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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Daggerfall Review

I hadn't been planning on writing Backseat Game Designer critiques of the classic CRPG's. Computer game technology changes so rapidly; most of the details that make an older game less fun to play are ones you couldn't fix without a time machine. There's something faintly ridiculous about sitting around saying "Well, Ultima III would have been better if it had 3D animation and a less rudimentary conversation mechanism," you know?

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But I recently received a letter from a Daggerfall fan complaining that my review of the game was rather vague and unfair, and wanting to know exactly why I gave it a low score. And it's a fair question, so here's the answer.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is the addendum to my Daggerfall Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Daggerfall yet, you don't want to read this page, because there may be details here that will ruin some of the fun of playing; please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything I can about the game without giving away any of its plot. These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe a game designer'll be Googling for the titles of some classic computer games, read this page, and be inspired to write a modern game where every character doesn't have to wear the exact same color shirt. Ah, well, a girl can dream, can't she? Here's all the news about Daggerfall that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

I think Daggerfall was the first game I ever played that actually made me curse at it. I'm a pretty mellow gamer, for the most part, and I can usually find something to like in any computer game (Daggerfall was no exception), but the combination of unbearable bugginess and brutally boring gameplay had me gritting my teeth throughout. Bugs and system crashes aside, Daggerfall was written with the intention of freeing itself from the restrictions of a linear plot, and on that it delivered; but it did this by outsourcing the work of questwriting and dungeon design to the game's not-especially-capable AI. Well, the fact of the matter is computer programs are crap at generating interesting quests and dungeons on their own, which is why we need game designers on the first place. Something like 90% of this game was computer-generated, and so something like 90% of the game was boring. The programmers could have introduced hundreds of interesting quests without impinging on the gamer's freedom at all, simply by making all of them optional. By choosing not to spend time doing this--or to spend time developing interesting NPCs to interact with, or to spend time designing puzzles, tricks and traps--they actually LIMITED the gamer's freedom, by presenting fewer avenues for a gamer who enjoys any of those things to explore. If games like the King's Quest series left me champing at the bit to do things the game designers refused to let me try, Daggerfall left me champing at the bit to do things the game designers refused to spend time writing.

Daggerfall Game Advances

Things I wish more contemporary games would learn from their elders:

1) The most exciting part of playing Daggerfall, as far as I'm concerned, was the excellent character creation process. Though character classes were available, you don't actually have to conform your character to any of them; you can mix and match skills and abilities in any combination you like. Even better, you have a choice of several interesting advantages and disadvantages to choose from--you can give your dark elf disadvantages in the broad daylight, for example, or saddle your mage with an allergy to silver. Don't quote me on this, but Daggerfall may have been the first computer game to incorporate adv's and disadv's (something later games like Fallout made brilliant use of).

2) The other really enjoyable part of the game was the item enchantment system. You get detailed control over a broad variety of enchantments, including both adv's and disadv's (I recall enchanting an atheistic breastplate that had the disadvantage of burning me every time I stepped into a temple). You don't see that kind of thing often enough; usually item enchantment is rote if it's there at all.

3) The character development system is also good--I'm a fan of the "practice makes perfect" method of skill advancement used by the Elder Scrolls and later Wizardry games (the more you use a skill, basically, the more likely it is to go up a point.) Like any other character development system, it has its drawbacks--running around town jumping all the time to get your skill up is a silly exercise at best--but it's fun to watch your character steadily improve at something.

4) The game designers really put some thought into figuring out what kinds of non-plot-related things players might try to do, and then make them possible. Because objects in the Daggerfall world are generally noninteractive, this isn't as impressive as it is in, say, the Ultima games (where you could use kitchen ingredients to bake a loaf of bread if you really felt like it), but there are plenty of off-the-wall actions you can take in this game, from buying a boat (even though there's no place to sail it to) to sleeping in the gutter (you'll be picked up for vagrancy) to letting yourself be bitten by a werewolf (you'll contract lycanthropy). I always appreciate it when a game gives you a sensible consequence of a weird action rather than simply forbidding it.

