Category Archives: Skyrim

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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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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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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Daggerfall Random Dungeons: Yep, They Suck Again

(Originally on Google Plus)

Wee bit of a followup to that last Skyrim/Daggerfall thing I just posted. The NEXT random dungeon I did in Daggerfall after that one was tremendously frustrating; in order to get to the (randomized!) target point, I needed to open a trapdoor using a switch. The (not-so-funny) funny part was that the switch was in a different part of the maze entirely, and it was a wall-mounted decoration that just looked like any other bit of Daggerfall maze decoration. Worse yet, it was suspended over a pit: trying to get at it was honestly quite dangerous.

So, yeah, I’m right back to thinking that the random dungeons in Daggerfall were a terrible idea. Sure, the dungeons in Skyrim aren’t really that compelling. There’s some fun encounters in there, some nice decoration, but they clearly aren’t as much of a focal point as they were in the first two Elder Scrolls games. I think Daggerfall very clearly illustrates why they went in that direction, though. I’m finding myself deliberately choosing whatever options keep me OUT of the things, and finding myself fully prepared to use whatever tricks are available to go through the things quickly when I do.

It isn’t even a case of either my character’s  capabilities or my own. I’m more savvy, and my character gets around much, much quicker and is a much better fighter. It’s just crap design, where you expect things of players that you never bothered to train them to do.

Daggerfall: Events Intervene (Dungeons and Combat)

(This is part of a series of entries on my simultaneous playthroughs of Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall and Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Last post’s here.)

Well, up until a few hours ago, I had been planning on writing an update on my playthrough of Daggerfall, talking about how I wasn’t happy with the dungeon-crawling, and how I’d been jumping through no small number of hoops to avoid it, preferring instead to use either city trainers, “overworld” quests, and various little tricks to get reputation and skill increases.

But then I finally decided to go into another dungeon, and found one full of human opponents for a change. After getting a full set of plate armor and an elven-steel daikatana—and, yes, you read that right—fighting through dungeons has gone from a frustrating ordeal to something almost as engaging as it was in Arena. Exploration is still difficult, mind, and the time/reward ratio for running dungeons instead of doing other styles of quests is still completely off if you’re trying to improve your standing with the various factions in Daggerfall. But I’m no longer dreading the thought of combat.

It does show that the early TES games did really have issues with their difficulty curve. That first dungeon in Daggerfall is brutal, and while the maps in Arena are infinitely more comprehensible, the first dungeon in Arena isn’t really much easier to fight through. Subsequent trips in Daggerfall weren’t much better, since low-level monsters are simultaneously surprisingly difficult, but drop practically nothing in the way of usable gear. It’s only a bit later that you start fighting monsters that feel worth it in the first place.

Sure, it makes sense. You aren’t expecting a rat to be carrying chainmail. Where would he put it? But that’s why Dungeons & Dragons had so many low-level “humanoids” like goblins and kobolds; those early challenges are more compelling when you feel like you’re getting something out of them. Even cheap weapons and armor are better than nothing at all.

Both Oblivion and Skyrim handled this far, far better. (Haven’t played Morrowind yet; that’s next.) Oblivion started off with the sequence with the Emperor which showed the stakes involved, before putting you in a relatively easy dungeon. Skyrim had its awesome cart ride, execution, and dragon attack  sequence before putting you in an equally easy dungeon, but this time with an NPC friend to help show you what you’re supposed to be doing and lead you to the first real quest hub. The difficulty and intensity ramps up smoothly, instead of dropping you in at the deep end and just DARING you to quit.

I may change my mind again about heading underground after having to deal with another absolutely enormous incomprehensible randomly-generated dungeon. Aside from the main quest, though, Daggerfall doesn’t really force you to do that. There are more than enough ways to improve your character that don’t involve stumbling through the dark, especially if you’re not above a bit of larceny or  some repetitive cycles of spellcasting and resting.

Right now, though, I’m enjoying it far more than I had expected.

Update: Well, that dungeon went smooth as silk. In and out, fast and clean, without the feeling of being lost and frustrated that I’d had every time before. Almost like running an Arena one again. Still a shame about that map, though.

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Skyriggerfall: Freedom vs. Craft

(This is a repost of my latest Elder Scrolls entry on Google+.)

