Category Archives: The Elder Scrolls

Falloblivion: The Elder Scrolls Four-and-a-Half

Oh, shit, a supermutant! Forget my minigun, I need something with real power…a hunting rifle!”

You probably know that I’ve been doing a long series on the Elder Scrolls series. I’d had to put that aside for a little bit, since I’d been playing Morrowind on a nice PC that, sadly, I don’t (can’t) use anymore. I have access to a PS3 right now, and I’ve been playing some console stuff…but none of it really fit into that framework.

Then I tried out Fallout 3. Finally. After all these years.

It’s like I never stopped. For better or worse, Fallout 3 really, really feels like an old-style total conversion of the post-Daggerfall Elder Scrolls games.

Sure, there are no knights and demons and whatnot, but that’s not what Elder Scrolls’ gameplay flow, the experience, had ever been about. the Elder Scrolls had always been about other things.

  • It’d been about exploring the countryside, and carefully mapping out the ruins of ancient civilizations contained therein.
  • It’d been about encountering bandits and monsters, and either getting the drop on them or fleeing in terror if they got the drop on you.
  • It’d been about making choices for how you want to handle your problems, being given quests that end up testing your moral outlook, and getting a wee bit frustrated when you ran across a problem that your specific skill choices just wouldn’t allow you to solve.
  • It’s about plumbing the history of a bizarre environment, and peeling back the layers of worldbuilding only to find yet more layers.

THAT is Elder Scrolls. And, yes, THAT is Fallout 3. Same damned thing.

For those about to grab their pitchforks, though…that isn’t a bad thing. I was never really that attached to the old Fallout games, but I knew enough about them to realize that they were themselves a conversion of the sort of gameplay that you’d find in an old top-down RPG in the vein of Planescape:Torment or Baldur’s Gate. You had turns and squares and stats and countryside and towns and encounters and all of that. Sure, it had guns and rads, but it also had everything else that’s defined that genre since the Gold Box games.

Remember, genres in games have absolutely nothing to do with setting. You can have a fantasy shooter like Panzer Dragoon, a steampunk FPS like The Order: 1886, or a historical sandbox like Assassin’s Creed 2. The setting genre and the game genre are only connected if you want them to be connected.

So, before you get all shouty, think about it. So what if Fallout 3 is basically an Elder Scrolls game? It’s still an RPG. It’s just a different kind of RPG.

All that said…there’s still VATS. And, yeah, VATS is the one thing that makes modern Fallout weirdMore in the next post. I guess the series is back on. It’s just taking a bit of a radioactive detour.

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New Morrowind Overhaul, and other Morrowind News

Yep. Apparently Kingpix, the curator of the ubermod that I’ve been using for my Morrowind playthrough, wasn’t happy with what had already been done. So, now, they’ve upped the ante again. Woot.

Here’s the Trailer:

To be honest, it kinda looks a lot like the upgrade I’m already using, but I’ll have to check things out in more detail when it’s released. But, hell, I really like that the project’s being updated and refined, and I can’t wait to see what they do with that gameplay upgrade.

Other news, less happy: I may have to put the Morrowind/Elder Scrolls playthrough on hold due to personal (and, yes, financial) reasons. Among other things, due to said issues, I may not have access to a computer that can play the overhauled version that I’d been using. I’ll see what I can do, but I can’t promise anything as of yet.

More info if and when I can provide it.

Hat tip to Rock Paper Shotgun for the info.

(Edit:  fixed and added some things.)

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Harrowind: How the grand tour came to a grand end

Well, that ended pretty abruptly.

Yes, when last I chatted with you about Morrowind, I was talking about how the game had turned into a grand tour of all the different citie and whatnot, adn how I didn’t need to get off the beaten track much because the transportation systems were covering the bases. That ended.

See, one of the biggest factions in the game is the “Tribunal Temple”. They’re basically Morrowind’s state religion, dedicated to venerating the living(!) gods Almalexia, Vivec, and Sotha Sil. Their temples and holy warriors (called “Ordinators” are pretty much everywhere. Good people to know.

There’s a catch, though. Unlike the other factions which start you off easy, the Tribunal insists that you undergo a pretty epic pilgrimage to seven different shrines scattered across the continent. Fulfilling the pilgrimage was one of the reasons why I’d been DOING my grand tour, as most of the shrines were easily accessible using a combination of various travel tactics. Barring one, all were either in town or a stone’s throw from town.

It was that ONE, though, that showed me that the tour had officially ended. It was the Ghostgate, and it was a doozy.

See, one of the things you notice pretty early on in modded Morrowind is the Ghostfence. It’s a magical wall surrounding the central area of the continent, a blasted wasteland with the gigantic Morrowind volcano at its center. It’s an obvious high-level area, and once I’d figured that out, I’d comfortably forgotten about it as I was doing my tour.

Eventually my tour took me to Ald’ruhn, which is the town with the gigantic crab carcass and a bunch of very surly locals. As I passed through, I found a woman who said that she needed an escort to the Ghostgate shrine. She was obnoxious, but I can always use more money to train, so off I went, taking a path that circled around the big magic fence and got us to the road leading in.

My first lesson in how Morrowind really worked was delivered on the way around to the mountain road: CLIFF RACERS ARE ASSHOLES. Imagine a suicidally aggressive pterodactyl crossed with the swarming tendencies of Africanized bees and you’re only getting halfway there. Sure, they could be taken down with a good spear shot or three, but that didn’t necessarily help when they were going after the person I was trying to escort! That’s my training money you’re harassing, you pseudo-avian jerks! Piss off!

