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Mods And Ends: Daggerfall & The XL Engine

The Second Eldest Scroll

I haven't been adding to the well of words about Skyrim, mostly because I haven’t actually managed to play it yet. Every day I think that I’ll put aside part of my evening for it but what I really need is a 48 hour period with no commitments so that my exploration can properly begin. Being a contrary entity, I have been thinking about Daggerfall this week though and talking with friends about the excitement of stepping onto that immense continent for the first time led me to check on its current status.

In the years since release, things have been fairly quiet but the following has never gone away. Mention of the game brings about a reverent sigh from the right sort of person. It is now available for free, released as such by Bethesda themselves, but can be a swine to run on a modern system. However, through the magic of Dosbox and the first of our downloads, things should go much smoother for you. Grab this, which provides the fully patched game along with a pre-configured DosBox and a few extra quests. Those quests were originally only available for people who bought the game at CompUSA, which may make them one of the earliest examples of this sort of bullpoo.

The majority of the mods out there come in the form of cosmetic tweaks (the faces were ugly and misaligned back then too) and extra quests. As I’ll establish below, extra quests are not necessary to expand playing time but they do add variety and what is life without that? Spiceless. But you don’t need them to add spice here because Daggerfall is the largest game that has ever existed. A clearly deranged reprobate once tried to tell me that “space sims are surely much larger?” but I scoffed at him so incessantly that he backed away slowly and then fled.

You can find all of those additions here under ‘unofficial add-ons’ and I’d strongly recommend the first ever, which goes by the name of AndyFall. Among many other tweaks, it places town guards on horseback, which makes being chased by them much more exciting. It also means that if they arrive at a house that you’re burgling, they’ll ride up the stairs on their mounts, which is a sight everyone should see at least once.

Then there’s the XL Engine, which is the main reason for this post if you discount the nostalgic warbling that follows these two paragraphs. If you haven’t heard of the XL Engine already, it’s a custom-built framework to run old games. Essentially, it totally overhauls them, with all sorts of visual enhancements and improved modding support, so it’s almost as if they are being ported onto modern systems. Daggerfall XL is far from finished yet but it's a hugely intriguing project, which is seeing steady progress.

It goes without saying that Daggerfall is never going to look like Skyrim, but the results, even in the current 0.199 version, are impressive. As with so many mods, the work that has gone into this is astounding. The assets for the games aren't publicly available so they have been rebuilt from the ground up. And in Daggerfall's case that's a lot of ground.

It’s about more than improving the game’s visuals though. Projects like XL keep these worlds alive and, hopefully, create fresh interest in them. The engine also supports Dark Forces, which is at a more advanced stage than Daggerfall, and ports of Blood and Outlaws seem to be coming along nicely as well. That’s Blood, the Build3D game starring Caleb, who was a trenchcoat wearing Ash-alike with a borrowed quip for every situation. And Outlaws, one of the very few decent PC versions of the wild west. It’s worth visiting the XL site just to be reminded of how incredible those games were and to look forward to playing them again.

Despite my seeming inability to find time to play the damn thing, I have shared in the anticipation for Skyrim and it has reminded me of the many trips I took to Electronics Boutique waiting for Daggerfall to be released. The internet couldn’t tell me when it had been delayed because this was the distant past and all communication between publishers and purchasers was performed through a teenaged middleman in the form of a monetary transaction at a till.

The shop had a cardboard cutout of the Lich King by the door and that was enough to make me believe the game was imminent, until a monthly magazine informed me of yet another postponement. But every Friday, as I stopped by after school, I would dutifully stop by only to find the release date had been pushed back yet again. When I finally had the unwieldy box in my hands, I was sure of it; this was going to be the best game ever. Bigger than anything I’d played before, with more scope to play a series of characters who would pick their own paths, never experiencing the same journey.

Dungeons were explored, often proving maddeningly unfeasible to map out in their entirety and occasionally containing twisting corridors that led to sudden drops into stygian depths from which it was impossible to escape. It’s probably a fair portrayal. If I chose to turn from leaping across rooftops and robbing houses to explore dank holes in the ground, it stood to reason that I might find myself trapped in the crumbled remains of a former prison or the labyrinthine temple devoted to some dark abomination.

Forget the broken interiors though. Approaching dungeons was often more thrilling than calamitously dying inside them. I hated the idea of quick travelling from the start – what was the point in having so much to see if I would be skipping across most of it? It’d be like taking a train through the Italian lakes and sleeping through the journey because you actually wanted to reach your destination. The destination be damned. I wanted to walk.

Did I mention that Daggerfall is bloody enormous? You could probably fit Skyrim inside the warren-like tunnels of one of its larger dungeons. It’s THAT big. True enough, much of the content is recycled, with every mid-sized town suspiciously similar to the last, so often the size serves no purpose other than to provide the illusion of content, but there is plenty of content. Just take a look at the list of available quests, many of which were of the generic nature and therefore could be repeated in different places for different people. Infinite dragons? Pah! Daggerfall was dynamically generating infinite everything years ago!

For the sake of my sanity I soon gave up on trekking from place to place but the approach to a dungeon was always worth savouring. Maybe because the terrain was so featureless, the area around a dungeon always seemed exactly as it should; a blighted and wicked aberration. Like a cigarette burn on finely stitched needlework. Apprehension set in and if the stars were wheeling in the heavens above, I’d often camp beneath the broken pillars that reached skywards like the rotten teeth of a dead god.

It was counterintuitive because where I was going, it would be dark anyway. But somehow, knowing that I could flee back to the sunlit surface if I ran into trouble was reassuring.

After Daggerfall, I fell out of love with the Elder Scrolls series for a while. That’s not a comment on Morrowind and Oblivion, it’s simply a statement of fact. I didn’t play either of them for long enough to form a critical opinion because I was investing the vast swathes of time they require elsewhere. Strategy games and skipping around the world in search of new horizons, my student loan nipping at my heels like a once-adored family pet now abandoned because its sickly face requires extortionate veterinary bills. And if that sounds callous, you don’t know how big those bills are. Not as big as Daggerfall, sure, but probably bigger than Skyrim.

I don’t know. How big is Skyrim? I’ve seen a map but that doesn’t really tell me anything. England looks massive on olden maps drawn by cartographers with imperialistic British paymasters. I really need to play it, don’t I?

However, first of all, I’m determined to spend some more time in Daggerfall so that I can compare the two without nostalgia completely clouding my view, and see for myself how the workings of time and technology have changed Tamriel.

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