Arena, Part V: Sweet Revenge

Well, look at that. A legitimate, on-time Arena post. This is practically a miracle anymore, right?

Seriously though, now that I’m back in the mix, I’m really having fun again. I guess the time away from the game did some good, removing some soured feelings. The game felt fresh again, but I remembered what I was doing and, just as importantly with this game, how to play.

The save I loaded put me back by the first lake I had pictured with the red dot in my last post:

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I figured that what progress I’d lost was a bit of exploring over more-or-less randomly generated terrain, and so rather than just repeat my march in the vague direction of north, I decided to check out that red dot. Red dot, I figured, might mean dungeon. Well, that red dot eventually just disappeared on me as I made my way around the lake. I circumnavigated the entire perimeter of the lake and saw nothing of interest, red dot or dungeon or otherwise.

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The lake shore was pleasant to look at, at least.

Bored with the wilderness, I decided to head back to the city. I passed by an inn that I had previously visited, and I stopped in to check up on the rumors (nothing interesting) before heading back out again–only to see that the sun had set while I was indoors.

I got very lost. At first, I feared monsters, but soon I came to expect only the misty shadows of trees in the dark, the occasional flare of lamplight from a settlement, and vast open stretches of fields, all with Red Mountain glaring in the background.

Finding myself only more and more directionless and no longer sure at all about where I should be heading, I fast traveled for the first time, arriving safely back in Corkarth Run. Of course, “safely” is a relative term in a town overrun with blond muggers and other monsters.

I wandered the city streets and eventually came to an inn. As I stood before the door, I heard an all-too-familiar fwoom. I could have just ducked inside, but instead I turned around and saw him. The blond mugger, my persistent, and quite lethal, rival. This time I was prepared as I could be. I fought him, shooting arrows and backpedaling, glad the initial fire bolt had missed me. He had a long staff with him, and I soon realized that this was likely some sort of bow; even from a distance, he was occasionally doing damage to me. I had to make use of my health potions. I kept backpedaling. And my strategy actually paid off! Blond mugger collapsed into the filthy cobbled street. Blond mugger was dead!

I looted his gold, his leather armor, and his weapons, and I learned that he had been a Nightblade, like Aizen. How fitting that my first major foe had been a mirror of my own character.

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I want to derail this narrative a moment to discuss something I was recently reading in Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal. I keep putting this book down and coming back to it; it’s taken me quite a while to get through, although it’s certainly an engaging read that is geared toward a general audience. I’m not sure exactly what my struggle has been…

Anyway, McGonigal talks about the concept of the “epic win.” It’s a term used a lot by gamers, and it might be overused by them; I normally just take it as an exaggerated statement to describe a cool or dominating win over an opponent. McGonigal, whose core thesis is that game ideas can be applied to real-life situations to improve overall happiness and productivity, writes that an epic win is “used to describe a big, and usually surprising, success: a come-from-behind victory, an unorthodox strategy that works out spectacularly well, a team effort that goes much better than planned, a heroic effort from the most unlikely player” (Penguin Books, 2011, p. 247).

McGonigal goes on to say that epic wins “all help us revise our notion of what constitutes a realistic best-case-scenario outcome. Whatever we thought the best possible result could reasonably be before, after an epic win we’ve set a new precedent: We can do more. It can get better” (248). Epic wins “make us curious about what more we can do . . . . [they] help turn a one-off effort into passionate long-term participation” (id).

I think, then, that this overcoming of such a bitter antagonist and (for me) difficult foe marks my first truly epic win in Arena. I feel better about the game and my ability in it because of the win. I no longer dread the night so much. I feel I can overcome. I don’t just have to run away from these blond muggers. I can beat them. I can fight, and I can win.

So long as we’re talking about really basic ludology concepts (which I will most assuredly butcher), I’d say that Arena does not have the greatest flow. The risk-reward cycles just aren’t that compact. There’s not a constant stream of engagement. There is a lot of wandering. Combat can be too challenging, and entering a combat situation is often stressful rather than engaging. Any sort of combat encounter, and the cycle of looting/selling/buying/repairing that follows, feels somewhat disconnected. But while The Elder Scrolls I think gets better with what to do when exploring wide-open spaces in later games (better curation of content helps), it’s clearly been good from the very beginning at building in difficult scenarios that enable epic wins and a sense of fiero, or pride in triumph over adversity (another concept related by McGonigal earlier in her book). While the level of intense frustration that precedes these moments can be infuriating, especially if building up over an extended period of time, that frustration does lead to truly joyful moments of triumph.

Game design improves in the later  games, sure, but The Elder Scrolls seems to have always had good design principles at heart, despite its flaws.

Ok. So back to the game. I wandered back into the nearby inn, ready to rest. But I was surprised to see that a stranger approached me at the bar, unsolicited.

Of course I had to help Vaynith’s stepson! I felt honored that a “very influential man” had sought me out, seemingly in recognition of my feats. It was hard for me not to feel that this sort of recognition was almost a reward for having vanquished my once-feared enemy.

Since the deadline was the following day, I decided to skip sleep and set out at once. I got a bit turned around (too many inns claimed by the Devil in Corkarth Run), and I had to fight off a couple of goblins. I was finally on the right track when yet another blond mugger appeared! Worse, he hit me straight with the fire spell. I was at an instant disadvantage, and I worried this mugger would see Aizen’s death.

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What a bastard.

But I repeated my backpedaling, long-range strategy. This guy only had a melee weapon, so I could keep my distance and keep damage inflicted on me to a minimum. I also had a long, wide avenue to back up along the northern border of town, so I didn’t have to worry about running out of room. Still, between his initial damage to me and his occasional opportunities to close the distance, he hurt me enough that I had to use two more health potions. I was running low on potions, but the brigand finally went down. This guy was of a different class:

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Quite a literal Spellsword. “Spell” and “sword” seem to be all that he could do and the extent of his personality.

After that, the escort mission was easy, but I stumbled into yet another request for help at my destination inn.

Helpar wanted me to deliver some herbs to the Mages Guild. The Mages Guild was only a couple blocks away. Easy enough. I walked over, but the door was locked. It turned out picking the lock would be easy, but I had to deal with a goblin ambush first.

Once inside, I found the Mages Guild to appear much the same as it did during the day, though empty. But it was a little creepy–it was still and quiet, and it was more subdued. No one was there to greet me or to criticize my intrusion, so I crept about the space. A couple lizard-men appeared and attacked me; it’s easy to imagine them as conjured guardians placed there to deal with trespassers like me.

After the fights with the lizard-men, I found myself lacking in things to do inside. If I could interact with (or steal) any of the store’s contents, I couldn’t figure out how. I decided to head back to the inn and rest until the following morning. This I did uneventfully, returning to the Mages Guild the following morning when it was open. I delivered the herbs in a timely fashion and bought more health potions.

It was a foggy day, and I took in the scenery a little bit.

Eventually, I headed over to the adventurer’s equipment store to see my favorite hulking blacksmith.

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He was a bit sassy with me, and he was a bit difficult to bargain with. He must realize my, um, loyalty, I reasoned, and thus had no reason to go out of his way to please me.

I asked about the repairs on my old saber while I was there. Still five days away. I keep bouncing between the idea of staying in or around Corkarth Run and moving on, and that saber’s part of the equation. I suppose not making a decision basically rules in favor of the former option, for now.

That’s where I’ve stopped. It was fun, and not at all frustrating this time around. Partially it’s luck, I know, but I’d like to believe it’s skill, too–not just the skills determined by the game stats, but my actual skill and comfort level with the controls and strategies that work best for the game. Arena rewards patience.

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