Well, one thing’s jumping right out at me: Daggerfall has the spellmaker that I loved so much in Arena, and Skyrim doesn’t. It’s not even a weakened, lame version. It’s just straight-up not there. Meanwhile, Daggerfall pretty much mandates it, since for some reason the Mage’s Guild doesn’t even sell heal spells.

That’s what I keep noticing about these two games. Daggerfall is tremendously, almost intimidatingly open and random. You really can do almost anything you want. You don’t even need to walk if you don’t want to; the game’s version of levitation isn’t just Arena’s barely-above-the-ground levitation, but actual honest-to-goodness flight. You can craft your own spells, items, potions, and whatever, and are sent by the enormously faceless Guilds to go into dungeons that are these gigantic, randomly-generated monstrosities.

Skyrim, on the other hand, is very much a crafted experience. Sure, you can create and enchant weapons and armor. There’s no spellmaker, though, and the spells that you get feel fairly straightforward. The dungeons are obviously created by real human beings, and are deliberately placed on the map with authored, voiced quests leading into many (most?) of them. Instead of the omnipresent-but-anonymous Guilds of the earlier TES games, you have very specific factions, with a very specific questline for each of them. Other people have pointed out that you don’t even need to be an adept in the skills of the new “guilds” in order to do the quests. You can apparently become an Archmage with very little magical ability at all.

Both have their upsides and downsides. I called Daggerfall “intimidating”, and that’s really what it is; it’s SO gigantic that I find myself with little idea as to what to do beyond heading over to the local Guild branches and seeing what they’ve got to do. There’s a wee bit of content involving the main plot that you need to do right away, but I sorted that out quickly, and now I find myself able to do whatever I please, wherever I please. I can level up whatever faction I please, I can go clean out dungeons, I can follow the main plot, or even travel to some town far away. It’s a heady thing…but TV Tropes’ “quicksandboxed” term doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Skyrim, meanwhile, just comes across as very structured and authored at all times. It’s an excellent game for wandering in, because a wander in any direction (or even in the direction of any of the cities) will come across a multitude of caves, forts, towers, and all manner of other neat places to check out. And once you get there, you generally have a pretty good time; even your generic Fort Whatever situation is satisfying to go into and sort out.

The fortuitous happenstances can be amazing, as I saw when I broke into a random cottage in the middle of nowhere and discovered that it was the entry point for a gigantic underground bandit complex. It’s an excellent experience…but it’s definitely an experience under someone else’s control. Even the “Radiant Questing” AI system is basically the game taking you by the nose and leading you to the fun bits that someone made for you.

(Skyrim doesn’t even allow fast-travel to places you haven’t been yet. You have no choice whatsoever about seeing the province first-hand. It’s a kind of “enforced wandering”. Works really well, but that’s what it is.)

Daggerfall isn’t really like that. You don’t run around and come across random stuff in Daggerfall, really. You don’t even have a local map between the main areas. It’s just these endless procedurally generated seas of low-polygons ground meshes. So while it’s this gigantic area, you’re just fast-travelling everywhere anyway.

Paradoxically, I didn’t feel the immense size of the province at all. Skyrim’s barely a thousandth of the size, yet I’ve felt its size quite a bit more.

So which is “better”? Neither. I’m not really looking at it like that. I’ve been playing a bit more of Skyrim, but I still feel like Daggerfall’s got its hooks into me a bit more. Fast-travel or no, I still want to hit different parts of the province and see what’s going on. I want to rank up with the Guilds, and the Temples, and all the other factions. I want to see more of these randomly-generated dungeons; the mapping system is still abominable, but I’m getting a better handle on it, and I’ve made a few spells that help with getting around. Not that I don’t want to play more Skyrim; both are solid games.

But I’m still really, really interested in how two games in the same series that both promise “openness” and exploration deliver it in such very different ways.

“Domestication”, Bethesda, and the Elder Scrolls

Just to flip things around from that critical link I did to Nightmare Mode earlier, here’s a really good piece by Fernando Cordeiro about how games have become “domesticated”.