Fighting them off, along with a few ground nasties, eventually somehow got us to the road to the ghostgate. I’ll give both Bethesda and the modders credit: it is BLEAK there. There are complaints floating around on the Internet saying that modded Morrowind looks too pretty and green considering how brutal the environment is supposed to be. I’m not sure whether the coastal regions fit that or not, but once I got to that central area, it was all business, and that business is making me feel like I’d missed The Bomb going off while getting up from the computer for a sec. Bunch of assorted nasties on the way up there, too,including more of the ubiquitous Evil Birds.

We get to the Ghostgate, and I breathe a sigh of relief. My magic’s gone, my energy’s gone, my (meagre) stock of potions and whatnot are gone, but we’re where we need to be, right? Just have to head over to the Temple and find the Shrine and I’m done my pilgrimage and done my escort and can raise my Mercantile ability enough to be able to get a decent price for something for a change. I’d gotten tired of people gouging my lizardy hindquarters.

Heading into the Temple, though, yielded absolutely nothing. Not a thing. Sure, they had loads of shrines, but they were just the little ones you donate money to when you want some buffs. No bigger shrines. I look a bit closer at my in-game and out-of-game sources, including the quest text for that buff and what my escort partner ACTUALLY says, and I realize that “Ghostgate shrine” is a cruel joke. The shrine isn’t at Ghostgate. The shrine is inside the huge magic wall. I had to go inside, to the part of Morrowind that had  all the things that the Dark Elves were literally sacrificing their afterlives to keep bottled up.

Luverly.

Making it even better, as I step out of the Ghostgate, I find that a gigantic sandstorm has blown up. It looks spectacular, and nails down that sense of place that’s so important in games like this, but it also means that you can barely see ten feet in front of you, especially with the mods configured the way they are. I hadn’t the foggiest idea how I was going to find this thing, beyond a few vague descriptions.

To Bethesda’s credit, they also made passage through to the other side a Really Big Deal. The passageway between the two sides is long and tiny, and has buttons to activate the two sides separately, giving the whole affair the look of a medieval castle’s murderhole arrangement combined with an airlock—which is apropos, considering the horrible diseases that everything on that side of the wall apparently carry. I pass through, and the storm gets WORSE; instead of a sandstorm, it turns a bloody red. Red skies, red ground underneath, lifeless alien environment; the whole thing looked  like I’d stepped out onto the sands of Mars instead of the fantasy equivalent of a Quarantine Zone.

It was daunting. Even worse, I had no idea beyond some vague directions about where I was supposed to go. I knew I needed to go…northeast? Northwest? Something like that. I also knew it wasn’t too far from the gate. But beyond that, nothing.

So picture me and my charge, wandering through a red sandstorm, wondering whether we’ll be getting this incurable “blight” disease, wondering whether I was supposed to do this later, and nervously anticipating getting my innards examined by whatever it was that was running around in here.

I did get in a fight, but it wasn’t what I expected. It was a rat. Not “just” a rat: it was a “blighted” rat, so I knew I had to keep my distance. What I wasn’t expecting was that “blighted” rats would be unholy difficult to kill, especially when yet more Cliff Racers and some weird thing that I don’t even have a name for were also trying to claw my Argonian’s tender bits. By the time I was done, I was half dead, and my charge didn’t look like she was doing too good either.

Finally, we found the Shrine we were looking for. It was just a little thing. I’m still not sure how I found it; I think I may have accidentally passed it by and then circled back in the storm and the fight. I got to the shrine, paid my respects, collected my cash, and then teleported the hell out of there as another swarm of Cliff Racers made their way towards us. I still have no idea whether my escortee got out. She probably just disappeared; video games do that. Maybe she’s still standing there. I don’t know.

It was nice to finally have that done, and I was able to raise my rank in the Temple’s hierarchy by a few levels based solely on that pilgrimage . It’s also pretty neat to finally be playing Morrowind the way I play Skyrim, where I make a point of seeing the environment instead of just quick-travelling arounnd.

But there ARE limits. If I do get other quests that take me in there, I think  I’ll pass them up for a while in favour of the more straightforward stuff. And I think I’ll let the Temple be for a while. House Telvanni needs my help. More on that next time.

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Travellin’ Morrowind: or “If this is Tuesday, this must be Tel Mora”

Well, this wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Not from Morrowind, anyway. I think I’m somehow on tour.

Okay, bit of context. As I’d said in previous postings, I’ve acquired (perfidy!) and modded Morrowind, and finally settled in to play the game properly. No problem. And, for the first little bit, it was exactly what I’d expected: wandering through the wilds of Vvardenfell, fighting off beasties with a big spear and somewhat-untrustworthy magic, and making my way to the (relatively) big city of Balmora. I met my rep for the organization that was apparently responsible for the main plotline, the Blades…and discovered that my all-important quest was “go get a few levels or something, kid, we can’t use you as-is”.

That was new. All of a sudden there was NO main plotline to follow? Skyrim or Oblivion that ain’t. Heck, I can’t really think of an RPG that said “er, yeah, here’s a few bucks, go get some gear and levels and come back later”.

A bit nonplussed, I joined both the Fighters’ and Mages’ Guilds there, was bounced back from the Imperial Legion, and found out about the “Imperial Cult”, which is a faction supposedly tied to Skyrim’s various kinda-sorta gods. A few web sources implied that the Cult was a good way to start, and found out that the way to Morrowind’s Imperial capital of Ebonheart was best made by way of Vivec, Morrowind’s gigantic stepped-pyramid city.

