Arena, Part VII: Stonekeep is ghoulish this time of year

The past week has been…turbulent for me. Hence the delayed post. But I did actually play a fair amount of Arena, and I can say that I have now discovered the location of Fang Lair.

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If you recall, last week, my goal was to look for Fang Lair. Okay, so it might sound like I accomplished very little (and maybe that’s true), but I’ve actually done quite a bit of dungeon-delving and advanced the main quest. And I’ve learned even more about the game mechanics; either I skimmed too quickly over some rather useful sections in the manual, or the development team left a lot of how the game works to be figured out organically through experimentation and adventure. Finding Fang Lair was just more meandering than I thought it would be.

So. Last week I arrived in beautiful Elinhir, on the eastern border of Hammerfell. Hammerfell is home to the Redguards, so the people were different from the Dunmer of Aizen’s native Morrowind, but everything else was a little bit different, too: the clothes, the architecture, the plant life and climate…

I started asking around about rumors, and whether anyone had heard where Fang Lair was. I wasted a little time trying to track down an inn where some information about a mythical artifact was being held, but…the inn’s name changed slightly? And there was no one there who knew anything about the artifact? It’s possible I just misunderstood something. I am often suspicious, though, that the game’s procedural generation gets a little buggy at times.

Anyway, I soon heard that there was discussion about a discovery involving Fang Lair in Rihad…or maybe Dragonstar.

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These places are on opposite sides of Hammerfell, Rihad to the south and Dragonstar to the north. I decided to go to Dragonstar first.

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Wrong! So I went to Rihad next, finding that the far southern city had quite a different climate and culture yet again.

Believe me, I recognize there’s a lot of reliance on problematic “exotic” orientalist tropes, and I plan on talking about that in a separate post in the near future. For the moment, let’s just recognize how cool it is that a game from 1994 had such a sprawling open world with such visually distinctive cultures and environments.

It didn’t take me long to track down more information about Fang Lair here.

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Yes, my information source is a black woman in a bikini in a vaguely Middle Eastern/North African setting among the only non-white humans (the dark-skinned Dunmer are elves). Yes, there are a lot of bikini-clad, dark-skinned women in this town. Yes, I recognize the fetishism happening here. Moving on for now…

I headed south through the city and eventually reached the Palace. This provided my next block of story information:

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The Queen doesn’t know where Fang Lair is, but if I can recover a valuable document that can help decipher a key passage of the Elder Scrolls, she can figure it out. Okay, but the question then becomes, Why wouldn’t the Queen have already translated the key passage of the Elder Scrolls? This could just be a plot hole, but I’m willing to be more generous and read something into this narrative ambiguity. It seems quite possible to me that Jagar Tharn hired the goblin band to take the vital document, knowing that discovering Fang Lair’s location would soon be critical. Perhaps the Queen only became interested after certain parties operating in Tharn’s name began scouting out for the ruins…Or alternatively, we can take the rumors at face value. Maybe this translating document was only recently recovered from the ruins of Stonekeep. And maybe the sortie against the goblin forces that led to the recovery of the document only provoked a new assault that led to the recapture of the resource.

But the game doesn’t really address this, at least explicitly. I feel like I have to hop through some hoops to get to a sort-of reasonable answer when it would have maybe taken one extra dialogue pane to explain things a little better. Regardless, I now know to go to Stonekeep. To get the document. To get the translated Elder Scroll. To get the location to Fang Lair. To get the first piece of the Staff of Chaos. To eventually reassemble the Staff. To challenge Tharn. To save the Emperor. Oh boy. So I still have a lot to do. But at least I have a concrete objective to pursue: Stonekeep.

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And Stonekeep, it turns out, is a dungeon with a lot of cool environmental storytelling…but it’s also very lethal!

