The Only Good Elder Scrolls Game

Sorry, I couldn’t resist making that my title.  This one’s gonna be about Daggerfall, so buckle up, kids.  Also the other games are … they’re fine.  They’re pretty alright.  Still have a soft spot for Morrowind in particular, but yeah.  Today we’re gonna HALT and take some sweet VENGEANCE.

It took me longer than most to discover TES 2.  My first game in this series was Morrowind, and I didn’t get around to trying Daggerfall until early 2018.  That’s 22 years after the game was first released, and long after what I would call my formative years of playing games.  I snagged it for free, actually, when I re-bought TES 3 from GOG.com (yes I know, and I promise I haven’t supported them in anything else since).  Before I tried TES 2, in a spectacularly-normie take, I passionately believed that TES 3 was the best game in the series.

“It’s just so complex and deep,” I would explain at length to passersby who had no idea what I was even talking about, “In Oblivion they started fusing skills together and taking stuff out entirely!  Dumbing down!  Casual!  Console trash!  Unarmed, Spears!” and so on.  I used to say that if you were to chart Morrowind and Oblivion as points and draw a line through them, that line would end up on Skyrim.  By which I meant, you could see where the series would end up by comparing TES 3 to 4 and noting the differences.

As a brief aside, I like this metaphor a lot and have also been known to use it to talk about Metallica’s Black Album (“draw a line from Master of Puppets through the Black Album and you can see Death Magnetic”) and Return of the Jedi (“from Empire to Jedi and land on the prequels”).  Go ahead and use it yourself if you like, it’s on the house.  Everybody loves math metaphors, right?

Anyway, it turns out I didn’t really know what I was talking about!  While it’s true that Oblivion did represent a major step backward in depth and complexity for the series’ mechanics, the forbidden truth is that that could also be said of Morrowind.  Truth be told, the jump from TES 2 to 3 was a far more dramatic one than any of the steps taken afterward between iterations.  The very heart and soul of the series changed irrevocably, and once they took that first step, the rest was inevitable.  That’s what I’d like to talk about a bit today.

To be fair to Past Me, Morrowind is a pretty cool game (just like how Metallica is still a pretty good album and Return of the Jedi isn’t a terrible movie).  The setting does a lot of the work for it.  Even back in the early 2000s, plain old fantasy forests were played out as fuck, so the island of Vvardenfell was a breath of fresh air, with its swamps and Telvanni mushroom cities and ash wastelands and stuff.  There’s a whole city that’s built inside a giant crab shell.  When you walk into the wind blowing sand in your face, your character puts their arm up to block it from getting into their eyes.  No other RPG was doing stuff like that at the time.  There was this sense that Morrowind had a level of attention to detail that was so far above and beyond what any other game at the time was doing (if you had for some reason skipped over Daggerfall).  There were like a million skills to level up, and they’d go up as you used them!  It made sense and didn’t feel arbitrary, which was a novelty in CRPGs (again, for those of us who hadn’t played Daggerfall yet).  Never mind that the way you leveled up was tied to “major” skills, and you had to pump your “minor” skills to get stat increase multipliers or you were basically wasting your time and you’d end up way underpowered.  We thought it was intuitive, dammit.

The game also had this enormous sense of freedom.  You felt as though you had just been turned loose in a strange and unforgiving world, and you embark on this long and winding journey with a sense of progression that leads you to eventually mastering that world.  Your skills improve and your character gets better at the combat.  You start to be able to move around more quickly, eventually commanding several different forms of fast travel after having to take the dang bus or walk everywhere at the start.  By the time you complete Morrowind’s main quest, you’re a reincarnated demigod (or maybe not?? oooh complexity oooh nuance) who can leap and fly and teleport everywhere, make nuclear explosions with a swing of your enchanted daedric sword, and your clothes are all shiny and stuff.  Like, way too shiny actually, can we tone that down?  As earned power fantasies go, this is great stuff.

