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I’ve written a lot about Skyrim for this blog, but that’s actually the fifth game in Bethesda’s long-running Elder Scrolls series. The first one I ever played was the second entry, Daggerfall, way back in 1996. It kind of blew my mind back then, offering an impossibly huge world and the freedom to seek adventure in whatever direction I chose. I’ve followed the series since, but never played the very first game, Arena. I’d intended to start there for an eventual set of History Lessons posts about the early games, but then I saw the announcement that the fan-made Daggerfall Unity project — an open-source version of Daggerfall made with the Unity engine, making it easy to run on modern hardware and allowing for player-made mods and other cool features — had reached version 1.0. I couldn’t resist firing it up. I’ll play Arena someday, but not today.

Installing Daggerfall Unity is easy. You’ll need to get the original game first, but fortunately it’s available for free from Steam and GOG (GOG also offers a “GOG Cut” of Daggerfall Unity that comes with a bunch of mods already incorporated, but many of those are out of date so this option is not recommended). Then just get the free Daggerfall Unity installer from the official site and run it (at the time of writing, it’s on v1.1.1, with some new features and fixes compared to the v1.0 that I played). Upon launching the game, players get to pick a bunch of options for things like lighting, new control schemes, or even some changes to game mechanics that players might prefer. I kept things mostly on the default settings, but I should note that this does make the game look a bit different than it did in 1996, a little crisper and with more ambient light. But there’s also a retro rendering mode option (although I didn’t try it) to more closely emulate the original game.

That done, I once again made a character and started my adventure in the opening dungeon, Privateer’s Hold. Like all of the Elder Scrolls games, Daggerall is a single-character action role-playing game played from a first-person perspective. The landmark first-person shooter Quake released the same year, and was the first game I remember to actually use 3D models for enemies. Daggerfall, like most of the games that preceded it, used 2D sprites for enemies while letting players explore a 3D space. Since players in Daggerfall will mostly fight with melee weapons, they have to get up close and personal with these sprite enemies, making them look a little more awkward than enemies in games like Doom or Outlaws.

Daggerfall also came at a time when control schemes for first-person games weren’t quite solidified, so it defaults to a weird design where players must click the screen to move around, and click on UI elements to perform different tasks (I gather this is how Arena worked). Fortunately, it’s easy to swap to a more modern mouselook control scheme which feels great. Both options feature a cool mechanic where holding the right mouse button and moving the mouse chooses how one swings their weapon. A forward thrust is accurate but deals lower damage, sideways swings are “standard” attacks, and overhead chops (or diagonal chops) do more damage but are less accurate. I think this adds a little dash of tactics to fights which are otherwise a simple exchange of blows, but it also makes them feel a bit flailing and frantic. Attacks are actually governed by a character’s statistics and skills, so many of them will simply miss, especially early in the game. Bethesda didn’t change this until the fourth game, Oblivion, where attacks that look like they hit always hit but may not do much damage. Daggerfall’s dance of clumsy weapon swings and repositioning has a certain charm, but Daggerfall Unity offers the option to attack with clicks instead of mouse movements if players prefer. I stuck with the mouse swings, possibly from nostalgia more than anything else.

Speaking of nostalgia, I was surprised by how much I remembered about Privateer’s Hold, recognizing whole sections of its layout. My experience exploring it mirrored my original foray in 1996, too: I wandered around, got into fights with dangerous creatures, died several times, wondered if I’d made mistakes when designing my character, started over with a slightly different character, and eventually managed to escape the dungeon, finding myself standing in the snowy countryside of the kingdom of Daggerfall. This moment took my breath away in 1996, and it took my breath away all over again this time, because Daggefall Unity extends the draw distance so the landscape stretched out into the distance. It once again enticed me with the promise of a huge world to explore and live in.

I should provide some context. Most of the Elder Scrolls games feature a carefully designed open world. That’s what Bethesda are famous for. I wrote about Skyrim’s cities and its countryside on this blog, noting that their handmade layouts are evocative at the cost of scale. One can walk from one of Skyrim’s cities to another in a few minutes, and the cities are tiny, with a few dozen residents and a handful of buildings. With Daggerfall, Bethesda experimented with scale by going big. Really big. Absurdly big. Here’s a map of the kingdom of Daggerall:

