Leigh Alexander and Immersion into Daggerfall’s World

Just saw a tweet from Leigh Alexander:

Also, as primitive as it looks now I would still effing be scared playing Alone in the Dark, so there’s that

Well, yeah. The old games can still be really immersive. Even if the graphics don’t seem to be up to much, it can still draw you in. I noticed that yesterday while playing a bit more of Daggerfall.

Generally, I play Daggerfall in a window, so that I can see other stuff going on on twitter or check up on quest information or whatever. That’s something you REALLY need to do with Daggerfall: as much as I’d like to go in “cold”, doing that can leave you in deep trouble. (That’s already happened to me. Nothing gamebreaking, but bad. Wee bit more on that later.)

Plus, it makes the graphics look a fair sight better. Daggerfall’s base resolution is pretty damned low. The monitor I’m using right now is ancient, which probably helps with that a bit, but it’s still nothing to write home about. Putting it in a window makes everything look sharper.  I did the same thing in Arena, too, though with Arena it was more about trying to alleviate that game’s immense performance issues in DOSBox.

Yesterday, though, I broke the trend, fired it up fullscreen, started travelling through the city of Wayrest…and, yeah, I was sucked right in. the graphics were only serviceable, but they were enough not to be distracting, and the sheer SIZE of the city came through just fine. I don’t think anybody who hasn’t played the game is quite prepared for how immense it is; the three main cities appear to be roughly the same size as entire continents in subsequent Elder Scrolls games. A single guild hall was as big as a Skyrim Palace…and Wayrest Palace is so immense that attempts to give quest directions come across as difficult-at-best.

That’s the odd tension within Daggerfall. The characters are serviceable at best, and while the plot is an engaging  enough mystery for its time, it’s nowhere near the standards set by other games at the time. Keep in mind that the 1990s were the heyday for both PC RPGs and PC adventure games; character-driven games were almost a rule, rather than an exception. Daggerfall isn’t even in the same ballpark as RPGs like Fallout, Ultima VII, Sakura Taisen, or Final Fantasy VII.  It isn’t even in the same LEAGUE as the adventure games of the time; it came out at the same time as the second Gabriel Knight, and that was a game whose plot and characterization actually made Full-Motion Video bearable!

(Seriously! FMV!)

Skyrim engages with its characters, and with this notion of being a unique “Chosen” hero within a setting hand-coded to cater to players. Daggerfall engages with its immense, daunting environments. No matter what you do, you never lose this sense that you’re an absolutely tiny part of an immense world.  You aren’t really chosen by fate. The backstory seems to suggest that you were given your task by good ol’ Uriel Septim VII more out of expedience than anything else.  You have the same base abilities as everybody else, employing the same numerical systems as every other inhabitant of the game. You aren’t special.

There’s more factions than you could conceivably align with, and many that you’ll probably never encounter.There are places you’ll never see; towns and villages and dungeons and even whole cities that you’ll never even KNOW ABOUT. Several of the retrospectives on Daggerfall I’ve read have mentioned that it’s quite likely that you could step foot in some procedurally-generated village or dungeon that’s never been seen by human eyes after being given the quick once-over by the team back in 1995.  Sure, the dungeons can be terrible…but it’s actual honest-to-goodness exploration!

I knew all of that. But it never really hit home until I hit the fullscreen, and that little DOSBox Daggerfall window opened up into a whole world.  A whole world with pixel-y character sprites, bad sound effects, a useless map, and low-rez 3D backgrounds, perhaps…but a world nonetheless.

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5 thoughts on “Leigh Alexander and Immersion into Daggerfall’s World

  1. Up until the last 3-4 years or so, I would fire up Daggerfall about once a year to play; never finishing but still spending hours upon hours in the game. The randomly generated dungeons are truly immense. So much so that, upon first playing the game, you may not realize that you definitely need just enough magic to cast a recall/teleport spell or you’re going to get completely lost and not find your way out. While the travel in Skyrim and Oblivion are realistic and amazing, the sheer volume of cities (and countries) you can visit in Daggerfall is staggering. Though buggy as hell it’s still one of my favorite games of all time.

    • craigbamford says:

      Hoo yeah. I ended up having to use the Alt-F11 trick exactly because I forgot to drop an anchor in a random dungeon that was near-impossible to extricate myself from.

  2. Pete Davison says:

    I can’t comment on Daggerfall, but I can comment on the subject Leigh addressed in her tweet.

    It’s a common misconception that you need modern graphic technology, state of the art sound systems and a multi-million dollar budget to be atmospheric or emotionally engaging these days.

    And yet when I think back to the games which have captured my imagination and offered the most genuine manipulation of my emotions recently? Katawa Shoujo, a fan project created as a labour of love comprising nothing but still images, music and well-written text; To The Moon, a game comprised of Chrono Trigger-style top-down sprites that somehow, through its excellent writing and gorgeous soundtrack, had me in floods of tears at the end (something which has never happened before — I’ve been on the verge, but no game until this one had ever succeeded in genuinely making me cry); and Corpse Party which, like To The Moon, uses 16-bit style top-down visuals combined with characteristically Japanese music that really should be out of place but somehow works (don’t believe me? Imagine wandering around a haunted school to this track) to create the most genuinely terrifying, horrifying thing I think I’ve ever played.

    It’s not about tech. It’s about using the tools you have available well. Some people seem to forget this fact, and that makes me a bit sad.

    • craigbamford says:

      Absolutely true, Pete. One of the most immersive (and disconcerting) games I’ve played in the last while was The Void. It didn’t have the most amazing graphic design in the industry or anything, but it used what it had REALLY well.

      Hell, even Skyrim fits there. Skyrim’s textures and polys are nothing to write home about. It’s okay, but it’s no Frostbite. It’s the art design and careful crafting of the environments that makes Skyrim work.

      (Well, that, and “Far Horizons”. Kirk Hamilton was bang-on about that track. Seems like ever TES I’ve played has that one track that just elevates the experience. Arena had it in the snow music, Daggerfall has a few really good city ones, and Skyrim has Far Horizons.)

  3. […] 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 […]

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