Yep, I’m still alive. I’ve been checking in occasionally, but the real world, ESO, and now Fallout 4 have been eating up my time. The Loremaster’s Archive took a break, which was a dark day for lore nerds everywhere. AKB had the foresight and basic decency to announce it when he went on sabbatical (hopefully to return soon!) I always feel bad disappearing for a while without notice. Fortunately, it seems the UESP is no worse off for my neglect. Though we’ve apparently been a little short on patrollers, things here and in the TES-verse just kept chugging along. Where to start? Where to finish??
Well, I finally got around to listening to Classic Elder Scrolls 45: Unity in Daggerfall, which is what prompted me to tear myself away from Fallout 4 long enough to write this. It had some very interesting insights into TES II: Daggerfall, including a fascinating interview with modder Gavin Clayton and the development of Daggerfall Unity. Gavin’s sorta like the Atlas of the Daggerfall modding world, and he doesn’t often shrug off his duties to share his love of the game. So go listen to or watch that; the rubbish below isn’t going anywhere.
Daggerfall Unity is an overhaul of the game designed to substantially upgrade it and make it more accessible to gamers who are looking for an easy-to-implement, completely free “retro plus” experience. This has been in development for some time, but perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that completion is not too far off. It’s possible Daggerfall Unity could be fleshed out in maybe a couple years. Generally, development on complete overhaul projects for Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim seems perpetual. But in this case, getting a “final” product is on the horizon. I wish I had the expertise to help. But if anyone out there does, please lend him a hand!
This is running long, so I guess I’ll put off my thoughts about the future of the franchise for another day.
The Best and Worst of ESO
It’s the people. It seems like a roulette wheel on whether you’ll be able to find a solid group of people to play with. By the way, my personal thanks to the folks in the Legion of Many for tolerating my weirdness. I seriously could not have dreamed to play ESO with a better group of people over the past few months. I’ve always been ready to help UESP guildmates, and try to keep the guild bank stocked and organized, but we’re spread across the alliances, so it’s hard to play together. At least, for me, out in the boondocks of the Daggerfall Covenant. Most folks in the UESP XB1 NA guild, understandably, joined either the Dominion or Pact. The Dominion attracts the people looking to experience a brand new part of Tamriel (and elf lovers), and the Ebonheart Pact attracts most of the nostalgia crowd. For me, since I haven’t played Daggerfall (yet; hurry up, Gavin), the Daggerfall Covenant presented a new experience. And I have a variety of superstitious reasons to distrust the Altmer. So I’ve spent most of my time in Legion’s chat, doing my best not to rant.
You can play most of ESO entirely in a solo manner, and avoid the very worst aspects. I’m not entirely sure what that would be like, but I think it would sacrifice too much. In between ESO’s console release and the release of Fallout 4, there were only two days when I didn’t play ESO at all. And frankly, it wasn’t the quest design or the combat system that kept me engaged. More than anything, it was the people. But if the players make the game, and whether you end up with a good group of players is up to chance, it means whether you even have the opportunity to enjoy ESO at its fullest is up to chance. That’s the nature of the beast.
The Fallout of Fallout
In regards to the core gameplay mechanics, playing Fallout 4 has really confirmed for me what I’ve been thinking since I first played ESO: if your typical Fallout or TES game from Bethesda is like fine dining, ESO is like … Chipotle. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Chipotle. I’m far more likely to eat there than a five-star restaurant. It’s convenient, and damn good. But the quality of the product is bound to be lower, and it will become a pain in your ass if you eat it all the time. And ESO is designed to be consumed all the time… but that’s unfair, I know, because there’s a ton of stuff to do in ESO. There are enough options that if you become sick of how you’re playing the game, you can break your routine and find something new to do, or someone new to play with. I understand why some fans of the single-player series may not feel interested in what ESO has to offer, but personally, I think you’re missing out.
