard drive space
Soundblaster or compatible
Pentium 166 MHz
32 MB RAM
350 MB free hard drive space
16-bit sound card
Supported: 3Dfx video card, 4-button gamepad
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