But here’s several questions for you: in Morrowind, where do you live?  How come you’re able to carry so much money without all those coins weighing you down?  How come you’re able to just walk up to anyone in the street and get an entire wiki of everything that’s going on in the world?  Where do you do your banking?  Why are there no horses?  If Vvardenfell is an island, how come there’s only like 2 boats, where is everyone coming and going from?  What languages do you speak?  Why can’t you go into an inn and order food and drink, like you should be able to?  Why don’t inns serve literally any purpose, actually?  For all your character’s involvement in the local religions, why can I only choose to worship “all the Divines” or “all 3 of the ALMSIVI”?  How come you can join and become the ultimate master and leader of multiple guilds without any real issues except for that one quest where the thieves/mages guilds are mutually exclusive?  Why is the world so small, why are there only like 12 people living in any given town?  That’s not enough to sustain any kind of economy, these should be ghost towns.  Why can you carry around 30 “armorer’s hammers” and immediately repair things by brute force with no time spent and no consequences for failure?  Why are all these “”””dungeons”””” like Baby’s First Hole in the Ground?  Why is there only one of each kind of shop in a town, what happened to competition?  How come there’s only about a dozen outfits?  Why can’t I really fail quests, why is everyone willing to wait 20 years for me to do their errands for them, why aren’t I becoming known as a huge flake?  Why does paying off my bounty one time completely erase the fact that people know I’m a criminal?  Where’d the rest of the vampire clans go?  What about wereboars?  How come when I do become a vampire, all my guild leaders still treat me like I’m alive?  What the heck is the logic behind how shops work, with a bunch of inventory out in the open that you can’t pick up, and the only items actually for sale are in the store owner’s pockets?  What happened to knightly orders?

I have these questions because I finally played Daggerfall a few years ago, and you know what?  Morrowind was a massive step backwards.  I get why they did it.  Like I said, the heart and soul of the series changed between 2 and 3, the leadership changed (Shatner voice: HOWAAAAAARD), they wanted to go for something more mass marketable.  Something with a broader appeal.  They abandoned their roots to buy into a more power-fantasy-style RPG, something with a stirring narrative and a sense of progression, while keeping around the skill system and some trappings of the mechanics so as to not alienate literally everyone.  They wanted cutting edge 3D graphics, a sense of space, and the more realistic you get with that stuff, the less complexity you can fit in.  And they did, they nailed it, and that’s fine.  Never mind that the engine was held together with tissue paper and fairy prayers; they somehow got it working (sorta) and delivered on this new idea for the series, and the success of that carried them on and bought them an immense amount of goodwill from a new crop of players (like me, back in the day) who thought Morrowind was the shit and even Oblivion was kinda okay at the end of the day if you squinted real hard and installed All Of The Mods.

But do you know what it used to be?  Do you know what they gave up in that daedric bargain that would eventually give us 43 bazillion versions and ports of goddamn Skyrim?  What they lost in taking on that most evil of trajectories that would eventually give rise to Fallout 76?

I’ll tell you what they gave up.

The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall is, simply put, the most immersive fantasy RPG life simulator that I have ever played.  It is also the ultimate test of procedurally-generated dungeon crawling skills.  That is what the Elder Scrolls series could have iterated on.  That is what they lost.

There is technically a larger narrative in Daggerfall, and it is a good one.  It’s got political intrigue, scandal, and at least one spooky ghost.  But it’s also rife with numerous issues that, taken together, make it very unlikely that most players will complete it.  There’s several brick walls of difficulty that encourage you to turn aside and do other things for a very long time to build your skills up.  The main quest is also long as hell, and requires you to travel all over the game’s incredibly massive world (it’s like, the size of Great Britain or something).  The game also has a nasty habit of generating dungeons that you literally can’t complete or fully explore, like putting boulders in the way of key corridors, or spawning rooms you can’t get to.  That can happen even in the ones required to complete story quests.  There is also a time-limited quest near the beginning of the game, and if you fail to attend a meeting with a certain NPC in a specific location, you just get locked out of the story forever.  Too bad.  In any event, like later games in the series but to a much greater degree, the main quest is really not why we’re here.

