Old UIs, Archaic Graphics, "Going back," to games


#1

EDIT: THIS IS TOO LONG SKIP THE FIRST THREE PARAGRAPHS TO GET TO THE ACTUAL TOPIC

I’ve been playing a lot of Daggerfall lately. That is The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, the second early access beta for the critically acclaimed Skyrim GOTY. I wasn’t born until a year after it came out so I hadn’t played it back then. I think I first fooled around with it shortly after Skyrim’s release. At that point the fan-mad Setup.exe for the game hadn’t yet reached the point where you could skip actually having to input commands into DOSbox to start the game. I didn’t get terribly far; there was the compounding frustration of getting a letter at some point that I’d been booted from the Mages Guild for inactivity, and getting stuck in Scourg Barrow, one of the few mainquest relevant and hand-crafted dungeons in the game, because I’d jumped down the wrong hole and didn’t yet realize some of the scenery was interactable and would cast spells like Levitate on you. I found this out after consulting the internet again, and was frustrated enough by the games design that I quit.

I came back to Daggerfall more recently, just in this past month, and I’ve been having a good time with it now that I better understand its faction systems and that it is at heart a dungeon crawler. I’ve occasionally been taken in by how pretty the game can be, when the time of day and weather and scenery and music line up just right. How effective transitioning into a dungeon is as being teleported to a nightmare hellworld where nothing makes sense and the hostility towards you seeps out of the walls. I’ve come to love the little messages you get when entering the worldcell that contain a graveyard or tomb-style dungeon “A ghostly wail call out from a tomb stone,” “You smell turned earth,” “The air is still.” Or when you come to something themed like the ruins of an old manor (on the outside,) and get a message telling you that “the earth beneath your feet has been burnt black.” You get the feeling something terrible happened there. I love its 90s fantasy schlock aesthetic, and the sprites of at least the static NPCs hit that sweet spot between detail and grainy suggestion. There’s a wonder to the fact that the world is so large, a small out of the way hamlet that gets few visitors is genuinely a small out of the way hamlet that gets few visitors, and not an illusion of one.

On this current playthrough that I intend to actually complete the mainquest on, I’ve been playing a squishy diplomat with no weapon skills at all, just converstaion, stealth, language, and utility magic skills. Dungeons have been effectively little survival horror games for most of my time with them, and I’ve had to get creative to navigate them and reach my goals. I was always planning to become a Wereboar, to get a cool contrast from before and after the transformation, and now that that’s happened its a rad little arc I’ve made for myself.

Most people who are aware of Daggerfall but haven’t played it will never play it. The majority of those looking at older TES titles will likely be turned away after seeing a few screenshots and noticing its grainy fidelity levels. People who get past that have and will be turned off by the first rat you fight that will kill them and probably the controls, and people who learn how the character system works will be turned away by the potential to fail the main quest completely without your knowledge because those deadlines the NPCs give you are hard ones.

Some of these are issues with the game not forefronting vital information; RPGs at the time left that stuff for the (frequently inaccurate,) manuals. Morrowind, a more recent game, would be put down far less quickly by far more people if it explained how your accuracy and spell casting chance tied to certain Fatigue thresholds.

What I want to talk about though are the first points of interaction with the game, the visuals and the controls. I said above that I’ve found Daggerfall genuinely pretty and absorbing when the audio and visuals interact just right, and not offensive to my eyes otherwise. The game looking old and using styles of presentation that aren’t really present in mainstream videogames these days, like 2D sprites in 3D environments that turn to face you is just going to be a straight-up deal breaker for a lot of people. If that doesn’t stop people the controls will. You can turn on a modern-feeling mouselook and rebind the keys to your hearts content, but plenty of people won’t get that far. There is a whiplash of “Old As Shit” that smacks people out of any interest in the game. My question is why, exactly?

I’ve played a not small number of old-looking games with old feeling controls by this point, RPGs in particular. After New Vegas came out and was built from the ground up to support a particular kind of freeform roleplaying through its dialouge, systems, and world you could only really scrape at in the RPGs I’d played like Fallout 3, Dragon Age: Origins, and Oblivion, I started to delve eagerly into the game’s that I’d heard it was descended from. All the old Black Isle and Interplay and Trokia stuff. I loved this kind of roleplaying so much that I tried to do it in games that it had no business being done in, like Dark Souls.

The graphics were never an issue for me, and the UIs stopped being clunky and frustrating after about 30 minutes of game time. This I find is pretty true of most older PC game’s controls; they don’t innately make any less sense than what we have to today, they just operate on a different logic it takes a little time to get used to. If you put someone who’s never played a videogame in front of the most recent Mario game, and then in front of Ultima Underworld, I don’t think either would be more or less intuitive to them.

Yet, this stuff prevents plenty of people from even considering touching these games.

I guess I’m done here actually, I had some kind of argument in mind when I started and was eventually going to find my way to my frustrations with how readily people dismiss older games based on “nostalgia,” including those who played them and have nostalgia for them, such that it shuts down discussion for them altogether too often and how that is immensely frustrating for me who has spent most of last decade playing older games, because playing new ones costs too much money and I’m interested in the history of game design and lots of things I like aren’t really done today, but I don’t see how I was going to get there based on what I’ve written so far, so here’s his paragraph instead. This is why I don’t get paid to write.

Anyway am I being unreasonable? Like comment subscribe.


