I really meant it last time. I also really meant it when I said I was giving up cheese. (Why is it so hard?)
So, here I am to report failure on two counts. I’m still eating cheese. I’m also playing another MMO. In my defense, The Elder Scrolls Online isn’t the most MMO-y of MMOs. You could, quite happily, exist in a solo bubble. It’d be a sad way to play, though, because like the best multiplayer games, ESO is better with friends.
It all started on a regular day in May. We were on the verge of selling our small business and totally ready to get home and stay home. With a little extra cash in our pockets, we splurged on new gaming rigs—purchasing two of everything from the power supply and case to every lovely piece inside. Then I joined my husband in Tamriel.
Scroll forward six months and the only reason we’re not still living there part time is because of last week’s move to England, 873 CE with Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
Before we get completely wrapped up in Ubisoft’s latest and potential greatest, however, I wanted to take some time to talk about how much I enjoyed ESO, and why an MMO was the perfect place to while away many of the hours we’ve spent at home during a worldwide pandemic.
Playing with Others
I played and loved Elder Scrolls 5 (Skyrim) for a long, long time. Steam has it down for 122 hours, which represents about six months of gaming for me. What I remember best about Skyrim was the long familiarity I had with the world. I’d played Oblivion and Morrowind and I’m always up for a long and drawn out RPG. Skyrim, though… You could live in a game like Skyrim. I’d pop in and work on my crafting for a while. I’d ride around on my horse and explore. Find a side quest, get lost. Decorate one of my houses. Escape into Blackreach, which has long been one of my favourite zones, and simply marvel at the creativity behind the game. The richness of the story and the lore.
I did greet the first news of ESO with a glimmer of excitement, but had already vowed not to get heavily involved in another MMO. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them, it’s that I don’t have the time to be more than a casual gamer, and most MMOs require huge investments of time to either get through the story quest, or gear up enough to be competitive. Or useful.
This is not true for ESO and this is literally the best part of the game. Of the playing experience. For me. You can run around the map as a Level Nothing and join in all the fun. Yeah, most of what you encounter will one-shot you, BUT you can hover at the fringe of a world boss fight or a dolmen (zone event), tag a single enemy, and receive credit and loot for taking that MF down. All without joining a group or navigating the possibility of having your kill and loot stolen. I suspect this mechanic has been updated in other MMOs by now, but being able to join in a fight that wasn’t mine and not be in the way is revolutionary. Being able to complete MY quest without someone stealing my thunder means I can play MY game. Mine.
It also makes Tamriel a pretty nice place to hang out.
Loot thieves still exist. They’ll swoop off their horse and land on a resource node just as you’re about to mine it, do their upgraded one-click thing, and be a dust cloud on the next hill before you’ve finished swearing. But, eh, there’s another node just behind you. And another one beside that tree. Resources are not scarce, so it’s easy to let the a-holes be a-holes and just get on with your day.
The occasions when I have chosen to group have been when the differences really shake out. I don’t want to say I’m scarred by the PUGs I endured in WoW. But… I’m scarred. In six months of playing ESO, I’ve had one questionable group experience. ONE. Out of somewhere near a hundred groups. And the questionable experience was nothing more than the leader of our group being in a hurry—and not particularly talkative. Loot stealing and kill stealing can’t happen.
On the other end of the spectrum are the countless fabulous groups I’ve had and the friend requests I’ve received as a result. Groups where we all die on the first boss, laugh together about it, commiserate over the fact none of us have tried this dungeon before and might not be properly geared, someone watching a video and reporting back through chat, telling us what to try, and us all dying again. Trying again. Laughing again. Swapping loot when we finally succeed because we got the set piece someone else was waiting for. Sending and accepting friend requests so we can maybe fail together another time, soon.
I’ve joined impromptu groups who were sweeping a continent of world bosses. I’ve joined groups to clear all the daily quests in one zone. I’ve joined queues for dungeons I’ve never explored before and made friends along the way. I’ve sat around and chatted with people I really don’t know about anything and everything because we happen to be fishing the same spot on the same day.
In the wind up to the US presidential election, I watched as the zone chat (general channel) teetered on the brink—and didn’t collapse. As players called for peace and other players said, Yeah, okay. Let’s stay in Tamriel. When Covid became very real for some, others offered sympathy and understanding. Calls for game help were answered clearly without insult.
I watched as people from all over the US recognized we all had something on common—this game—and were nice to each other.