I learned that I could port directly to Vivec from Balmora as a member of the Mages’ Guild. Great! That ability was one of the last ones you get in Daggerfall as a Mage’s Guild member, so it’s nice that it’s freely available now. I teleport to Vivec, get lost for a bit, and walk on over to Ebonheart. Joining the Imperial Cult was trivial enough, and I was given a few new quests. One was in town, but the others were in different towns. So I used a teleporter to get close, and then got on a boat, then got on a strider, to get to the town I need to. That led me to some of the OTHER factions, which gave quests in OTHER towns. So I used a strider, then used a boat…

…okay, you probably see the problem at this point.

Skyrim, at this point in the game, was already a bit of a dungeon crawler. Arena and Daggerfall were practically nothing BUT dungeon-crawlers. Morrowind, though, seems to be absolutely chock-full of quests and activities that take you from town, to town, to town, to town.  Sure, there are some that take you into dungeons or caves—I think—but most of it seems to be taking me from point A to point B, especially the beginner-friendly Imperial Cult stuff. So I’ve found myself on this grand tour of all the different towns and cities in the region, finding new destinations every time I reach one of my previous ones.

It’s weird, too, because it’s the last thing I was expecting. Morrowind is justly famous for not having any sort of quick-travel system beyond those boats and striders and mage guild teleporters. If you want to get somewhere outside of the town network, your options are pretty much limited to two feet and a heartbeat. You don’t even get that Skyrim-style destination marker, and dungeons aren’t marked on the world map at all. You have to remember where they are, or (more realistically) read it somewhere else.

I’m not sure if it’s bad or good. I don’t miss Daggerfall’s all-dungeon-all-the-time, but I do find myself missing the way that Skyrim gets you right into dungeon-crawling. I suspect that all this may be intentional, though, as a way of getting you around the island-continent and introducing you to all the different towns, cities, and factions in a way that I haven’t seen since Arena‘s whole Staff of Chaos thing. Oblivion, Skyrim, and Daggerfall never really do that.

Morrowind is also the sort of place you want to show off, too. Vivec is astonishing, in ways I’ve seen in no game made before or since, but so are places like Ald’Ruhn (built inside the shell of a city-sized emperor crab), the Canton-town of Molag Mor, and the stepped river-city of Balmora, and all those little towns and villages made out of a mix of familiar and alien building design.

Honestly, the first time I saw Sadrith Mora, it near took my breath away. The way that the home of the treacherous (and hysterically fun) Telvanni sorcerers is primarily made of gigantic, hollowed out, baroque towers of fungus just shows why people never really shut up about Morrowind, and why people put so much effort into modding it to keep it up with modern systems. My character ended up joining them just because it was EXACTLY the sort of stunning, impossible virtual environment that’s fun to hang out in. (Something that too few MMO designers understand.)

Skyrim is stark and beautiful, but I haven’t seen anything there that matches  Sadrith Mora, Ald’Ruhn, or Vivec. I doubt I will.

So, yeah, I can handle the tour. The dungeon-crawling and the main quest can wait. I’ve got an easy quest to deliver a skirt to an insane sorceress. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

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Moddin’ Morrowind

So as I said in my last post on Morrowind (o the shame!), I’ve started playing it, and noticed that it looked really good for the time. And, yes, that’s kind of faint praise. It’s prettier than Daggerfall, in its way, but the graphics clearly haven’t any better than any relatively-early 3D games. It was also an XBox game, after all, and while both that platform and the PS2 could do surprisingly good graphics, a big open-world game like Morrowind means that something’s gotta give.

So while Morrowind looks good for the time, you’re still going to notice a whole lotta flaws. The water doesn’t look great. The buildings are made of a small number of polygons and have really visible seams, as well as low-res textures. The human models aren’t much to speak about, and the less said about the faces, the better. It’s not really a distraction, because it’s an older game. I wasn’t terribly concerned about it. I wanted an authentic experience, warts and all.

Thing is, I was concerned about the bugs. Morrowind isn’t as buggy as Daggerfall, but it does still have a lot of issues. Like Daggerfall, it still has some save corruption issues, and there are a lot of bits where things can easily break if you do something the designers didn’t expect or where they obviously cobbled a system together under serious time and resource constraints. I value authenticity, but there ARE limits, and Bethesda didn’t include the same quality of bug-prevention and bug-recovery tools with Morrowind that they did with Daggerfall. I was uncomfortably reminded of the fact that Daggerfall’s probably unfinishable without its little hacks and fixes.

But that’s the thing about open platforms: you don’t need to rely on the developer. If you have a problem, rest assured that others have as well. If enough people run into your problem, sooner or later someone is going to try to figure out a way to fix the problem too. That’s what happened with Morrowind, where people not only provided bug fixes to the game’s data files, but fixes and optimizations of the Morrowind executable itself.

(As an aside, the code patches are ASTONISHING. A game is fundamentally a piece of software. The executable of a piece of software is the game when you get right down to it. And these modders have taken this game and made a BETTER game, better than its original creators.)

One problem: I didn’t want to jump through the hoops to do all these patches and get this thing working. So I was really happy to discover the so-called “Morrowind Overhaul”. It has an auto-installer that does EVERYTHING for you. It installs the files, configures them, and in a few amusing cases, actually takes over control of the mouse so it can click on exactly the options you need to make all those data and code patches work properly. It was perfect.

