Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of one of the greatest roleplaying games ever made. Set in a world so vast that you could combine almost every open world game released since and cram them all into one of its regions, and allowing the freedom to buy real estate within that world, it remains one of the grandest games of its type.
If Ultima VII didn’t exist, Daggerfall would comfortably be my favourite RPG. As it is, they both cater for very different aspects of roleplaying so can happily co-exist as my two favourite RPGs. Where Ultima can be about the experience of existing as a character in a relatively compact but fully functional world, where NPCs go about their business and the whole place operates like a finely tuned machine, Daggerfall is about the experience of losing yourself in a vast, dangerous and terrifying place.
Or at least that’s what it is to me.
One of the many wonderful things about Daggerfall, the second game in the Elder Scrolls series, is that it really doesn’t care what you do. Want to follow the main questline and uncover dark guild secrets, Daedric lore and gates to other worlds? That’s an option. Want to run around the wilderness, stumbling across dungeons and towns, and looting everything in sight? You can do that. Or at least you can try to do that. The guards and skellingtons might have other ideas. And what if you wanted to contract lycanthropy or vampirism? This game will absolutely allow you to be transformed into a werewolf and even a wereboar.
Daggerfall is sprawling, messy, often broken and occasionally boring. You might delve into one of the randomised dungeons [more on those here – ed] and end up trapped, unable to return to the surface because you fell down a hole that doesn’t link back to the main tunnel network, or lost on the wrong side of a flooded section that only allows one-way journeys to adventurers with limited lung capacity. Is it enjoyable to lose a couple of hours of progress (or worse if you forget to save on the way in) because a dungeon is actually impossible to navigate? That depends on why you’re playing, to an extent.
Later Elder Scrolls games have, to my mind, concentrated on building a character rather than being a character. While Daggerfall’s world doesn’t have the depths that my other favourite Ultima VII has, best seen in the ability to bake or make clothes without a crafting skill but with use of tools and resources in a logical fashion, it’s possible to own a property and become a fixture in almost any part of its world, which Bethesda reckoned was the size of Great Britain. While towns and wilderness areas usually lack any distinctive features, and the abundance of NPCs means that many are simply copies built around simple types, that allowed me to imprint my own stories in a way that I struggle to do when scenarios and places are already written.
But if I want to chase power and riches, I can do that as well. Daggerfall doesn’t restrict or guide, it allows you to exist and make whatever you will of its world. There are well-written characters and plotlines to uncover should you choose to chase them, and there are probably reasons to play if you’re excited about Elder Scrolls history and lore. That it’s been one of my favourite and most -played games for twenty years, and I have no interest whatsoever in those things is testament to the freedom that it offers.
Where Daggerfall really shines though, now more than ever, is in its grand ambition. It was a game that attempted, not always successfully, to incorporate Vampire: The Masquerade style undead tribes, political scheming, espionage and demonic infiltration, and, behind all of that, an RPG system that completely rewrote the rules of its predecessor. The Elder Scrolls series has seemed much more conservative since, even the beautifully strange Morrowind fare more focused and traditional in its goals. A fair criticism of Daggerfall would be a lack of focus, not only for the player but in its design.
Considering it’d struggle to stand out from a hundred other swords and sorcery RPGs if you were to glance at a screenshot or even the back-of-the-box feature list, Daggerfall’s greatest surprise is how experimental its design actually is. From those procedurally generated dungeons, which seem more like a product of 2016 than 1996, to the lack of guidance and sheer scale of the thing, which have little in common with almost any other RPG in existence, Daggerfall doesn’t just shoot for the moon, it shoots for the moons of Jupiter. It’s weird, unforgiving and often uncomfortable. But there’s a reason it has such a strong hold over those of us who love it – few other games can provide power trips, window shopping and claustrophobic horror side by side, and with a thousand other possibilities in between.
Visually, it hasn’t dated particularly well – the flatness of the landscape is a real turn-off now, and an area in which that all important sense of scale is crushingly diminished – but Daggerfall is still worth experiencing, even if it’s your first time. If the screams of the skeletons don’t scare you away in the opening minutes, you might find yourself hooked in one of the largest and most liberating worlds ever built. It’s free and there are several fan projects keeping the flame burning.
I hope we’ll see its like again, whether in The Elder Scrolls world or another, but I’m happy to reach back across the decades until we do.