“I think it’s pretty astonishing how many things actually did make it into Daggerfall. I mean, don’t forget that turning into a vampire and a werewolf and buying boats and property and all that stuff were essentially ‘easter eggs’ in the game. We didn’t mention any of that in the manual or in previews. They were just things to reward the player if he kept on playing.”
– Ted Peterson,
Daggerfall’s lead designer
Envisioned as a game where you can do anything and never run out of quests and dungeons, Daggerfall was the most ambitious sandbox game ever conceived. Such projects often end up as horrible disasters (vide Battlecruiser 3000AD), but somehow Bethesda Softworks managed to pull it off, even though the effort and dedication to this worthy cause nearly bankrupted it, leading to its acquisition by ZeniMax and re-examination of priorities.
Procedurally generated, Daggerfall features a truly humongous world with over 15,000 towns and dungeons, over 750,000 characters, and a large number of guilds, temples, knightly and Templar orders, witch covens, vampire bloodlines, werewolves, and even wereboars (each with their own quests), all tied together with a handcrafted non-linear main quest with six different endings.
The game has a very detailed character system and a robust skillset, supporting different ways to handle obstacles and survive (climbing vs levitating, medicine/swimming vs casting spells, raw damage vs backstab and critical strike, etc.).
Even the character generator is overwhelmingly complex by today’s standards, allowing you to create unique characters with different advantages and disadvantages (weakness in holy places, rapid healing in the darkness, forbidden armour type, immunity to magic, affinity with certain weapons, phobias, etc.).
Your level-up speed is tied to these strengths and weakness, so you can make a juggernaut of destruction who’d level up very, very slowly, a sickly warrior allergic to sunlight and physical activity who’d level up twice as fast, or any other combination of different traits and curses – though some can play horribly.
Daggerfall did a lot of interesting things but if I had to pick the best, it would be the dungeons: it made you fear them. In most games a dungeon is a short hallway with some rooms; if you’re lucky, there is a lower level with another hallway. Not in Daggerfall. You go into a dungeon, you don’t know when or IF you’re coming back. You don’t know if your weapons will last, if you have enough supplies, if you’re prepared to deal with whatever you’ll find there. Emerging from a dungeon alive was an accomplishment and I can’t think of another game that managed to pull that off. Certainly not Skyrim where on your way to a quest dungeon you run into 3-4 lesser dungeons and clear them out while you’re in the area.
The dungeons’ design is fantastic and skill-based – walls and air shafts to climb, open areas to levitate, pits to jump over, flooded areas to dive into, hidden areas and doors, multiple routes, switches, elevators, teleporters and so on.
Basically, Bethesda put together a very detailed character system and built a procedurally generated world around it, as opposed to putting together a pretty game and throwing in some skills for the player’s amusement.
The random quests deserve a special mention as well. They were well-written and did a great job supporting different characters and role-playing. For example, a priest might ask you to protect his temple against thieves coming to rob it, or to travel to some village and cast an elaborate healing spell on a sick person or investigate divine manifestations. While not very complex, such quests were infinitely more engaging than “kill 5 wolves”.
In addition, Daggerfall had a superb atmosphere (just go out at night to enjoy delightful MIDI music, occasionally interrupted by the slain king’s ghost screaming “Vengeaaaance!”), tons of spells, a detailed spell-making and enchantment system with advantages and disadvantages, horses to ride, carriages to haul all that loot after a busy week in a dungeon, houses and ships to buy, lycanthropy, vampirism, banking, Daedra princes to summon in exchange for legendary artefacts, a truckload of monsters, etc.
Despite its flaws (mainly, bugs and the inevitably repetitive nature of procedurally generated games), Daggerfall remains an impressive achievement in game design and complexity, standing next to the other notable and unsurpassed games of that era like Darklands, Ultima Underworld and Realms of Arkania.
Considering that a game of such depth and complexity will never be made again, I’d suggest you grab DOSBox and see what games were like in the olden days when giants were upon the earth. Vault Dweller