5) And, finally, the clothes. It's dumb, it's petty, but one of my longest-standing gaming pet peeves is the total lack of attention to characters' clothes. You'll have a six-character party and every single one of them will be wearing the same shirt in inventory. Even in completely modern graphic adventures like Syberia, whose gorgeous graphics pay attention to the changes in the main character's reflection as the wind blows across the pool she is looking into, she'll still wear the same pair of pants every day for a week. This applies to all inventory items, actually, not just clothes: how many times have you found the Vorpal Scimitar of Kublai Khan and it looks exactly the same as a nonmagical longsword from the local blacksmith? Well, none of that garbage in Daggerfall; there are literally hundreds of different clothing articles in a rainbow of different colors, from t-shirts and trousers to elegant ballgowns. You can spend hours on end hitting up every clothing store in the region and collecting a full wardrobe for yourself. That I actually did this in preference to playing the game is not what I'd call a compliment to Daggerfall's plot, mind you, but it's cool just the same.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Daggerfall a 3 out of 10 (rating: disappointing). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, this is an older game, so asking for graphical interfaces that didn't even exist until after its release would be pretty asinine; I'm going to stick to suggestions that were either entirely possible at the time, or those that could be easily implemented in retrospect. Chief among them would have been adequately playtesting and debugging the thing before shipping it and charging innocent people $40 for a game that barely functioned. Frankly, this was Daggerfall's only truly unforgiveable sin; if Bethesda were to issue a rerelease of the game that was compatible with modern systems and had absolutely no bugs--no game crashes, no system lock-ups, no falling through cracks in the badly structured 3D environments, no objects and monsters mapped into dungeon walls such that you can't reach them and must restore your game, no underground automap malfunctions, nothing-- then I would probably wind up playing it again, even despite its other flaws. There's no excuse for shipping a product that malfunctions as badly as this one did. It goes past poor workmanship and seriously starts to border on the unethical. I've never bought a commercially made game before or since that so consistently failed to work; I'm not sure I've ever played a session of Daggerfall, either originally or via Dosbox, that didn't end with either a crash, a freeze, or a terminal bug.

There were other serious flaws with the game that left me disappointed too: particularly the lack of any interesting NPC's, poor conversational interface, dearth of puzzles to solve, generic gameworld, and terribly low ratio of engaging storyline material to boring, repetitive computer-generated FedEx quests. In these regards Daggerfall was a huge step backwards from Ultima VII (released three years previous) and even Wizardry VII (four years previous). Heck, the NPC's and puzzles were better than this in many games from the 80's. Judging by the books scattered around the game about Queen Barenziah's political and sexual exploits as a young woman, for example, you'd expect her to be a forceful and interesting personality; yet her dialogue betrays no personality at all. Ordinary villagers are even worse: they all look the same, make the same pointless comments when questioned, and even have the same names. The excessive computer-generation and repetition gave the whole game a bland, monotonous feel, and rarely did the gameworld rise above the level of the cookie-cutter fantasy-adventure universe featured in mass-produced AD&D modules. The towns all look the same. Objects cannot be interacted with or examined more closely. The world has little visual detail, no everyday objects betraying any underlying culture, aesthetic, or any other hint of a real life going on while the character isn't paying attention. (Myst, too, came out three years previous to Daggerfall; unlike other CRPG's of the late 90's, Daggerfall apparently took no lessons from the immersive atmosphere the hand-designed gameworld of Myst was able to impart.)

In sum, without the crippling bug issues, this would have been an okay game. For it to reach any higher than that, the game designers would have had to do a lot more of the work of questwriting, dungeon design, puzzlemaking, and world creation themselves. Because all that computer-generated stuff is like chewing on cardboard in between very small servings of food. It's not filling, not nutritious, no good to eat and it just ruins the taste of what real dinner you do get.

Best Quest: The final one, deciding who to give the talisman to. I really like a quest with multiple possible solutions; my only regret was how two-dimensional all the potential recipients were, which prevented me from caring at any emotional level who it was I annointed.
Lamest Quest: All the computer-generated ones.
Best Puzzle: I can't remember any puzzles on Daggerfall, honestly. I know there were a few near the end of the main quest (including one with auditory clues), but they couldn't have been very memorable if I can't recall anything more detailed than that--I still remember puzzles from The Bard's Tale, for Pete's sake!
Worst Puzzle: I don't recall any.
Best Plot Twist: Finding the letter from the sickly prince whose parents left him in the dungeon. That put a chill up my spine.
Lamest Plot Twist: When Barenziah sent me to retrieve the racy biography of her from the orc king. Um, those books were ALL OVER Tamriel... I had another one in my inventory at the time she asked this. If she was trying to suppress the books it was too little too late.
High Point: Character creation at the very beginning of the game.
Low Point: The first time I spent an hour and a half scouring one of those horrible 3D dungeons only to realize that the monster I'd been sent to slay was mapped into a wall due to a bug and I couldn't hit him (though he could hit ME if I went close enough.) :P

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