Arena, Part VI: Something like flow

Last week I criticized Arena‘s flow. This week, I would like to retract that statement, at least partially. I feel almost as though a curse has been lifted with the death(s) of the blond mugger. Suddenly, combat is exciting and challenging, fun instead of frustrating, intense but manageable. Suddenly, I’ve fallen into a whole cycle of quests, often without even asking around for them. Suddenly, I’m finding secrets where I was sure there were none. I leveled early on in the past week’s play, to level 5, and now it’s as if I’m playing an entirely different game.

Partially, I think that I’m better at the game, sure. And partially, I think I was more frustrated than I thought about that blond mugger; I think my repeated night-time crises left me feeling weary and battered and worried. I wasn’t enjoying myself. Some time away from the game, and some “epic wins” in the first week back, changed my momentum and perspective. But I think a huge part of this, though it would be difficult for me to prove, is that I am past the hurdle of being a low-level, low-skill, weak little punk who’s only any good against rats and the occasional goblins. In other words, rather than necessarily getting all that much better at the game, I think that my current level has just reduced the game’s friction.

I should have predicted this sort of rise-plateau-rise in improvement; it’s sort of iconic of Elder Scrolls games, isn’t it? I certainly remember having many close calls in early save files of Morrowind when the Tribunal expansion was installed from the beginning of a game. And any Elder Scrolls game has a habit of giving you tense early experiences while your skills are low and your equipment sucks, then eventually rewarding you with a sense of ease and power, only to start chipping away at that security again around the middle levels when the enemies reach a certain level in response to your success. I hope I’ll remember that lesson more readily when I inevitably reach the next plateau.

That said, I now understand more why there are user-submitted Arena save games on the UESP. You can skip straight to a more powerful character, avoiding the frustration of low-level weakness and the necessary grind to improve. Interestingly, the lowest-level character offered on the page is a Level 5 Thief. Perhaps Level 5 is an important milestone.

Okay, so what did I actually do this week in-game? A whole lot of quests. I won’t get granular here; I’ve discussed quests before. They’re all fetch quests, and getting into the specifics of each procedurally generated quest would be way too dull. I will say that I have encountered a new type of fetch quest, though. Whereas before I always had to deliver a person or an item from the quest-giver to another location, I am now often tasked with going to a separate location to pick up an item and then to return that item to the quest-giver.

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Here’s an example of the new quest type, and of the more generic fantasy game that Arena was as compared to later titles. A balrog, eh?

There are four idiosyncrasies I’ve detected over these procedurally generated quests. First, there’s some gender confusion. Even having the title “Sir,” which surely must be one of the most masculine-gendered titles out there, does not guarantee that a shopkeeper won’t later refer to having “her” item. Second, the gratitude displayed on these quests has come with some prepackaged phrases that add some flavor without definition to the world–we hear exclamations regarding the “Soulless One” and the “Black Maw,” for instance, without any further elaboration. (I want to note that The Elder Scrolls Online appears to have had a lot of fun with tiny Arena references, having the Soulless One as the player protagonist, a Shrine of the Black Maw, and even at least one daedric monster dungeon boss that appears to be a balrog). Third, while most places have constant location names, I think (based on my map notes and the quest log and my memory) that one place has changed names two or three times, always the same format but with a different owner; I guess there’s a lot of turnover there. Fourth, quest-givers often say they can’t escort or fetch because they’re busy or disabled, yet they also almost always declare that they had heard you collected an item before you returned to them–they have a good reach for people too busy to walk down the street to pick something up. This last oddity is especially amusing to me; to the extent that I can roleplay in Arena, I’ve decided that my character believes that these quest-givers are actually testing him to see if he is worthy of larger jobs, but it’s equally amusing to imagine them stalking the hero messenger boy just to make sure he picks up the package like they asked.

The more quests I do, the more gold I get offered on average, so it’s pretty rewarding to keep doing more quests.

Also, the more night-prowling I do, the more rewarding it becomes. I’m easily swatting down most monsters at this point. I also returned to the Mages Guild for another break-in, this time discovering a “secret” door in a back corner bookshelf.

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The door was closed at first–it wasn’t quite this obvious.

The door revealed a narrow hallway that peeled away to another bookshelf. At first it was pretty impossible for me to get through:

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I tried several times, failed several times, and left; it was actually at this point that I leveled, and I went back in to face the challenging door. This time I cracked the lock and found a repository of sorts, with rows of bookshelves and some fairly useless loot.

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The game informed me that this pile had 1 gp and nothing usable.

I had a couple human opponents to face in the Mages Guild this time; I suppose in-universe that the Guild beefed up security with some hired mercenaries after Aizen so readily dispatched the conjured lizard-men. But these human guards had no magical ability, and with my healthy stock of potions and able use of the blade, they were no match for me.

I also now know that corpse models are fairly simply animated and so always face you from the same angle no matter where you stand in the room. All the above images are just different shots of the same guy.

Between questing, prowling, and sleeping, I passed enough time in Corkarth Run to finally reach the day that my saber was to be fully repaired. I stopped by many times that day, often picking up quests in inns to pass the time between visits, only to keep getting this message:

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Eventually, I gave up, renting a room in a nearby inn for one more night. The following day I collected my completed saber.

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This felt like a significant milestone to me and a justification for change. I felt it was time to set off for Hammerfell to actually look for Fang Lair and begin the main quest proper. My journey was quite lengthy (IRL, it was just a bit of flavor text and a brief animation).

The journey was immediately worth it, though. I had become so used to the doom and gloom of Morrowind, the thick smog rolling off Red Mountain at almost all times. Hammerfell, by contrast, is beautiful:

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I’m looking forward to the next chapter in my voyage.

P.S. I’ve reluctantly accepted the reality that this game is probably the least immersive of the main Elder Scrolls games. It is certainly quite interactive, and it has impressively robust systems at work for its age. But while it encourages me to act on the game world, I have very little opportunity to act within the game world. It’s not a fatal flaw, but as someone who loves roleplaying games for the ability to play a role, it’s disappointing. Still, so long as the game lets me do things that are fun, I won’t complain too loudly about this. And the procedurally generated monsters and quests have yielded some interesting stories of their own, if mostly in my head.

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