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Video Game / The Elder Scrolls: Arena

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"The best techniques are passed down by the survivors."
Gaiden Shinji

The first video game in The Elder Scrolls series, developed by Bethesda and released for DOS in 1994. Originally, it was going to be an Action Game with RPG Elements, about gladiatorial combat. However, as development went on, the RPG elements grew more and more, until the arenas themselves were cut out altogether (they are still mentioned in some Dummied Out narration, though.)

The player takes on the role of a member of the Imperial Court of Tamriel. In the opening cutscene The Emperor is trapped in another dimension by his most trusted courtier, the battlemage Jagar Tharn. The evil Tharn then uses magic to disguise himself as the emperor and take his place.

However, he is noticed by both the player character and the lesser sorceress Ria Silmane. Silmane threatens to reveal Tharn's new identity, so Tharn kills her and throws the player into the Imperial dungeons.

However, Silmane appears to the player in his/her dreams, and guides him/her to reassemble the Staff of Chaos, a weapon capable of defeating Tharn and rescuing the emperor, but which Tharn has broken into eight pieces and scattered across the Empire.

Despite the title, there are no arenas in this game (thanks to the original concept changing). Instead, the player is allowed to wander in an infinitely-large continent of randomly generated environments, with many towns full of randomly generated NPCs that will point you in the direction of randomly generated sidequests, not to mention the main quest, which until The Elder Scrolls Online, was the only story taking place in the entirety of Tamriel. Unlike the later games, the world is not a fixed size; the wilderness in between towns is randomly generated and goes on infinitely, meaning fast travel is mandatory to go anywhere.

The game has been released as a freeware download by Bethesda as part of their commemoration of the fifteenth anniversary of the inception of The Elder Scrolls. Get it here.

This has also been released in "The Elder Scrolls Anthology" which has all five games, and skips the Dosbox prompt entirely.

This video game provides examples of:

  • Alternative Calendar: A very elaborate one, complete with holidays and whatnot.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Many creatures you fight, dedicated solely to killing you.
  • And I Must Scream: One of the death screens, Tharn implies this as your fate. Stating that he'll revive your corpse as a zombie to serve him for all eternity, but he'll still allow you just enough sentience to remind yourself of how you ultimately failed everyone.
  • The Artifact: An interesting reverse example, Arena didn't have many of the famous Morrowind cities such as Seyda NeenContinuity Issue , Balmoranote , and Vivec. Yet when "The Elder Scrolls Anthology" came out with maps for each game. Bethesda added the cities to the Arena map despite they are nowhere in the original game. This was for continuity's sake and that it wouldn't be Morrowind without them.
  • Artifact Title: The game was originally meant to be about raising a team of gladiators. Specifically, the developers were making a gladiator combat game with side quests into dungeons to get better equipment. However the team quickly fell in love with the side quests that the arena was dropped entirely. However, because they had already printed and put out all the adverts, they had to keep the title, and retconned it as a nickname for Tamriel. It's a pretty accurate nickname, though.
  • Big Bad: Jagar Tharn, the former Imperial Battlemage who imprisoned Emperor Septim in Oblivion.
  • Boss Warning Siren: A non-boss variation. The message "Troll is regenerating" appears on the screen when you either approach a Troll, or the game randomly spawns one in your general area.
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: According to the manual, Tharn can't just kill the Emperor because it would set off magical alarms. Also, Oblivion demonstrates why killing the Emperor is a bad idea in general, if you still want a Tamriel to rule.
  • Cassandra Truth: At one point in the main quest, you're tasking with finding a Brotherhood of Seth member who ran off into a local mine claiming the Emperor was replaced by an imposter and the Staff of Chaos is needed to free him. He's absolutely right, but unfortunately his fellow Brotherhood members brush him off as a madman.
  • Characterization Marches On: The manual has descriptions of several factions, many of which would go onto appear in later games. But some of them are described differently when compared to how they are in later games.
