Elder Scrolls Daggerfall & Morrowind revisited (Pt2)

A view of the Morrowind city of Balmora as a city of significant size

Our story so far

In Elder Scrolls Daggerfall & Morrowind revisited (Part 1) I talked about some of the problems with The Elder Scrolls (TES) games. Just to be clear, I am a huge fan of TES. If I am critical of the series it’s only because I want it to be better. I also wish to bring back aspects of the games removed to make them more marketable to the general public.

Much of my motivation to publish articles on the subject of TES series have come from Youtube videos. In particular, The Elder Scrolls: The Dumbing Down and Zaric Zhakaron’s series “What if ____ was good?” Both of these talk about how Bethesda has made sacrifices in order to produce games for a wider audience. After Daggerfall, TES games were made more limited in scope and easier to manage. In addition, Bethesda has increasingly adapted games to be more multi-platform friendly. This meant that it was necessary to remove elements that did not lend themselves to simplistic controls and limited processing power. In effect, newer TES games were limited to the lowest common denominator, the console.

The reason I bring these things up is to make it clear how amazing it was when Bethsoft created Daggerfall. Daggerfall was one of the most highly anticipated CRPGs ever produced. Daggerfall did what no other CRPG before or since has ever done. Developers of the game made a real effort to create a simulation of a full sized, immersive world. This attempt was far from perfect. As I have said before, the computing power and technology to do what they were trying to do simply did not exist at the time.

Morrowind, the good, the bad, and the ugly

Morrowind was the next step in the evolution of the series. This game sought to correct the problems in Daggerfall by handcrafting all aspects of the game. While this produced a visually appealing game, the drawback was a severe reduction in emersion and realism. As stated in part 1, the world was drastically reduced in size. This was a disappointment to fans of the series who had hoped to see a large world with improved generation of locations, terrain, NPCs, etc. Instead, we got the Disneyland version of Morrowind’s island of Vvardenfel; a country-sized island shrunk down to an easily walkable size with some rides to make it feel like you were really getting that Morrowind experience.

Rarely considered, is how much of the “handcrafting” of impassable terrain and obscuring flora as well as the addition of game mechanics like the silt striders, teleporting, boats, etc. are less about making a better, more immersive world than you might think. Rather, these things help conceal the true size of the game space while at the same time steering the player in the direction the game designers wish them to go.

How can this be fixed?

As it happens, most TES fans did not start out playing the early games in the series. Consequently, they have little sense of loss when the large, 1:1 world of Daggerfall went away never to return. It’s much the same with the RPG aspects of TES games. When skills, stats, and magic got watered down in later games, few players felt that anything had been taken away. The same goes for the open world. Many see no need for areas in the game that do not directly impact gameplay. For me, the ability to just wander about is a wonderful part of the game.

Blow it up

Okay, first, the play space needs to be enlarged by a couple of orders of magnitude. The tiny islands surrounding Vvardenfel need to be islands, not rocks. Cities on Vvardenfel need to be cities and not just a collection of houses. Take the city of Vivec. Where do people live? There are places for the craftspeople etc. but virtually no one else. If such a city existed, there would need to be houses and farms and people to support such a city. Vivec is mostly a temple complex. There would need to be a town of people nearby to call it a city. The same is true for the other cities on the map. These need to be true cities. None of the cities in the game have anything resembling an infrastructure, making daily life possible.

Many areas on the map exist merely to separate other areas with terrain features, etc. This can be fixed by stretching the map like the skin of a balloon. Give cities room to expand. Provide large areas of farmland to feed a realistically sized populous. Of course, some areas should be left much as they are. The Caldera mines should remain near Caldera but should not be just as close to Balmora.

Petting zoo for n’wahs

Next, remove static respawning monsters. Seeing the same monsters over and over in the same area, again and again, is tedious. OpenMW with its greatly increased view distance and ability to see statics far away makes this flaw very obvious with dozens of cliff racers hanging motionless in the sky or flying in simplistic patterns. Of course, once you make the game space large enough there is no longer a need to have static spawns. Instead, it’s possible to have a percentage chance based on environment type that particular creature will spawn. A spawned creature may come from a burrow, nest or some similar place and possibly be part of a pair, pack or family group. Creatures should not necessarily be automatically aggressive unless defending an area, nest, young, etc.

All creatures should be limited by ranges, food sources, competition, and predation. An aggressive creature that ranges near a settlement would likely be hunted down. Hunting will cause wildlife to diminished around population centers and thoroughfares. For players, hunting creatures should be a challenge as wildlife learns to avoid people. An ecosystem should be self-balancing and feel that way.

Bringing sexy fast travel back

In the real world travel between cities takes a long time. In the land of Tamriel, this can be many days or weeks. Travel in Daggerfall consisted of both land and water travel. A number of factors determined travel time. Would you be sleeping in inns? Did you own a horse? Would you be traveling by ship? All of these factors affected your speed and the amount of money it would take to travel. In Daggerfall, you were able to purchase a ship. This allowed you forgo the expense of paying passage. Morrowind travel is by foot, silt strider, boat, ship, teleportation. Often, getting to a location will involve a combination of these.

Bring back the open world

Give the player the option to use fast travel to move to anywhere on the map. Fast travel in the Baldur’s Gate series was a good mechanic. As the player fast travels down a particular road an encounter happens specific to that location. You might exit fast travel as you: are waylaid by bandits, meet a strange traveler, are handed a mysterious note, etc. Of course, there is no reason that a triggering event needs to be a particular location. Perhaps you have a bounty and someone spots you. It could be a particular time or any of a number of things.

Your ability to travel in certain ways could expand as you discover perhaps secret means of teleportation requiring a special item or become a member of the mages guild, etc.

Why is this a good time to talk about this?

The OpenMW project has produced a game engine without the map size, view distance and other limitations of the original game. As a consequence, it now possible to address the issue of the cramped game space. The technology to produce realistic terrain via procedural generation has advanced. This technology can produce virtual land, rivers, roads, mountains, farms, towns, etc.  All without giving up the hand-crafted aspects of TES series.

About the featured image:

Balmora. Aerial view
by AlexeyRudikov
An artist’s re-envisioning of the city of Balmora on the island of Vvardenfel

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