Labyrinths: Deep In The Dungeons Of Daggerfall

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An exploration of the uncanny architecture of Daggerfall’s dungeons and the interconnected worlds of Dark Souls.

Dungeons, as a concept in games, are one of the great pillars from which disbelief is suspended like a ragged banner. They are functional objects, from the perspective of designer and player alike, but their function as part of a world is unclear. Occasionally, they are prisons of a sort, as their name suggests, but they are more likely to be ruins of uncertain utility. As to the question ‘why are ruins so often underground?’, we can perhaps answer by recognising that no visible architecture is required on the surface if such complex spaces are buried. The conjuring of the momumental without the pesky need to build the monument.

One of the many unusual and innovative aspects of world-building in the Souls series is the inversion of the subterranean design of many fantasy environments. The dark bowels of the world, the deeps where treasures sparkle and terrors creep, pierce the sky, regurgitated by the soil and frozen against ominous skies. The architecture and innards are made explicit, which allows From to spin a novel tapestry from the familiar corridors and catacombs – not by peeling back layers and peering beneath the surface, but by excavating the components from beneath the surface. Compared to the barrens and bunkers of a typical RPG, Dark Souls is the fortress revealed in the Louvre’s basement, along with the discoveries that lie above it.

Perhaps the Souls games can’t be said to do good dungeon but if so, that’s because their interconnected realms transcend or sidestep the traditional sense of dungeons. Where, then, are memorable dungeons to be found. Daggerfall, one of the earliest and grandest entries in The Elder Scrolls series, takes an entirely different approach to the structure of its dungeons. On the flat geography of the enormous world, they are marked as simple doorways with a scattering of thematic scenery sprouting around them. The entrance to each is like the door to a Lewisian wardrobe leading to a delirious new world.

Daggerfall’s incidental dungeons are chaotic, preconfigured as part of the game’s data but assembled pseudo-randomly from a cluster of components.
While dungeons associated with the main storyline have specific quest item and ‘boss’ locations, those discovered through guild quests or exploration have unpredictable enemy layouts and goals. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls wiki has details on how assembly works:

“…a dungeon consists of up to 32 blocks, each of which may be connected to any (or all) of the four cardinally adjacent blocks since there are two connecting passages in each of the four cardinal directions, and thusly there are eight paths leading out of each block. While most dungeons may appear to be a random conglomerate of different modules, they were hard-coded in the release media and thus are never-changing. These were most likely generated via a pseudo-random program of some type, but Main Quest dungeons are an exception, because these were all hand-crafted.”

The list of blocks contains such delights as “wooden suspension bridge grotto, torch moves wall, teleporter”, “hollow pyramid, turnwheel in upper mini-maze, skull fountain teleport” and “flooded pig sty”. Having spent countless hours playing the game, even those dry descriptive phrases are capable of summoning memories of nightmarish tunnels, seemingly without end.

From the first encounter with the undead, during the game’s opening moments, it’s clear that Daggerfall’s dungeons are intended to be places of claustrophobic terror. I’m used to skeletons that skitter – clickety-clack – but in Daggerfall, the bastard things scream. The scaffolding of a body, stripped bare, yet still able to shriek in distressed fury. It’s one of the most horrifying sounds in gaming, along with Lysandus’ cries of ‘Vengeance’, and you can import it into Skyrim should you want to make your modern day Elder Scrolling far more harrowing.

Whatever else might change, no mod can make the dungeons of Skyrim, or any of the other post-Daggerfall entries in the series, as strange as the discombobulated blocks beneath High Rock and Hammerfell. The layouts can be frustrating, particularly when a quest object is in a distant corner, separated from the entrance by flooded passages and spaghetti junctions, but there has been nothing quite like those ominous charnel labryinths before or since. I find it a shame that their unnerving perplexity is caught up in a fantasy RPG – albeit one that is itself unusual and superb – rather than a Lovecraftian property akin to Eldritch, where the confusion and anguish that the dead-ends and dead spaces create would be thematically appropriate.

Are the dungeons of Daggerfall a mark of good design? Not entirely. They’re too haphazard and visually bland to trigger great stores of imagination. I began with a reflection on Dark Souls and its brethren because its treatment of place and placement is almost entirely the inverse of the early Bethesda experiment. Physically, the vertical layers and connected areas of From’s games are a direct inversion of Daggerfall’s subterannean muddle.