    • The Blades are described as a secret society consisting of the finest warriors in Tamriel, but are described as morally ambiguous, since they tend to go back and forth between helping people in need and attacking them. There is also no indication of them being connected to the Emperor of Tamriel; it wouldn't be until Daggerfall that they were retconned into being the Emperor's secret police.
    • The Dark Brotherhood exists (though obviously not joinable)...but only as a creepy, influential cult, and they're mainly known for banditry rather assassination. The professional assassin aspect was only brought in by Daggerfall (which in turn only used the religious aspect as a front for their actual business). It would not be until Oblivion that the two characterizations were truly merged.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Randomly-generated NPCs will sometimes describe conspiracy theories they have about their randomly-generated feudal masters, which tend to be rather humorous. For example.
  • Copy Protection: The floppy disk version of Arena (but not the Deluxe Edition on CD-ROM) will ask you the price of a spell or item after you leave the Imperial City Sewers. In order to find the price, you have to find it in the game's manual. If you fail on your second attempt, the game will quit back to DOS.
  • Covers Always Lie: The cover was designed for when the game was based around teams fighting in arenas, which is why it doesn't really reflect the open-world RPG gameplay. This is thought to be one of the reasons the game did poorly at launch.
  • Crapsack World: Where to begin? Ruled by a usurper; monsters and bandits/psychopaths roam the wilderness and cities at night; everyone is racist, even towards their own race; failing to pick one lock doesn't take you to prison – it's an official death sentence, as guards will kill you with no second thought; gossip states that every province has been or will be ravaged by a plague, and the above gossip eventually implying that every ruler in Tamriel is a cannibal. note 
  • Dismantled MacGuffin: The Staff of Chaos.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The guards in this game are apparently extremely trigger-happy, since they'll send an entire squad to kill you if you so much as slash a locked door with your sword.
  • Downer Beginning: Tharn has banished the benevolent emperor to Oblivion, killed his apprentice, and had you thrown into a prison dungeon to rot and die while he reigns with terror.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Even after completing the Main Quest, defeating Jagar Tharn, rescuing the Emperor, and saving all of Tamriel from a tyrannical ruler, most tavern patrons will still continue to treat you like a nuisance when you try to talk to them.
  • Dungeon Bypass: The Passwall spell allows you to destroy dungeon walls. Some locks can also be undone with Open Lock spells so you don't have to get the keys, and the Skeleton Key also opens almost any door.
  • Dungeon Crawling: The game is all about this, even more so than the sequels. Since there are no joinable factions and very few places to receive side-quests other than random palaces and inns, the biggest source of your income will involve plundering dungeons or breaking into random houses and then selling whatever loot you can haul away in the cities. Since the world outside of the cities is infinite and randomly generated, you'll never run out of dungeons to plunder, even after beating the Main Quest.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Even though Daedra are never mentioned by name, we do have a reference to Boethiah, who is described as a "Dark Elven goddess", and there is a dungeon visited during the Main Quest called the "Temple of Mad God", which can be assumed to be a shrine to Sheogorath.
    • Possibly an unintentional example, but when talking to the tavern patrons in Morrowind, some of them might exclaim "By the Soulless One...", which is the title used for the protagonist of The Elder Scrolls Online, released two decades after Arena.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: A lot of the series lore hadn't quite gelled yet, leading to an Elder Scrolls game with a number of elements that would either be ignored or retconned in the sequels.
    • The Orcs at this point are simply Tolkien Orcs (who are also not playable, as that'd come later).
    • There are also no playable Colovian humans (i.e. Imperials), who at this point don't even seem to exist; the Imperial Province (Cyrodiil) is stated to be a melting pot with no one dominant race, and the Imperial City is inhabited by dark-skinned humans (similar to Redguards) with naming conventions that are drastically different from actual Imperial names. The only named character in the game that is confirmed by the sequels to be an Imperial is Emperor Uriel Septim himself.
