in the MakingAn Elder Scrolls Retrospective
Like Eating Liver, Only More Repulsive
So all that excitement ended in 1996, and yet it was 2002 before
Daggerfall's sequel shipped. What, you ask, happened in the
Answer: the same thing that happens to successful TV shows. If
something works, you spin it off.
Bethesda was riding high with its Terminator line of games.
Daggerfall walked off with countless awards in 1996 despite
the industry's complaints about it. Most consumers considered it
a failure, and it suffered from a tremendous return rate. Unlike
most other studios, Bethesda Softworks seems immune to the economic
tribulations of the industry; they're part of the Zenimax Media
Group and as such have access to dollars from other walks of the
electronic world. So as studio after studio went on the DOA list,
Bethesda just plodded on.
The Elder Scrolls III: Oblivion (soon to be retitled Morrowind)
was in development all those long years, but the company took its
time in the high concept stage. Before the release of Morrowind
in late April of 2002, it pumped out two other titles set in
the world of Tamrielgames that, while not officially part
of the Elder Scrolls cycle, were certainly part of the mythos.
These were the Elder Scrolls Legends, Worlds of Ultima-style
subchapters intended to expand and expound upon the rich world created
by the designers and writers at Bethesda. They quite wisely realized
that it would be a waste to only produce a handful of games, when
clearly so much work had gone into the world. In fact, I'm rather
surprised we never saw a tabletop roleplaying version of Tamriel.
The Legends were intended to be tighter games, more encapsulated,
with clearer goals addressing some small but intriguing aspect of
life in Tamriel, rather than being the awesome, world-shaking adventures
that the true Elder Scrolls represented. In their usual clever
way, Bethesda's creative team took that concept to bounds most gamers
had never imagined: The first Elder Scrolls legend, Battlespire,
took place not in a single province or even a single town. Battlespire
takes place in a building.
A very large one, it's true; the Battlespire, the mystical structural
subdimension where Imperial Battlemages must go to prove themselves
in a final cruciblic test before earning their pointy hat, is no
1,000-square-foot apartment. But it is a single building. I found
that concept very appealing, especially after the oceanic expanse
of Daggerfall. The character you play is a sort of graduate
student in Battlemage University, with one final exam remaining:
get to the top of the Battlespire alive. The only problem is that
once you get there, you find everyone dead and the place completely
overrun by Daedroth Lords, the slavering demons of Tamriel.
The cleverness in this story concept should be obvious, of course:
here you are, supposed to claw your way to the top of this magical
standardized test all alone. You arrive with your number 2 pencil,
but something seems to have gone horribly wrong ... or has it? Could
this not be, after all, just part of the ordeal that all Battlemages
must endure but about which none are allowed to speak? If you get
to the top, will you find the mighty Mehrunes Dagon, the most infernal
of all the Daedra, waiting for you, or will you find a wine-and-crackers
party set up on the roof, with all your friends there, to celebrate
your final victory?
Since I'm possibly the only person stupid enough to have played
through the entirety of Battlespire, don't ask me to give
it away. Suffice to say that though the story was as clever as they
come, the game was crap. And it was crap for so many reasons that
I may have a hard time covering them all here, because this is already
a big piece and no one likes to read page after page of nastiness.
Once again Bethesda chose to support DOS instead of leveraging
industry-standard APIs. This is in 1997, long after both DirectX
and Windows 95 are mainstays on everyone's computers, yet Bethesda,
the Game Studio That Time Forgot, didn't seem to caremeaning
once again, gamers had to manually configure sound and video to
run the software. And despite absolute assurance that it would be
their first 3D-accelerated title, Battlespire was a brick-pixeled
fantasy of software-driven sprites. No compelling reason for this
reversal was provided, and the obvious shortcomings of a first-person
game running exclusively in software mode were made more offensive
by the fact that Quake 2 had shipped only days before Battlespire.
By this time most people had 3D acceleratorsthe Voodoo
1 was the reigning kingand everyone had Windows 95. But Bethesda
just didn't care.