There are no exterior views of the dungeon architecture, apart from the mindboggling maps created during exploration, and they exist apart from the world rather than extruding from it. Their randomised structre and population are also at odds with the carefully crafted locations in Dark Souls, in which every enemy is positioned with knife-edge precision. But, despite those fundamental differences, there is a connection.

Both designs show an unwillingness to fill an existing template with treasure and threats. Neither game treats dungeons as mere troves or sets of puzzles and traps, choosing instead to imprint a sense of mystery and uncertainty. These are not places in which parties of adventurers go through familiar motions to wend their way to a glowing chest of goodies guarded by a monstrous villain – they are places for lone wanderers to lose themselves, the thread that leads home and their lives. They make these imagined worlds far richer and far stranger than a library of lore ever could.

Daggerfall is available to download for free from Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls website.

50 Comments

  1. JiminyJickers says:

    I have definitely been lost for hours inside Daggerfall’s dungeons, trying to find my way back to the entrance. Probably one of the reasons I never finished the game.

    • ChromeBallz says:

      Hence i always fought to get Recall as soon as possible…. Mark the entrance and recall when you’re done :)

      • kalirion says:

        Same here, I made it a point to avoid entering large dungeons until I at least have an item capable of recalling.

        Of there’s still the problem of having only a single recall point at a time, and the dungeon auto map resetting every time you exit – extremely annoying when you have to find your way to the same witch in the same complex dungeon over and over again.

        I think that’s one of the reasons I never finished Daggerfall despite starting it multiple times, and playing long enough to become an unstoppable killing machine.

  2. Anthile says:

    Interesting article and curious to see Daggerfall and Dark Souls mentioned together without Ultima Underworld coming up.

    • Premium User Badge

      Andy_Panthro says:

      Ah, Ultima Underworld was a thing of beauty. I still love that game (and it’s sequel), even if the graphics and interface haven’t aged well.

      Every time it gets mentioned someone suggests Arx Fatalis too, as it was made by some of the same people, but I never tried it because of the lack of an Ultima connection and my dislike of gesture-based interfaces (for the magic, iirc).

  3. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    Daggerfall’s dungeons were the beginning of an idea, not the end. A mature version wouldn’t have things like the objective of the dungeon in an area that’s completely inaccessible from the entrance, for example.

    Random generation of dungeons has a genre with which it’s very strongly associated, can’t put my finger on it right now, but the one among those which felt most Daggerfally (minus the crappy bits of Daggerfall map generation) was Incursion

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Yeah, I know the genre you mean but can’t quite think of its name. Sounds like road lights or something…. Rouge tights?

      Anyone thinking of procedurally generating a dungeon could do a lot worse than looking at the source code and source data files of Angband.

      • Myrdinn says:

        I think some of those Daggerfall dungeons had more content than modern AAA+ games.

  4. amateurviking says:

    Morrowind was my gateway to TES. Feel like Daggerfall is worth a shot. Any thoughts?

    Also, it is a shame that dungeons tend to be, well dungeons. Climbing towers is underrated.

    • Persona says:

      It hasn’t aged particularly well imo, but it’s worth looking into if you want to see how they did a big, entirely procedurally-generated world.

  5. JamesTheNumberless says:

    This is good example of the kind of thing that gave dungeons a bad name and that led a lot of “RPG” makers to discard the dungeon altogether as an element of challenge in its own right. Instead that challenge has been replaced by a monsters vs loot numbers race to infinity.

    In most 21st century RPGs the dungeon (if present at all) is either an inconvenience or a mere backdrop. It’s not totally unforgivable, dungeons are hard to get right An over-reliance on mazes leads very rapidly to a kind of dungeon-burnout.

    What works best is a mixture of random corridors and connections and well designed areas with meaningful one-off puzzles and encounters. Of course, it’s a tradeoff.

    The better the graphics have to be, the harder it gets to do random environments well and the more content you need to have the less time you have to craft enough unique content by hand. This is apparent in the more recent Elder Scrolls games where you have designed dungeons made from predefined pieces with unique areas added in to the more important locations but no random element.

    I’d love to see TES 6 involve something of the procedural generation in the Daggerfall dungeons but I think there’s an even greater need for them to have better puzzles because the ones in Skyrim were beyond a joke.

    • Bury The Hammer says:

      It’s interesting you say that, because in some RPGs, especially Zelda, dungeons are definitely the best bit. They always worked best when they were large, expansive puzzles. It’s one of the reasons I rate Majora’s Mask over Ocarina of Time, because the puzzles are ‘large concept’ – take Snowhead temple, with its massive pillar you had to make your way around. And if you take something like a Metroidvania, the entire game is one massive dungeon.