Now, games are domesticated. Not only have we grown familiar to their bizarre lexicon (cracked walls were meant to be exploded) but we always have the information of what to do and where to go directly at our fingertips, sometimes even before we have any real use for such information.  As a result, games have become to-do lists. The contemporary quintessential videogame is nothing but a laundry list of things to do in order to get the 100% complete rate. What used to be surprises to be found became mere tasks to be fulfilled: “Defeat Riddler”; “Stop the bomb”; “Find 35 pieces of arrows”; “Help the villagers”; “Become the master of fighter’s guild”.

The more domesticated games are even worse. These games not only list what you have to do, but also how you should do it. The block you need to ground pound has the “ground pound” symbol on it. After pounding it, the game camera zooms in on whatever change that last action created so you know exactly where to go next. More “complex” puzzles will merely increase the string of activities you must complete before reaching that treasure chest. In which probably lies the exact thing your goal statement said you needed! Aren’t you lucky? Don’t you feel happy, boy? Now you can beat the level’s boss in a fashion almost exactly like the one we will now explain via this super tutorial sequence! Isn’t that nice, boy? Who’s a good boy? WHOSAGOODBOY?? You are!

We now take this for granted. We expect our games to have mini-maps to pin point exactly where we should be heading next, as if my medieval hero had a smartphone with him. It’s either that of that looming golden arrow that acts like Jack Sparrow’s magical compass on the top of the screen. After getting the treasure, we expect to see our progress rate increase in 1%. That way we can measure exactly where we are and have a notion of how much I need before completing the game.

In the world I’m from, this is called a project management tool.

(Not that the other piece wasn’t good…I just disagreed. Utterly different thing.) 

I absolutely agree with Cordeiro on this change. It’s not something that you need to go back to Mario or Zelda for, though. I’m seeing it right now with my Elder Scrolls playthroughs. Both Arena and Daggerfall are unforgiving right off the bat. Arena’s the older game, but Daggerfall is arguably even worse; that first dungeon is an absolute killer, and there’s little opportunity to level up against easy rats in Daggerfall like there is in Arena. The dungeon design in Daggerfall arguably makes it even worse; levels are big, three-dimensional, and impossible to keep track of with the mapping system provided.

All that’s assuming you can even get past the character creator, though. There’s no guarantee of that. Daggerfall’s character creation process is immensely complex. You aren’t just creating characters; in order to be optimal, you’re creating a class, and class creation in Daggerfall involves blizzards of statistics and floods of abilities. Worse yet, you don’t know which of the abilities are any good; a lot of them are really marginal, and some are outright useless.

If you DO get through all this? If you DO get out of that first dungeon in Daggerfall? Guess what? You’re out in the world! You don’t know what’s going on. You barely know where to go. You’re beyond intimidated by a landmass that’s the size of Great Britain. (No. Really. Daggerfall’s the largest gameworld ever made.) The only thing you know to do is go to Daggerfall. But if you do that, the ghosts haunting its streets will likely straight-up kill you.

Compare that to Skyrim. It starts without any character creation whatsoever, with a cart ride that deliberately obscures your identity and looks in order to ease players in. Character creation happens at a logical place in the game, and basically comes down to aesthetics (with ample presets) and race selection. The stats and skills are whittled down to a few key choices, and you have no way of changing them at character creation. They will change, but only through your actions during the game; it’s about building a class through revealed preferences, instead of making players declare their preferences.

That first part of Skyrim? Instead of a grueling struggle to get out of dungeon, like in Arena or Daggerfall, you’re taken through the sort of roller-coaster ride that you get in pretty much all modern games, where you SEEM like you’re in deadly danger, but you really aren’t. Once you get to the tunnels out of the city, it’s a bit more like Daggerfall, but you aren’t alone, the opponents aren’t difficult, and the caverns’ organization is easy to follow—and once you get out, you’re immediately taken to a nearby village, easing you into the gameworld by giving you a small area to call “home” until you’re ready to venture forth.

Skyrim’s even got those little directional pointers.

So, yeah. Fernando’s right. Things have changed. Wild imagery aside, the Elder Scrolls are domesticated. In the case of Skyrim vs. Daggerfall, I’m not yet convinced that it isn’t a bad thing. Daggerfall’s a hard one to get into, far more intimidating and punishing than Arena was. But there is a part of me that is a little sad that that sense of “oh, God, what do I do now?” is lost.

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