    • There is no mention of the word "Daedra" whatsoever, though the Daedric Prince Boethiah is mentioned as a "Dark Elven goddess."
    • Only the barest mention is made of how Dunmer or Altmer religion works, with no mention of the concept of -mer for that matter. The Dark Elves are also referred to as "Drow" at one point in the game.
    • The Dwarves are treated more like Tolkien dwarves than the Dwemer most fans would know from Redguard on; absolutely none of the technological elements to them exist yet.
    • "Dagoth-Ur" (note the hypen) being the name of the volcano on Vvardenfell (and no sign of the big man himself as you stomp through his pad).
    • A Cosmic Keystone artifact is the centerpiece of the plot, and after this is never seen again.
    • The game features human-looking, if not ThunderCats-esque Khajiit. Interestingly, the human-looking Khajiit haven't been retconned out of existence, just out of being common outside their homeland (the Khajiit have a great deal of racial variance based on the phases of the moons).
    • Similarly, the Argonians are gray-skinned humanoids with hair and vaguely reptilian facial features instead of being full-on Lizard Folk like the later games, and they have Greco-Roman names similar to those used by the Imperials in later games. The latter would at least get a Hand Wave in later games by explaining that some Argonians were known to adopt Cyrodiilic names.
    • There are no guilds to join, unlike in the later games. The Mages Guild can be visited and you can receive quests related to it and other guilds in the game, but that's about it.
    • This is the only game in the main series to have restrictions on where the player can save (taverns, shops, and temples are all out of the question), likely to stop players from Save Scumming whenever they fail to steal an item or bum a bedroom. The latter was also something abandoned in the sequels, as well as the ability to choose what kind of bedroom you want to spend the night in.
    • The guards won't arrest you like in later games, they'll immediately try to kill you for even the smallest of crimes. However, this does get a Hand Wave in the game's opening cutscene, which explains that Jagar Tharn used his magic to turn his minions into "twisted counterparts of the Emperor's Guard".
    • There are no in-universe books to collect or read in this game, unlike later installments. The Oghma Infinium can be obtained through a side-quest, but it only serves as a stat boost instead of a book that can actually be read.
    • There are no Skills to increase like in the sequels, only Attributes. Arena instead uses a traditional XP system where points needed to level up are gained from killing enemies and completing quests.
    • The game does not feature a true Wide-Open Sandbox like the later games. Instead, it randomly generates wilderness endlessly when you leave town. You cannot walk from one village to another; fast travel is mandatory.
  • The Emperor: A benevolent one! Of course, he's not around for most of the game. Most of Tamriel's other emperors have played the trope more straight by necessity, due to the Decadent Court.
  • Escort Mission: Some of the sidequests boil down to these. Thankfully, you don't need to worry about the person you're escorting getting killed or lost, since they seem to be temporarily absorbed into you until you drop them off at their destination.
  • Everyone Is a Super: Averted when it comes to magic, for the only time in the Elder Scrolls series. Character classes that are not designated as "spellcasters" from the start cannot later go on to learn any magic at all.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Jagar Tharn, plus some of his Mooks, plus a few more in the Backstory.
  • Fantastic Racism: Rather egregious. You'll often have ethnic insults hurled at you by members of your own race.
  • Fetch Quest: Loads and loads of them (due to non-storyline quests largely being procedurally generated), most of which are thankfully optional.
  • Fictional Document: The titular scrolls.
  • Freeware Games: Since 2004.
  • Game-Breaking Bug: Given that Arena was a hugely ambitious game for its time and ate up a lot of memory, there's quite a few of these. Even today and even if you have DOS box on the recommended settings, the game will crash and the only workaround is to save often.