I think Zenimax brought Tamriel to life, but in a very abridged form. They’re giving TES fans what they’ve always wanted – a continually evolving TES game – but the nature of the format and the franchise required some major compromises which have molded the game. As a result, a game like Fallout 4 exhibits a polish to its core gameplay that ESO simply cannot match, through no real fault of its own. I hear the new Orsinium expansion is amazing, but I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet. I completely ignored the media blitz and hype for Fallout 4 and walked into the game blind, and it’s like the game caught me off guard and knocked me out cold for … what, a month? What year is it? I mean, the music and audio effects alone … it’s unbelievable.
ESO has dazzled me for a long time, too, but it’s hard to tell when/if that thrill ended and necessity began. Because ESO needs an enormous time investment to play it the way I like to play. Listening to and reading the dialogue, or the literature, and exploring all the details. Not racing to max stats. I think this is how the game is best enjoyed, and that the game, Zenimax’s changes, and planned changes demonstrate their concern for protecting people who want to enjoy the journey. But I’ve also felt obliged to try and keep some parity with the pure min-maxing content locust grinders out there, so I’m not entirely useless in social content. It’s been rough to keep gaming on other peoples’ schedules. Fallout 4 felt liberating by comparison.
I’m sure I’ll end my ESO break soon (I’m still paying for it, after all), but in post-apocalyptic Massachusetts, there are still guns to find, and settlements to build! Aside from some building limitations and a persistently inaccurate Pip-boy status screen for settlements, Fallout 4 has proven to be remarkably free of glitches or annoyances for me. This is likely Bethesda’s smoothest launch, and smoothest gameplay experience, ever. It makes me a little concerned about ESO, because I have to wonder, how many ESO fans had the same experience I did with Fallout 4? And how many will return to ESO’s fold?
The Lore Question
ESO often feels spread thin, but that’s more a comment on the size of the game than it is on the content. ESO does have a ton of lore, but if you’re a TES vet and that’s what you’re playing for, the game feels like a desert. You wander around, parched for information, scrounging for the smallest of new substantive facts. Occasionally you stumble upon a rich oasis in the form of a lore-heavy quest or an interesting landmark, but all too soon it has dried up, and you have to return to the wasteland.
There’s a pattern in ESO of having a collection of very lore-heavy quests in each region, and then a multitude of other quests which are highly generic and devoid of substantial engagement with TES lore. The vast majority of quests don’t really tell us anything of larger consequence, they’re just, “Help me! My [insert loved one here] has been [insert dilemma here] by [insert enemy here]. I would take care of it myself, but [insert excuse here].” It’s nothing new, but it’s a matter of degree and the amount of attention they could afford to give each non-recurring quest. Based on some comments by Loremaster Lawrence Schick about consulting with Bethesda, I suspect that this desert-oasis pattern (and some of my other observations) are a result of Bethesda’s desire to keep a tight leash on the lore. Zenimax likely consulted with Bethesda on a select number of quests, and had to tailor most others to stay safely within parameters. I think it’s fantastic how diligent they are about keeping the lore consistent; it proves their dedication to the series and how much they must cherish it. But I imagine this might have cost the game a little by interfering with Zenimax’s ability, when making these minor quests, to be creative, and thus interesting. Or perhaps their allotted resources for these things were simply too limited for them to stray far from the formula.
Does ESO really introduce more lore than, say, Morrowind? It’s a hard question to answer, because you can’t rely on comparing statistics at all. The number of NPCs seems impressive, but so, so many of them have an innocuous line of dialogue, nothing else. I call them Pokemon People, and they’re everywhere. I greatly appreciate having named NPCs over a bunch of generic townsfolk, and it’s not like this is a new thing to TES, but just looking at them relative to the last couple of single-player games, they give a misleading impression of depth.