All the creative energy the team had was spent concocting the clever
storyline of Battlespire. Once you actually get into the
game, you find absurd dialogue and ridiculous, out-of-place, Jar
Jar-quality humor peppering the narrative. Your own character, who
could be constructed using tools similar to those in Daggerfall,
was as poorly written as the NPCs. Battlespire was a
much more linear game than its predecessors, and if Warren Spector
will forgive me, it, in fact, had more in common with the linear
nature of Ultima Underworld than Arena did. But where
Ultima Underworld was a watershed game, and spectacularly
fun to boot, Battlespire was just a waste of time.
It had its moments, especially on the creative and scripting side.
It was wrenching to come across the desiccated skeletons of a human
and dragon, curled up together in a massive chamber. A diary at
the feet of the human told the sad story of these two unlikely friends,
trapped by the Daedra, starving, the bond of their affection preventing
one from consuming the other simply to buy a few more hours' life.
Elsewhere, an abandoned town contained on one of the tower's huge
floors gave up few clues to explain its Roanoke-ishness, the lonely
tendrils of creeping ground fog obscuring vision in the mournful
landscape, meals half-eaten on tables and books sitting by chairs
testament to the fact that the place had been recently inhabited.
But these moments were few and far between. And even the best of
them couldn't save the game.
Combat was impossible; even on the first floors of the Battlespire,
the player would encounter mighty Daedroth Lords that could not
be harmed by anything but the most magical of weapons. Locating
anything on the useless automap was a lesson in futility. Access
to upper levels required passwords, and in some cases they were
not provided anywhere in the game and were in fact simply nonsense
wordsa plot to sell strategy guides, perhaps? Medical equipment
of any kindhealing scrolls, potions, whateverwere far
more precious than gold. Weapons fell into disrepair and broke so
quickly that System Shock 2 was put to shame.
They also saddled it with multiplayer, blowing God knows how much
of their development budget on a feature they should have known
no one would use, since it's unlikely that two people would be willing
to play Battlespire long enough to get a multiplayer game set up.
Perhaps if less time and money had been focused on this useless
feature, we might have seen a game that was more endurable. However,
thanks to the ebbs and flows of the game industry and Bethesda's
own ignorance of its strengths and weaknesses, the popularity at
the time of first-person multiplayer all but demanded that the feature
be present in every game that hit shelves.
And then there was the nudity. Bethesda has always loved nudity
(and honestly, who doesn't?), having flirted with the ability to
remove your character's dainty things as early as Arena. But
up until Battlespire, some standard of decency had always
reigned supreme. In this case, however, you were treated to a monitor-sized
nude of your character, male or female, depicted with absolute shamelessness.
To imply that the goal of this was anything but stroke justification
for minor programming trolls deep in the Bethesda cellars is absurd
and offensive. There's frankly nothing about Battlespire bad
enough to earn it a "Mature" rating except for this, and
it was totally without justification in the game mechanics. Female
characters, especially and as usual, were objectified well beyond
the pale in this little gem. In regard to movies, we're constantly
hearing actresses say that they'll do nudity if it's appropriate
to the story. Here in Battlespire we have just about the
least appropriate nudity I've ever seen, and I'm a male with high-speed
internet access, so I've seen a lot of inappropriate nudity.
Daggerfall was a well-intentioned failure, but at least
a kindly soul could claim that Bethesda had lofty goals in mind
when it created the game. So while Daggerfall failed, it
failed aspiring to the very peak of greatness. Battlespire, on
the other hand, had no goals at all. There was nothing in it that
built or expanded upon an established genre. There was no technology
that made it stand out from the crowd. It was simply there in its
own special way. And most people I know who played it wished that
Setting aside the altogether grotesque topic of Battlespire,
we can cheerfully move forward to 1998, when the next (and much
more agreeable) Elder Scrolls Legend came onto the scene.
Glimmer of Hope
Bethesda took a big detour with the next Legend, both mechanically
and in style. The Elder Scrolls: Redguard was billed as a
"swashbuckling action roleplaying game," and that's what
it stood out as: a third-person 3D game with lots of swordfighting
and brilliant, lavish 3D graphics courtesy of an XNGine so colossally
revamped that even its mother wouldn't recognize it.