Perfect, sure, but it was also gigantic. It’s around five gigabytes of data compressed into a 1.5 gigabyte download for a game that’s maybe half that size. So why’s it so big? Well, because it’s an overhaul, and that means graphics. It didn’t just install these bug fixes; it also installed dozens of other mods that make thousands of changes, improvements, and additions to the graphics of the game.  It installed them all, and then showed me pictures of the various things it could add, if I wanted it to.

After seeing those pictures? Yeah…so much for “authenticity”. This updated Morrowind is gorgeous. Sure, it’s not perfect. It’s still built on an older game. But, well, here are side-by-side comparison shots:

(These are intended to be side-by-side; I’m still working that out. Let me know if it’s not quite sorted out on other browsers.)
Same spots. Same game. But not the same at all. Look at the difference. It’s astonishing. Sure, you can still tell that they’re working from the base of a decade-old title that was already hampered a bit by its Xbox connections. It’s not Crysis. But who cares?  It’s still damned pretty. In some respects it rivals Skyrim. In others, like the water, it probably exceeds it.

It’s not just a texture conversion, either. It’s not even meshes. The modders actually go to the extent of re-rendering the gameworld to extend the viewing distances. Notice how you can see so much farther off in that latter screenshot? How it looks like a real environment, instead of Superman 64? That’s not Morrowind itself. Morrowind‘s engine literally cannot do it. That’s the Morrowind Graphics Extender mod, which has you do an extra out-of-game rendering pass, hijacks the graphics engine, and subs in all those extra areas that Morrowind can’t handle. You can even see it in-game: MGE gives you a hotkey that lets you add and remove those extra areas in real-time.

I do care a lot about authenticity. I do admit to some misgivings about playing a game differently from the way it was originally made. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t really changed the gameplay much, beyond adding in a hotkey that lets you cast while holding a weapon, as you can in all the other Elder Scrolls games. The leveling and stats and whatnot are all still the same. I think I’ve changed up Skyrim more than Morrowind.

In this case, though, I think I’ll stick with the modded version. I might take a tour in the vanilla version just to see what everything looks like, but the experience is compelling enough that I think that it’s worth it.

So, with the modding and preparation over…I can finally get to the game itself.

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Borrowin’ Morrowind

So I’m a filthy stinking thief. Well, maybe. It’s complicated.

See, as you know, I’ve been playing through the entire Elder Scrolls series. Started with Arena, then moved on to good old Daggerfall. Both weren’t really an issue, since both were released as free downloads by Bethesda. There are some issues with arena, since someone out together a version of arena that worms Ike a charm and is utterly superior to tie official download from Bethesda that uses the CD version of the game that isn’t technically legal. But, honestly, its not like Bethesda is going to lose any revenue from that.

The next game in the series is the third main-series game, the widely-beloved Morrowind. It’s a bit different. It’s not being released for free. It’s still on sale right now. You can buy it on Steam if you like. But I didn’t! Nope, I did something so terrible, so evil, so reprehensible that one must shudder at the thought…

I borrowed it.

That’s right. I borrowed Morrowind. I have a friend of mine here in Toronto who is a big ol’ Elder Scrolls fan, and she already has both the regular and Game Of The Year version of the game, with all the extras. It even has the “creation kit”, which the Steam version very much does NOT have. I asked her about it, and she was happy to lend it to me.

So here I am. Playing a version of the game that I didn’t pay for. What perfidy! What horror! O, the despicable SHAME of it! I am clearly a wretched soul, thieving rightful sales revenue from the poor downtrodden Zenimax corporation!

Well, no. Obviously not. Borrowing a game is no more shameful than borrowing a DVD or a CD or a book. It’s also no more or less shameful than, say, renting the thing or buying it used. But that’s exactly the sort of thing that is being decried by so many developers and publishers and even media figures for some reason. The simple act of friendship that I benefited from is now so loathsome that entire digital rights management systems are being designed, implemented and enforced to prevent it from happening.

Certainly it’s the case with Elder Scrolls. I can’t do someone the same favor with, say, Skyrim, that my friend did for me. Even if I wanted to pass it along, and wasn’t going to be playing it myself, it’s linked to my Steam account. You aren’t technically supposed to be sharing or giving those to people. It’s against the EULA and TOS and whateverthehell other incomprehensible documents that lawyers serve up for people to scroll down through in sheer bafflement.

(People do share online accounts, naturally. But you aren’t supposed to.)

So I have to thank my friend—her name is Karen, by the by—for making this possible, and I really do regret that it’s so difficult to do the same favour for people. I’d love to lend Skyrim to a friend for a week or so to let them give it a try, the way that I used to lend people PC games and can still lend them console games, and books, and DVDs, and everything else. But I can’t. Kindness is the province of desperadoes. MORAL people tell their friends to buy their own.

Anyway, I’ve played through the first bit of Morrowind. It’s good. Really good. The graphics were great for the time, and are even surprisingly good now with a little work. But I’ll get to that next time, when I talk about Morrowind and modding. It’s kind of a crazy story, but it shows why open platforms matter so much.

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Daggerfall’s Finished

So, now that I’ve finished both Daggerfall and Arena, do I still stick to my earlier claims that I preferred Elder Scrolls: Arena?

Yeah, pretty much.