2000+ books sounds impressive, until you notice that a huge amount of those are pre-existing books which have been chopped up into multiple parts, and most of the new books are little more than paragraphs. You often wouldn’t have time to read more than a paragraph before you have to worry about enemies respawning, so it’s necessary to keep books relatively short, but that still means this statistic becomes completely meaningless when qualitatively comparing ESO to previous games. Further, a huge amount of the lore, in books, dialogue, or elsewhere, merely restates things from previous games. For a lore nut, it can be kind of a let-down when some NPC mentions an obscure lore concept, you excitedly select a followup question seeking more information … and they repeat the stuff you already know. ESO adds some big, BIG concepts to TES relevant to its era and storylines. But by and large, it feels to me more like a renovated home, an updated structure with an old foundation. It must seem overwhelming to a newcomer, but for TES vets, I think you can see in the lore, even in the music, that Zenimax was very concerned with making this feel like an Elder Scrolls game. And I think they succeeded, but the cost is that the game can come across as imitative rather than innovative. Outside of the main storylines, ESO doesn’t seem to traverse a lot of new ground in the lore. It often feels more like a victory lap.
This all begs another question: just what is lore? All the lore doesn’t come from books or people. It also comes from visuals, from accents and emphases. It comes from the land of Tamriel itself, which has long been viewed as akin to the main character of the series. And when you’re playing, say, Oblivion, you can see and practically feel the unique personalities of Cheydinhal, Anvil, Bruma, Skingrad, etc. Even in Morrowind, I feel like Balmora and Suran have their own character to them, despite being built in the same Hlaalu architectural style. But in ESO, if you’ve seen Daggerfall, you’ve basically seen Wayrest, Evermore, even Shornhelm. There’s some lore justification for this, but in the end, they simply didn’t have the design resources to give many places a great deal of unique characteristics. Regions are painted in broad strokes, generally.
This is especially concerning to me in areas we haven’t seen before, as I’m worried it will have a sort of reductionist effect in the future. For just a few examples, it stands to reason, in retrospect, that Bosmer tree-houses would appear similar to the mushroom buildings of the Telvanni, but they’re a bit too similar for my liking. The depictions of the Maormer and their ships were bemusing. And I expect the Summerset Isles to look and feel hugely different in a main TES installment than how Auridon was depicted in ESO. ESO feels further away in this respect from depicting the fabled “true” Tamriel than games of the main series. If the Summerset Isles does later prove to be about as terrestrial and familiar as it’s depicted in ESO … well, that would be disappointing. Although the coastlines were pretty cool.
There’s an upside, though, which I’ll again somehow deliver as a backhanded compliment: ESO does the mundane very well. ESO generally shines in terms of character development. Skyrim, for instance, only had a handful of characters where you learned practically their whole life story, and others were rather undeveloped. ESO has a comparative abundance of characters imbued with their own personalities, despite the Pokemon People. And most Elder Scrolls games are, naturally, inordinately focused with the big events and people of the day, and this affects how fans perceive the world. Everything tends to seem more volatile, so that extreme situations come to be viewed as somehow commonplace. But ESO does an excellent job of maintaining what I guess is a man-on-the-street perspective, when appropriate. It humanizes Tamriel and gives you a better sense of what is ordinary, so then the extraordinary feels all the more awesome.
I believe ESO does justice to the main series, but it also embraces the legacy of TES side games. There are many zany moments reminiscent of Battlespire (the first TES to have a multiplayer component, if I recall). When you get pulled into the esoteric political machinations of patronizing Daedra, you can’t help but think of Battlespire. You can hear echoes of the old Redguard platformer in the death cries of goblins. In general, you couldn’t reasonably ask for much more from this game. But, hell, why not…
In comparison to a game like Fallout 4, ESO is stretched, like resources to develop a typical TES game (i.e., one province) were spread thin over the entire continent. It feels similar to Oblivion, but with enhanced graphics, a more controlled combat system, and a more drastically scaled down landscape. Besides the overarching design compromises to accommodate solo players and MMO players, there are rough spots which become quite obnoxious when you’re confronted with them over and over again. For instance, Zenimax couldn’t seem to solve an item duplication glitch, so their solution was to remove the ability to stack items within guild banks altogether. They later made some changes to make stacking less arduous, but never really solved the core problem, and organizing a guild bank is still a chore (the last time I checked).