Redguard was antithesis to the free-flowing nature of its
predecessors; you were handed a premade character with no option
to customize him. Cyrus was a disarmingly unrufflable swordfighter
who had returned to his home province of Hammerfell to track down
a sister he hadn't seen or spoken to in fifteen years. The reasons
for this sibling breach were explained in a pretty comic book tucked
away inside the Redguard box. As usual, thanks to the hard
work of Bethesda writers, it's better than the typical "rid
the world of your village's destroyer" or "rescue your
missing girlfriend who looks suspiciously underage" plot that
we're used to in fantasy RPGsbecause though the sister certainly
looks underage, there's much more to the story than her location.
The bargain-basement storyline is quickly catapulted into bottomless
intrigue as the plot unfolds. It's no kidnaping mystery, Cyrus soon
finds; it's the key to exposing a political conspiracy of epic proportions
brewing in the tiny island community that serves as Redguard's
setting. Our hero is drawn into a three-way battle between the
insidious Forebears, supporters of Hammerfell's independence; the
noble Crowns favoring a restoration of its ancient monarchy; and
the world-conquering, inexorable Imperials slowly and brutally advancing
from the south. At this point Elder Scrolls fans may pause
to appreciate irony: Redguard takes place several hundred
years before Arena, so we know the political ending herewhich
won't stop you from trying to change it.
Where Redguard truly won was in its ambience. Like all the
Elder Scrolls games, the lengthy documentation sold it as
immersive to an unimaginable level. In many ways, Redguard came
much closer than its predecessors, though still not as close as
Bethesda wanted it to be. It was intended as a much simpler game
than Daggerfall, not even in the same leaguebarely
an RPG, reallybut its ability to evoke a believable and persistent
world is worth comment. The tiny island of Stros M'kai, with its
one-road fishing village, was a place you could feel part of. The
environment unfolded before you like a vistaplayers had no
problem believing that this place was real, no problem believing
they were there. Redguard bit deeply into the suspension-of-disbelief
requirements that all games have.
As mentioned above, Redguard, like Battlespire, was
an XNGine gamealbeit a heavily tweaked and optimized version
of one. 3Dfx acceleration and a redesign to make the interface more
Max Payne than Quake breathed a little life into the
aging codebase, but it wasn't enough to conceal the fact that this
game engine should have long since passed into the silicon sunset.
What's worse, the stretch marks left behind by XNGine's surgery
openly revealed the massive tinkering it underwent. What was meant
to hurl Redguard fast-forward into High Technology was unfortunately
its major shortcoming: like Tomb Raider, it suffered from
hideous polygon tearing and collision problems, a critical deficiency
in a melee-based combat system. The camera constantly collided with
or got stuck behind opaque objects; proof positive that XNGine was
never designed with third-person play in mind. Bethesda can hardly
claim that these problems never occurred to them. They'd have been
better off with the angle-changing camera of Ecstatica. It's
yet another nit that could have easily been worked out in QA, but
we've already established that playtesting is not something for
which Bethesda is famous.
Striking graphicsand they were gorgeous (each and every texture
in the game was hand drawn)couldn't conceal the fact that
3Dfx implementation was disappointing. Though the visuals were wonderful,
and the moody settings through which you ventured evoked an emotional
immersion that was nothing short of astonishing, the game was slow
and choppy even on the high-end machines of the day. Bethesda's
decision to support Glide only rather than including general Direct3D
support (again) was by this point a sign of simple laziness; Redguard
was a pixelated mess in software and not worth the time of a
non-Voodoo gamer. Once again Bethesda chose not to support DirectX
at allon a game that shipped in 1998. What they were thinking
is anyone's guess.
The combat system was real-time, like the other Elder Scrolls
games, but more swashbuckly in natureRedguard's third-person
swordfights ranged across huge areas and focused as much on the
dramatic as they did on the ass-kickery. And while they looked and
felt cool, for my money I'd still take the less-realistic but more-fun
swordfighting of Heavy Metal FAKK2. I'm not sure whether
it was the placement of the controls, the difficulty most players
had remapping the keyboard, or something more inexplicable, but
combat in Redguard seemed a lot more arbitrary than skill-basedperhaps
because there were no stats in Redguard. Like Diablo,
in fact, this title walked a very fine line between the admittedly
nebulous border separating RPG and action/adventure.
