Storytelling has always been a sticking point in previous Elder Scrolls games. I contend that the traditional high fantasy nonsense of their primary plots don’t do justice to an otherwise intriguing world to explore. The king of fantasy sandbox franchises didn’t get to where it is without being interesting in some ways.
It’s the storytelling, not the stories themselves that make these games. Bethesda knows when to shut up and let environments and players converse – a rare commodity in games. A pedestrian jealousy, betrayal and murder in another game is buoyed by the dopamine squirt that comes with following a few well-placed clues and “figuring it out on your own.”
The Elder Scrolls Online isn’t so subtle, in primary plot or ancillary discoveries.
Some of the tricks still play. A haggard messenger breathlessly telling you something is amiss in the next town over and needs your attention is a bit Kevin Sorbo after the third or fourth time witnessed, but it lends the illusion that the world goes on without you.
The same goes for how quest-givers bounce around the map between missions. The Elder Scrolls isn’t the first MMO I’ve seen change its environment to suit my actions, but it’s the most elegant. The Old Republic sequesters personal activity behind massive, impenetrable ray shields. In TESO, that cowardly Argonian mage that sent you collecting mushrooms may start in a city, but when it’s time to turn in the quest he’ll be conveniently hidden behind a nearby rock.
In a way, it presents a new kind of bizarre. Was that mage just sitting there, behind a rock, waiting for me to explore that dungeon I passed on the way here? And just how the hell did my Templar, Jennifer, know he moved there anyway?
“But it’s an MMO,” you probably didn’t just say out loud. “Does it really matter if it has a good story?”
I think so. The bar for proper storytelling in the genre has been raised, I find, in recent years. The Old Republic got a pass for not being exactly Thoreau, as it introduced comprehensive single-player plots and voice acting for the first time in a game of its type. That, and well… it’s Star Wars.
The Secret World, meanwhile, provides what I find to be some of the more human characters in video games (full stop). MMO or no, TESO doesn’t blow doors down in presentation or actual plot.
The Elder Scrolls has the voice acting and the faux single-player campaign; it just lacks a personality of any sort that you can find in both of those better-told games.
You start as one of many warriors whose souls have been stolen by a middle management baddie (who is not named Shang Tsung) and taken to another dimension (which isn’t Outworld). He needs your delicious soul juice to feed his demon-y master (not Shao Khan) who wants to merge the two worlds for reasons. A magical man with messed-up eyes (who, I’m being told, is not called anything like Raiden) tasks you with gathering a crew to beat back evil.
This game is The Elder Scrolls Online. It is most definitely not Mortal Kombat 1-3.
The central story is set to the backdrop of three-way war between otherwise seemingly unaffiliated fantasy races. I’m not sure why they’re fighting, but according to the PVP content they’re doing it by capturing Elder Scrolls, which seems a rather trite use for something treated with such mystique and just-out-of-reach importance in the “main” games.
Further adding to hoary scheme is the nature of the villain. Molag Bal, “Daedric Prince of domination and enslavement of mortals,” (or so the Elder Scrolls wiki says) stands as your nemesis. After being reduced as a means to getting a really sweet mace in Skyrim, forgive me if a “Daedric Prince” seems a little toothless.
Actually, “toothless” is a great way to describe TESO‘s narrative. There’s your typical elf-on-human-on-lizardman racism stand-ins, some naive mortals dabbling in arts beyond their ken -we’ve seen it all handled in the genre before, and with more guts and gusto.
Had TESO launched a few years before The Secret World‘s sympathetic, real-world characters or The Witcher‘s (usually) mature morality plays… it would still feel like a rehash.
I’m not totally disinterested in Tamriel as a whole; my many hours in Skyrim and Morrowind (but not Oblivion — come on) attest to that. It’s just that without those games’ penchant for passivity in storytelling, I’m just not terribly interested.
If The Elder Scrolls is the king of fantasy sandbox franchises, TESO is the king laid bare. What’s beneath the robe and crown is just more milquetoast fantasy blubber.
The Elder Scrolls Online is available now for PC and Mac. You can pick it up here.