The game tells a story through the rooms, the layout of the dungeon, the details of the objects and treasures, and bits of flavor text. It becomes immediately clear upon entry that Stonekeep was once another great fortress in Hammerfell, but at some point long ago it was overrun by hordes of goblins. No wonder roaming goblin bands launch raids from this base! There are sunken foyers, collapsed halls, revealed secret passages, and many corpses. Most are little more than skeletons, although there is still evidence of the violent deaths that many encountered. Some of the corpses are fresh, suggesting bold adventurers who plunged in over their heads. We also get flavor text to better describe a situation, or (often) to provide information purportedly seen on a faded sign or wall-scrawled warning. It is this latter information that suggests that the fighting against the goblins had lasted a while, but eventually the King and most of the populace had fallen, and some forces retreated while others pursued some of the goblin invaders. The sequence of events is unclear, but it all suggests (to me, anyway) a protracted siege, a breach, and a series of final bloody hold-out battles between raiders and the last of the defenders. It’s subtle storytelling that hints at an epic undertaking, which once again echoes Tolkien’s lore–the mines of Moria in particular.

The monsters here also develop the environmental storytelling.

We have goblins, of course, as well as orcs; they appear to be reinforced by the occasional minotaur or lizard man, suggesting a loose confederation of beast-folk brigands. And we have the occasional group of wolves, surely pets and hunting companions for the goblins. There are also many, many rats–and deeper in, terrifying (and very dangerous) giant spiders. I suspect that those rats and spiders have grown fat and numerous preying on the old corpses and on the occasional lost goblin straggler. But perhaps the most common enemies I encountered were the skeletons and ghouls, fallen soldiers condemned to keep fighting in undeath. How appropriate that the Queen believed that the goblin leader was a necromancer in league with the mysterious Underking! Occasionally when I rested, I would be attacked by mages, who could be advisers to the goblin necromancer-leader, working on behalf of the Underking or maybe even Tharn. All of this information does not have to be blatantly telegraphed, but it fits with and enriches the story elements we have been provided.

Gameplay-wise, as I mentioned, Stonekeep was lethal. It was very challenging. I died a lot–sometimes in truly embarrassing ways. One time, for instance, a spider poisoned me with the paralysis status as I jumped into a canal to escape, and I promptly drowned with a special death message. The goblins and rats were only minor pests, and I could handle the orcs, lizard men, mages, and wolves. But the minotaurs, spiders, and undead were truly challenging for me. I leveled a few times, and eventually the minotaurs and skeletons became easier opponents, but I remained afraid of the spiders and especially the ghouls. I could take on one or two spiders, but if I couldn’t escape into deep water quick enough or reach a raised platform that let me slip out of arm’s reach, the ghouls would always manage to kill me quickly. Ghouls are stupid, though, and while I still died a lot, I started using the environment, spells, and ranged weapons to my advantage.

I eventually broke a short bow and exhausted all my health potions, having explored a considerable portion of the dungeon. The farthest catacombs in the southeast were too challenging, though, especially given that they were narrow, winding corridors often hiding ghouls or spiders that would attack in groups. I gave up on them, and when the last health potion was gone, I began to retreat for the exit. I left after much exploring and fighting, without having obtained the stolen document.

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Just a portion of Stonekeep.

In some of my free time outside of the game, I decided to look up where the document was and realized I’d missed it on an island I’d cleared of ghouls and looted of treasure early on. I’d returned to Rihad, so before going back to Stonekeep, I stocked up on potions, bought a new magic weapon, repaired all my equipment, and sold my excess loot. When getting repairs, I realized that I could actually negotiate down the number of days required for repairs for a modest increase in price; I chose one day for everything.

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At last, I traveled to Stonekeep yet again. I more fully explored the area around the island that held the document. It was even easier to get to the lake with the island this time because I had purchased the spell Passwall, so I just magically deleted sections of wall and basically tunneled (what seemed to be) a quicker route through. I picked off ghouls on the island perimeter once more and had to draw several out from the center, one at a time. I made mistakes and died and relied on frequent saves to recover. Eventually, I looted the center of the island of even more (freshly spawned) treasures. I still couldn’t find the document. Then at last I decided I’d better experiment with clicking around what looked like a wooden plank or some other detritus on the ground. Of course it was the document.

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I soon after left for Rihad once more.

The Queen proved true to her word:

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With that, I was ready to head for Fang Lair.

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Next week, we should learn whether I’m ready for it.

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(P.S. If Stonekeep is Moria, it sure seems like Fang Lair is the Lonely Mountain!)

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