Lessons of History - Elder Scrolls: Arena

Posted by ahoodedfigure (4238 posts) -

After doing a bit of research in the first Elder Scrolls, I'll give a rundown of my impression of the first three Elder Scrolls games. No doubt some people will have their own experiences, and as far as Oblivion, I've pretty much laid out that I don't have any experience of it except the vicarious kind, but we can all make guesses about Skyrim based on what we've learned about player tastes over the years, and how Bethesda might interpret feedback and criticism.
 

Elder Scrolls: Arena

Elder Scrolls I: (the?) Arena was the first game set in this universe, and was basically built to be a pen-and-paper simulator, with only the thinnest plot progression for those who want it.
 

In Some Ways, Arena Is Actually More Involved than Its Sequel

 
When you go to a smithy, you can customize how you get your items repaired: you can extend the length of the time it takes to fix something if you want to save money, or you can up the price and get the work done much quicker.  
 
Haggling is fairly easy to get used to, and you don't even have to do it if you don't want to, but you can set a new price, then go back and forth until you reach a price you find suitable (or the AI gives up in disgust, forcing you to start over).
 
The sun and moon run in a cycle, so that you can sometimes see eclipses, and each land has a very obvious reference to the kingdom you're currently in (Morrowind's background has an active volcano, for instance).  People have skin color based upon the dominant race or species there (although this only holds for wandering townsfolk; classes or stationary NPCs are all generic, even if they turn out later to be an Argonian or whatever). This game takes place in the entirety of Tamriel, though there's not much difference from place to place, unfortunately.
 
Every town's surroundings are randomly generated (according to some, these areas go on forever, forcing you to fast-travel in order to reach any town).  Unlike in Daggerfall, the random generation is very generous with its dungeons, so you could, for example, walk outside the walls of Sentinel and in less than a minute find a tomb to loot.  
 
The two-tiers-per-level-dungeon system was not 3D like Daggerfall was, but that makes the maps much easier to read, and the sizes of the dungeons are a lot more sensible.  Still, you will have endless pits, standing water you can swim through, and secret passages that, while marked clearly on your map if you happen to look, are usually well-hidden compared to many of Daggerfall's hidden doors.  The many levels of a dungeon are separated by staircases, and compared to Daggerfall you could say that each level has a definite theme to it, with bricks, tiles, tomb walls, moss, or roughly-cut rock to name a few.  It didn't feel like it was just a bunch of random dungeon segments, even though it was obvious when I looked at the map that there were patterns I'd seen before.
 
This style of dungeon yields one of the coolest spells I've ever seen in an Elder Scrolls game: Passwall.  Just click on a block, and it disappears!  Great when I get impatient with the layout.  You can also cast the reverse, which can put up a barrier between you and something chasing you.  There's a similar spell that fills in a pit or water tile, and a reverse which can open a pit, stopping an enemy from coming after you and allowing you to hit it at a distance if you want. 
 
Also, conversations are not like a huge menu, database, or control panel. You ask simple questions and get straightforward answers.
 

Where It Shows Its Age

 
Guilds are only there to provide basic services or be named antagonists; they don't do much beyond this. We'd have to wait for Daggerfall to have a solid guild system. The shops and guild buildings are also generated from a set list EACH TIME you enter.  No matter how big or small the building is on the outside, it'll look the same on the inside, and this may change, so that you will see a different layout in a particular Mage Guild you frequently visit if you left and came back.
 
There is no custom class: you determine or pick your class at the beginning, and you're stuck with this for the rest of the game. The classes themselves have special abilities and drawbacks, much like the custom class designer from Daggerfall although a lot less varied. 
 
Very little of the environment is interactive. While most of Daggerfall's objects were just there for flavor, you could use some objects in dungeons to open doors, spring traps, or teleport you to key points.  While Daggerfall's intestine-style dungeons were at once awesome and overwhelming, Arena's dungeons are manageable yet a bit less dynamic.
 
As busted as many of Daggerfall's quests were, at least there were a good amount of them, and the lack of a guild system in arena meant that progression lay in helping nobles, rather than trying a bunch of different things.  
 
The interface is probably one of the bigger problems, but that can be said about a lot of Bethesda's releases.  You don't know if an object has been identified
 
Customization was expanded dramatically in Daggerfall, even if a lot of it was limited to the paper doll interface.  You don't get any different clothes (regardless as to whether or not they were ever to have a gameplay effect), and all of the character models are pretty much the same (the Argonians, lizard folks, look pretty much like the other humanoids except for their faces. They even have hair!).  Because you have to pick a class, you have no control over skills, though the skills that are in the game are rather straightforward thief/mage/warrior variations, with some interesting nuances (rangers take less time to travel, for instance, and sorcerers can only gain spell energy by absorbing spells cast at them).    
 
