I’ve been playing the beta of the new Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) since last year and have seen its development. I’m a huge fan of the single-player Elder Scrolls games, and was greatly looking forward to a massively-multiplayer version of Tamriel which drops this upcoming week. Unfortunately, while the game basics are fine (if not all that different from other MMORPGs), the storyline and quest dynamic fails like many multiplayer games before it. In short, no attempt has been made to explain why there are hundreds of other people running around your world.
The main story (no spoiler warning needed, you find all this out in the first five minutes of the game) falls back on that tired and trite fantasy cliché that YOU are the chosen one. Only YOU can save the world from great evil. This is a canard I wish all fantasy writers could finally expunge from their narrative repertoire, but apart from being a lazy way to infuse a plot with meaning, it taps into our deep-seeded desire to be special (and not just one of 7 billion other people on the planet with no real exceptional talent or chance to be remembered).
We all know this is a cliché. We are familiar with books and films about the extraordinary hero who is the only one who can defeat the great evil because of something special he (or rarely she) possesses: an ability, a power, a special weapon, etc. This was even true in Skyrim, the latest single-player Elder Scrolls game, where you not only had special powers, but you were also singled out among all others by virtue of your birth (only YOU are the Dragonborn). While clichéd, this narrative device mostly worked in Skyrim because you (the player) learned about your fate and your abilities as your character did, and the other characters in the game began to treat you as someone who was indeed special.
In ESO, you learn that YOU are special in a (rather rushed) prologue teaching you the basics of the game. At first, there is the suggestion that there are others in your situation. A massive prison escape (a prison-oriented beginning is a staple of the series) suggests that there are others like you that have special abilities because your soul has been stolen. They are all running around with you (as NPC’s until you finally get into a full combat area). But then, within the first few minutes, you are waylaid by a beautiful woman warrior (cliché) who enlists your aid in saving a Prophet (cliché). To get to him you have to do some uninspired fiddling of gates and monsters, talk briefly to John Cleese in a wasted cameo, and open the prophet’s cell. The beautiful woman sacrifices herself to save the Prophet (cliché). The Prophet, voiced by Michael Gambon (certainly a typecasting cliché), tells you how to escape the prison and thereafter he sits in his hidden HQ (cliché) and is the guide (cliché) and deliverer of exposition (cliché) on your adventures to overthrow the big baddie. The big baddie himself stems from the breaking of a fellowship (another common cliché in games that I sense stems not only from Tolkien but also game designer’s fond memories of their old D&D parties, see Guild Wars 2s Destiny’s Edge too).
So far, so Skyrim. You will play the game and improve your character, preparing, with the unique help of the Prophet, to defeat the great evil that has descended upon the world. An evil only you can defeat because YOU are special (here “the Vestige” instead of the Dragonborn). A standard fantasy plot line, even if it is stitched together from left-overs of most every other fantasy fiction out there.
However, as you travel and explore and quest in the new world where you find yourself- helping citizens in peril, rescuing NPC’s in danger- you see a bunch of other people running around too. They’re in the landscape with you, sometimes frustratingly claiming that randomly spawning crafting resource or treasure chest before you can get to it. They’re in the same quest zone as you, killing that monster or enemy before you can do it, and sometimes just standing around to pounce on a re-spawning boss, the same one you need to kill to finish the quest and get your reward. Sometimes they’re also donning a disguise and infiltrating the same bandit camp as you to rescue the baron and his family which they find…. Wait, why did the guard captain send me to do this if he’d already sent six other people? Why didn’t he tell me about them? If four other players are standing around me, why is the baron thanking me for saving him?
In short, this is the narrative failure of ESO (and, it must be said, most MMORPG’s). No provision is made to accommodate (or even address) the other players around you outside of pvp. Many times while playing the beta, I got to the end of a dungeon or quest area and other players had already taken out the big boss I was supposed to take down (the feared necromancer, the bandit chief, the head orc, etc). Most of the time I just had to tap my foot and wait for an artificial respawn, although once the quest “completed” by just standing there. Many a “secret passage” taken to sneak into a captured keep or hidden headquarters was heavily trafficked, with other players running and jumping past me. An orc teamed up with me to help on an adventure, and we ran around with half a dozen other people who all also happened to have an orc companion with them.
One quest had me crouch down and receive a magic spell that made me glow (illogically) in order to secretly follow a villain as he walked through a town, noting who he talked to and eventually searching the building he stopped at for clues to uncover a conspiracy. I counted ten people, all also glowing in crouch mode, doing the same thing at the same time. We all ran into the building together filling it, and rifled through everything, eventually finding an incriminating document helpfully left behind in plain sight. Then we all hurried back to the official who sent us on our super-secret mission, presumably to tell him that no one had spotted the small glowing army conducting its subterfuge in broad daylight.
As one player said on zone chat once while I was playing, “This is like playing an Elder Scrolls game where everyone just gets in your way.” ESO kept many of the same quest structures of a single-player game (go recover this thing, sneak in there, kill that leader…) without acknowledging the multitude of others around you doing the same things. Some MMORPG games, like Star Wars The Old Republic and Star Trek Online and parts of Guild Wars 2, choose to hide people through instanced areas (where you only see yourself and any teammates) in an attempt to “explain” other players. But in ESO, with the plot and game mechanics, the developers have produced a clichéd, static narrative that asks you to kindly ignore and accommodate everyone else’s actions on your solitary journey for no real reason, while clumsily expecting you to pursue your special destiny. As a savior, it hardly seems a world worth saving.