If there had never been another Elder Scrolls game, Arena would have been forgotten, or fondly remembered by a few gamers but largely ignored today. Perhaps there would have been a bad third-person console game made from the license a few years ago, and then nothing else. Instead the parts of Arena that are interesting today aren’t the main gameplay elements, but the rich, fertile soil of everything else that surrounds and feels almost extraneous to the actual play of the game.
The brick which hold Arena together is dungeon crawling. You find a dungeon (either by wandering there yourself, or by following the very bare-bones plot), you enter and kill monsters and gather treasure, balancing treasure against what you can physically carry (which seemed both a maximum number of items as well as a maximum weight of items — the latter affected by your strength statistic). You level up, which gets you more health, mana and stamina and makes you better at fighting; more importantly the equipment you find makes the biggest difference. You get to the bottom of the dungeon — and if you’re on a quest — get the Maguffin of Awesomeness, and get out and move on to the next thing… which is also a dungeon crawl.
Each dungeon is a set of 2D levels filled with monsters, some optional some not. There are a lot of ways to deal with them: melee, bows, magic spells. Be invisible, or use passwall to undo the maze of the dungeon, if you can. Each ends in a riddle more appropriate for a modern westerner, but not completely out of place (unlike the one in Swords of Xeen that asked my who the captain of the Enterprise-D was).
The levels are hard, often brutal and were what ultimately crushed my desire to keep playing. There wasn’t anything amazing about them — they were just hard, and it wasn’t getting better. This is possibly due — at least in part — to my getting one of the best non-magical swords in the game in the first or second dungeon. With no improvement, things just kept getting harder and harder and more frustrating. Eventually I got tired of hammering my head against these bricks, but they weren’t the most interesting thing, anyway.
The mortar which holds these bricks together is the world of Tamriel itself. It’s a huge world — the largest of any of the TES games, Arena covers all the provinces of the Empire — the worlds of Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim are all contained within it. The different provinces are here, the playable races where they are from, the cities. You can go to Daggerfall and Wayrest; Mournhold and Ebonheart. The cities are populated by (largely) the race from that province, and you can talk to them about work; or where there’s a nearby temple, inn, shop or mages guild; or even about who they are and what they do (I met a disproportionate number of butchers).
The inns are there for rest and side quests — the majority of which were about taking someone from one location in the city to another, or typical fetch quests. These paid cash — more as you leveled — that would help you buy or repair your equipment, get more potions and spells. In my play through the main quest, I rarely bought equipment — that early good sword kept me from needing it, and my chosen class prohibited most armor, but I did repair my main weapon several times (this took days of game time, passed in an inn). The Mages guild has a spellmaker that wasn’t very different than the one in Oblivion, and sold potions which were pretty necessary for navigating the dungeons.
All of this is evocative of the later games, and the forms are there — if refined and made more complex (or simpler, in some cases). It hit me when I was in Hammerfell, which I think is the province of the first staff piece/maguffin retrieval quest. It was the names of the Inns, and my knowledge of the Redguards (I enjoyed the game Redguard enough that I paid more attention to them in later games, and to Sentinel in Daggerfall when I replayed it years ago). I can’t quite place specifics, but the names felt right for what I knew of those people. Swords and ships and desert, and a refugee people — it was there. Maybe it was in the minds of some BethSoft people back then, or maybe they looked through all these names and worked into the subconscious of the writers.
I like to think that it’s the latter, and that all this grew naturally from the early seed that is Arena. From what I know about the Warp in the West (which I’ll discuss more in my Daggerfall article), I think that’s the case. Without all that later germination, though, this game would just be hard — some part of it would be fun, as it the difficulty and newness of it (new to me, anyway) was quite fun.
But mostly, for me, it was tourism. Going to places I had been before, in the future of the game (Daggerfall and Wayrest). Places I couldn’t quite go yet (Skyrim). Looking back on just how much raw materials were there to make the next game — both the richness and the flaws of Elder Scrolls are here in Arena. I’ll talk more about that in my Daggerfall posts, because I think exemplifies all the best and worst of the Elder Scrolls.