In 2020, I needed that. I needed it more than air.
Playing by Myself
While I have enjoyed the social aspect of ESO more than I expected to, what kept me there for six months (and will draw me back between other games) are the stories. I joined during the release of Greymoor, the expansion featuring Western Skyrim and Blackreach. I could leave this section of my blog post blank from this point onward. We all know how and why I ended up in Tamriel. But I like to talk, so I’ll keep going.
The first feeling I had upon arriving in Western Skyrim was a sweeping sense of nostalgia. It wasn’t the same Skyrim I’d left behind in 2013. Seven years had passed for me, meaning technology has made it prettier. 800 or so years have passed in Tamriel, so changes abound. I could still buy Proudmoore Manor, though, and I did! That was always my favourite house.
The world was familiar. The sigils and the architecture and the culture. The quirky characters inhabiting it all.
I relaxed into play and become immediately immersed. The story of Western Skyrim is excellent. I enjoyed every minute of questing throughout the zone. I then moved on to another DLC area, The Clockwork City, and worked through every quest in that zone. Then I did the second expansion zone, Elsweyr, and followed the overall story from there to Auridon. I was about halfway through Auridon when ESO posted a three-week event in Summerset, so I moved over there and quested my merry way around the island with roughly three million other people. Not all at once and this is another fab aspect of the game. The NA megaserver assigns you to an instance of the world when you log in, but it’s as easy as traveling to another player to switch to theirs.
After wrapping Summerset, I finished Auridon and followed the zone quest to Grahtwood. I’m about halfway done with that zone, but keep following Fighter’s Guild quests to other zones, running daily dungeons to up my rep with the Mage’s Guild and the Undaunted, and popping into other zones to follow world stories and events. While on the world-wide mystery tour, I’ll often run into NPCs I have interacted with before, and they always remember me. Take second to think about that.
I’ve played a lot of open world games and something you sort of get used to is the fact that if you do quests out of order, an NPC isn’t always going to be at the same place in a story as you are. And, I get that. It’d be a monumental task to make sure every NPC has a branch on their dialogue tree for every player status. Sometimes you just have to pick the closest response to either your state of play or the role you’ve been trying to inhabit.
No such compromises exist in ESO. None that I’ve found, anyway. Even when it makes little sense that you’ve completed one quest before another, the NPC will acknowledge that you have. That is attention to detail.
This attention is obvious throughout the world. The game is lovingly maintained and in my six months, virtually bug free (outside of my screenshot folder of amusing clipping errors). Two harrowstorms (zone event) bugged out for me and we had this weird thing where our group kept popping into veteran dungeons one night. That’s it. And these annoyances were minor. And, it wasn’t as though we had nothing else to do to pass the time.
Watching the developers’ introduction to the Markarth expansion, which will conclude the year long, Dark Heart of Skyrim storyline, it was easy to see why the game works so well. The designers, programmers, and developers love what they’re doing. All these years later, they’re still in love with it.
In sixth months, and just over 300 hours of game play (I was asked to stay home, all right?), I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’m looking forward to going back. Heck, before Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla became my new drug of choice, I was even contemplating joining a guild on ESO. For someone whose sworn off MMOs, that’s… yeah, well.
Playing It Again
I will return. There are games just released (Watchdogs: Legion, Valhalla), games from the summer (The Last of Us 2), games still to come (Cyberpunk 2077), and a shiny new PS5 all awaiting my attention. What will draw me back to ESO will be the same thing that drew me back to Skyrim, again and again, even months after I finished the main quest. It’s not all the tasks remaining undone, or the areas left to explore—though I’m looking forward to both. In this instance of ESO, it won’t be the fun of connecting with like-minded gamers for another tour of world bosses—though I’m looking forward to that too.
It will be that Tamriel isn’t, and has never been, a virtual place. Not for me, anyway. It’s a world where I can make things happen, or just potter around and do nothing for a while. I can collect cheese (lots and lots of cheese), work on my blacksmithing skills, tune into and out of zone chat, chase a quest, or simply climb the highest peak in any one zone and take another hundred screenshots of the beautiful land unfolding around me.
I used to refer to Skyrim as comfort gaming. ESO will now fill that role for me. At any time, I can don my armor, pick up my daggers, and slip down a dark alleyway. At the other end? Whatever I want the world to be. And I can be a kitty with a lovely long tail and two very pointy knives.
What else would I ever want?