The last dungeon in Daggerfall really was impressive. It took that sheer size that is pretty much synonymous with the game and created some really neat setpieces. Upside-down temples, pyramids hanging in midair, some sort of weird thing involving enormous hollow crossbows and floating swords…it was neat stuff, without the enormous frustration of the typical Daggerfall dungeon. The map still wasn’t really of much help, but it’s a familiar issue at this point.

Still, everything that was an issue before with Daggerfall remained an issue. The map was still an impediment, instead of the goad to progress that it was in Arena. The scattered bits and pieces of plot in Daggerfall didn’t really add up to a satisfactory conclusion compared to Arena, which is kinda strange considering the depth of the setting and the  complexity of the scenario were pretty impressive. I like what I saw, but still didn’t have that “oh, let’s see what’s over HERE!” feeling that I had all the time in Arena. Running through all those corridors was fun, but right to the end they felt like a set of corridors arbitrarily hanging in space, and I truly, truly missed the good ol’ Dungeon-Master-style blocky dungeon grids of Arena.

(Combat was still fairly satisfying; but then again, Daggerfall combat basically IS Arena combat, albeit with mouselook. No reason it wouldn’t be satisfying.)

Yes, the multiple endings are a nice touch. I liked how it was set up, too, where you were forced to decide which faction to give incredible, world-shattering power to. The game did a good job of showing both the strengths and the warts of pretty much every faction in the game. Even ol’ Uriel Septim VII didn’t come off perfectly, considering he basically sent you into the region under false pretenses. Granted, the choice doesn’t really matter, since the Morrowind writers decided to come up with a scenario where all the endings (somehow) happened simultaneously. But I was still surprised to find myself considering the choice a bit.

Pity that the endings themselves are unimpressive. They’re really just a few images in a “turning book” CG animation, accompanied by muddy, bored-sounding narration that makes King’s Quest 5 sound like Pixar work. I wish they could have done a follow-up to the truly impressive FMV(!) opening, which still ranks as one my favorite bits of the game. I also wish that there had been a bit more of a “conclusion” to the factional elements outside of the main plot: hitting the top rank of the Mage’s Guild (for example) nets you little more than a quick blurb about how you were elected Archmage. Raising faction rank in Daggerfall is a pretty arduous affair; at least SOME work could have been put into rewarding players for it!

(Though, then again, Arena didn’t have any factions at all.)

Did I see all that Daggerfall had to offer? Admittedly, no. Yes, I did try out the spell, item, and potion makers; the potion maker was superfluous, but the item maker and spell maker were genuinely interesting, fun tools that involved real decisions and real tradeoffs. But I didn’t get involved with either the thieves’ or assassin’s guilds. I didn’t become either a werewolf or a vampire. I never visited a witches’ coven, nor did I summon any daedric lords. I missed visiting several regions, and (of course!) only saw a fraction of the dungeons. There were things I missed, and I probably saw more of Arena than I saw of Daggerfall.

Still, I saw enough of Daggerfall to mostly agree with the majority opinion that it was a fascinating, welcome, and yet very flawed experiment. It was truly huge in both ambition and scope, and it was clear that their developers and designers were flying by the seat of their pants in a way that Bethesda has never really done since. Even without the staggeringly immense overworld, it still features the most jaw-dropping, shockingly enormous cities, towns and dungeons that we will likely ever see in a game. You really can’t conceive of how huge cities like Wayrest, Daggerfall, and Sentinel are until you’ll run through them yourself. Everything else will just seem a bit…limited…in comparison.

But I think I’m ready for something that’s more carefully designed, more focused, and deliberately crafted. So farewell to Daggerfall. On to Morrowind.

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Accessibility in RPGs (With more Daggerfall/Arena stuff)

Another piece by Rowan, prompting another response/extension here on LC.

(Sure, unsurprising. But, hey, even when I disagree, I like what he writes. So why not?)

This time he’s talking about the surprising accessibility of Might and Magic 3. Its relatively simplicity in design and play means that it’s pretty accessible in ways that more ambitious games aren’t. He ain’t wrong there.

My immediate response—as I said on Twitter—was a reminder old JRPGs tend to do quite well when paired with more up-to-date graphics. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger, whatever; they do really well, and there’s reasons for that. You may not have all the choice that you do with a modern western RPG, or even the older western RPGs, but the whole “attack, defend, magic, item” thing is pretty instantly understandable. As long as you tweak the random encounter rate so that it isn’t painful, you can give people a really satisfying experience, even if they don’t have Ultimate Freedom And Control. Compare that to, say, Ultima 4. Sure, it’s highly-regarded, but it’s also famously off-putting to modern audiences.

…Since this IS Leveling Criticism, though, I’m gonna bring it back to Elder Scrolls.

Folks, I’m pretty close to finishing Daggerfall. I’ve pretty much gotten as high as I care to in the factions that I’m interested in, I’ve booted around the overworld in high-speed cheaty-mode, I know pretty much what’s going on with the main plot, and I’m a few main dungeons away from getting it all sorted out. I’ve opened up the spell-maker, the item-maker, and played around with both, making some neat stuff. I’ve seen most of what Daggerfall has to offer in terms of dungeon and quest design. And guess what?

I prefer Arena.

I’m still not quite sure why. I’m quite sure it’s true, but I’m not quite sure why it’s true.  Certainly Daggerfall is a more ambitious project, and it’s a fair bit more immersive in many respects. There’s loads more to do, and the environment’s still daunting and huge. I’m still gobsmacked at the size of the major cities in Daggerfall and am very aware that nobody will ever make anything as bit again. But, yeah, I do prefer Arena.