    • In the Temple of Agamanus (the dungeon you need to clear to get the location of The Halls of Colossus) the room which holds the item you were sent there to get requires you to swim through some trenches (unless you can use Passwall). The room has a bad habit of spawning a ghost or wraith, which levitates over the entrance, blocking you from getting in. The only possible fix (assuming you have no way of using Passwall) is to save under the enemy and reload, which only sometimes works. Otherwise you'll have to backtrack through all 3 levels of the dungeon and go find an item with Passwall.
    • Using your bare hands as a weapon will often cause the game to crash,
    • Sometimes you will get stuck descending from a raised platform.
    • Using the spell Passwall to get to a dungeon door from the opposite side will actually corrupt your save file.
  • Game-Over Man: Depending on how far in the main quest you have progressed, Ria Silmane or Jagar Tharn will appear in front of you when you die. Ria will lament how Tamriel is doomed without you, while Tharn will gloat about having defeated you and then consider resurrecting you into an undead minion. Only when you complete the Main Quest will this trope be averted; the game will go straight back to the main menu when you die.
  • Gang Up on the Human: Even though criminals and dangerous monsters lurk the streets at nighttime, the City Guards never try doing anything about them. They don't even show up until the player does something illegal, at which point they will be too hellbent on killing them to focus on anything else.
  • The Ghost: Several minor antagonists, such as Golthog the Dark, Selene, and Sir Galandir, are said to inhabit some of the dungeons you visit during the Main Quest. But none of them ever actually appear in-person. There are no proper bosses you encounter in this game, other than Jagar Tharn himself.
  • Great Offscreen War: Lore in later games explains that the Imperial Simulacrum (the time period where Arena was set) also saw much political unrest and several military conflicts between provinces. But almost none of this, other than rumors of cities spying or declaring war on each other, is brought up in the game itself despite the fact that the player visits every single province at one point in the Main Quest. Though it could be excused by the fact that the hero was probably too busy running around collecting pieces of the Staff of Chaos to notice the events going on around them.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: The City Guards never patrol the streets, and only show up when you decide to start killing random bystanders. Never mind the monsters that walk the streets every night, they apparently need to focus all their effort on slaughtering the jackass that attacks doors that are locked.
  • Hammerspace Police Force: Much like Daggerfall after it, although guards don't even show up until the player decides to commit a crime. They also only send a few men after you at a time (unlike the sequels, where every guard in the city will be out to get you), and you can continue on with your business if they are all killed, at least until you commit another crime. You don't even need to confront them, since they disappear if you simply leave the area where they spawned (i.e. go into a building when they're on the streets, or vice-versa) and then immediately come back. The manual gives this a Hand Wave by telling you that "Just as their tempers are short, so are their memories".
  • Have a Nice Death: "With you died our last hope for justice. Tharn is now free to do as he will. It saddens me to see the beautiful land of Tamriel rotting from within. Goodbye, (Player Character Name). I wish you peace in the afterworld..."
  • Hell Is That Noise: The non-human enemies each have their own unique sound. Which, if you know what it is, can let you get prepared for what you'll be up against.
  • Jerkass: The patrons of the many inns you'll visit in the game are very rude and are quick to dismiss the player, regardless of their race, gender, or reputation. The only people worth talking to are the bartenders and minstrels.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Unlike the sequels, the player is stuck with one outfit to wear for the entire game (not counting jewelry and armor found in stores or dungeons). What this outfit looks like depends on which class is chosen at the beginning of the game.
  • Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards: Any character who isn't optimized for direct combat is going to run hard into Early Game Hell, but the way that spells—especially well-made custom spells—scale with level (e.g. a 1 + 19 damage spell does only 20 damage at level 1, but 400 damage at level 21 for the same cost) means that mages become nearly invincible at high levels, able to cast shields that can take two or three times as much punishment as an equivalent warrior can before dying, while one-shotting even the final boss with incredibly powerful custom spells. Warrior classes, meanwhile, need to rely on potions, items, and enchanted armor to make up for their lack of flexibility, which seriously screws over any combat class besides the Ranger, Knight, and Warrior (as only they can wear enchanted armor).
