I’d like to first begin with an apology, but I feel as if I need to explain myself a bit before it will make any sense. So instead, I think I’ll start by mentioning I’m a fan of proverbs and adages, as I feel the truly powerful ones bare relevancy no matter the time period. I discovered such a quotation recently in trying to relive the past, and I thought I’d share it with you today.
That’s a quote from Arena, the first Elder Scrolls game that came out in 1994. The quote is from a fictional character, yes, but the statements power remains intact, and I refuse to discredit fiction as irrelevant. In any case, Arena will be the crux of what I am discussing today, in trying to right a wrong by celebrating a video game from the past, and an experience that we should not allow to remain buried in amnesia and obscurity.
Speaking of loving adages, there goes an old saying along the lines of “History is doomed to repeat itself”, a sentiment I think a lot of us don’t apply to our every day.
Despite humans having self-awareness and adaptability, we are routinely forgetful and inflexible , very often forgetting mistakes we’ve already made, and having the unwillingness to avoid making them again. This applies just as much to video games as it does to the every day, as companies, developers and even gamers mistakenly repeat themselves, almost hilariously so, every generation. Online focused experiences being a prime example of how our over promises, deluded optimism, and even personal expectations all get the better of us…despite the fact that we’ve all been guilty of the exact same failings already.
People under delivering or over expecting too much are common themes throughout game history. Seemingly, we as a collective are routinely surprised by all of our missteps, I speculate, due to a cyclical cycle we all help to create. In the case of forgetting the past and being disappointed by the future, we want the latest and greatest thing, and we all regularly make the mistake of defaulting to the idea that the latest thing must be the greatest thing, which is not a guaranteed reality. Maybe it doesn’t always seem so apparent or easy in the moment to not delude ourselves so much, which leads me to invoke another old phrase “hindsight is 20/20”. Whatever leads us to forget the past or expect too much from the future, we do it time and time again, ad infinitum etc etc.
So it goes.
Despite my rather sporadic attempts in looking at some of gamings biggest offenders in repeating their past mistakes, this article is not reviewing major industry oversights and the mediums biggest offenders. As I previously mentioned, I’m looking specifically at The Elder Scrolls: Arena, and just how it manged to slip through the cracks of gaming history due to some bizarre unluckiness. This entire article was inspired by another write up I read over at Gamasutra, where Felipe Pepe writes about the dangers of letting the gaming industry “curates its own past”, a dangerous process brought upon by what I’ve already discussed, which is indeed setting our expectations for the future so high, while simultaneously forgetting what made our pasts so great.
One of the key ideas that acted as a Genesis for this very article were some of Pepes very first written lines:
“Recently I was asked to give a short lesson about CRPG history in a game design class of about 30 students. I started by asking how many had played Skyrim. All raised their hands. Then I asked how many considered themselves to be really hardcore fans of the Elder Scrolls series. About 60% kept their hands raised. The next question: “how many of you played Oblivion”? Now only 20% still has held their hands high. Only two hands remained in the air when I asked about Morrowind, and none at all when I asked about Daggerfall and Arena.”
As Pepe goes on to discuss, one of the reasons this revelation baffled him was due to the fact that these students were going to school for game design, a majority of which had identified as “hardcore Elder Scrolls Fans”. My own reaction was similar to Pepe,at least in regards to almost none of them having played Morrowind. I remind you now that Morrowind was a game that came out in 2002, and one of which I’ve seen second hand retail and on Steam sale for less than ten dollars. I chuckle now in defense of topical ignorance, however, as when I worked at Gamestop back when Oblivion was coming out, before the title had even launched, the majority of people didn’t even know the game belonged to “The Elder Scroll Series”, merely thinking Oblivion was the direct sequel to the “first installment”: Morrowind.
I’m basically trying to give an ounce of credit to the design students, as gamers who were excited for Oblivion in it’s prime didn’t even know what the hell the game technically was, so here here to observation levels failing all around.