Rowan may have hit on part of it. Arena‘s relative simplicity may have something to do with it. Arena ain’t complicated. You’ve got a big evil overlord that’s imprisoned you and wants to kill you, you’ve got a friendly ghost helping you, you’ve got to break out of the dungeons and take out the Big Bad by collecting together the 8 chunks of foozle. You go into sixteen different hand-crafted 2D tile-based dungeons in order to do it, before heading to the seventeenth—the same dungeon that you escaped—in order to do it. Simple. It even comes with an auto-map, and the combat’s marvelously intuitive once you get used to it.

Sure, there’s stats, and classes, some neat random quests, and a really neat spell-maker gizmo that lets you make spells that completely break the game if you want to. And, yes, its’ got a big world. But for all its size, Arena is pretty simple. The most off-putting thing is that the initial dungeon’s tuning needed a bit of work.

Compare that to Daggerfall. Leave aside the sheer size of the environment. You’ve got a game where you can do almost anything. You have a class-making system. You have a spell-making system. You have an item-making system. You have a potion-making system. You have a variety of attributes, and a HOST of skills, all of which need to be considered and managed. Manage them right, and the game’s easy; manage them wrong, and it’s impossible. Good luck.

You have dozens of factions, many of which are opposed to each other, where your reputation with said factions is something you need to often consider and manage. You have a main quest woven into these factional conflicts which is so quiet and inobtrusive that many players may not even realize it exists until it’s too late.

(It’s so very, very easy to break the main quest of Daggerfall. You’ll never know you did it, either.)

Raising your status with the factions usually involves going into immense dungeons and finding targets of such immense obscurity that every FAQ on the Internet tells you to cheat if you want to have any hope of doing it at all. And if you mess up your status with some of the factions, that’ll affect the main quest too, in ways that are impossible to predict.

Sure, it’s rich. It’s incredibly rich. It’s immensely rich. But that richness does mean that it just doesn’t feel that accessible. Arena did.

Skyrim is infinitely more accessible than both, of course, since Skyrim dispenses with even those parts of Arena that can be offputting. It doesn’t have classes, and barely has stats. The factions are more about hosting quest-lines than about managing quantitative status. Most quests are carefully written and scripted, and the random ones are used to shuttle you about more than anything else. It’s also near-impossible to break the main questline. It’s difficult to break ANY of them.

It’s the dungeons that really show the problem, though. Daggerfall has an endless number of dungeons, and all the dungeons are so intricate and difficult in design that the mapping tool simply can’t manage it, though it’s quite possible that no mapping tool could.  Daggerfall dungeons often look like something out of the latter parts of Descent.

Arena dungeons are simpler, sure. They’re 2D tile-based levels that would be familiar to anybody who’s played anything from Shining in the Darkness to Dungeon Master to Phantasy Star to, yes, Might and MagicThat’s why they work. They’re an expansive, immersive version of something that’s already pretty familiar. They’re easy to grasp and simple to map, yet still employ some fun three-dimensional trickery to make them more entertaining. They often subvert the map, but they never make it uselessDaggerfall‘s dungeons, astonishing and huge and groundbreaking as they are, were really just too much.

(Quite a bit like Descent, in fact.)

That’s the main reason I haven’t done a dungeon-by-dungeon examination of Daggerfall like the #craigplaysarena series I did on Google+ about Arena. I wouldn’t know where to start. I can’t even find decent maps of the things anywhere. Even the FAQs never have a full map, but just a set of directions.  I can’t keep a map of the things in my head, the map I use in the game is useless, and nobody else seems to have any either. How can you critique or analyze a dungeon like that? So, instead, you get these broader discussions.

Once I move on to Morrowind, I’ll try to get back to discussing individual quests and dungeons again, since I know that they’re a bit less daunting. It’ll never be a full-on “Let’s Play”, but I would like to be able to focus a bit more than I have been able to with Daggerfall. I’ll also make a point of returning to the game when the DaggerXL engine modernization project has moved on a bit.  I’d be interested in seeing whether a modern engine helps.

I know people are absolutely in love with Daggerfall, and I can really see where they’re coming from. Every so often, it really can suck you in, and at those moments I do wonder whether I’m being too hard on it. It was an astonishing project, even if it didn’t quite work. I want to love it more than I do.

But, yeah, it does show that Rowan’s bang-on about accessibility. You can be too big. You can be too ambitious. If you’re not very careful, it’ll just leave players behind.

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Cheating May Make Daggerfall Better.

So Rowan Kaiser did a thing about RPG combat. It was pretty good, and one of the things that he highlighted was the “responsiveness” of the combat in the first two Elder Scrolls games: Arena and Daggerfall.  It’s honestly one of the best bits of both games; you move the mouse, and your weapon moves along with it. Different strokes have different effects, so you get a tactical element of choosing the best attack for the job, and the one-to-one correlation between what you do with the mouse and what the character does.

Move mouse. Swing sword. Cleave gobbo.

At its best, that’s what Daggerfall is really about: having an RPG where everything correlates. That’s especially true when it comes to scale. The towns are huge. The cities are monstrous. The region is mindbogglingly huge; it’s something like 65,000 miles square. When you go into a house or building, it’s either just as big on the inside, or even bigger. No game before or since has really done this. Even Arena never went THIS far.

