#4: The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall

Eight days ago, my ship sank and left me barely alive, stranded in a collapsed cave and looking for a way out.  I discovered a passageway in the back which led me through an ancient subterranean ruin, riddled with beasts and even the undead.

In the middle of a snow storm, I made my way a few miles south to the small town of Longbury.  Finally gaining my wits about me after a couple days rest at the Inn, I was implored by the local shopkeeper to help him.  Vampires were going to try to kill him at his home that very night and I was asked to fend them off so he could make his escape from the city tomorrow.

I spent the day shopping and found a couple nice outfits as well as a Katana which was far sharper than my shortsword.  I lay up that night at the shopkeeper's home, a small single room home with a loft bedroom.  At a quarter to 9 pm, the undead horrors arrived - two she-vampires with glowing eyes came crashing through the front door.  I swung with my Katana with all my might, but the creature's shrugged off my blows as if made of iron.  I panicked and backed away, but the vampires attacked without mercy.  I thought I was dead.  Then with a great crash, several guards came through the doorway and all went black.

I awoke in a jail cell, wondering why I was chained up.  I was being charged with Vagrancy because I was found in someone's home. I pleaded my cause to deaf ears, "I was only there to protect the home from the intruders!".  When I asked about the Vampires they told me they had seen nothing of the kind when they entered.  I stood trial and pled my case, but was convicted and jailed for 6 days.

I'm free at last, the snow is melting all around and spring is on its way.  I will join with the guild of mages and learn the ways of magic. I wont make the same mistake again, I will hunt the Vampires and find vengeance.

-Jemma June

 And that is a typical week of a character living in the game world of Daggerfall.  The author of the manual's introduction asks the question, "What's the story of Daggerfall?  The truth is simply this: we don't know yet."  Such an appropriate way to introduce a game with so many possibilities.

"And the best thing we game designers and programmers can do is give you what you want, and get out of your way".  How many game developers think this way today?  I dare someone to find any major modern game developer who speaks like this.  Ultimate freedom is a lost art in gaming these days, a mechanic that got pushed out for the eye candy of, what I call, interactive movies.

Today in games, you're put into a movie set with scripted lines, lots of cardboard props and actors and a perfectly orchestrated storyline.  Daggerfall couldn't be farther from this.  It's a giant sandbox where you're given exactly what you need, and almost nothing more, to write your own story for your character.  The game comes right out of the gate and offers you the tools to create a highly unique character.

Character creation is one of the best of any game I've ever played.  The breadth of options to customize your character are great.  My favorite part is building your character's personal history.  The interesting thing here, and one of the things people overlook, is that when you start the game, you can read your personal story based on how you built the character to begin with.  This is a really nice touch when most games never seem to recall character creation again.

Had this game come with better modding tools and we still had access to the source code, there's absolutely not doubt in my mind that this would, by far, be my #1 game of all time.  I've always been a fan of The Elder Scrolls games, but Daggerfall really stands apart as the title that truly gives you a taste of what this series should be about: enormous open worlds.

Enormous doesn't even cut it for Daggerfall, though this game IS, indeed, ginormous.  Unless I'm mistaken, the largest land-based video game world ever made, over 188,000 square miles, or twice the size of the island of Great Britain.  The world is filled with 15,000 locations to visit including cities of varying size, ruins, dungeons, graveyards and much more.  These aren't your average Skyrim-sized locations either, a single larger city in the game can literally have hundreds of buildings (all enterable) and thousands of NPCs to interact with.  To this day, there has never been a game made with the kind of dungeons you will find in Daggerfall.

And the quests.  Oh the awesome quests in this game!  It's amazing how much they were able to do with these when the game was made.  These are not just a bunch of random fedex missions, or kill ten boars grinds.  They are hugely complex and varied, from protecting someone, assassination missions, resolving business feuds, and entangling yourself in political webs.  They are deep as well, often featuring twists and turns that will catch you buy surprise.  Your quest often ends with different results as you make decisions on how to complete it.  Sure, you also get the "kill x" mission, but there is enough variety to make things feel fresh.

You can gain quests in a variety of ways:  through guilds, tavern rumors, political leaders, shopkeepers, maps and journals, and even through common citizens.  I can't think of any game that has as many quest hubs or the variety of Daggerfall.  The game is so huge, you could literally spend a hundred hours in just one town, doing missions for the locals and never even see the rest of it.

You'd think with a game this massive, and as randomly generated as it is, that there would be very little variety and detail.  And it's true that you shouldn't expect the kind of small scale detail as later Elder Scroll games (like being able to pick up silverware), but the game excels at the macro detail.  Each province is unique with different biomes, including deserts, forests, mountains, and jungles, and each has a unique history to uncover.  You can own or steal horses, carts, ships and even houses.  Dungeons, above all, are the prime example of that detail.

Each dungeon location is incredible.  Many have varying locations, such as castle forts, ruins, crypts, etc.  Once you enter the dungeon, be prepared for the most mind-bogglingly massive labyrinth you've ever experienced before.  One dungeon in Daggerfall is probably the equivalent of maybe half the dungeons in Skyrim in size, perhaps even more.  You can literally spend hours in one dungeon and still leave parts unexplored.  The dungeons are quite complex as well, they feature underwater sections, open-standing staircases, and lever-based elevators, secret doors, and traps.  Because of their randomly-based nature, you can find some truly amazing things going on.  Even some of the glitches make things more interesting.  Seeing a door, for example, on the side of a sheer cliff wall is exciting, you'll feel the constant urge to see what's around the next corner, or through the underwater passageway.

They can feel frustrating at times and getting lost does happen often.  But these days it's rather refreshing to play a game that doesn't hold your hand or lead you by the nose through a railroad path, disguised as a dungeon.

I love the Daggerfall campaign, it's my favorite campaign of the entire series.  This is a campaign for grown-ups.  It's deeply political and requires real thinking to get through.  Not only is it a mature storyline, but it is branching and has multiple endings.  Many of the quests can be completed in more than one way as your character can ally himself with different factions throughout the adventure.

The game does have its weaknesses, the biggest being the fact that the source code no longer exists.  If this was still available to modders, I can't imagine how much could be done with it today.  There is currently a makeover being worked on right now using the core engine with some promise called the DaggerXL project, but what this game really needs is a full remake by a serious studio.  Even barring that, this game is still amazing and stands tall even today.

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