See all those colored pixels dotting the map? Each of those is a town, dungeon, temple or homestead, seamlessly incorporated into the game world without a loading screen. That means you can freely travel between them, if you want. But it would take a while. Crossing a single pixel on that map, even when riding a galloping horse, takes a few minutes. Riding across the entire kingdom of Daggerfall would take several hours. And of course, the game world is much larger than just the kingdom of Daggerfall; it encompasses the entire Iliac Bay region. Here’s the full world map, with the kingdom of Daggerfall highlighted in red:

There are a total of 44 kingdoms, duchies, baronies, or other regions in the game, each dotted with locations just like the kingdom of Daggerfall is. These aren’t separated from each other by artifical loading screens. Players could, in theory, walk or ride all the way across that entire map, a feat that players estimate would take 45- 60 hours of real time. All told, there are literally thousands of towns and dungeons in the game, more than any one player could ever expect to visit. It’s ridiculous. It’s one of the largest game worlds ever created, one that players can literally get lost in.

The downside to this, of course, is that the countryside between those towns and dungeons is just empty. There’s nothing there. I walked from Privateer’s Hold to the nearest town because their pixels on the map are right next to each other, but after that? I quickly gave up on traveling the countryside and just used fast travel to get wherever I needed to go. Which, I’m realizing now, is also a common complaint leveled at Bethesda’s most recent game, Starfield. Critics said Stafrield is too big for its own good, full of empty planets and moons that are boring to explore, making players default to fast travel from a few menu screens. Just like in Daggerfall, where players just pop between points of interest via a fast travel menu, and never venture out into the vast, empty wilderness.

And yet. There’s something magical about Daggerfall’s enormous world. Gazing out over the snowy hills as I stepped out of Privateer’s Hold, I was struck with the same sense of awe I felt when I first played Minecraft. The sense of scale in Daggerfall matters. One thing that I’d forgotten is that most of the dungeons in the game are not marked on the map by default. Usually, they’re revealed when someone sends you on a quest to go there, although sometimes enemies carry maps revealing locations of random dungeons. But the sheer size of the world means these places truly are hidden. If I’m told that someone has a secret lair somewhere, it really was secret. Technically, it’s possible I could have stumbled upon it on my own, but the odds of that are vanishingly small. When the world is as big as this, there are a lot of places to hide.

Places of interest match this scale, too. The larger towns and cities in Daggerfall are much bigger than anything in the later games, feeling like true cities in a way that most role-playing games can’t match. Here’s a local map of one such city, with each block representing a building:

The streets bustle with townsfolk too, each of whom can be conversed with on a variety of topics. Most don’t have anything to say, unlike the handmade characters that roam the cities in later series entries. But they’re there, like they should be, supporting the illusion of this massive world to explore. Even if one is only concerned with the “useful” buildings — inns, shops, banks, etc. — there are many to choose from in each town, with varying quality of service, often clustered around certain market areas. It feels like an actual shopping trip, instead of going to that one shop in a tiny city in Skyrim. And the fact that each town is one among thousands matters too. Sometimes I got a quest to go visit some little village out in the middle of nowhere, and even the experience of using a fast-travel menu to head over there and find the person I needed to talk to was evocative. There’s just so much stuff out there.

When I first played Daggerfall back in 1996, I mostly stuck to the kingdom of Daggerfall, only venturing farther afield when the main story sent me to other places. This time, I decided to try visiting some of the other kingdoms. I traveled north from Privateer’s Hold and into the barony of Tulune, and later to Glenpoint. I visited their capital cities, which weren’t quite as huge as those of the major powers in the Bay like Daggerfall or Sentinel, but were impressive nonetheless. I stopped by their comparatively meager palaces, and got some jobs from their rulers. I visited guild buildings and was sent on quests to local dungeons. My mind boggled at the thought of the dozens of other kingdoms out there, and the places they might contain.

But Daggerfall’s limitations quickly become apparent. Back in 1996 I mostly focused on the main quest, so this time I wanted to spend more time with the game’s guilds. Guilds are a huge part of later Elder Scrolls games, offering their own story-focused quest lines to pursue alongside (or instead of) the main story. In Daggerfall, however, guilds are more about the services they provide. Joining the Mage’s Guild lets players make their own spells, mix potions, access its library, or even teleport to other places in the world, although each of these is gated by the guild rank players have earned. I tried joining a temple this time too, only to discover that it offered many of the same services. For both guilds, I had to work up the ranks by doing quests, which are just selected randomly from a small pool of options, and I quickly saw repeats even after installing a user-made mod that adds more quests. A few of these are cool, like one that had me investigate and debunk a false prophet in order to protect the Temple’s authority, but most are just fetch quests, sending me to talk to someone in another town or retrieve an item from a dungeon.