That goes for the dungeons and caves and towers and whatnot too. They’re beyond monstrous, so much so that it’s pathetically easy to get lost. In fact, one of the most universal instructions you read about Daggerfall is that you must get the teleport spell before anything else, if only so that you can make your way back to the entrance. The dungeons are so huge that it’s distinctly possible that you’ll get utterly lost in one of its dungeons. For good. GAH.

Basically all you see of the whole kingdom.

It also means that, in a very real sense, you never really engage with Daggerfall’s size. You never, ever travel from town to town. You fast-travel everywhere. Cities? Fast-travel. Villages? Fast-travel. Dungeons? Fast-travel. You never go exploring, you never stumble across things, you never have random encounters, none of that. You have this entire gigantic continent-sized gameworld that you NEVER, EVER SEE. You just teleport from place-to-place.

Arena was different; you literally had to fast-travel because of the way the game was structured. Each town and city was its own separate area. If you tried to run from one town to another, you’d just loop back around. Not with Daggerfall. You COULD travel. But you’d be mad to try.

Same goes for those huge dungeons. Unlike Arena, where exploring dungeons was fun and rewarding, exploring in Daggerfall is an ordeal due to the inability of the designers to put in a mapping system that actually works. 3D maps just don’t WORK. They’ve never really worked—developers and players both have known that since the first Descent—and Daggerfall’s maps are no exception at all. I find myself more lost after using the map than I was before. But since the only other indication of where the hell I am is the wall and ceiling textures of the dungeon “block” that I’m in, and since the organization of the tunnels doesn’t have the pleasing block-based density of Arena, I’ve found that I just don’t want to go into them in the first place. Sure, wandering through those halls can be appealing, but it’s nowhere near as fun as Arena or the more focused post-Morrowind games.  Just the thought of slogging through more of Orsinium is keeping me from firing up the game in the first place.

So what’s the other option? What can fix this?

I’ll tell you. CHEATING YOUR ASS OFF.

Not even talking about “trainers” or third party hacks or whatnot. Oh, no. Not even talking about third-party maps. (As if such things existed. Arena maps are ubiquitous online, but Daggerfall? Not a chance.) The last patch of Daggerfall includes an amazing cheatmode within the game itself. Here, I’ll just quote the Readme file:

  • 1 – Sets your MaxSpeed to 1200 (6x the normal value).
  • CTRL-F1 – Activate all maps on the fast travel map. This can be useful if somehow a location is no longer on the map.
  • CTRL-F4 – Invulnerable mode.
  • ALT-F11- If you fall into the void, pressing this will take you back to the previous object you were standing on. This can help you get out of the void when you fall into it.
  • [ and ] – If you’re in a dungeon, these keys will cycle you through the various quest locations. Be careful though that you don’t beam into a location that is occupied by a monster. You will be trapped inside the monster. Also, some locations are high enough to pop you into the void when you beam to it. This can be useful if you fall into the void or can’t find the quest item you’re looking for.
  • -and = – These keys raise your reputation and your skills.

A lot of these are Hail-Marys from a dev team that clearly didn’t have any other time to spare fixing Daggerfall’s endless bugs, providing players means by which they can rescue themselves. Others are obvious cheats, like invulnerability, or seemingly-minor things that actually completely break the game, like the rep and skill boosters.

(Neither seem like a big deal until you realize that absolutely everything you do in the game serves to increase either a skill or reputation level.  There are precious few “quest chains” beyond the main one; the quests only serve to raise your reputation with some faction or another about five points or so. And skills determine everything in this game. Attributes are poor cousins in comparison. So, yeah, press the hyphen or equals button at your own risk.)

But those square brackets? And the Maxspeed trick? THOSE are different. I tried them both. They’re both fixes for the proportion problem, and I found that they could easily be used to change the experience, and arguably make it better, but without breaking it.

The square bracket trick is the more straightforward of the two. It gets you around the gigantic, baroque, and often frustrating arrangement of the random dungeons. Trying to slog through those dungeons is such an annoying, endless, irritating task after a while that it’s a pretty big disincentive to bother with Daggerfall questing at all. It’d be much like if you couldn’t quicktravel on the main map: it’d seem immersive at first, but after the first three hours or so, you’d just want to get the stupid trip OVER with. Sometimes, you can’t even get to where you need to be at all! It’s equal parts daunting and frustrating, and the immersiveness is lost.

You can't possibly know how much I miss Arena's maps.

The bracket trick quickly and effectively solves the dungeon design problem. You teleport to where you need to be, get what you need, and then teleport out. Sometimes it doesn’t work properly, and you discover you still need to travel there. That’s almost better, though, because you know roughly where you’re supposed to go. That’s never a problem in the other Elder Scrolls games; Arena’s “level” based dungeon design meant that you were generally looking for the way down or for the central part of the lowest level, and the later games were linear enough that you could have a decent idea of where you needed to go simply by looking at where you’d been. Daggerfall has neither of those; you don’t know ANYTHING about these dungeons. By porting to where you need to be and then porting back to the entrance, you can figure out where you need to go and work from there.

You can also theoretically skip some truly ridiculous and arbitrary door-and-switch puzzles, too. “Handy” isn’t the word.

The trick really helps with my engagement. Even if I’m teleporting around, I can still do what I need to do, grab what I need to grab, and fight what I need to fight. It’s not like I use the trick right off the bat; there are enough rewards for exploration that it’s worth exploring the dungeons even when I DO know the final goal. Heck, sometimes I’ve ported to the target and then worked my way back to the entrance. You still get that sense of exploration of an unknown environment, but with a sense of purpose and heading.