More than any other game in the series, Daggerfall wants you to live in its world.  If you wanna carry stuff, you need a cart.  If you wanna get around quickly, you need to buy a horse.  Later, when you’re crazy rich, you can get a house, a ship.  Money has weight, so very early on you’re forced to think about putting money in the bank.  Where’s the bank?  You have to ask somebody for directions.  Cities are huge, with hundreds of (admittedly samey) villagers walking around.  Not all of them know where the bank is.  Not all of them even like you or give a shit about your questions.  Before you can afford a house, you’ll be renting rooms at inns long-term, marking them on your map so you don’t forget which one you did that at.  Can’t sleep on the streets or in other people’s businesses at night, the guards will arrest you for loitering and they don’t fuck around even a little bit.  There’s lots of different kinds of each shop in towns, and their quality,  stock, and prices vary a lot between them.  You’re never going to master a world this large and complicated, never going to rise to become 30 guildmasters.  All you can do is live in it as best you can.

The first time I wanted to have my sword repaired, I had to shop around and look for an armorer who wasn’t going to charge me an arm and a leg.  I gave him the sword to repair, and he … took the sword.  He was gonna work on it.  Come back in a few days, he said.  Of course.  All the walls of my apartment fell away as I transcended time and space in that moment.  They did it, I thought, these motherfucking mad lads took my sword.  No dungeon crawling for me, I had to wait.  I had to go rent a room at an inn cause last time I tried to sleep outside I ended up with an axe in my face.  While I was in there, I got myself some bread.  Ate a cheese.  Listened to the inn music.  Chatted with the NPCs, found out where the local temple to Dibella was.  I took a stroll over there, and boom!  Boobs in my face.  Muscle-y dudes in loincloths.  They ain’t messing around with this Dibella worship stuff.  These are my people; I joined up immediately.  Nobody in the temple would do any kind of service for me, though, cause they probably get 3 dozen horny ladies joining up every day, who am I to them?  Head back to the inn, it’s dinner time.  I forgot, I put all my money in the bank.  By the time I get there, they’re closed.  No chicken dinner for me, so I go to bed hungry.  Sword’s still not done the next day, so I head over and see if the Mage’s Guild will take me.  They totally will, but only because I know how to do spell stuff.  I remembered to take out some money, so I do some spellmaking while I’m there.  The closest dungeon to town has a sheer vertical wall in the first hallway leading down to the rest of the dungeon, and I suck at climbing, so I make a spell to make me better at it.  Back to the Wolf & Goose to get drunk.  I heard the Fighter’s Guild has beds, maybe if I can join them I can stop paying for this inn room.  Nobody I’m asking knows where that is, though, so I’ll have to explore the city.

This is what they gave up.

They also gave up dungeons that break your mind in delicious ways trying to figure them out, dungeons that require you to do stuff like trying to only make right turns or leaving breadcrumb trails of junk loot for yourself so you can find your way back out, dungeons full of fun stuff to fight that scream and growl and yell the whole time you’re exploring, echoing around ominously then charging out at you.  Dungeons that are just full of fuckin’ water in the lower levels, or with scorpions that give you the plague and make you run like hell for the nearest priest, abandoning your whole expedition in a panic because you will die so fast unless you get it cured.  Dungeons so massive you have to make several trips back to your wagon at the entrance to keep offloading all the stuff you’re finding.  Skeletons that only take serious damage from blunt weapons, because why would you try and chop a skeleton?  It’s got no meat on it!  You gotta BASH ’em!  You can learn to speak Centaurian, and sometimes when you meet a centaur in a dungeon they’ll want to be your buddy, because hey it gets lonely being a centaur in a dungeon, it’s amazing that you learned Centaurian, who even does that?  They gave up Primary skills, that’s right, a whole third tier of skills for even more RP potential.  They took out backstabbing, climbing, critical strike, dodging, etiquette, medical (for diagnosing dseases), pickpocket, running, streetwise, swimming, thaumaturgy, all those language skills!  All gone in Morrowind, either merged into other skills or removed entirely.

But I mean, I guess the Telvanni mushrooms were neat.  Swamps are cool, I guess.  Even though they only did that stuff one time.  Totally worth it, right?  Totally worth Skyrim HD Remaster on the Switch, Skyrim again for the 12th time.  It’s fine.  Water effects.  That’s what the people want.  That’s what video games are.  Fucking… bump map, uh, normal … shaders.  Truly revolutionary.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this article, so just pretend it crashed to desktop.

PS: Damn, I didn’t even talk about how “radiant quests” are just TH ripping off the quest system from Daggerfall but doing it badly because the dungeons are bad.  Oh well, I’ll just write it in a postscript and that way I get to say it anyway!

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