      Oblivion had some of the worst I can remember though, because they were clearly mostly randomly generated, and you didn’t really get much from completing them. But there just wasn’t much in the way of content – just filler. Randomly generated filler.

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        Totally agree with you that Zelda games have amazing dungeons and I love Majora’s ones. An example of well crafted dungeons where the focus is on puzzle solving and the monsters are interesting because their placements and abilities interact with the dungeon itself to form part of the challenge. The poor kind of design is where either the dungeon is featureless and just a backdrop to the combat, or where the only way the designers could think of making it challenging was to make it very maze-y.

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        Except they weren’t randomly generated at all in Oblivion. They were always the same, every time you played. Which means they were poorly designed static dungeons made out of cookie cutter pieces, presumably because of the time/budget constraints and the sheer number of locations they had to create for that game.

        That they seem randomly generated when actually they’re not, is probably even more damning than if they were boring procedural dungeons. At least with runtime generated stuff there is still the element of chance to provide some interest.

        • K_Sezegedin says:

          Exactly, – there are still too many locations in a contemporary TES to make for interesting non-repetitve dungeons as the workload requires they be assembled out of pre-fab chunks.

          The solution would be to either put less meaningless dungeons into the world, or revive the immense scope of Daggerfall and actually proc generate the things where at least they’d have an excuse for being bland.

        • Bury The Hammer says:

          I think that’s maybe what I mean when I say randomly generated – poor phrasing from me. It feels like Desert Golf a bit: prefab, some random generation of the arrangement of those prefab pieces, and then a bit of tinkering. No auteur actually properly designing them.

  6. DrScuttles says:

    Playing Daggerfall upon release, I could happily spend hours in its dungeons (admittedly thanks to design rather than choice). If not for my own nostalgia blanket, there’s no way I could stomach playing through those mating octopi dungeons today; quest objects occasionally being inaccessible, awful submerged sections, the bricked-up doorways of instant death, falling repeatedly through the map and just generally getting lost. It’s one of the only RPGs where I’ve had to actually abandon quests. And woe betide the adventurer who didn’t invest slightly in mysticism enough to use the teleport spell to get back out.
    It took me years to finish the game (and ultimately, also a walkthrough with pictures!) thanks to how convoluted the main dungeons could be.

    As an aside, I always liked how the final dungeon (a trippy alternate plane of existence) had a physical entrance hidden just off the main world map for some reason.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      I think I’m pretty much in the same camp as you, and all I can say is… I’m so damned grateful for that nostalgia blanket.

      Sure, Daggerfall might have been left behind, it might not have aged well, but I fell in love with it back when it was new, and I can still happily play it today. Every few months I get the urge to return and just mess around with it.
      It might be a buggy, broken, unfinished mess, but it’s beautiful.

  7. Wowbagger says:

    “Dark Souls is the fortress revealed in the Louvre’s basement, along with the discoveries that lie above it.”

    This is a lovely sentence, more of these please.

    • Borodin says:

      I’m not so sure. Are those the discoveries that lie above the Louvre, above its basement, or above the fortress that is Dark Souls?

  8. slerbal says:

    Interesting thoughts on dungeons. More like this, please! :)

  9. Premium User Badge

    DantronLesotho says:

    I haven’t played Daggerfall but it’s one of those games that I am forever assaulted by “true” fans for missing out on. It sounds pretty interesting but I don’t know if I have the time to dive (har har) into that these days. Maybe if there was a more modern map and quest tracking system.

    • Niko says:

      I don’t know. Maybe I’m not a true fan – I’ve played Daggerfall in my time, loved some parts of like the cities, but I quit because FUCK THOSE DUNGEONS.

    • Dominare says:

      Ha! Quest tracking system eh? I remember these old games having one when I played them as a young ‘un, it was called “a pen and paper”. Same for the map.

      • K_Sezegedin says:

        Whoa I’d like to see someone’s pen and paper map of a Daggerfall Dungeon.

        Anyway Dantron, – Daggerfall is *interesting* and you have to admire its scope, – but its not much fun to play. It was my entry point into TES but I must admit I never finished it do to the soul-crushing blandness of its titanitic randomly generated world.

        I do wish Bethesda had followed up on Daggerfall and refined their procedural tenchiques instead of going the hand-built route.

