Why do we love open world games? What makes an open world worth exploring? To answer this, I’d like to look back on an open world Role Playing Game (RPG) that has recently been getting a lot of attention due to its incredibly dedicated community: The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall—not Skyrim, not Oblivion, but Daggerfall. Daggerfall came out in 1996 and was developed by Bethesda Softworks for the PC. Bethesda may be a familiar name to you today, but at the time, the company was not known for its sprawling, grand scale RPGs. So when it set out to make a sequel to The Elder Scrolls I: Arena, the experience was fairly new to Bethesda. Yet, it was able to put out one of the most creative, visionary western RPGs the world has ever seen. So what does it do right that sets it apart, and how can it help us answer this question of why we’re so in love with the open world?
By the numbers, the depth of Daggerfall’s world is truly staggering. The map itself is a whopping 80,823 square miles, almost the size of Great Britain, with 44 kingdoms and 15,251 unique locations to visit. To put this in perspective, Skyrim’s map is 15 square miles and its unique locations number around 700, a far cry from Daggerfall’s. There are a number of peripheral systems that add to this sense of depth and scale, including banking, real estate, criminal trials, time limits on quests, religious holidays and even disease; systems that you would be hard-pressed to find in any other RPG at the time, let alone today. These systems, although peripheral, ultimately make the world feel real. They give a solid foundation to your main objectives, silently supporting them by giving your actions and goals the impression of realism.
The skills Daggerfall lets you specialize in are just as unique, including language skills that let you talk to enemies instead of fighting them, a medical skill to heal without magic or potions and a climbing skill to scale any vertical surface (and that is not an exaggeration). There are also a number of special advantages and disadvantages you can give your character. Want your character to be afraid of animals? Have an immunity to fire? Take damage while standing in churches? Cast more powerful magic in darkness? Go ahead. Daggerfall wants you to get as creative as possible with how you can engage with its vast world, whether it works to your advantage or gives you a little more challenge.
These systems and character options are reminiscent of the freedom embodied by old tabletop RPGs, which were a major inspiration for many of the developers. Lead developer of Daggerfall Julian LeFay responded to the claim that “the best computer role-playing game you’ll ever play is about as good as the worst pen-and-paper RPG session,” by saying, “The reverse of that was the definition of what Daggerfall aimed to accomplish.” Many of these systems and skills do not appear in later Elder Scrolls games, and the ones that do are simplified into irrelevancy, making Daggerfall a truly unique installment in the series when considering its scope. It is difficult to capture in writing the incredible ways in which these systems interact and bring life to Daggerfall’s world, but suffice it to say that there really isn’t another game quite like it.
One may be compelled to ask why Daggerfall isn’t at the forefront of discussion about open world games. “80,823 square miles? That’s ridiculous! Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” Simply put, Daggerfall’s main weakness is its age, not just for modern enjoyment, but for the developers during its creation and their attempt to realize their vision. To fill this vast world, Bethesda relied rather heavily on procedurally-generated content, which at the time was the best way to accomplish such a daunting task. This means that almost every dungeon and town (except for the major cities of Wayrest, Daggerfall and Sentinel along with some story dungeons), are randomized by a world generation tool.
Moreover, the game itself is distractingly buggy, affecting the functionality of many of the previously mentioned immersive systems. These elements work contrary to everything Daggerfall does right, giving your actions the highest sense of unreality. When walking through a town identical to the one 100 miles away or delving into a dungeon with no coherence in its layout, I am painfully aware that I am playing a game. The reasons for these hiccups in Daggerfall’s immersive experience are understandable, but it should have been a sign the technology just couldn’t stack up to the developers’ ambition.
So how does this get us closer to answering the question? If Daggerfall ultimately falls short, why even talk about it? The answer, I think, comes in the vision of Daggerfall. What Daggerfall’s various features show is that it understands what makes the open world RPG so enjoyable: the sheer possibility—the ability to be someone else, somewhere else in the truest sense. To make decisions that have weight and gravity and to experience the consequences of those decisions on the world is what makes the RPG such a unique genre and is what makes Daggerfall’s vision so laudable. The open world format adds to these possibilities by promising an experience that gives the illusion of realism to everything you do, melding many small things to grant a sense of sincerity and reality to the overall experience. This is not to say that no other modern RPGs have this in mind, but Daggerfall is one of the only few games in recent years to try to fully realize this despite the many technical roadblocks in the way. The tragedy of Daggerfall is the lack of elaboration of many of its systems in later Elder Scrolls games and in other similar modern RPGs that have the benefit of modern game development technologies. Perhaps one day we will be able to lose ourselves in the experience Daggerfall wanted to be.
If you want to see the world of Daggerfall for yourself, it is available for free for PC on Steam, with a fan-made fully moddable remake called Daggerfall Unity also available for free. And if you are invested in this vision of the potential of the RPG, I highly encourage you to go check out The Wayward Realms, a game currently being developed by the former Daggerfall developers Julian LeFay and Ted Peterson, who are calling it “a spiritual successor to Daggerfall.” In the meantime, praise be Akatosh and all the nine divines.