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A Journey Back to Daggerfall


I take a walk down memory lane to see if what I recall of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall holds true, or if I have been looking at my experience in Bethesda's epic 1996 role-playing game through rose-colored glasses.

♔ ♔ ♔

In her poem The Speed of Darkness, American poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” Though she writes of subject matter much different, a similar statement can be said of many video games, Daggerfall included.

Game worlds are built not through code alone, but in complex storylines that are the apogee of its many fragmented bits from music to environmental effects that may be great in their own right, but not exceptionally noteworthy. However, it's when they are weaved together throughout the course of an interactive narrative that you able to see something exceptional. It's only then that you begin to comprehend the grandiose picture of what the developer was trying to build.

Tamriel - the map of Daggerfall
The world at your fingertips - the map of Daggerfall.

Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall fits this mold. Taking place in the land of Tamriel - more specifically the countries of High Rock and the northern portion of Hammerfell - the game map spans a whopping 62,394 virtual square miles, or roughly half the size of Great Britain, ensuring there is no question that the game was epic in scope. In fact, it is the largest game in the series consisting of over 750,000 NPCs; over 15,000 towns, cities, villages, and dungeons; 9 different playable races and countless stats, items, enemy and more to tinker with. Daggerfall was a marvel in its time and even today dwarfing even its more modern successors. Skyrim, for example, is only 14.8 square miles with around 1,000 NPCs.

When I was sixteen, this game was my world. Unlike other RPGs that I played at that time, Daggerfall most successfully mixed the real-time action of popular FPS games of the era like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D (or, more appropriately, Heretic or Witchhaven) which were consuming my life with the more traditional first-person RPGs like Wizardry or Stonekeep.

And the freedom…

Outside Privateer's Hold
Your first view of the world just outside Privateer's Hold

I honestly don’t remember if I ever finished the game back in the day, but I do remember many, many adventures fiddling with character stats and just seeing what I could do as a burglar, pickpocket, bloodthirsty killer, religious hero and more; and it’s all there for you when you first step out of Privateer’s Hold, the first dungeon. Upon stepping out you look around, the sunrise just breaking the horizon or the rain falling from the dark clouds above or the cold night wrapping its arms around you or the snow falling thick into your face…

Where do I go next?

Anywhere.

What do I do now?

Anything.

Daggerfall was one of the first PC games I remember playing that let me do anything I wanted right out the gate. A lot of early role-playing games on consoles such as the Colecovision and Atari 2600 and even the NES and Genesis followed a strict rules system or had very linear gameplay due to hardware restrictions. Even a swath of PC games had these same restrictions. Now I could seemingly do anything I wanted - go anywhere I wanted - be anyone I wanted. Of course, there was always something for you to do like the main questline, if that's what floats your boat.

♔ REST WELL TONIGHT... ♔

Sent to Daggerfall by the Emperor Uriel Septim VIII, you are to investigate the shade of King Lysandus which is haunting the city of Daggerfall and hopefully put him to rest, but you also have a secondary quest of finding out what happened to a letter he sent to the Queen of Daggerfall, Mynisera. However, if you choose to follow these quests is up to you. You can run it through its roughly 30 hours of content or choose to throw it aside and do side quests for any of the various factions from the Fighter’s Guild to the Dark Brotherhood or just stick with quests from the nobles and merchants of the towns and cities. If you so choose you can throw all those silly quests aside and go on a murderous rampage through the countryside… just don’t expect to be too well liked on your next visit to the city.

Daggerfall embraced the fact that you were able to do anything with your character which made it feel almost like a survival simulator at times. From the moment you start the game you feel like a child setting foot out on your own from under your parents’ protective arms. Every move you make you will have dire consequences to your character’s future as, especially in these early stages, even those pesky Giant Bats and Imps can deal a death blow. Hell, even as you level up things don’t necessarily get easier, you as a player just learn and grow patience like a thick skin of armor around you. Delving those dungeons isn’t a one and done affair. No, they are their own beast that you must show true poise and composure to conquer.

Eventually, you’ll become a master spelunker gathering even more loot than you can hold. The game has an answer for that: a horse and cart. The game actually has an answer for many of your ailments. Walking takes too long? Buy a horse. Too much loot to carry around? Buy a cart. I wish I could travel the sea. Buy a boat! I wish I could have a place to call my own. Buy a house! Yes, Daggerfall had, built in, the ability to own property, no mod needed.

In fact, a look at the Daggerfall "TEXT. RSC" file shows the vision for the game was much bigger than even we got. Bethesda originally planned on having the ability to have sex with NPCs, a step in the direction of what we see in Skyrim with companions and marriage, no doubt. Prostitutes were supposed to have some varied flavor text to throw at you and there was an idea for a bard who would sign wonderful limericks to you, the player. Seriously, there is an over 2,000 word ballad that wasn’t included in the game. Although it's no Toss a Coin to Your Witcher, I can easily see myself singing the lyrics "I'm the knight to thy queen; I'll be Johnny, you be Jean” to myself on a daily basis given the right beat. Eat your heart out, First Aid Kit.