Fast-move is subtler, but even better, due to it granting the possibility of avoiding teleportation. When I enabled fast-move and left town, I found myself moving quickly enough that I could plausibly get from settlement to settlement in Daggerfall without fast-travel. I could just travel on my own to where I wanted to go.

It was like a revelation. All that space between the towns and dungeons and cities and whatnot actually meant something. Sure, it was obviously procedurally generated, and mostly amounted to a bunch of triangles on the ground, but it actually meant something! It gave that sense of space, of exploration, of environment that’s at the heart of the whole Elder Scrolls series. I wasn’t teleporting, I was traveling! Same reason why you have the whole “gryphon taxi” thing in World of Warcraft. It gives you that sense of place.

Here’s a Youtube clip showing what it looks like:

Don't mind the graphics. 'twas 1984.

Funny, though—it reminded me most of Elite. Not sure if you remember that old space travel/trading series, but its big gimmick was that you could travel around a whole big section of the galaxy. Of course, the distances would be forbidding even with lightspeed travel, so the series had a time dilation button that let you speed up time in the game and move faster. I preferred that to the whole “warp point” structure of later games like Wing Commander or Freelancer; you really got a sense of the immense size of the environment you were exploring.

That’s how this “cheat” felt to me. it felt like I was speeding up time to move from place to place, so that I could explore this vast environment without spending a significant chunk of my life riding from place to place.  That one-to-one representative scale finally works.Actual travel between settlements makes it pretty clear that they’d never really intended for players to do this. It’s honestly hard to FIND the settlements; unlike Arena, there’s no map outside of town for some reason, and the worldmap just doesn’t cut it.  Daggerfall’s designers clearly expected you to quick-travel from place to place, just as they expected you to wander through randomly-generated dungeons for ages upon ages. It’s too late for that to change, but these cheats really show what might have been.

That’s why I’m not sure that they are cheats. Okay, sure, the invulnerability one is, as are the skill and rep buttons. But the speed booster and dungeon teleporter really feel more like modification, rather than cheating. It’s like downloading a mod for Skyrim that makes destruction magic better at higher levels, or adds in proper scaling versions of those early channeled fire and lightning spells. (Both of which are mods I use.) They fill in a gap in the game’s design. It may not be the same game, but it’s quite probably a better game, that more closely fits the feel of the thing.

So, yeah, if you do play Daggerfall, and have been wise enough to get the final official patch, go into the z.cfg file and add the line “cheatmode=1”. Then, at some point, head out of town, push the “1” key, see the parts of the game that you’d never have thought were there, and maybe think about what might have been.

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So Peter Davison namedropped me in his most recent post. He was referring to the discussion between Peter Skerritt and myself on Twitter whether DLC’s useful. One of his commentators, Jeff Grubb made the point that the backlash is probably going to have more long-term instead of short-term consequences. I agreed, and thought I’d reproduce my comment here with a wee bit extra about Skyrim.

(Bit from comment follows)

That was roughly what I was getting at with Peter. Peter’s right about the near-term. There’s no way that they’re going to change their current ME3 DLC strategy based on the outcry. How could they? Giving “From Ashes” to everybody would be really, really unfair to those who ponied up the dough for a collector’s edition or for the DLC pack itself.

What the backlash will do is make them rethink this with future games. They might still have DLC, but the “From Ashes” experiment of day-one paid DLC might not be repeated. It’s a bit like Bethesda and the controversy over Oblivion’s horse armor; they didn’t suddenly make the horse armor free, but it probably had a lot to do with the lack of silly DLC nonsense in Skyrim. Even if the entire industry isn’t going to react, individual publishers clearly do.

(Credit where credit is due: Peter did acknowledge that in our discussion yesterday.)

So, yeah, feel free to rage. Sure, it may seem a bit silly, and you have to do it for the right reasons. But, yeah, in the long run I think you’re right. I do think it works.

(Now the new bit)

Bethesda has said that Skyrim’s eventual DLC is going to be real, expansion-pack-level content. That’s exactly what we DO want. Bethesda’s done a LOT of things right with Skyrim. Sure, it has been plagued by serious QA problems. So do a lot of modern console games prior to patching. It’s still got expansive, compelling modding tools, unobtrusive copy protection, and no ham-fisted multiplayer or sketchy DLC, It’s also tremendous value for money. TREMENDOUS.

Heck, if you look at the PC release, it’s one of the better triple-A PC releases. The UI is terrible for PC, but the deep modding support can let you fix that, and add a million different things besides. And, yes, it’s a Steamworks game, which means no resale, but Bethesda has allowed Valve to put the game up for deep discounts. Between a Christmas coupon and a weekend sale, I was able to purchase Skyrim on Steam for around thirty bucks. That’s madness. That’s far lower than the price I’d be able to get for resale, even if I wanted to sell it. I doubt I ever would.

Mass Effect 3 has DLC and is a big seller, but the DLC’s controversial and the fans feel betrayed. Skyrim is ALSO a big seller, and the QA issues still aren’t fully addressed, but the fans all recognize that they’re getting good value for money.

Which do you think other companies are going to emulate going forward? The profitable one where you’re getting burned in effigy, or the possibly-more-profitable one where you’re being lionized by even the crankiest of critics?

Answer seems pretty clear to me.

Davison, Mass Effect 3, and Skyrim’s Lack of DLC

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