Looking back: Arena and Daggerfall

In the history of the Elder Scrolls series, there’s something of a break in collective memory between Daggerfall and Morrowind.  From casual observation, it seems like Morrowind represents a significant change in community awareness of the game’s history.

There’s several possible reasons for that.  Morrowind came out in 2002, Daggerfall in 1996, a break of just under 6 years between games, making it by a few months the longest series break over that between Oblivion and Skyrim.  A player who was 15 when Morrowind came out would have been about 9 when Daggerfall came out.  Daggerfall also had no expansions or DLC as the later games did, and while a mod community developed for it, there was no offical “construction set” as the later games had.  Morrowind was the first game available on console as well, expanding it into that realm of gaming.

Those of us that remember those early games are a much rarer breed in the community, therefore, than those that started playing with one of the later games.  Elder Scrolls has changed a lot since those games, and a review of the series history is something that I feel I should do before saying anything about The Elder Scrolls Online.

Now, a disclaimer:  Daggerfall came out when I was a junior in college.  I was supremely busy at the time; I was an MS III in Army ROTC at Virginia Tech, which also put me in its Corps of Cadets;  Virginia Tech and Texas A&M are the only schools in the US that are normal civilian colleges, but which maintain a full-time military experience for its ROTC students and those others that elect to participate, thus mixing the military academy with the regular college life.  The junior year is the busiest and most demanding of the ROTC schedule, and culimnates in camp, where essentially, one’s future or lack thereof as an Army officer is decided.  Needless to say, I was busy.  I also was just not playing a lot of computer games; my gaming centered at the time around playing Warhammer 40,000 with my friends.

Because of this, I didn’t really get around to trying Daggerfall until 1999.  By that time technology had largely passed the game by and Diablo, Starcraft and Baldur’s Gate eclipsed it.  Everquest came out early that year, thus ending my brief foray into Daggerfall.  It is the only game out of the main series I did not play extensively (I tried out Battlespire as well, the prior year and did not care for it for reason I don’t recall) and the only one I never beat.

Looking back on it, I don’t think I missed a lot.  Daggerfall had extensive features and possibilities, but reading about its story afterwards it is by far the least engaging plot, and its weird “all endings are canonical” thing turned me off.  Afte rthat, I essentially forgot the entire series other than fondly remembering Arena, until I noticed Morrowind on a lunch stop at Best Buy one afternoon in 2002.

That’s a story for another day, though.  Prior to my belated, abortive experiments with Daggerfall and Battlespire, I had played Arena through no less than 3 times completely and countless others without carrying it to the end in my Freshman and Sophomore years.  Arena was for its time the best game I had ever played.  I had been a big fan of the SSI D&D games (Gold Box series, and others) before that, as well as F-19 Stealth Fighter in junior high, but none of them held my interest like Arena did, and the only reason I didn’t play Arena even more was the enticing social life of college.

Arena resembled pen-and-paper RPGs far more than its successors, with rigid classes and experience-point based advancement.  There were no skills at all.  Only the classes that fell under the Mage could cast spells, with the exception of the Bard, who was under the Thief (and had no bard-like musical abilities).

The game covered the entire continent of Cyrodill with its procedurally generated land and dungeons.  On top of that there were the big dungeons that held pieces of the main quest, and the artifacts that evolved into Daedric artifacts in later games.  Back then, you could only have one at a time, and they would disappear if you used all their charges.  Each big dungeon in each province was preceded by another dungeon in that same province that held the map to the one you really needed.  Loot was in big piles on the floor that looked the same no matter what.

Your weapons and armor were dictated by class as well.  You chose what type of attack to make with your weapon (side slash, diagonal slash, downward chop or stab) which had various multipliers to attack rolls and damage.  You COULD raise ability scores every level, but from all appearances, the amount of points available to assign was random; it wasn’t like Oblivion or Morrowind where the number of available points at level-up was based on how much you used that ability.

Magic had a surprising number of effects, including the Passwall effect which allowed you to destroy a wall out of a dungeon and cut your way through.  Lava was a frequent hazard, and fire resistance was critical.  If I remember right, there was at least one quest where surviving a long lava swim was mandatory, at least unless you had Passwall.

Very little of Arena survives today in Skyrim or Online outside of the lore.  The Nightblade and Sorcerer are classes that were around in Arena, but there are no formal classes in Skyrim.  The variety of magical effects has shrunk.  Selecting what type of attack to make has made a return in the form of block, bash, standard, or power, but the attack rolls are gone.  The ability scores are gone from both games, and while the three main attributes remain, they work completely differently – most importantly all three regenerate over time, not just when you sleep.

Arena was the product of pen-and-paper roleplaying, and the computers of the early 90s.  Its obviously obsolete in its technology.  It’s most important aspect, however – the ability to go where you please and do the main quest as and when you please – has defined the entire series.  Too many people, talking about what “is Elder Scrolls” and “Isn’t Elder Scrolls” forget Arena and Daggerfall.  This is where it all started, and if you ever are in the mood for some retro action, go try them out.

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