        When they went from Daggerfall to Morrwind and ‘solved’ the problem of Daggerfall’s emptiness by massaging everything by hand, they began a tradition of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You can still see them doing that as of Skyrim, where they tossed out character stats to solve the preceived problem that they were “just numbers that go up.” Confronted with the fact that stats didn’t have a very complicated relationship with character abilities in Oblivion, the best solution they could come up with was chucking them wholesale in favor of the Health-Magicka-Stamina trinity of Skyrim.

        The tiny theme-park worlds of Morrowind -> Skyrim are just sad, *still* incredibly repeitive but without the benefit of Daggerfall’s mind boggling scale.

        The thing that Daggerall does best IMO is that it doesn’t feel like a place that was designed to entertain you. Because it wasn’t, – it was mostly built by a soulless formula that could not care less if you got lost or never found the item you were looking for. In that, there’s the feeling that this world exists outside of the player’s experience, that it was not made expressly to be conquered in short digestible bits. And that’s a feeling I’d love to see in a contemporary RPG.

        I’d reccomend taking a look at Daggerfall, – see a big city, see a randomly generated dungeon. But don’t expect to fall in love or anything. Just muse over what might have been had someone with more vision helmed Bethsoft in the intervening years.

  10. kdz says:

    This made me think: I’d very much like to see a feature on the best dungeons in cRPG history.

  11. cpt_freakout says:

    I know it’s not the same thing, but I think another interesting comparison could be made with FPS ‘dungeons’. I’m thinking of Wolf 3D, Thief, and all that time spent in dark corridors in the likes of Quake. The thinking behind them might be quite different to cRPGs, but in the end they have many of the same effects: disorientation, an oppressive mood to be overcome by the hero’s actions, an element of exploration and dreading what might lurk in the next corner… I think the dungeon is more than just a fantasy RPG staple, and it has also been treated interestingly in other genres that rely on very distinct ways to “win” against an abstract adversary. I’m also thinking of certain kinds of platformers like Castlevania, which handle the dungeon as a sort of intricate living entity (and which in others is quite explicit, like in that Ocarina of Time part where you go inside the whale, and defeat parasites that are trying to kill you and the ‘dungeon’). Anyway, very interesting article!

  12. Vast_Girth says:

    This is a good article.

    Locking away articles like this behind a paywall is a big ol’ bunch of bollocks.

    That is all.

    • padger says:

      Or: it’s a great way to pay for more stuff like this to get written and then posted on the front page for everyone, as this one has been?

      We’ve seen a tonne of extra stuff appearing on RPS since this program when live, and I like it.

    • Not_Id says:

      They won’t listen VG. In fact, they keep asking for more. Just like they’ve done on the very first line above.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        Good lord you’re right! The audacity! Asking to be paid for their time and effort when they’re simply writing words to be displayed on a screen!

        FOR SHAME RPS!

      • lylebot says:

        Or.. just a thought.. they will listen, and have conversations amongst themselves, and look at their data, and then just maybe make a decision that you don’t agree with.

        Since when is “listen” synonymous with “do what I say”?

    • shinygerbil says:

      Without the paywall, articles like this wouldn’t exist. Thanks to the supporter program, the RPS team have more time and resources to devote to extra articles like this.

      RPS aren’t creating articles like this and hiding them behind paywalls. You have your cause and effect the wrong way round.

      The supporter program is enabling more RPS content to exist, than would previously have existed. This is a good thing.

    • DrollRemark says:

      How dare writers ask for money for their work! Meagre advertising peanuts should be all they deserve to subsist on! Rabble rabble rabble!

    • Vast_Girth says:

      I’m not anti supporting the site financially if you want or having a supporter program. I am just fundamentally against paywalls in general.

      What they have done is restricted access to the main reason people come to the site. When they deem to give us some of the paywalled content its always going to be accompanied by nagging to hand over your cash. It feels grubby.

      By all means offer other incentives to support, but artificially limiting the audience of interesting content is doing a disservice to both the site, its writers and its readership.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Except it isn’t is it? You’re reading it now, did you hack the paywall? Supporters were allowed to see this a bit early, that’s all. It isn’t why we support (I haven’t read most of the supporter articles) but it’s a nice bonus and it shows a connection between our support and the output of RPS. Do you think it’s a bad idea that there are incentives for people to give support, thereby sustaining and improving the quality and quantity of all articles, for everyone?

      • Vast_Girth says:

        From what i understand there will be a lot of interesting content behind the paywall, and us plebs will get to see the odd article to tempt us to get our wallets out.

        Thing is, i think nearly all the ‘supporters’ would have happily joined the program to support rps without any articles being paygated at all. They could have had all this wonderful extra content and not have restricted it at all.