Spellcasting is at a bit of a disadvantage because you have to hit "C" to get your spell list, then click on the spell. This wouldn't be so bad if you then had to click on the monster you wanted to attack, which could result in getting hit several times before you manage to aim properly.  I'd prefer an auto-centered aiming system for combat casting, but otherwise there are some pretty neat spells.
 
Also, the conversation system is pretty limited, ultimately.
 

My Impressions

 
I feel like the games since then could have capitalized on Arena's universality. I can see a lot of the improvements of Daggerfall translating directly into an Arena-style format. I think the biggest change, the change that dictated things since, was Daggerfall's move to true 3D.  That's where a lot of the game's problems came from, and I think a lot of time was spent fixing those that could have been spent adding more features to an already capable engine.  Arena by itself wears thin after a while, but it feels like a much more ambitious and interesting game than Daggerfall, despite Daggerfall's physical size.
 
I really have fun with Arena, and I don't feel like the dungeons are too big a deal. It has me constantly wishing for an updated engine, better guilds, expanded character models, more sensible varieties of monsters in specific dungeons and deepening of regional themes, and more dynamic quests.  I had fun with Daggerfall's crazy dungeons sometimes, but other times they were just too damned time-consuming, convoluted, thematically samey, and often pointless.  If Arena's sequel had got a lot of the ideas for Daggerfall's dungeons, and maybe gone to some form of 3D when they were really ready to bring it in, that would have truly been something.
 
What game did YOU start out playing in the Elder Scrolls series (if any)?
#1 Posted by ahoodedfigure (4238 posts) -

After doing a bit of research in the first Elder Scrolls, I'll give a rundown of my impression of the first three Elder Scrolls games. No doubt some people will have their own experiences, and as far as Oblivion, I've pretty much laid out that I don't have any experience of it except the vicarious kind, but we can all make guesses about Skyrim based on what we've learned about player tastes over the years, and how Bethesda might interpret feedback and criticism.
 

Elder Scrolls: Arena

Elder Scrolls I: (the?) Arena was the first game set in this universe, and was basically built to be a pen-and-paper simulator, with only the thinnest plot progression for those who want it.
 

In Some Ways, Arena Is Actually More Involved than Its Sequel

 
When you go to a smithy, you can customize how you get your items repaired: you can extend the length of the time it takes to fix something if you want to save money, or you can up the price and get the work done much quicker.  
 
Haggling is fairly easy to get used to, and you don't even have to do it if you don't want to, but you can set a new price, then go back and forth until you reach a price you find suitable (or the AI gives up in disgust, forcing you to start over).
 
The sun and moon run in a cycle, so that you can sometimes see eclipses, and each land has a very obvious reference to the kingdom you're currently in (Morrowind's background has an active volcano, for instance).  People have skin color based upon the dominant race or species there (although this only holds for wandering townsfolk; classes or stationary NPCs are all generic, even if they turn out later to be an Argonian or whatever). This game takes place in the entirety of Tamriel, though there's not much difference from place to place, unfortunately.
 
Every town's surroundings are randomly generated (according to some, these areas go on forever, forcing you to fast-travel in order to reach any town).  Unlike in Daggerfall, the random generation is very generous with its dungeons, so you could, for example, walk outside the walls of Sentinel and in less than a minute find a tomb to loot.  
 
The two-tiers-per-level-dungeon system was not 3D like Daggerfall was, but that makes the maps much easier to read, and the sizes of the dungeons are a lot more sensible.  Still, you will have endless pits, standing water you can swim through, and secret passages that, while marked clearly on your map if you happen to look, are usually well-hidden compared to many of Daggerfall's hidden doors.  The many levels of a dungeon are separated by staircases, and compared to Daggerfall you could say that each level has a definite theme to it, with bricks, tiles, tomb walls, moss, or roughly-cut rock to name a few.  It didn't feel like it was just a bunch of random dungeon segments, even though it was obvious when I looked at the map that there were patterns I'd seen before.
 
This style of dungeon yields one of the coolest spells I've ever seen in an Elder Scrolls game: Passwall.  Just click on a block, and it disappears!  Great when I get impatient with the layout.  You can also cast the reverse, which can put up a barrier between you and something chasing you.  There's a similar spell that fills in a pit or water tile, and a reverse which can open a pit, stopping an enemy from coming after you and allowing you to hit it at a distance if you want. 
 
Also, conversations are not like a huge menu, database, or control panel. You ask simple questions and get straightforward answers.
 

Where It Shows Its Age

 
Guilds are only there to provide basic services or be named antagonists; they don't do much beyond this. We'd have to wait for Daggerfall to have a solid guild system. The shops and guild buildings are also generated from a set list EACH TIME you enter.  No matter how big or small the building is on the outside, it'll look the same on the inside, and this may change, so that you will see a different layout in a particular Mage Guild you frequently visit if you left and came back.
 