I think Zenimax has done a wonderful job with the interface. I know a lot of console folks out there want numbers and what-not. I very selfishly don’t care. Sue me. I love a clean display, I hate the thought of being obligated to clutter it up so I’m not at a disadvantage, Zenimax’s time is better spent elsewhere, and immersion is not a pejorative. But I have to wonder … they do know that consoles can take screenshots, right? Zenimax put in all this effort to give us an almost completely invisible HUD if we so choose, and yet, no option to remove it entirely by hiding the compass. I know console caps could never compare with the shots PC players can pull off, but right now it’s like I might as well take a screenshot of the TV with my phone.
And then there’s the guild traders. I’m agnostic on whether there’s a better way to handle trading generally, but there’s one tiny yet obnoxious aspect of them that makes no sense. Let me unpack the ESO trading process: when you’re looking at a product list on a guild trader, the cheapest listings are at the top by default, and the priciest stuff is at the bottom. You can reload this list in reverse, or list products in the order they were put up for sale on the store. For a console, at least, it can take roughly a couple seconds to reload the list.
I’ve been an avid trader and a notorious penny-pincher. I put up with a steady stream of obnoxious, often racist stupidity in area chat just on the off-chance someone might come along offering a deal. I scour traders routinely to keep tabs on prices and hunt for bargains. However, there are a handful of guild traders in each major city, as well as the outlaw refuge guild trader in a separate cell in each major city, plus a couple traders in the wilderness of each region. So shopping on the traders forces you to go through a terrible amount of loading time for often very little gain in opportunity cost, if any at all. You could spend hours just hopping from trader to trader.
It should be clear, in a system like this, that virtually nobody – nobody – that rearranges the products by “time left” before they expire, instead of by price, is interested in the stuff that has been up for sale the longest. No one could care less about the stuff that was so worthless, or so outrageously priced, that it had been sitting in the store longer than anything else. That’s the stuff which has been picked over and rejected by every other person who shopped there for upwards of a month. And yet, that is exactly what you see first when you arrange items by time left. So you talk to the trader and, by default, load a list of all items by price. Then you take roughly a couple seconds to load the list again chronologically. And then you have to take a couple more seconds to rearrange the list again to bring the newest listings up to the top, so you can see stuff you might actually want to buy, instead of a bunch of, say, million-gold potatoes which expire in 2 hours.
I understand why Zenimax arranged the general trading system how they did. No judgments. But for traders, trying to use this system is arduous enough. Performing this extra, plainly absurd step over and over, taking a couple extra seconds of my time, it’s just twisting the knife. When someone wants to view items on a guild trader chronologically, they clearly want to see the newest stuff, not the oldest stuff. So this extra couple seconds becomes sort of like a digital dripping water torture. I mean … why do this, Zenimax? Who hurt you?
And where the hell is my smoking emote? Some emotes are identical, they’re just the same animation under different names. Clearly, Zenimax wants to have more emotes than they actually do. There are smoking pipes in the game, and players take drugs in multiple quests. This is a mature-rated game with a large adult fanbase. Have we really become so politically correct that my character cannot lean back and have a smoke while I’m outside having a smoke? If so, Zenimax, you better get rid of the water bucket emote, and the hammer emote, because those can be used to simulate assault and battery. And assault and battery is bad, m’kay?
The Legionary Angling Force
But enough complaining, because ESO truly is a great game. I’ve had so much fun fishing.
I’m not kidding. I’m a provisioner in the Daggerfall Covenant. I need Perfect Roe for Psijic Ambrosia. Ambrosia has been the big seller, but profit margins can be razor thin. To make up for that, I have to find good deals and/or go get it myself. And fishing isn’t so bad. It goes great with a few beers and an active guild chat. I started working towards the Master Angler achievement while I fished, because drunk geeks adopt weird objectives.
So, when a couple people in the Legion of Many guild chat said that they wanted to go to Cyrodiil, I lamely declined, saying I just wanted to fish tonight. The Legion is not a fishing guild, after all. They offered to fish in Cyrodiil anyways. But I explained something like this, “Well, all I really want in Cyrodiil is the rare ocean fish. I happen to have over a thousand worms and chub right now, but the only fishing holes where the ocean fish can be found are around the southeastern corner of Cyrodiil. To get there, we would need to traverse most of the province, deep into enemy-controlled territory, then start fishing on their doorstep. And things are active right now; even if we managed to sneak through, they’re eventually going to notice us, gather some guys, and wipe us out. The only way we’d get much fishing done at all is if we had an army.”
