An exciting time for old games
Lately, I have been revisiting The Elder Scrolls series. In particular, I have been playing TES III, Morrowind. What makes this decade and a half old game really enjoyable to play, once again, is the work of the various fan projects that are now starting to bear fruit. Among these, is a project that has produced a game engine that’s, in ways, better than the original (more later). The unfortunate side effect is the capabilities of this engine now reveal the real limits of the original game. Fortunately, the same sort of engine update is now starting to show off the efforts of the creators of Daggerfall with its unprecedented 1:1 scale.
A world compressed
When Morrowind came out I was rather disappointed. Not by the gameplay or story but by the world itself. Bethesda rescaled the island of Vvardenfell making it too small by a couple of orders of magnitude. From one city to the next is a 10min jog. If one is able to fly the time is even shorter. An area that should be about the size of France is, in fact, smaller than Paris; Paris, Texas.
The game hides its true scale by limiting view distance and providing various means of fast travel to different locations on the map. Somewhat like taking an Uber to the corner store while being charged like they are driving you to another city.
A world before
The series’ first game “Arena” was good but largely unremarkable. It introduced the lore, the continent of Tamriel and it had an interesting story. It was also the only Elder Scrolls game I’ve ever actually finished. I have played all of the main games, up through Skyrim. However, in most of the TES games, completing the main quest has seldom been my goal. For the most part, I just enjoyed playing and exploring.
This brings me to the subject of the previous game, TES II Daggerfall. Daggerfall was a game I very much looked forward to playing. The game limited the player to just the area of the Iliac Bay. When I say “just the area of the Iliac bay” this should not be taken to mean the area was small but rather it was the biggest area ever put into an RPG before or since.
Daggerfall was a monumental undertaking. The problem was, that at the time, the technology was unable to really handle it. The 3D world of Daggerfall was entirely populated by low-resolution 2D sprites turned to face you like billboards. Some of the people in the game were animated sprites and some were even animated from multiple angles to present the illusion of 3D.
A world with problems
On top of this, there were a couple of big issues. Number one was a bug that would sometimes cause you to fall out of the dungeon or world entirely. The other was the vast number of adventure locations were procedurally generated. This in a time before procedural generation could be said to be at all developed as we think about it now. Dungeons were often random spaghetti bowls that made no sense, with a quest item randomly placed somewhere inside. You might go to a dungeon, kill a monster in the first room, and be done or crawl through for an hour until you find a chest in some obscure unguarded room, behind a secret door, you missed somehow.
A world renewed
Thanks to the ever-increasing popularity of TES games there are a number of projects that have produced remarkable results. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages website is among the oldest. UESP has been around since the mid-90s and is one of the best repositories of TES lore and other information anywhere. There are a couple more sites like this, but UESP has been around since the very beginning.
Next on my list is Tamriel Rebuilt. This project was organized when Bethsoft announced it would not be including the whole of Morrowind in TES III Morrowind but only the island of Vvardenfell. The project seeks to expand the game to include not just the island but the mainland of Morrowind. At one time, they planned to eventually include the whole of Tamriel (hence the name). To say the project was, and is still, ambitious, is something of an understatement. This project is now over 15 years old and still only about half or a bit more finished. Still, what TR has published is a truly impressive expansion to the original game.
Project Tamriel is a sort of extension to TR, adding landmass to the original game. Basically, it addresses expansions for TES III outside of the Morrowind province. It also provides for the sharing of assets between these fan-made expansions. Right now, the three expansion mods under construction are “Province: Cyrodiil”, “Skyrim: Home of the Nords”, and “High Rock 427”. The sharing of assets is a pretty big deal. It minimizes duplication of effort and allows the maximum number of people to create assets since assets from one mod get shared with all other mods.
Lastly, as I talked about in a previous post, there is the Open Morrowind Project. After ten years of work, it’s nearing full, 1.0 release and is at this point just being polished. OpenMW is a free, open-source, replacement engine for the original Morrowind engine. The project’s goal is to release a game engine, virtually indistinguishable from the original, capable of playing Morrowind using all the power of a modern PC: widescreen, multi-core processors, multithreading, GPUs, shaders, textures, bump mapping, etc. One exciting thing about the project is it eliminates many limitations of the original, now 15-year-old, engine. Also, because it is open sourced, it can continue to be updated into the foreseeable future. After the 1.0 release, the team plans to start adding additional features not present in the original Morrowind.
A world revisited
I’m going to talk about the future of my two favorite games in TES series, Elder Scrolls Daggerfall and Morrowind. I will be talking about Morrowind in part two because there is a lot to cover just with Daggerfall. Both of these games tended to stress the role-playing part of the action RPG. They tended to be less scripted than later TES games, (though Morrowind moved a bit more in this direction) and had a more free-form and open world.
We’ve already discussed the problems with these two games, as they were released. In short, Daggerfall suffered from Bethesda’s lack of the technological ability to generate a truly immersive world with complex, procedurally generated, details and connections. Morrowind, on the other hand, lacked Daggerfall’s 1:1 scale, with immersion into a world that was truly real in size. It also lacked a lot of the details that Daggerfall implemented. These details increased immersion but didn’t really benefit gameplay.