The dungeons. Oh man. Daggerfall is infamous for its dungeons. Like other locations in the game, they are huge, warrens of winding passages and rooms that twist around each other in three dimensions. They bear no resemblance to something someone would actually build. They’re labyrinthine nightmares, places that must have come into being through strange magics or the whims of mad gods. It can take over an hour to fully explore one of these places, but at least the new dungeon map interface in Daggerfall Unity makes them easier to parse, letting players rotate the map in 3D to figure out where to go next. Remarkably, each of the thousands of dungeons is the same for every player; there’s no traditional procedural generation here. Or rather, the procedural generation happened already, when the designers stitched together pre-made dungeon “blocks” to create each dungeon layout. The results — much like the layouts of towns and cities — were then saved, so every player gets the exact same game world. If, out of the thousands of dungeons dotting the map, two players travel to the same one, they’ll find the same hellish maze.

At first, these dungeons are exciting. Daggerfall has a huge array of enemies to face, to match its scale everywhere else, so I never quite knew what I was going to find in the next room or past that tangle of passageways. Some creatures are rarer than others, so it’s a surprise and delight to find a new and mysterious adversary when exploring a dungeon. They make distinctive sounds, too, so players will often hear them before they see them. I never forgot the horrible screams of the skeleton warriors. Some enemies can’t be hurt by mundane weapons, so players must either find weapons made from higher quality materials, or seek alternate means of doing damage, like magical spells or enchanted items. Fortunately, there’s a ton of loot to find, both from fallen enemies and just lying around in loot piles in the dungeons. Armor, like weapons, can be made of different materials, and comes in seven separate pieces, each of which can be seen in the “paper doll” inventory screen when worn. There are even a few different armor styles that are functionally identical but have a different look, so players can choose ones they prefer. Armor is also worn on top of a surprisingly large array of clothing, not to mention the amulets, bracelets, rings, bracers, marks, and crystals that characters can wear as adornments. Then there’s a plethora of alchemical ingredients, books, and miscellaneous valuable items to grab from a dirty dungeon floor.

But each dungeon is simply so huge, and players will quickly see repeats of the dungeon blocks used to create them. Eventually, even loot and new enemies are no longer exciting enough to motivate exploring yet another maze-like dungeon. And unfortunately, exploring dungeons is kind of all there is to do in Daggerfall. Sure, a few quests give tasks around town or ask players to travel to another town, but most simply pick a local dungeon at random and send players to get something from within. Players could hang out in towns, maybe turn to thievery and steal from some shops, but so much of the game’s items and systems are based on battling monsters in dungeons that there doesn’t seem to be much point. Why steal some fancy weapons and armor if you’re not going to use them? For all of the thousands of towns and endless countryside, for all the impressive scale, there’s not a lot to do except head into some dungeons, and those are long slogs that quickly get repetitive. I should note here that Daggerfall Unity offers an option for smaller dungeons, remixing them all to use fewer dungeon blocks. That might alleviate some tedium, but I don’t think it would fix the fundamental problems with Daggerfall’s dungeon-focused design. I don’t know because I didn’t try them. I stuck to full-sized dungeons, since I wanted to play the game as I remembered it.

So, Daggerfall’s appeal wears thin after a while. Even now, however, after playing it beyond that point, I can still feel the pull of its huge world. Part of me wants to play it some more, even though I know it won’t live up to my expectations. What I really want is a new game inspired by Daggerfall, that will take a similarly massive world but shift the focus from dungeons to the wilderness. A game that simulates a bunch of different kingdoms vying for influence and power, and lets players roam freely as a mercenary for hire, shifting the balance of power through their actions. A game that adds just a little bit more to the open countryside, like some roads and special encounters to stumble upon, and sometimes asks players to search for things rather than doing everything via fast travel. There could still be some dungeons, of course, but balancing them with outdoor explorations would do wonders. This game wouldn’t even need to improve the graphics much; a retro look would be fine with me. Just flesh things out a little bit more, and the magic of that massive world could shine.

But lest this post end too negatively, I should stress that Daggerfall is a lot of fun while the magic lasts. And there are two things in the game that remain engaging for much longer than its endless world and massive dungeons do: designing and leveling up one’s character, and following the main quest line. I’ve got a lot I want to write about both of them, but — much like Daggerfall itself — this post is already really big. So I’m going to save those for part 2. Stay tuned!