Bethesda Softworks, a name that is synonymous with western-style roll playing games and has been for some time now. However, if you were to rewind time back to 1994, it would be almost inconceivable to think that this now-celebrated developer would give birth to one of the longest running, and most successful RPG franchises of all time. With the hugely anticipated Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on the horizon, we thought the time was ripe to do just that; turn the clocks back, and have a peak at the series from its conception right through to the modern day RPG juggernaut it is today.
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The Birth of a Juggernaut
Prior to the Elder Scrolls series, Bethesda Softworks had never worked on an RPG of any kind before. Having cut its teeth in titles like Terminator and the Wayne Gretzky Hockey series, it was hard to believe at the time that the company was actually setting out to dip its toes in such a massive genre.
Spear-headed by Vijay Lakshman and Ted Peterson, the two lead designers of the series, and lead programmer Julian Lefay, The Elder Scrolls: Arena was not originally an RPG at all. During its concept stages it was meant to be an all-out fighting game, titled simply ‘Arena.’ Players were required to make a team of fighters before battling other teams across the continent of Tamriel. Gamers could also complete side-quests along the way, before reaching the final battle for the championship in the Imperial City.
However, as production proceeded further along, focus shifted from the arena battles to the side-quests. Later on the arena teams and its concept were dropped altogether, resulting in the final product The Elder Scrolls: Arena. The game itself finally launched in March 1994, to a somewhat rocky start. Missing its original Christmas 1993 release date, and plagued with other problems, reports from that period state that only 3,000 units were shipped initially.
Enter the Elder Scrolls
The Elder Scrolls: Arena starts with a brief history of Tamriel, documenting the ascent to throne by the Septim bloodline, and how the current Emperor was betrayed by the Imperial Battlemage Jagar Thran, and his subsequent attempt to steal the throne.
Completing the main story is a relatively simple affair, and sees players tasked with collecting the eight missing pieces of the Staff of Chaos. The staff itself was broken by Jagar Thran, and just happens to be your only means of defeating him. Your guide to finding these pieces? A deceased girl named Ria Silmane, a former apprentice of Jagar and now your spirit guide who utilizes dreams to communicate with the player, revealing the next location you must visit in order to advance the story.
While the main story line might be very linear, the overall game is not. You are never forced to complete any of the main quest lines, and are free to roam the world as you see fit, a formula which would ultimately become a staple of the Elder Scrolls series to this very day. With eight races to choose from, and 18 classes to master, the player guided his/her personalized character through the world of Arena and on to the pages of history. The starting area alone was brutal and unforgiving; with powerful creatures appearing if the player took too long to exit the starting dungeon.
While gamers need to use the fast travel system to change locations, you were free to roam around areas outside of cities, which were randomly generated. Despite the game’s many bugs and the initial rocky start, Arena succeeded in gaining a cult status among fans. Fuelled by fan reaction and the success of Arena, Bethesda would next under take a project that even today would leave most RPG fans speechless at the epic scale of the studio’s vision for the future of the series. Yep, the Dagger was about to fall!
Stay tuned for the second part of our Elder Scrolls retrospective here at PSU in the near future.
Article by Justin Titus