Opinion: Elder Scrolls MMO – Does It Miss The Point Entirely?
So, after months of speculation, hints and widespread fan curiosity, it’s finally official: an Elder Scrolls MMO is on its way. Slated for release on PC and Mac next year and bringing a multiplayer experience to the famous franchise for the very first time, developers ZeniMax Online are wasting no time in hyping up their project even more than the obligatory web frenzy – with talk of “the best MMO ever made”.
Speaking as an Elder Scrolls fan, I have to say my initial reaction was one of intense excitement. After all, an MMO set in the enticing, eventful world of Tamriel could potentially take the series’ justly-renowned history, lore and conflicts to new, unprecedented heights – realizing the interpersonal dramas and titanic clashes on a much grander scale than ever before, while offering players the chance to shape the world or wage war as part of a complex, ever-evolving faction.
Even more than this, the possibility of replacing legions of blank-eyed, pre-scripted NPCs with conscious, unpredictable individuals – each with the potential for solidarity or trickery, and not simply conquerable with a well-placed bucket – suggests the possibility of Tamriel realized as more of a living, breathing landscape than previously, with personal motives, alliances and betrayals paving the way for a complex, compelling world to navigate and explore.
However, quite aside from the obvious differences in visual style – and the revelation that real-time combat is unlikely to make an appearance – once the initial buzz had died down a little, I got to thinking about what makes The Elder Scrolls the great RPG experience it is, and it was at this point that I began to have some serious doubts about the entire enterprise.
You see, one of the most fundamental attractions of the Elder Scrolls titles is that they cast you – and you alone – as the crucial, pivotal protagonist in an epic saga; usually one that threatens the survival of the very world itself. Whether you’re battling to thwart the demonic invasion of Mehrunes Dagon in Oblivion, or the equally apocalyptic dragon onslaught in Skyrim, the games put you front and centre of an astonishing crisis in the history of Tamriel, and have you overcome the threat almost single-handedly – writing your name into the history books in the process.
Related to this, and equally crucial, is the way in which the entire Elder Scrolls experience pretty much revolves around you, and your character. You are solely responsible for your own destiny, you decide exactly what you do and when you do it, and the very world bends to your every whim as you set about making yourself master of all you survey.
In Skyrim, you can become head of the Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood, Mages College and Companions group, and pretty much lead either the Imperials or Stormcloaks to victory in the simmering civil-war. You can become Thane of every major city, establish yourself as the most famous monster-hunter in the land, and become personal champion – or at least an acquaintance of – pretty much every Daedric Prince going.
The attraction of this is an almost unheard-of level of immersion and personal-investment, derived not only from the depth and detail of the gameworld itself, but also from the sense of freedom and empowerment at the heart of the experience; greatly driven by the sense that you are at the very epicentre of everything significant that is unfolding. In short, you call the shots.
But MMOs, of course, do not work like this. By very definition, they cast you as just one of countless adventurers trying to make your way in the world, and although the efforts and actions of every player combine to determine the overall experience and the events that transpire, almost every player’s individual journey is swallowed up and forgotten amid an endless succession of questing, raiding and leveling-up: lost, as a certain great sci-fi character might say, like tears in the rain.
It’s true that many months of dedication and arguably misplaced priorities can see you become the ultimate badass: a Level 100 Warrior-Mage, say, with a dozen eye-wateringly powerful magic artifacts and powerful clan of allies behind you. But though certain players do make a genuine name for themselves in online MMOs, passing into veritable legend through their jaw-dropping achievements or ingenuity (indeed, such stories are one of the most powerful elements of these titles), the truth is that while the great single-player RPGs of previous Elder Scrolls games offer an experience where you are the driving-force of the narrative and the centre of everything epic, an MMO places you as just another cog in the machine – a small part of the saga but not the subject and focus of it.
You could claim that the choice is one of egoism vs teamwork or even altruism, but the reality is that many people love the Elder Scrolls games precisely because they feed into our desires and daydreams to become the all-conquering hero – or villain – and thus an MMO might bring the lore and backdrop into an interesting new framework, but miss the point of what makes the series so loved in the first place.
When project head Matt Firor talks about fans saying they have wanted to “experience the Elder Scrolls world with their friends” for a long time, he’s not exactly wrong. There have been some very vocal champions of an Elder Scrolls MMO among the series’ supporters, and I know there are likely to be many PC owners who have already added this to their ‘must-have’ list for 2013.
That said, much of the relevant talk I have myself witnessed or participated in over the last few years has not revolved around the possible joys of an MMO, but rather the possibility of limited co-op multiplayer – within the confines of a predominately single-player title such as Skyrim – whereby a friend or stranger can perhaps join you for the odd slice of dungeon exploration or side-questing, before you both go back to playing the hero in your own individual odyssey.
Of course, the exact nature of The Elder Scrolls Online is not yet clear, and there is always the possibility that the developers could go down the path of recent BioWare success The Old Republic, where players pursue a main storyline and narrative that is their own individual experience, with opportunities for multiplayer battles and adventuring lying within the wider gameworld.
However, even this approach has not been entirely well-received, with gamers and critics alike noting that nothing shatters personal immersion like the realization that thousands of other players are running around with companions identical to your own and, by extension, embarking on errands, quests and storylines that are equally identical to yours.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on The Elder Scrolls Online going forward and, let’s be honest, if it turns out to be a genuinely great MMO then many millions of people – myself included – may end up forgetting that the outside world even exists.
But whether or not the game will be a true reflection of the Elder Scrolls experience fans know and love, is another matter entirely.