The level of immersiveness in Redguard was impressive indeed,
right down to the aptly composed and varied orchestrations, which
were always appropriate to your setting and made amazingly smooth
transitions as the action changed. Each and every NPC in the game
was voice-actedmost very well. Since time in Redguard never
really stopped, such features were critical. The scripting of events
was done with a keen eye for narrative pacing, and often things
happened even when you weren't there to see them. The island of
Stros M'Kai had been designed as a living place, not some two-dimensional
fantasy world revolving entirely around your character. Be in the
wrong place at the wrong time, and you'd miss something pivotal.
Unlike better-designed nonlinears, however, if you missed that pivotal
something you wouldn't be able to finish the game, so it behooved
players to keep their eyes open.
Playing Redguard is a lot like watching a good movie when
suddenly a video game breaks out. You'd find yourself maneuvering
into the coolest possible venues for swordfights, wishing death
and sulphurous rains on those bastard Imperials, pondering the game's
fiendish logic puzzles when you should have been at work or school,
and possibly shouting "I'm quick!" to your bewildered
friends. But unlike the abhorrent Battlespire, Redguard was
logical and well-rooted in the world of good sense and cleverness.
It still was not the intellectual leap forward that Bethesda was
hoping to make with its CRPGs, but it was a big step in the right
direction. With all else said and done, Redguard was a lot
Many folks may be interested in testing out some of these old games.
Morrowind is so great that there's bound to be some interest
in earlier Elder Scrolls titles based simply on the strength
of the newest one. However, times have changed a lot since Arena
shipped, and as I think we've probably already established,
Bethesda Softworks is often too shortsighted to think about the
future when it comes to development.
Not one of the previous Elder Scrolls titles, not even 1998's
Redguard, supports DirectX. Redguard was the first
Elder Scrolls title that required Windows at allArena
shipped during the DOS period, Daggerfall, designed for
DOS, should have been updated for Windows 95 but never was, and
Battlespire was created under Windows but supported DOS as
well. However, until fairly recently, that fact alone would not
have spelled doom for a motivated gamer seeking to unroll an Elder
Nowadays things are different. After a lotand I mean a lotof
tinkering, I can say that any attempt to run Arena or Battlespire
on a Windows XP machine will likely fail without the help of
a DOS boot disk that completely bypasses the operating system. Redguard
and Daggerfall may run, but you will encounter highly
erratic behavior, missing functions, serious audio problems, and
general instability. It appears that the lack of even the phantom
of a 16-bit kernel in Windows XP and 2000 is just too much for Bethesda's
Arena, even when running in compatibility mode, returned
a DOS 4GW error when I tried to run it on Windows XP. Daggerfall
would run (in compatibility mode) under XP but without sound
and very, very slowly. An appalling screech nearly blew out my speakers
while I tried to manually configure my sound card for Redguard;
once audio was sorted out, the game worked with sound effects
but not music. Battlespire didn't work at all. Gamers who
haven't made the switch from Windows 98/ME, however, shouldn't have
too much difficulty with any of the titles. There are several websites
devoted to The Elder Scrolls out there, and many have further
suggestions on getting these old games to run on your newer systems.
The best way to ensure good compatibility on Windows XP/2000 machines
may be to set up a dual-boot with Windows 98 using a utility like
System Commander. If that seems like too much trouble, another option
may be a system-in-system software solution like VMWare to create
a virtual machine that runs a legacy operating system without requiring
an actual partition. Normally games wouldn't work well under VMWare
because the overhead of the virtual machine itself is too great,
but I'd bet that the age and minimal system requirements of the
older Elder Scrolls titles would probably work to a player's
advantage in this case. Even with the required overhead, there should
be plenty of computing power in today's PCs to handle XP/2000, the
VMWare instance, and your game.
Another challenge may be finding the games at retail. Redguard
and Daggerfall should still be available in boxed versions
if you're willing to do a hard target search; I found several copies
of both Arena and Battlespire for sale at various
online auction sites. Tracking any of these games down online shouldn't
be too hard; you're not looking for a Konstantinov jersey, after
all. Don't waste your time trying to find Arena at places
that sell new stuffArena is "out of print,"
and your best bet is to get your paws on a used copy. If you do
find a reliable source, be sure to post the intel at the Henhouse
so that anyone else who's interested can take advantage.
The Phantom Menace
Though I noted earlier that Bethesda seems immune to the slings
and arrows of our industry, that may change in the near future.