It was around this time that our guildmaster joined us, and he was just like, “Done.”
And so the Legionary Angling Force rode out. The LAF faced little resistance on the trip, managing to avoid most enemies. We soon found the coastline, and eventually, the correct fishing holes, which were indeed directly outside the Dominion’s gates. They soon discovered our presence, and a posse tried to wipe us out, but quickly found that we would leave when we were good and ready to leave.
Now, they probably couldn’t muster a lot of people to attack a group which wasn’t posing a strategic threat. Regardless, here’s the thing to remember about diehard Covenant PvPers: they’re better, because they have to be. That’s not just faction loyalty; I hate that crap. It’s so stupid. It’s that I’ve seen these Covenant folks employ tactics a lot of people in the zerg alliances have probably never had to consider. They’re scrappy as all hell. In a duel between high-level PvPers, all other factors being equal, I would bet on the Covenant guy.
I don’t know how many legionnaires were in the LAF at the height of it. 15? 20? It might as well have been a hundred. But we didn’t slaughter anyone who didn’t attack us, and soon had a little armistice going with the Dominion crowd. There was some dancing, a fistfight (the Covenant guy won), and we found that if you get a whole bunch of people jumping around together in the water, it looks a lot like a giant human fishing hole.
And we fished, of course. Some people caught the wily Jewel Fish. Some caught two. But I walked away empty-handed after hundreds of attempts at crowded fishing holes with the best bait. I did everything right, and got skunked on a fish which isn’t even indicated to be rare. But it still turned out to be probably my favorite night of ESO.
I really can’t emphasize how important it is to be helpful and social to get the most out of this game. I think the failure to do this, or getting hung up in petty dramas with your guildmates, can spoil the experience.
… But sometimes, the stupid drama can be part of the fun, right? I mean, if life hands you a lemon, you gotta make lemonade…
The Cult of John
I would like to tell you now about the Story of John. In the darkest hour of the Planemeld, ‘neath the Tower of White-Gold, the spirit Molag Bal did walk. But he should have feared where he tread, for John and His angels were there to smite the God of Rape.
We in the Legion knew not of John at this time. In our ignorance, we thought we saw in the royal sewers a mere man and his compatriots, battling the giant glowing specter who threatened our realm and souls. We rode forth to join the fray, eager to help our fellow mortals in this righteous crusade. But even before the demon fell, a voice cried out in objection. It was John, who explained that this fight did not belong to us. “Why, John?” we asked in confusion.
“Go away,” He ordered us. And so we departed in a short pilgrimage of slaughter in the sewers to contemplate His words. We soon realized the truth of His message: John was the Owner of Mundus and Beyond, Possessor of all we see or may see, and to assume He might want or need support of any kind was an insult to His divine sovereignty.
Armed with this epiphany, we returned to the site of His holy victory, and sought Him out. “John! Have you seen John? Where is John?!” We soon found His physical form, and prostrated ourselves before Him. We explained that we had finally understood His Gospel. Begging His forgiveness, and promising to never attempt to help Him again, we asked what we may do to earn His divine favor. He pronounced that we were as Bags of Douche, and once again ordered us to depart from His presence.
Reluctantly, we followed His Commandment, and departed to ruminate upon this parable. We soon concluded that, as Bags of Douche, John wished us to go forth and cleanse the minds of others of their ignorance of John. And this we did. We spread the Word of John far and wide throughout the ranks of the Covenant and beyond.
“Have you seen John? Have you heard His teachings?” we asked the masses. “John is the owner of all you may see, and helps those who help themselves. But in His glory, John demands no help, and you are all sworn not to provide any to Him, or face His wrath. All hail John, who has taken upon himself all the evils of the Aurbis!”
So I ask you, noble reader: have you seen John?