There is no custom class: you determine or pick your class at the beginning, and you're stuck with this for the rest of the game. The classes themselves have special abilities and drawbacks, much like the custom class designer from Daggerfall although a lot less varied. 
 
Very little of the environment is interactive. While most of Daggerfall's objects were just there for flavor, you could use some objects in dungeons to open doors, spring traps, or teleport you to key points.  While Daggerfall's intestine-style dungeons were at once awesome and overwhelming, Arena's dungeons are manageable yet a bit less dynamic.
 
As busted as many of Daggerfall's quests were, at least there were a good amount of them, and the lack of a guild system in arena meant that progression lay in helping nobles, rather than trying a bunch of different things.  
 
The interface is probably one of the bigger problems, but that can be said about a lot of Bethesda's releases.  You don't know if an object has been identified
 
Customization was expanded dramatically in Daggerfall, even if a lot of it was limited to the paper doll interface.  You don't get any different clothes (regardless as to whether or not they were ever to have a gameplay effect), and all of the character models are pretty much the same (the Argonians, lizard folks, look pretty much like the other humanoids except for their faces. They even have hair!).  Because you have to pick a class, you have no control over skills, though the skills that are in the game are rather straightforward thief/mage/warrior variations, with some interesting nuances (rangers take less time to travel, for instance, and sorcerers can only gain spell energy by absorbing spells cast at them).    
 
Spellcasting is at a bit of a disadvantage because you have to hit "C" to get your spell list, then click on the spell. This wouldn't be so bad if you then had to click on the monster you wanted to attack, which could result in getting hit several times before you manage to aim properly.  I'd prefer an auto-centered aiming system for combat casting, but otherwise there are some pretty neat spells.
 
Also, the conversation system is pretty limited, ultimately.
 

My Impressions

 
I feel like the games since then could have capitalized on Arena's universality. I can see a lot of the improvements of Daggerfall translating directly into an Arena-style format. I think the biggest change, the change that dictated things since, was Daggerfall's move to true 3D.  That's where a lot of the game's problems came from, and I think a lot of time was spent fixing those that could have been spent adding more features to an already capable engine.  Arena by itself wears thin after a while, but it feels like a much more ambitious and interesting game than Daggerfall, despite Daggerfall's physical size.
 
I really have fun with Arena, and I don't feel like the dungeons are too big a deal. It has me constantly wishing for an updated engine, better guilds, expanded character models, more sensible varieties of monsters in specific dungeons and deepening of regional themes, and more dynamic quests.  I had fun with Daggerfall's crazy dungeons sometimes, but other times they were just too damned time-consuming, convoluted, thematically samey, and often pointless.  If Arena's sequel had got a lot of the ideas for Daggerfall's dungeons, and maybe gone to some form of 3D when they were really ready to bring it in, that would have truly been something.
 
What game did YOU start out playing in the Elder Scrolls series (if any)?
#2 Posted by TomA (2531 posts) -
#3 Edited by ahoodedfigure (4238 posts) -
@TomA:  I saw that earlier; was an excellent bit of insight.  Thanks for mentioning it, General Suvorov :)
#4 Posted by ArbitraryWater (11423 posts) -

I still think Arena is kind of boring, despite the fact that it is a much more manageable game than Daggerfall. It's partially that it isn't nearly as sandboxy, and it's partially because it doesn't have many of the important tropes that really set the series apart (the way character customization is handled).  But really, it's because I'm lazy and some of the inconveniences of old games very quickly determine my tolerance level.
 
 I would go as far as to say that the series really doesn't get "good" until Morrowind (for as much as that game continually frustrates me with my inability to progress beyond the first few hours). Arena and Daggerfall are very much products of their era, when RPGs were for crazy hardcore nerds and the idea of a gigantic open world was mindblowing. Even though I think walking everywhere at a snail's pace only to get lost, die from a monster that is stronger than you, and then have to reload a save from 2 hours ago is the very definition of "not fun", it's really a game that a human being could hypothetically finish.

#5 Edited by ahoodedfigure (4238 posts) -
@ArbitraryWater said: 

 " I still think Arena is kind of boring, despite the fact that it is a much more manageable game than Daggerfall."

Ultimately it boils down to hacking through dungeons and finishing simple quests, and since the missions and dungeons don't have as many variables as Daggerfall I wind up not being as interested in discoveries.  Sort of what I mean when I say that Arena is "thin."  This retrospective is partly a prospective, as I think that if they'd built on this basic formula without worrying about 3D, with its abysses and clipping problems, they maybe would have found a more solid foundation.
 

"It's partially that it isn't nearly as sandboxy, and it's partially because it doesn't have many of the important tropes that really set the series apart (the way character customization is handled)."