  • Lizard Folk: Besides the playable Argonian race (who are only a Little Bit Beastly compared to how they are in the sequels), there are also enemies known as Lizard Men, which are explicitly not related to the Argonians, throughout the game.
  • Kill It with Fire: The trolls in the game can only be soundly put down by using fire on them. Better have a fireball or item that can shoot fire handy.
  • Magically Inept Fighters: Warriors, Knights, and Rangers have a high number of Hit Points and a wide range of equipment to choose from but can't cast spells naturally.
  • Master of None: The Bard. They can critically strike and use Thief skills better than most classes (though not as well as most thieves), fight in melee better than mages (though not as well as any warriors), and cast spells (though not as well as any of the actual mages).
  • Mooks, but no Bosses: Double Subverted. None of the dungeons you visit during the Main Quest have any sort of bosses that you fight, although characters that probably would have been bosses if they actually made a physical appearance in-game are mentioned in dialogue. Then when you finally get to the Imperial Palace, you will encounter Jagar Tharn. But even then, your goal isn't to fight him in direct combat (since he is nigh-invulnerable) but to destroy the Jewel of Fire which contains his life force.
  • Navel-Deep Neckline: The robes of the female enemy mages have plunging necklines that go down to their navel.
  • Never Trust a Title: This game has no arenas in it, though the continent itself is nicknamed "the Arena" in an attempt to soften the Artifact Title. Also, the Elder Scrolls themselves are a very minor plot element.
  • Nice Day, Deadly Night: Unlike its successors, cities at night feature enemies that can and will kill you, though during the day they're nowhere to be seen. Lampshaded and Hand Waved in general rumors that claim that the towns have been infiltrated by spies from rival city-states and/or are overrun with undead after dark.
  • Nintendo Hard: Everything is already trying to kill you, even low-level monsters are incredibly stealthy and can kill you from behind before you even have time to turn around, you'll be lucky to have any gold for your first few dungeons, all crime is a death sentence (instead of being arrested), poisons and disease are far more lethal than future games in the series, and to top it all off, the occasional Game-Breaking Bug may just finish you off. Good luck, you'll need it.
  • Our Elves Are Different: Really, there isn't much difference between humans and elves at all.
    • Though the High Elves (NPCs in Summerset Isle) still have their brownish golden skin, and Dark Elves (NPCs in Morrowind) still have their brownish black skin.
  • Our Goblins Are Different: Our Goblins are Goddamn Bats.
  • Our Orcs Are Different: Our Orcs are dressed like players of American football. Notably, they're a generic enemy and not a playable race as they are in the post-Daggerfall games.
  • Plot Coupon: The pieces of the Staff of Chaos.
  • Randomly Generated Levels: All of Tamriel is procedurally-generated for the most part. Everything that isn't a town or dungeon is an endless, randomly-generated mass of trees and hills that cannot be bypassed except by fast-travelling to the next location.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Tharn has red eyes, for no readily-explained reason other than that he's evil!! Later games in the series would explain that he is part Dark Elf.
  • Religion of Evil: The Dark Brotherhood, a cult that worships Sithis and would become Tamriel's unofficial Assassins Guild in the sequels. There are others too, such as the Afterdark Society, a group of "nonhuman heathen" who apparently meet in front of various temples at night (which could explain some of the enemies that wander the streets after dusk). There is also the Brotherhood of Seth, worshipers of the eponymous "dark god" that can be visited in several locations across Tamriel and rule the city of Gideon in Black Marsh. Downplayed with the latter, since they don't seem to do anything bad to you (in fact, not only can you use their services just like any other Temple in the game, but you end up working with them at one point during the Main Quest).
  • Retcon: Later games state that the dimension Uriel Septim was trapped in was Mehrunes Dagon's realm of Oblivion and that Tharn had been making deals with Mehrunes Dagon for power.