#2

Great write-up, and no, I don’t think you’re being unreasonable necessarily. But I will push back on the notion that people won’t “go back” to old games due to old design. As seen in the massive success of NES, SNES, and (likely) PS1 classic consoles, there is still a huge market of people that want to play old games, and old game design can still entertain today. I think the main issue with why people won’t go back to Daggerfall is simply due to the time commitment required to get anything out of it. As you say, it took you about 30 minutes to acclimate yourself to the controls. For me, with only 1-3 hours to play games on a given weeknight, that’s a huge chunk of that time. Add to that the time learning the game’s systems, getting passed that first rat, and researching the game’s hidden features, and it feels like a lot of work. And if I’m really itching for a massive world to explore, there are plenty of modern games with more player friendly design that I would rather play.

Don’t get me wrong, Daggerfall does things that are still unique and groundbreaking today. The map is huge, and yeah, that out of the way hamlet really is an out of the way hamlet. But how much more pleasure would that give me compared to an out of the way hamlet that only feels like an out of the way hamlet in Skyrim? For you that distinction might feel important, but for me it’s a distinction without a difference. So yeah, I’m content to admire Daggerfall from a distance, but I’m glad you’re able to take something of value from your time with it.


#3

A big part of it too is that while graphics change, the actual controls and interface of many of those NES and SNES games people remember fondly aren’t archaic at all. Anything built for a keyboard and mouse from the early to mid-90s though can be a pain because everyone’s different - and while the mouse brought a lot of standardization to interface design - everyone’s different so you’re going to see a lot of different ideas from the early 90s of how to control characters in a game world on PC depending on what the game is and how each developer defines what is “realistic” or not. We remember the classics but look at how stuff like Command Adventures: Starship or hell, even Crusader: No Remorse or Thief: The Dark Project controls.


#4

A few years ago I tried to give Baldur’s Gate 2 a shot. I have no problem recognizing that it’s probably a great game, and for what reasons. But the UI, I couldn’t handle it. There are too many buttons, with too little explanation of what they do. Probably manageable with a manual, but digital games doesn’t come with manuals (unless it’s a pdf which won’t help me if I’m playing the game).
Knowing too that it’s such a complex, rich, deep game builds this extra wall in front of you that you probably won’t have the energy to scale.

I think, when it comes to some PC games (not necessarily even that old) you really need to want to get into them to get into them.


#5

Thank you for the replies! I try to be mindful of how exactly I play videogames, the time I have to allot to doing that, but I probably wasn’t thinking about that enough here. I play one videogame at a time for months and months at a time; I have less money to spend on them than when I was a teenager, because things like Christmas gifts are important for essentials. I’ve also only ever gotten one full-time job, and that was a temp contract. So I have little money but a lot of free time compared to someone who works more hours and maybe has other humans to take care of. That 30 minutes for me is very little, and I’m not going to be playing anything else anytime soon so it’s easier for me to buckle down. I also just do enjoy learning complex systems so that feels less like work to me and more like part of the game but I understand how that could just feel like a chore.

Honestly I was playing up Daggerfall a little bit, I probably won’t play it much more once I finish the main quest and do a few more of the daedric quests, which require specific summoning days out of the year to do. The grandness of scale and tones the game sets up work more on promise than on reality, for instance, those Daedric quest ALL involve “Got to dungeon, get this item/kill this mob,” like 99% of Daggerfall’s quests, but when it holds together it’s a unique thing I wish some modern RPGs had explored and refined more.


#6

A lot of those games aren’t even particularly complex, just not brilliantly labelled and seem daunting due to the sheer volume of stuff, but they really did expect you to read the manual to know what was up. But I’d argue that for a lot of stuff (even Baldur’s Gate) you don’t need to like, live and breathe D&D rules to play it well beyond just reading through the game’s manual once.


#7

Put fighter in front of door. Open door. Cast cloud kill in room. Close door. Rinse and repeat.


#8

I think people who are into gaming as a hobby put way, waaaay more stock into graphics than more or less anyone else. The most popular and successful games of all time are not graphical powerhouses for their time. TloU 2 will probably be one of the better looking games released, yet the money it generates will be a laughable pittance compared to Candy Crush.

I go back to old games a lot, and rarely if ever has my stumbling block been graphics. I’ve never played Daggerfall, I probably never will play Daggerfall, but the grainy pixels have nothing to do with it. I’ll happily go back and replay some of Betrayal at Krondor, a game which looks worse. Mostly that’s because I’m familiar with that games particular flavor of jank having grown up with it and it doesn’t require staring angrily at a FAQ to figure out what the hell I’m not grasping.

In a way, I feel like the proliferation of consoles has really streamlined the PC gaming space because back in NES/SNES era there was almost no crossover. PC devs could, and did, use damn near every input they had available to them. Even as a kid, I remember trying to figure out how to do practically anything in Sea Wolf because you had multiple systems each with their own unique inputs. That just isn’t the same anymore in a time when practically every major pc release gets a console version as well and needs to condense for better or worse into twelve inputs.


#9

I’d actually say there’s a bell curve there, though. I think there’s a point where a lot of people who are really excited about video games don’t care as much about fidelity as long as it’s actually playable. But I do think in the middle of that line of there are gaming hobbyists who are into spectacle and visuals. Then again, this could also be a thing more about individuals, though.


#10

Basically any PC game from before the age of tooltips feels like it’s from the Dark Ages at this point - even though many of them have perfectly coherent interfaces that just depend on you reading the manual to learn.


#11

I keep trying to get into original XCOM and terror from the deep but y’all ui/ux design has come a really really long way for turn based games. At this point I think I should maybe just try Xenonauts.