You don't get bank accounts, houses, carts, or boats. It never feels like you're starting a new life when you go to a different province; you just sorta change surroundings a bit.  Maybe that's what you mean?
 

"But really, it's because I'm lazy and some of the inconveniences of old games very quickly determine my tolerance level."

 
While it may seem like we have very different tolerance levels, something that also bothered me in Daggerfall is prevalent in Arena, where you have to wander to stores in a town to sell anything, then find an inn to wait for your stuff to get repaired. I feel like Darklands had the right formula here, since you basically picked what you wanted to do out of a list rather than wandering through town and asking people for directions constantly. I like the FIRST discovery of a building, but all wanderings in a town that's bigger than the map frame quickly becomes mad tedious.
 

"I would go as far as to say that the series really doesn't get "good" until Morrowind (for as much as that game continually frustrates me with my inability to progress beyond the first few hours)."

Morrowind drags me down when the errors start to increase, and if I put the game down for more than a week I find it all but impossible to remember what I was doing. This from someone who can put down a book and pick it up six months later. I wander in Morrowind, so that's probably why I don't remember past a certain point anything beyond general recollections. Part of my problem is perhaps that I create the same basic character every time I play any Elder Scrolls game.
 
As far as mindblowing huge worlds, I don't think they reach the level of interest until you look past the numbers and say, wow, this feels like it's own part of the world.  Arena didn't have enough to make it feel that way, and Daggerfall, despite its improvements, only really had that awe feeling in dungeons, which were also, as we've talked about, a major source of frustration at the same time. Some people are awed by Daggerfall's physical size, but really, there's not much out there to find. In a way, the world, for all its size, feels too repetitive. 
 
It wasn't until Morrowind where I felt any real awe. That game used 3D well, and I loved traveling to cities and walking through forests, assuming my head wasn't being pecked by those awful birds.

#6 Posted by President_Barackbar (3418 posts) -

I think that for Skyrim what Bethesda needs to do is use a lot of the great fiction immersion that really defined Arena and Daggerfall. I mean, its amazing that a game that was originally supposed to be about you fighting in arenas all over Tamriel turned into the cornerstone of an entire RPG dynasty. There are a lot of things that Oblivion did right as far as immersion and simplification of systems, but they seem to have lost some of the magic that Arena created.

#7 Posted by ahoodedfigure (4238 posts) -
@President_Barackbar said:
" I think that for Skyrim what Bethesda needs to do is use a lot of the great fiction immersion that really defined Arena and Daggerfall. I mean, its amazing that a game that was originally supposed to be about you fighting in arenas all over Tamriel turned into the cornerstone of an entire RPG dynasty. There are a lot of things that Oblivion did right as far as immersion and simplification of systems, but they seem to have lost some of the magic that Arena created. "
I'd be interested in hearing what you liked about Arena in Daggerfall.  Unfortunately Arena's lore was pretty skeletal, I think, but they added a lot of meat in Daggerfall and onwards, even if you never bothered to read any of the books. It did feel persistent, even though each game was a graphical paradigm shift, and I like that they defy genre conventions about specific groups of people and assumptions about morality.
 
It's probably pretty clear from my posts that I like what Arena did and sorta wish they'd tried to expand fully upon that rather than go the route they did, yet I enjoyed Daggerfall and Morrowind, too.
#8 Posted by skrutop (3615 posts) -

I picked the series up with Morrowind on the Xbox.  That is still one of my favorite RPGs ever, and I didn't really like first-person perspective RPGs prior to playing it.  I felt like Oblivion made too many sacrifices for the console players and, while pretty, was too shallow in a lot of ways.  Morrowind was pretty tough to play with an Xbox controller, but I still got used to it.  I'm hoping that Skyrim proves to be a bit more like Morrowind in that regard.  I know that the PC version is always better, due to modding support, I like to play with a controller in front of the TV.

#9 Posted by ahoodedfigure (4238 posts) -
@skrutop:  I have Morrowind on the old XBox myself, and I was really feeling the need for a PC version when cycling through menus or trying to aim. The mods are missed too, and I've seen some phenomenal stuff come out for the PC modding community.  Excellent atmosphere in Morrowind, I think. 
 
Also, that Frakes face is still freaky :)
#10 Posted by President_Barackbar (3418 posts) -
@ahoodedfigure:   Well yes, it being the first  game and all it feels a little underdeveloped compared to what Daggerfall would do, but there was a certain undeniable charm to the fact that it took place in the whole of Tamriel, from the ashlands of Morrowwind to the palaces of Rihad. I suppose though that this is an atypical reaction given that I didn't get into the old games until post-Oblivion out of curiosity. There was just something cool about going places that you only heard about in the lore of the later games that seemed cool.

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