Depending on how Morrowind sells, we may or may not see Bethesda
around for longthe company has certainly endured enough critical
and retail failures to warrant it being placed on a watch list.
Remember that we're scarcely a year out from the fall of Looking
Glass Studios, which could be lauded for making games as clever,
as forward-thinking, and as progressive as Bethesda's. The difference
is that Looking Glass games were almost universally spectacular,
while Bethesda has produced some titles so bad that I wouldn't line
my catbox with them. Again, it's Bethesda's access to money outside
the industry, its rapacious snapping up of surefire franchises like
the Terminator and Wayne Gretzky Hockey series, and
the relatively free hand it's been given to operate that have kept
it alive so far.
Perhaps a more apt comparison for Bethesda than Looking Glass would
be Interplay, another medium-sized company that, despite being owned
by a larger conglomerate, is nonetheless practically independent
in its behavior in the PC and console gaming space. Bethesda and
Interplay both fall into a very narrow category (it's occupied by
exactly two companies)that is, studios that publish themselves.
Considering that we as an industry are currently bearing sad witness
to what appears to be the spectacular implosion of Interplay, one
may wonder how much time Bethesda truly has.
There are no answers here; only speculation. The truth is pretty
simple: Bethesda doesn't produce many games. If the outside money
dries up, they're through, because they cannot support their infrastructure
and burn rate based on their own sales. Considering their history
of delays, bugs, and bad customer support, it seems unlikely that
a big publisher like Activision or Microsoft would bail them out,
despite Bethesda's newfound friendship with the XBox. Remember that
no one came to the rescue of Looking Glass once Eidos bowed out
of a deal to save the beleaguered studio, and Looking Glass, too,
developed in the console space. Plus, Bethesda Softworks has nowhere
near the gamer community support that Looking Glass did.
Keep your eye on sales figures for Morrowind. Bethesda,
also responsible for the Sea Dogs and Art of Magic franchises,
may be able to pull something out of its sleeve. We've come to think
of the studio as eternalit's been around since 1986but
as the economy of the PC gaming industry changes, Bethesda may find
itself in an unusual position.
So let's assume for a minute that Bethesda stays afloat, due to
good sales for Morrowind. I paid my fifty bucks, I've written
a positive review of it for other gamers to read; hopefully that
qualifies as my doing my part. Where do we go from here?
This grizzled veteran predicts that the Elder Scrolls Legends
lineup is through. Like Worlds of Ultima, it was destined
to run only two titles. Unlike the Worlds of Ultima, which
were great games that sold poorly (thus leading to the cancellation
of that spinoff), the Legends consisted of one relatively
okay game and one unbelievably terrible game, both of which sold
poorly. In a way it's a pity, because there is plenty that can be
done with the amazingly detailed world of Tamriel. Anyone who's
played Arena knows how much there is to explore; anyone who's
played Daggerfall knows how much magic and mystery even a
small corner of the empire holds. Part of me is eager to experience
as much more as possible. On the other hand, I'd rather see fewer
games and a universe not fully taken advantage of than be party
to the same shameful prostitution of the Elder Scrolls that
we're seeing with the X-Com franchise.
It takes Bethesda between three and six years to release an Elder
Scrolls sequel. Barring the release of another Legend or
some other spinoff, I think we can assume that it's going to be
quite some time before Morrowind is followed up. I'll start
the betting at 2006 before Elder Scrolls IV sees the light
of day. By that time we'll all have neural shunts and be floating
in sensory deprivation pools to further enhance our VR experience.
But despite the inconvenience, despite the ambivalent history,
there will always be something special about the Elder Scrolls.
They're history now, in the Hall of Fame. They made it there
not just by being so open-minded, so ambitious; the Elder Scrolls
are blessed with longevity and apparent immunity to critical
shortcomings. Like the Wizardries, the Might and Magics,
the Ultimas, the Bard's Tales, the Elder Scrolls
have a grand and storied history. With luck and more than a
little hard work, there is still more ahead than behind for the
franchise. Here's one gamer who will crawl out of his VR tank, towel
off the goo, and drive his hovercar down to the nearest software
store for whatever magic the future of the Elder Scrolls chooses
to offer us.
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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