Monthly Archives: April 2012

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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