My most memorable moment playing Skyrim involved Lydia, the dutiful, rarely-speaking companion bestowed upon you as a reward for one of the game’s earliest quests. It was my first playthrough, and I quickly learned that my poorly thought-out destruction mage benefited immensely from her unflinching willingness to charge into the thick of battle and start swinging her sword around.
Beyond that sword, there really wasn’t much to Lydia. No backstory, no personal quests, nothing but about half a dozen options of canned dialogue that revealed little beyond that she was sworn to carry my burdens.
Still, after well over twenty hours of traveling with her, I realized she had become nearly as indispensable to my adventures as I myself was. My player character had grown much stronger, surely, and I had improved at playing the game; but all that learning came with her alongside me, and my tactics in battle heavily relied upon her presence. I don’t consider myself a “role player” in the sense that MMO players use the term – I didn’t construct a narrative to explain her presence, nor assign any personality traits to her that weren’t present in the game’s writing – but nonetheless I developed a kind of attachment to her, born out of the practical value that she provided to my gameplay experience.
One day I was sent to clear out a cave of vampires to complete some quest that I’ve long since forgotten, and quite possibly never paid attention to in the first place. Upon entering the cave, Lydia and I were attacked by a fair number of them, and managed to defeat the rush after a somewhat intense fight. But upon looting the corpses, I came across one that I could scarcely believe: Lydia’s. I was stunned. She had been knocked down in battle countless times, but always came running back. The possibility of her actually dying had not occurred to me for quite some time. Yet here we were, in the middle of some random cave, and she was dead. Dead! Like, permanently dead, with no resurrection potion or graveyard to return to for the penalty of 10% durability loss on her armor.
After recovering from the initial shock, I did the most practical thing I could think of: removed all the materials I had given her to carry – all the “burdens” that she sarcastically referenced - and brought them back to my home in the nearest city for safekeeping. It took multiple trips.
It’s been a year or so since I last played Skyrim, but the memory of making those lonely, shell-shocked trips to and from the cave sticks with me more than anything else I did in the 300-some total hours I ended up investing in the game.
And I think stories like that, more than anything, are the core of the Elder Scrolls experience, at least for many players. The idea that the pinnacle of your adventure is not some scripted point that every player reaches, like Sephiroth running his sword through Aeris, but a moment that is utterly unique to you, derived from your own experiences. The idea that in this insanely popular game that millions of people are playing, I can actually carve out my own story, however small, that has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It’s almost subversive.
I loved Skyrim for creating the opportunity for moments like that, even while becoming increasingly aware that the game itself was designed with a very different intention in mind. From the rigidly linear guild quests to the straightforward, stock fantasy (at least to my mind) main quest, the game itself seemed to encourage a more traditional approach. The sheer amount of dialogue – all fully voiced! – left precious little room in the margins for improvisation or imagination. Once the player started really engaging with the main elements of the game, the idea of creating one’s own story quickly gave way to completing the heavily-scripted narrative that the developers carefully laid out.
I’m not trying to universalize my own experience, because I am positive that there are players who loved the story told by Skyrim and played the game at face value. But my sense, albeit from entirely anecdotal sources, is that at least a healthy percentage of Elder Scrolls players enjoy playing the world that the game creates quite a bit more than the game itself.
And the inability to recognize this is at the core of why, at least to me, The Elder Scrolls Online is a creative failure.
My experience with ESO is no different than many I’ve read: I played the beta, bought the game (the Imperial Edition, of course), and within a few months have stopped playing entirely. I bear no animosity towards the game, nor do I have any hot takes about the subscription fee, or cash store, or lack of auction house, or any of the various in-game systems.
No, I believe the chief failure of ESO is its inability to capture the spirit of creating your own story, much less incentivize the player for doing so.
During the beta, I was impressed with the number of random treasure chests and crafting nodes scattered around the map, hidden in places that quests wouldn’t take you, as a way to encourage exploration. But what you realize after investing considerable time in the game is just how petty that is, and how little it makes any difference at all to the game’s main objectives.
And those objectives are made crystal clear from the start, in the form of a main quest that progresses every five levels and offers such rewards that you’d be foolish not to partake in it. Upon completion of that quest, you respawn in another faction’s starting zone, and continue to level via that faction’s quests, as well as the “veteran” group content that becomes available.
There is no ambiguity about the intended “goal” of the Elder Scrolls Online: first to complete the main quest, then ultimately to gain power in the form levels, skills, and gear in order to be competitive in the open-world PvP or PvE group content. I’m sure there are people who have the commitment to role playing to make something else their personal goal, which is noble, but also essentially unsupported by all of the game’s systems.
ESO doubles down on Skyrim’s commitment to dialogue, bringing voice-acting to MMOs on a previously unheard of level. It’s certainly impressive, but also serves to reinforce the heavy focus on the story that the game wants to tell you as opposed to the one you create yourself. This sense becomes even stronger once you realize that the nominal choices you are making in dialogue are irrelevant to the long-term goal of accumulating levels, skills, and gear.
My most depressing moment in Elder Scrolls Online involved trying to make my own adventure. On my second character – my first was a Nightblade, which turned out to not be viable at the time by the developers’ own admission – I decided to commit myself to creating my own story in the mid-game. So I started ignoring quest hubs and exploring, picking up only those that interested me, and relying on the experience gained through opening chests, exploring, and killing enemies.