How can we fix this? Let’s first start with Daggerfall. The size of the game needs no fixing, it’s huge. What needs to be fixed is the lack of connection that the randomly generated people and locations have to each other. The game is filled with tens of thousands of NPCs; people without lives. In addition, Daggerfall has 15,000 locations. Most are remote and unconnected with the world around them. Thousands of dungeons, crypts, farms, towns, etc. are random, uninteresting, populated with monsters that exist merely as something to kill or people with nothing to say, with no links to anything.
Fortunately for TES fans, Bethsoft has released Daggerfall for free and there are projects that seek to update the primitive, DOS-based, 3D into something a bit more modern. Hurray! Hopefully, soon we will see a more playable and enjoyable Daggerfall and possibly more.
Let’s for a moment imagine a fan-based effort to not only fix the bugs, etc. in Daggerfall but really update it with modern technology. We’ll call this mythical project Daggerfall II or D2. Of course, it should have persistent terrain, true 3D objects and the ability to see things just as we do in the real world. The Daggerfall Workshop has brought this closer into being. Take a look at this video to see an example of this.
A living world
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of a stagnant world we had a world in which people had jobs and lives etc.? There exist, now, algorithms that predict with good accuracy out of a city of say 10,000 how many of those would be cobblers, weavers, tailors, dyers, potters, plumbers, blacksmiths, jewelers, brickmakers, bricklayers, carpenters, masons, prison guards, town guards, tax collectors, nobles, bankers, glass blowers, cabinet makers, shipwrights, fletchers, roof thatchers, woodcutters, school teachers, homemakers, basket weavers, bakers, butchers, etc. Every person you stopped on the street would be going somewhere to do something. There would likely be a market square in any sizable town where shops would be, along with carts of goods for sale lining the streets.
Possibly, goods would make their way to the cities via roadways. Imperial guards would sally forth from cities, forts, and depots to patrol the roads of the empire and ensure the smooth continuance of commerce. Farms would cluster around large towns. Trade caravans would move between cities on highways and rivers. Fishing towns would provide a constant supply of seafood nearly year round. Ports would provide exotic goods from places near and far.
A created world
In our imagined game, all these things become part of the rules that help generate our procedurally generated world. Importantly, areas within half a days ride of a large city are filled with farms and villages. These places create goods to be consumed in the city. It’s not difficult to calculate the area an individual family could sow with an ox or horse-drawn plow. We have seen the result from hundreds of years of planting and the moving of stones to the edges of the field results in built up hedgerows. Importantly, where you find farms, you find farm to market roads. You will also find farriers, smiths, and general stores, etc. Farms would have roads connecting them with farm towns or villages and those would have roads connected with highways and other towns.
Can it be done?
Of course, this might seem a massive undertaking. In game terms, these rules would tend to govern who the NPCs are what they know and where and when you would likely to meet them. For example, traveling out of a city in the morning you would most likely meet farmers and craftspeople moving into the city to sell their goods. At evening they would likely be returning home. Along a highway, you might meet a trade caravan or an Imperial patrol. In the woods, you might meet a hunter or a woodcutter. Villains and monsters would range out from nearby dungeons. Bounties might be posted in towns plagued by nearby ruffians. Migrant workers would journey to farmsteads in spring and fall to make a few septims during planting and harvest season and home again after.
A player might, for instance, meet a farmer traveling in a cart. “I’m taking sacks of grain to the mill at Lomton to be ground into flour.” the farmer might say. That flour would then be used to fulfill the existing orders of a city or town some distance away. The player might have thousands of encounters like this with no two alike. Each NPC would have limited knowledge centered around local lore. The NPC might have a small chance of producing a breadcrumb leading to knowledge of a local dungeon or quest item.
Other things to fix
Most important, locations, especially underground locations should be specific and make sense. Places should have histories and purpose: Mines converted to underground lairs; A natural set of caverns expanded with passwall spells or forced labor or dwarves, etc.; Creatures in hiding from the Empire; A criminal organization; The headquarters of a forbidden cult or wizards looking to research in secrecy. Moreover, in each of these scenarios, the location should follow a logical plan. Items, rooms, monsters, traps should all follow the theme along with a physical structure that makes sense. Additionally, quest items should be in logical places. Are you on a quest to recover mummy wrappings? The mummy could be the man or woman who constructed the place and they have laid about them a number of traps and monsters to guard their tomb.
Secondly, commerce is wide open in Daggerfall. Future versions of the game could allow this to be expanded upon. Travel about the Iliac bay in your ship buying and selling: Alik’r silks, Daedric weapons, herbs, potions, magic, etc.
Finally, co-op play has been toyed with in of TES games where you become a party of two or more adventures. With some effort, this could be added to a revised Daggerfall. In future, this would allow a single player type game with companions who are PCs. Perhaps companion characters could be played or left on autopilot. This would allow people to come and go from the hosted game as they wish.
Because there is no deadline to get D2 out, in future, the game can continue to expand, adding more: features, detailed quests, improved graphics, etc.
About the featured image:
Screenshot from the Daggerfall Unity replacement engine
The image shows the tremendous view distance now possible with this update to the old DOS-based engine