    • The three-part "Biography of Barenziah" in-game books from later games reveal that Queen Barenziah and her future husband King Eadwyre of Daggerfall, had a major role in the game from behind the scenes, by helping the spirit of Ria Silmane discover the locations of the dungeons where the Staff of Chaos could be found, as well as having bribed a guard into leaving the Ruby Key in the Eternal Champion's cell to use in their escape.
  • Ruins for Ruins' Sake: Due to the randomly-generated nature of the game, it's entirely possible to find large monster-infested dungeons right outside, even inside, of cities that have no business being there.
  • Rule of Cool: The title "The Elder Scrolls" itself. One of the developers came up with the name just because he thought it sounded cool—and then it was decided what the actual Elder Scrolls should be. This is, in fact, how they named everything. Or should that be "thinged everyname?"
    • They don't appear, in any form or to any extent, until the fourth game in the franchise. They're not significant to the main plot until the fifth.
  • Scenery Porn: It looks rather crude by today's standards, but back in 1994, it was clear why the name Tamriel means "Dawn's Beauty" in Aldmeris.
  • Sequel Hook: What's up with this Underking we keep hearing about?
  • Sexy Packaging: The Vallejo-esque busty blonde wearing roughly half a square foot of tight black leather on the box art probably didn't do much to help the game be taken seriously as a genuine RPG epic, though it does somewhat fit the fairly horny character design of the sequel, Daggerfall (and the Gaiden Game Battlespire). For the rest of the series, not so much.
  • Shoplift and Die: Or should we say, attack the doors of one of those many locked buildings, and get massacred by a whole squad of guards.
  • Shout-Out: Perhaps the first of the many Lovecraft references in this series, one of the rumors in this game will ominously claim that the Elder Gods are coming, and that Black Marsh will burn for its sins.
    • The High Elves' names use prefixes and suffixes that were clearly made with Tolkien in mind, with some combinations inevitably leading to names ripped straight out of The Lord of the Rings, such as "Sauron" and "Saruman".
  • Space Compression: Inverted. While you can visit every province in Tamriel in this game, if you try to leave a town on foot you will just encounter randomly generated wilderness endlessly unless you use fast travel, making the entire continent look even bigger than it is.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Jagar Tharn, who betrayed the Emperor.
  • Updated Re-release: The Deluxe Edition, released on CD-ROM instead of floppy disk, includes new computer-animated video sequences, full voice-acting during cutscenes, and contains a slightly altered ending that omits General Warhaft, so that only Emperor Uriel Septim is shown being freed from his dimensional prison. It also removes the copy protection notice that appears after escaping from the Imperial City's sewers at the start of the game.
  • Video Game Cruelty Potential: You can commit all sorts of crimes in this game (murder, theft, breaking and entering, trespassing, and sneaking into bedrooms without paying), but only a handful of City Guards (which low-level players can easily evade by going indoors and coming back out, or vice-versa) will be sent to kill you as a punishment. If you kill those guards, you can continue on with your business as though nothing happened. Even if you're caught stealing from a shop, the shopkeeper will only temporarily vanish from the shop while guards show up to attack you, but you always can come back to the shop later (in fact, immediately after leaving the building) and continue to conduct business with the very same person you tried to rob. Since there is no reputation or bounty system in Arena, nor are there any joinable factions that can suspend or expel you for breaking their rules, there are absolutely no long-term consequences for committing crimes.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: General Warhaft, the Emperor's chief military adviser. As mentioned above, the CD-ROM version omits him from the ending cutscene, leaving it unexplained whether or not he is saved along with the emperor after Tharn is defeated; you have to play your way through the floppy disk version to see him get rescued. Even after this game, the only mention made of him is that he's written two really boring and useless books.
  • Wide-Open Sandbox: A wide, wide, wide open sandbox. Infinitely wide, in fact; the game will randomly generate wilderness forever when you leave town. You cannot walk from one village to another; fast travel is mandatory.
  • Worthy Opponent: Tharn comes to view your character as this as you assemble more of the staff.