Digressing back to Pepes article, and as he rightfully observes, the two earliest titles(both Arena and Daggerfall) which none of the students had played, are indeed freely available to download on the internet by Bethesda themselves, so the excuses for not having played any of the prior titles were extremely limited. When he confronted the students about not having played the old games, they admitted in being embarrassed about their lack of interaction with the old titles, but their defenses were simple: they were “old games, that had dated badly and were outclassed by newer releases”…basically disregarding the games as lesser quality, despite not having actually played any of them.
In essence, their unfounded views disregarded an amazing series and in turn, devalued the older titles and gaming history itself because:
“old, who cares lol”.
Pepe goes on to discuss just why gaming history is often forgotten, but his observations of why are another article I will write at a later date. His one point I will echo is indeed that the video game industry is one of the mediums that disregards its past work as inferior on a regular basis, to help create quality for the new products, going back to the “latest and greatest” premise I framed earlier. A lot of this is due to video games having this weird in-between relationship to both business and artistry, and how more so than books, music or movies, they are at the whim of technology, with games constantly disrespectful to past endeavors for new projects, and ultimately failing to preserve their meaning as time marches on.
There are some obvious points to be made in defense of people not playing older games, and some reasonable arguments I could frame against why much of gaming’s past is forgotten. I mean, the logistics of someone trying to sink so much time (100’s of hours) into what normally amounts to a casual side hobby is unreasonable, especially if you take into account that I’m a paid game writer who loves the medium, and can still only enjoy a fraction of what exists. I could also mention in regards to the Elder Scrolls series, I have personally clocked in close to a thousand hours on separate Elder Scrolls titles, and how (obviously) that becomes difficult to do five times over while maintaining any kind of non-video game playing existence…
So in one sense, yes….experiencing all of history is well, impossible. So, it follows why many never look to their past or history in general, as just about every one of us simply doesn’t have enough time in our modern day to day period, let alone putting aside precious moments for a fictional universe that we visit occasionally.
However, in an effort at reframing my stance in writing this article, and in acknowledgement of what Pepe has observed, the history of where we come from is important, and preserving it should remain a priority and a valuable endeavor. Furthermore, it should be tasked to someone relevant in the field to preserve it as cleanly as possible, and to make sure we recognize and celebrate those who have helped to make it happen. Pepe does put forth another old phrase “history is written by the victors”, which is an unavoidable side effect of record keeping, but in his own assessments on video game history, many of the victors don’t even bother remembering their own victories, which I feel is unique once again to video games as a medium.
Though I could end on the salient point of respecting our past and preserving history, there is plenty more to say about this topic, and a point of…well, guilt that I have not yet touched upon. See, some of my best writing (EDIT: All of my writing) comes from a hands on experience: video games are an interactive medium after all. While it’s true I was inspired to write this article after reading Felipe Pepes enlightening write up, this response article was more invoked by a sense of guilty inspiration as opposed to acting out as a finger wagging soap box. This is due to the rather comical fact that despite loving video game history, old school titles, and a regular fan of the Elder Scrolls series for well over a decade now…I actually haven’t played the first two games in the series (Arena or Daggerfall) either.
Now, I know what you’re thinking
I would quickly like to use a finger of my own and say
I apologize, and do admit fault in shaking my head at those students earlier, as I’m just as guilty as they are. Believe me, I am myself quite shocked I have failed in revisiting Arena or Daggerfall up to this point, despite their value and how much they tie into my own experience of playing, thinking, and talking about video games. I, however, like to right my wrongs, which is what this article is an attempt to do. I’m acknowledging I want to preserve history, and help maintain it’s value in reminding us where we came from, and why it still matters to this day. Having made this important realization, I resolved myself to download Arena and record my own thoughts, to enhance history and celebrate the remembrance of worthwhile video games, and the forgotten experiences they are
So, with a renewed purpose in mind, a sense of wonder in my heart, and a confidence I could contribute to gaming culture, I, Pashford Murano, set out to do something worth a damn, and went back and downloaded the first Elder Scrolls Game: Arena, to record it’s greatness, share it’s rich value, and revel in the epic journey and grand adventure Arena truly represents.
…it gets grander. Really.
(To Be Continued)