        • Alec Meer says:

          We’re currently talking to subs about what they want us to do, as it happens. The customer is always right, etc. Right now it looks very likely that the majority of subs articles will go public a short while later.

          We won’t be ‘nagging’ to subscribe in every subs article we run, rest assured, but this was the first one we’ve made public in a while. There’ll be more over the next few days though, and on a regular basis from thereon in.

          • jrodman says:

            As a supporter, I don’t actually know how to find the supporter content. Not a travesty but…

            Later: Okay, I guess I just see them in with the other articles. But only when logged in maybe? That’s a bit awkward as I’m often not logged in.

  13. Wulfram says:

    One thing about the Daggerfall dungeons was the sense that you could truly get lost in them. Of course that was a bad thing as much or more as it was a good thing, but it did lend some sort of flavour to them.

    Also, Daggerfall’s dungeon music is very atmospheric, and tends to turn me into a paranoid crazy person.

    • fabrulana says:

      I’d love to play a more modern version of the same dungeon system. There was nothing like those dungeon sounds. A door opening somewhere else, making you paranoid as you say.

  14. imperialus says:

    Well this has convinced me to subscribe. You’ve been my go-to source for gaming news for something in the neighborhood of 5 years I guess it’s probably time I threw a few sheckles your way.

    Regarding the concept of the dungeon itself, I’ll leave you with this:

    The referee bears the entire burden here, but if care and thought are used, the reward will more than repay him. First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his “underworld”, people them with monsters of various horrid aspect, distribute treasures accordingly, and note the location of the latter two on keys, each corresponding to the appropriate level. This operation will be more fully described in the third volume of these rules. When this task is completed the participants can then be allowed to make their first descent into the dungeons beneath the “huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses'”

  15. Gothnak says:

    Daggerfall was the first RPG to scare me… The sound of a door opening was terrifying as it meant a Lich might be nearby, and handily one of the ambient sfx of the dungeon is the same effect of a door opening.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      I wonder if that was a deliberate decision or just pure chance? It’s such a little thing but it made a huge difference. After all, just reading your comment was enough to bring up all sorts of memories.

  16. ZakG says:

    If i remember there is a problem when running Daggerfall on any OS above windows 98SE. From XP onwards you could get the infamous ‘missing quest item’ bug, where after hours and hours searching in those vast dungeons you just could not actually see the item you were meant to collect.

    I got around this by building a custom w98se P166 based PC just for Daggerfall back in 2004ish, and many happy years were had in it’s vast world.

    There is a modern way to play Daggerfall, it’s called Dagger XL and info is here (i’ve not tried it but it sounds cool):

    link to xlengine.com

  17. Cockles says:

    One thing that really terrified me about Daggerfall was the sound design. You touched on the skeletons but, oh god… vampire ancients or ancient liches, I guess I would summarise the whole shebang as:

    1. The dungeons are vast, confusing and isolating. This made me a little scared.
    2. The music was designed to be pretty creepy in dungeons (even some of the night-themed outdoor tunes were terrifying, although I have to say that this tune STILL HAUNTS ME TODAY: link to youtube.com)
    3. The monsters were random – you never knew exactly what beasties you’d be facing and this unknown factor made me a little scared.
    4. You’d almost always hear the enemy before you saw them – this was such a darn effective tactic at pulling on the fear strings. The sense of relief when you’d hear something weak or the feeling of absolute dread when you heard something insanely hard, let alone those times something new would be crying out.
    5. You couldn’t be sure of exacly where the enemies were a lot of the time – are they screaming from behind the next door? Are they on a parallel corridor that has no access to me? Have they just appeared behind me somewhere?

    That’s definitely something that I haven’t really experienced in any game since, which is a shame because I thought it was one of the greatest of Daggerfall’s strengths. Perhaps there are a lot of things out there that evoke the same principles but I’ve forgotten or just missed them.

  18. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I have fond memories of playing that one a fair time like Oblivion (not as much as Morrowind or Skyrim). Game was technically busted on MS-DOS though. Boot-discs were standard those days. But DF had huge loading times on the 486, crashed every two hours and 1 in 6 corrupted the save so I exited every two hours and copied the save games via batch.
    Random rat in one room and lich in the other – played like a rogue game with saves. :) Also had the cool faction ranking system, skills like athletics and acrobatics and customizable classes with advantages and disadvantages -all features eventually cut from TES.

  19. haircute says:

    “The entrance to each is like the door to a Lewisian wardrobe leading to a delirious new world. ”

    We have never needed OMM more.