When One Tamriel was released years ago now, The Elder Scrolls Online was literally transformed into more of the Elder Scrolls experience many hardcore fans were looking for. This was taken a step further when the current chapter system was put in place, seeing players able to just jump into the deep end with a chapter update versus needing to be at a certain level and place in the story to take part.
For years this worked beautifully, removing the friction that MMOs typically face when a new major expansion released. By ensuring that any player, new and returning, could play the same content, there wasn't any real gating by the developers, ensuring that every player could fully enjoy the chapter just released, regardless of time spent in-game.
As a result, the stories that The Elder Scrolls Online told didn't always match up or continue a coherent narrative. While the overarching storyline of the Three Banners war and the struggle for the Ruby Throne in Cyrodiil has always been at the core of the MMORPG, it has felt for years to be playing second fiddle to the chapter expansions.
Morrowind saw you attempt to save Vvardenfell from the descent of Baar Dau, connecting ESO more directly with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (the best in the series, mind you). There really wasn't a whole lot that tied you into the overarching narrative of The Elder Scrolls Online with this chapter, which continues really with Summerset, Elsweyr and Greymoor thereafter.
While all can be said to be loosely connected to the Three Banners war (Summerset most of all as it deals with some of the fallout of the very racist High Elves having to deal with immigration from the rest of the Aldmeri Dominion into the Summerset Isles), it really isn't until High Isle where we see direct interaction with the storyline that has dominated ESO since its launch.
However, the setting that sees the Vestige (is the player even called that now?) helping to broker peace with the three alliances might end up being completely lost on a new player that jumps into the MMO for the first time today versus back in 2014. This is something I thought might rear its head leading up to High Isle, but exactly why eluded me.
No Concrete Direction (Story speaking)
The Elder Scrolls Online has, at its heart, the story of the Three Banners War. It explains the factional lines of the various provinces (though One Tamriel all but tore those lines down), as well as sets the stage for its PvP in Cyrodiil. It plays a role in the establishment of the sense of chaos that is going on in Tamriel during the Second Age.
However, ever since 2017, that story has felt secondary, or even absent at times. Morrowind started this trend, with the storyline being more to do with Vvardenfell, Vivec, and Baar Dau than the war back on the mainland. Summerset continues this by touching on it ever so briefly, but instead spending most of its time interacting with the Psijiic Order.
As a result, by the time High Isle launched, it’s been about 6 years since we’ve really dove headlong into what is supposed to be the overarching storyline of ESO. There isn’t the cohesion that follows successive chapter updates, instead they feel self-contained, with the dev team (and the in-game world) moving on with the next release.
Even the year-long stories that started with The Elder Scrolls Online: Elsweyr feel disjointed from the designs of Molag Bal that the MMO launched in 2014. Instead, they too feel self-contained, carrying their own story for a year and then moving on to the next area.
As a result, while this works wonders in making sure that no one is left behind by a chapter release and that everyone, new and old, can play the full story, over the years it starts to feel disjointed and unattached from the major story ESO is trying to tell.
While the stories themselves are good by and large, High Isle started to show these issues more as it tries to dive right back into the Three Banners War headlong. However, what it only highlighted for me throughout was just how little the overarching story seemingly mattered.
Because of the design of ESO - its desire for player freedom and ensuring there are no barriers to entry - the result is a lack of feeling as though there is an overarching story at all.
One of the major casualties here is that nothing feels grounded by one of the most compelling and memorable story devices: character development. The Elder Scrolls Online has some incredible characters: Lyris Titanborn, Razum-Dar, the Prophet, Abnur Tharn, and Queen Ayrenn - all incredible characters in their own right. And for some of the chapters, we encounter them again: Greymoor sees the player quest alongside Lyris Titanborn again (or for the first time, depending), while Razum-Dar plays a role in Summerset.
However, unlike other MMOs, these main characters you interact with don’t stick around very long, instead coming and going out of the story instead of each being a constant throughout.
One of the lasting impacts of World of Warcraft has been Blizzard’s characters. Iconic MMO characters like Jaina Proudmore, Arthas, Sylvannas - all characters that I’d dare say most MMO players could recognize. Much of the furor over the story direction of Sylvanas in recent World of Warcraft expansions was, in some part, due to how beloved this character has been over the years to many. Final Fantasy XIV has a similar thing going for it with iconic characters like Thancred, a veritable bad-ass in Urianger, and a villain that likely deserves his own mainline Final Fantasy game in Emet-Selch.
These characters are constants in the story and interact with the character pretty much every step of the way. As a result, they grow with the quest line, with the characters, and mature as the MMO’s story matures over time. There is a real sense of story and character cohesion that endears me to these games and, ultimately, the story it’s trying to tell.
Even The Lord of the Rings Online, a game with so many named characters that even Tolkien himself would tell Standing Stone Games to “calm down” have constants that span the length and breadth of its 15-year history. There are plenty of callbacks as well that help establish these characters even more in the world and story around them, such as the various Rangers you spend time with all the way back in Book I of Shadows of Angmar still playing a role when you make the march through the Paths of the Dead years later.
The Elder Scrolls Online, as a result of its design, rotates these characters in and out of the story, usually making a big deal in the marketing about their triumphant return. And why shouldn’t they? Being able to kick vampire butt with Lyris Titanborn is a treat, even if it’s the first time I’ve seen her since the main plot line years ago. Seeing Queen Ayrenn and High King Emeric in High Isle was fun, especially since they play such a huge role in what is supposed to be the main storyline.
But how much better would it have been if these characters had developed alongside the player throughout these last eight years? Seeing some of ESO’s iconic cast dip in and out is fun when they are back, but as a result, the characters are done a disservice by not allowing that bond you build over a few quests every few years to strengthen and grow with the story.
If I had the same in-game relationship and plot build-up with Jakarn as I do Alphinaud, how much more impactful would his scenes be in High Isle? If we had seen Queen Ayrenn at all since the initial ESO release, would her appearance on High Isle have meant more?
Is there a solution?
The solution that quickly would be a redesign akin to One Tamriel, though that is likely not feasible now. Make these stories thread together and require players to have completed the previous chapters in order to take part. Yet that goes against the very design that has attracted over 20 million players to make an account. The freedom offered by the fact that you can drop in and out of the story at any time if a particular chapter doesn’t attract you that year is compelling.
Yet as good as these chapters have been, telling largely good stories and seeing mostly entertaining zones to quest through, that lack of cohesion with each other is starting to catch up with itself. Because the chapters themselves feel disjointed from each other, The Elder Scrolls Online is starting to feel like it lacks an overall storyline despite having one. It does a disservice to building its iconic characters up and entering the strata of the MMORPG genre’s best by seeing them come and go so frequently.
I’m honestly not sure what the fix is, or if at the end of the day The Elder Scrolls Online really needs to fix it as this obviously is still working for ZeniMax. But as a result, each chapter since Elsweyr, at least for me, has started to feel more and more disjointed from the last. And as a result, the story as a whole, and the characters themselves, have started to suffer.