Lady of the night...
Lady of the night...

However, even with its high points, Daggerfall falls into the love it or hate it category for a large part of its audience because, for all its girth, Bethesda didn’t seem to know how to handle it.

Detractors downplay the size and complexity of the world because the terrain was largely randomly generated and largely empty, and they do have a case to be heard. With only a limited array of building blocks and a small set of NPC graphics, the towns and dungeons start to feel monotonous over time giving you a been-there-done-that feeling. The world is so large trying to walk across it is a daunting task - over 69 hours according to one man’s heroic efforts - forcing you to use the fast travel screen a lot. Even walking around towns and cities can be drawn out affairs that can test a player’s patience. Combat is an attempt at giving battles a real-time feel, but oddly enough can come off slow and somewhat clunky. Missions are lackluster and sometimes have vague targets and/or impossible time limits. Compile that with the “usual” Bethesda game bugs and poorly pieced together (and huge) pseudo-randomly generated dungeons and one could easily dismiss this game with props for trying.

Even on my more recent playthroughs I noticed myself feeling fatigued in these areas, and I noticed that my memories of other areas of the game were skewed. Because of the size of the game and the varied terrain, I remembered it taking place in more countries than just the two. Along similar lines, I really thought there were more Khajiit, Argonians and other races running around! There, sadly, are not. There are, in fact, besides enemies and a select few NPCs, largely only humans running around. Well, who really knows what race this guy is…

After taking off my rose-colored glasses and getting a revised view of the game through my more recent playthrough, I still love Daggerfall. It honestly provides a different experience in The Elder Scrolls games that you don’t get today even with modding. It feels like a more open-ended experience that tried a lot of things that wouldn’t be seen until over a decade later. Of course, it all comes at a trade off as just trying isn’t good enough. Implementation can make or break a game and Daggerfall falls short or just straight up fails in parts.

♔ NEW LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS ♔

I've long wanted to see a Daggerfall remake to bring it on par with it's more modern kin or at least make it easily playable on modern computers, but everything that makes up the game including the huge game map with randomly generated terrain and the vastly different engines mean it isn’t a simple port but a complete remake that is needed. However, never doubt the power of a dedicated community.

The history of the game engines used in development of these games is complex. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall was made with Bethesda’s old Xngine, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind with NetImmerse, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was created in Gamebryo (based on the NetImmerse code) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is made with the Creation Engine which, in turn, is based on the Gamebryo engine (a whole write up can be found about these engines and how they relate on Reddit). All said, a lot of elbow grease would be needed to take Daggerfall to the next level, but a few groups of resourceful fans set out to do just that.

Horse riding in Daggerfall Unity
Riding a horse in Daggerfall Unity

Daggerfall Unity, which garnered the attention of Daggerfall’s “Father of The Elder Scrolls” Julian Jensen, is a very ambitious remake of Daggerfall in the Unity engine which has just finished implementing all core gameplay features as well as a large portion of side quests and other game features meaning you can complete the main quest from beginning to end. It is the closest you will get to a strict port of Daggerfall now that the XL Engine and games being made with it, DaggerXL included, seem to be dead in the water.

If you're looking for a more modern remake, the closest thing you will be able to come across is Skygerfall which is Daggerfall created in the Skyrim Creation Engine ala Skywind (Morrowind recreated in Skyrim). However, even the creators of this mod admit the breadth and scope of Daggerfall is too large to recreate in this engine, but they have done their damndest to port over the main story, bestiary, spells, dungeon experience and world. It is a commendable job and well worth the download.

King Lysandus' ghost in Skygerfall
King Lysandus' ghost never looked better than in Skygerfall

Of course, if you have the patience or the hardware necessary, you can download the original The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall from Bethesda's website and run it in Dosbox. It will require a bit of fiddling to get running, but it is truly the purest form of the game.

That said, it’s always fun to think about Daggerfall getting a complete overhaul one day including a vast map to journey across with supple new graphics and animations, an amazing new score similar to the wonderful themes Jeremy Soule composed for the series starting with Morrowind, a streamlined combat interface… then I start to question if we don’t already have that with the newer incarnations of the series up to and including Skyrim?

Haven't all the newer games in the series tried to take the best aspects of the games before them and improve on them? Daggerfall's world was too vast and open so they shrunk it down but made it vastly more dense. It still felt like a huge open world, but without the emptiness and repeat areas. The dungeons definitely are better laid out than what came before. The combat, though largely the same, felt refined and faster. The music and graphics and sound effects all were greatly improved. Even the story received voice overs and intertwining plotlines to help pull in the lore.

But, at that point, what's left of Daggerfall?

Perhaps these game worlds transcend what can be made by human ingenuity into territory that can almost be described as spiritual. Perhaps this game world is only as it is because of the good and the bad that go with it. As you strip away more and more of the bad, it becomes less of itself. It just becomes a copy of a copy of a...

No matter how it is served up, Daggerfall is a must play for those who love The Elder Scrolls and want to feel a bit of the history of the series, just remember it comes with its own baggage. After all, the universe is made of stories, and this story is as rich and troubled as they come.

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