Jul. 15, 2009 - Issue #717: Edmonton Musicians Directory 2009
Infinite Lives: Daggerfall
All in the journey
You know what's a fun way to spend a beautiful day in July? Hunched over
keyboard, mouse and monitor, trying to trick a 13-year-old piece of software
into believing a low-end 2008 computer is really a high-end 1997 computer.
No, seriously! Get up bright and early, put a pot of coffee on, pop out for a
pack of cigarillos, start some downloads, go out and smoke half of one,
install, smoke the other half, crash, smoke, patch, smoke, read message
boards, smoke, download, smoke, edit config files, test and crash, smoke,
tweak, smoke, crash, smoke, test ... and on into the sunset. Nine cigars,
smoked by halves, times 10 minutes apiece—that's three full hours of
sunshine! Take heed, pasty geeks; abandonware's your ticket to bronzed-god
Abandonware. Software of the ancients, digital relics. The artifacts of PC gaming stretching back to the dawn times, the shit-hot machines they were designed to run on now outclassed by phones and toasters, their digital ghosts preserved in shadowy online warehouses and mysterious torrents, playable only through the Ouija voodoo of DOS emulation. Sometimes, though, they're not as abandoned as all that; sometimes their rightful rightsholders, like a great-aunt saying "That old thing? Goodness, I don't see what you're so excited about, but if you want it it's yours," make the files officially available, as Bethesda Softworks did last week with their seminal 1996 open-world RPG, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. Hence the tan.
It'd be tough to overstate how excited the dungeon-nerd community was over
Daggerfall back in the day, at least in concept. The real prototype—I
personally count 1994's The Elder Scrolls: Arena as more of a draft or
proof-of-concept—for the gameplay that would eventually refine down
into Bethesda's masterpieces Morrowind and Oblivion, Daggerfall presented
players with 40 million virtual acres of fantastic real estate to explore
and/or plunder, 750 000 non-player characters to talk to and/or rob
blind, a dynamic political network of guilds and factions to piss off,
10 000 towns and cities to inevitably get chased out of. How a player
went about becoming a hero/reprobate was entirely his choice: the game's
massive array of character-creation options—stats, skills, spells,
classes, advantages and disadvantages—meant that if a character somehow
managed to avoid being eaten by grizzly bears in the starter dungeon, it
would be custom-tailored to an individual's playing style. This was exciting
as all hell.
Of course I never got to play it, "back in the day"; the only people I knew with the multi-thousand-dollar machines that could make that shit run were engineering and comp sci students, and they were all too busy playing Quake and hand-coding Sarah McLachlan tribute websites (complete with then-flashy spinning .GIFs and inline .WAVs) to help out a brother who just wanted to spend an hour or two hundred pretending to be a larcenous Legolas. So when I heard through the blogvine that Bethesda was making with the files, it twigged in me the eternal desire of the nostalgist and retro-freak: the desire to have in middle-age that which was denied me in youth.
The computer-game medium has a real problem in terms of archiving and maintaining an accessible canon. Books and other texts can still be read centuries or even millennia after their composition. Conserved or restored, the visual arts remain visible and appreciable. Film and television that survived accidental or thoughtless destruction can still be screened. Even old video games released to arcades and home consoles, their hardware a known quantity that can be emulated, can be re-presented and played today with near-total fidelity. But PC games were and are dependent on a chaotic infrastructure of processors, operating systems, graphics chips, sound cards, devices and drivers, all developed over decades of planned obsolescence. For an old PC game, especially one as resource-hungry and finicky as Daggerfall, to become intelligible to an audience using latter-day machinery requires feats of great geekery.
Thankfully, great geeks are in somewhat plentiful supply, and their discoveries and accomplishments are quickly disseminated and accessible in the online age. Deep into the labyrinth of the crunchiest messageboards I waded, gathering treasure and knowledge at every step. Running Windows XP? Forget it, brother; even if you can get Daggerfall up, it's going to be broken as hell. You need the latest version of DOSBox; get it here. Now you need to fool the game into thinking the file-folder is actually a vintage CD-ROM; mount it with this tool over here. Now you're going to want to edit that config file. Also, this other config file. Here's what to do. That didn't work? Try this. Now type in these commands. Et cetera. Slowly, google by google, command line by command line, smoke by smoke, guided by this disembodied cloud of collective wisdom (some particles of which, honestly, had their disembodied heads up their asses), I converted DFInstall.ZIP from a 500-meg lump of desktop doorstop, to a jaggy, crashy wreck that literally made my computer scream, to something very much like a playable epic fantasy adventure.
Was it worth it? As a gaming experience, frankly, hell no. Forty million acres ... of bare polygonal hills dotted with tree sprites and filled with random bears. Thousands of towns and dungeons ... Interchangeable towns, interchangeable three-room dungeons. Three-quarters of a million people ... one ten-thousandth of which you might actually want to talk to. I can only appreciate it for what it is—a work of insane ambition, a manifesto, a template for its less "free and open" but more fun, focused and fantastic sequels.
But the 12 hours I spent getting the fucking thing to run? That was fun on a bun. Like gardening, or alchemy. Sometimes getting there is half the adventure, and sometimes, it's all the adventure. V
More stories in front »
New comments for this entry have been turned off and any existing ones are hidden. We apologize for any inconvenience.