Arena, Part I: Exiting your cell, killing goblins, and other such things

This weekend, I finally got into playing Arena. It’s a lot more fun when I actually know how to, you know, swing my weapon, but it is slow going. I haven’t yet had much time to devote to gaming this spring; much of my play-through of Arena so far has involved careful consideration of character builds through external sources like the UESP Wiki to avoid too much frustration down the line; and as my last post on this site showed, I used some of what gaming time I had to start a replay of Alien: Isolation as well.

I have a few different tangents I want to pursue in this post, so let’s start with a brief summary of the game’s initial story. I could summarize it, or I could let the game do it for me. I’ll choose the easier option:

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At this point, you can either pick a class or generate one through the answering of questions, a system of character creation that is very reminiscent of later games in the franchise. Many of the questions were reused, even if in slightly altered form, in later games. Obviously, as seen above, I chose to generate my character through the question-and-answer technique.

Once you have created your character, Ria Silmane appears to you in a vision, warning you of the threat that Jagar Tharn poses. She promises limited aid to you in your new quest to defeat the Battle Mage, as she can only appear to those close by and has limited energy, having to focus most of her effort into preserving her form in the afterlife, which she is only able to do because of her powers. She is able to manifest a ruby key in your cell, which unlocks the door and sets you on your way. And she promises that she will be there to advise you in your dreams, having made a connection with you now. So the game begins…

Arena is a very interesting artifact of gaming history, obviously influenced by fantasy role-playing games and especially tabletop RPGs, as I previously discussed. It also seems more concerned with its game mechanics than it is with its game lore. It’s a little difficult to be sure which Emperor is even in power at the start of the game:

Between the game manual’s narrative recap of the game’s introductory moments and my knowledge of later games, I can say with certainty that Uriel VII is the intended Septim, but it’s still a sloppy error to encounter in what is the game’s opening cinematic sequence!

It’s easy to find plenty of other examples of lazy lore that are retracted or retconned by later games. A glaring example is the treatment of Khajiit and Orcs. The game manual assures me that Khajiit are “a fair skinned people . . . descended from an intelligent feline race” and that Orcs are simply “larger versions of goblins” who are “not overly intelligent” (if these descriptions don’t make you scoff, check out the UESP contemporary lore pages for Khajiit and Orcs, as well as the Arena pages for playable races and monsters).

I also think that the game imagined Dwarves in a far more traditional fashion, though I hope to be proven wrong:

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Fang Lair here sounds awfully similar to Tolkien’s Lonely Mountain. “Dwarves,” or Dwemer, have since become far more complicated figures in The Elder Scrollsas have dragons, for that matter.

Arena even seems willing to contradict itself for dramatic convenience. Ria Silmane is barely able to hang onto her spiritual form, providing minor yet important aid to the protagonist, and she is only able to achieve these feats due to her skills as a sorceress. Yet the game manual clearly establishes a variety of undead creatures:

  • Skeletons (“undead creatures, once human, now animated by some forces either magical or supernatural”);
  • Ghouls (“undead . . . carrion eaters . . . [that] are not intelligent, [but] they have a natural cunning”);
  • Ghosts (“once human, but . . . now trapped between here and the ethereal plane”);
  • Zombies (“undead . . . [who] carry with them the curse of their deaths”);
  • Wraiths (“the spirits of long dead mages, trapped into this state either by the circumstances surrounding their death, or by being called up from the dead by a more powerful Wizard”);
  • Vampires (“exceptionally intelligent, very strong, and very fast,” and “are perhaps the most feared of all the creatures which prowl the Land” except for the Lich, although “not much else is known about these powerful undead Lords”); and
  • Liches (“Wizards who have attempted to cheat Death by prolonging their life through the use of spells and such, eventually turning themselves into a form of the undead”).

Many of the above forms of undead are intelligent, and some appear to have retained their personalities in (un)death. Almost all sound more useful and more powerful than Ria Silmane. The limitations on her powers and impact are clearly there to require the protagonist to act on his or her own, without much reliance on supernatural aid (echoing in a way the reasoning behind the limited supernatural states of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda in the Star Wars films) (and let’s not even get into how awkward it is for a game to fridge a prominent female character almost immediately after establishing her so that she can provide a quiet, mystical level of support to the player character).

Okay. Getting a little into the weeds there. Back to the game itself. Interestingly, Arena started the Elder Scrolls trend of beginning in imprisonment (which of course is indicative of the “You All Meet in a Cell” trope), but it may also be the only game in the series to explain why the player is imprisoned. In this game, the protagonist was a minor member of the Imperial Court and an associate of Ria Silmane; Jagar Tharn, the usurper to the throne, did not see the protagonist as a sufficient threat, so rather than killing him like Silmane or exiling him to another dimension like the Emperor, Tharn simply locked him up in the dungeons (I’ll be using male pronouns because my character is male, but the protagonist can also be female). I think it’s interesting that this game gives the player a slightly more defined background (though race, gender, class, name, and attributes are all still customizable), though it’s probably better for pure, imaginative roleplaying purposes to simply leave the reasons for imprisonment nebulous.

Outside of the pseudo-backstory, you still have plenty of input into designing your character. Oddly, after class, you pick your name and then your race, which seems a little awkward and counter-intuitive; the name of a lizard-like Argonian is probably going to be very different from that of an elite High Elf. The map from which you pick your origin is actually really simplistic but rather beautiful to me, and at the very least is significant for charting the rough shape of Tamriel for all later games:

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My generated class was Nightblade, and I went with the Dark Elf for my character’s race. Out of laziness, I named my new character after my cat (conveniently enough, “Aizen” seems rather close to actual Dark Elf names in Arena).  I also re-rolled my starting attributes several times, shooting for higher overall numbers, and eventually settled on something that seemed…good enough. Here’s my new buddy:

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With that, I entered the game. I was advised by the ghost of Silmane to head west and then south to some sort of transport that would take me safely to another city. So I promptly ignored that and headed off in another direction to look for loot. I very quickly began to come across goblins; I tried a flame spell at first, which was not very effective (and maybe missed entirely) and furthermore exhausted most of my magic, so I then switched over to using a blade. I’ve been slashing my way through goblins since that second attack, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

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Eventually, after enough battles, my health began to run low. It was then that the game told me that I saw red eyes glinting in the distance. I panicked, turning to run at the excruciatingly slow movement speed that the game allows. I retreated, with the game playing a distorted sound that it assured me via text was the scurrying of many feet. I got to a raised niche in the dungeon, a place I knew I could rest to heal.

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Unfortunately, the pursuing monster was too close. No rest allowed! I turned to fight…to find two rats. I waved my mouse to unleash some more violence on the pathetic creatures. Having vanquished my fearsome opponents, and earning enough experience to go up to level 2, I took a nap. That nap became something like 26 hours of rest, and culminated in a dream-vision of Ria Silmane. She explained to me that the Staff of Chaos could defeat Tharn, but he broke it up into eight pieces and scattered it across the land, and she could tell me where the first piece was…blah blah blah.

Now with a clear quest to pursue, and plenty of dungeon to loot…I stopped for the night! Maybe next weekend I’ll even get done with the first dungeon.

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