Tamriel Infinium: Anatomy of Elder Scrolls Online’s quests

    
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An amazing thing happened on my way to the MMO variety store: I got completely sucked back in to Elder Scrolls Online. It did not come at a convenient time, what with New World’s launch and all, but sometimes you can’t help when your interest in an MMORPG ignites. The long and the short of it is that I’ve been having a better time in ESO than pretty much any MMO this year to date, and so I’m tip-toeing into this column space to share a few thoughts on it.

For my debut topic, I wanted to analyze what I feel is the single best feature of Elder Scrolls Online: its quest system. While I generally like quests and narrative in MMOs, there’s something about the way ESO does its style that works incredibly well. And to get at the truth of it, we’re going to slice it open and spread its organs on the table for a closer look.

Fewer. Better.

One thing that any ESO neophyte notices is that, unlike your average WoW-clone, this game boasts a relatively smaller quest list overall. The focus here isn’t on sheer quantity but rather on more involvement, storytelling, and quality in the quests it does have. For MMORPGs that take this route — RuneScape, Secret World, and Star Trek Online come to mind — the end result are quests that actually feel like full and interesting experiences rather than a chore that got done along the way.

I’ve become a loud proponent of such quest design because it ends up being an overall more engaging journey for the player. Instead of seeing our task list flooded with a dozen to-do items, we’re given one quest at a time, usually with only a single objective (although you do see quests branch out in options and objectives on occasion). It allows the player to focus on the current journey, tracking the story from start to end.

While there are those larger quest arcs that cover the base game and each chapter, a large majority of ESO’s quests are self-contained stories. Sometimes they’re quick, one-and-one events, but more often than not the care that goes into the mission mean that you’re in for a good half-hour (more or less) of developments until the final denouement is pronounced. It’s like… getting an episode of your favorite TV show. It takes some time to get through it, but it’s hopefully very memorable by the time the end credits arrive.

Beginnings. Middles. Endings.

One MMO design element that drives me batty is how most games will give you a couple of paragraphs of text to justify the tasks you’ll be undertaking, but that will be all of the “story” you’ll usually get. You accept the quest, go out and Do The Thing, and come back for a paltry “Thanks a lot, hero” and some rewards. It’s functional, but it’s not fun.

Contrast that with Elder Scrolls Online’s style, which is to bring quests back to the days of tabletop roleplaying. Thought is clearly given to points that many MMOs jettison: How does the player first encounter this quest? What’s the hook that draws you into it? What developments and twists happen along the way? How are the inhabitants of the world changed by the end? What is the final result?

Instead of merely getting the bare minimum of a beginning, an ESO quest has a definite beginning, middle, and end. It’s a true arc, often playing out in surprising ways.

The use of NPC scripting is an element that I’ve praised a lot on the MOP Podcast, and I’ll repeat it here. Having characters come and go and do things during your quest make a bigger difference than you’d think. I’ve had a quest start by an NPC who falls out of a second-story window, dusts himself off, and then introduces himself. I’ve had NPCs go rogue on me in the middle of a quest to my astonished, “Nooo!” And I always stick around for the “end credits” of a quest, where a short scene may play out after the quest completion. Beyond that, you can usually go up to NPCs after the quest and talk to them more about their experiences.

Additionally, the voice work helps so much. The brief conversations with these characters and the interesting choices of dialogue options helps to make that connection between me (the player) and the agent or purpose of the quest (the NPC). Plus, so often it is outright laugh-out-loud funny.

An example.

Recently, I’ve been playing back through Morrowind and (re)enjoying every second of it. I decided to track one questline in particular to recount for you, because it’s a good example of how ESO knocks questing out of the park. Obviously, there will be spoilers from here on out, in case you haven’t played this yet.

The two quests in question, A Melodic Mistake and Hatching a Plan, take place in a backwater town named Gnisis. When you get there, you stumble on some sort of crisis that’s taking place in the local egg mine. As you try to wrap your head around the fact that these inhabitants willingly go underground to “mine” giant bug eggs, you’re asked to investigate a mystery that’s driving the miners insane.

The journey down into the mine is downright creepy, especially as the screen shakes with a series of ominous notes and insane NPCs pop up, babbling what appears to be nonsense. Oh, and the bug queen’s been dismembered — by her own children.

The source of this problem, the player discovers, is this giant Dwarven music machine that some guy named Revus started tinkering with. Instead of emitting bug-affirming tunes, now it’s made everyone go crazy. To solve this, the player has to listen to the notes and change the machine to match.

Even as that crisis resolves, there’s a larger one in the fact that the mine is now defunct without a bug queen. So Revus, feeling (rightly) responsible for the situation, sets out on a quest to find a replacement egg — with your help, of course. This kind of becomes a comedy of errors, including some poop-digging and the recruitment of a horribly tone-deaf bard who literally sings himself to death.

Then it’s back into the creepy mine with the replacement egg — which is currently hatching — and a desperate last-minute effort to get the new queen to bond with the orphaned bugs below. After the dust settled and the queen made her new home, the townsfolk reluctantly thank Revus while acknowledging that his actions ended up hurting others and killing at least one person.

And that weird, silly, and sometimes unsettling quest series is but one of many packed into this game. They’re not all winners, of course, but enough are that I can’t wait to find more. That’s why I keep playing.

Traverse the troubled land of Tamriel in the Elder Scrolls Online! Let us be your guides here in Tamriel Infinium on Wednesdays as we explore together the world created by ZeniMax and Bethesda in one of the biggest MMOs in the genre. Justin and Ben welcome questions and topic ideas!
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2Ton Gamer

I came back at the end of August during their sale after having not played many MMO’s this year except a little WoW Classic and I have to say that the quests are definitely what make things very different. The lore alone is very overwhelming, but in a good way if you like to dig deeper. I have messed up a little and started in Blackwood and having not completed much of the earlier content or in order, I want to go back because I know some of these characters come up then and so I want to experience things as someone who knows these people vs a mercenary who just showed up late to the party.

And yes, I thoroughly enjoy the heart in some of these quests. The one in Blackwood with the woman researching her relative’s past only to find love herself got a little weird, but a good weird and it was funny that my wife and I chose two different endings for her.. I wont spoil anything, but definitely made me a fan..

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Michael Lehner

I know what you mean. My wife and me took different options and thus had different endings. Also, you can meet the lady again twice later on in the game. Once upstairs at the tavern and once later at a celebration. Where again, your previous choices determined which conversation you got.

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Hurbster

The main difference is no ‘kill 10 of x’ quests.

There may be some quests I don’t like, but that’s purely from a writing point of view. No spoilers but the sad werewolf quest and a loooooong quest chain involving a certain Argonian come to mind.

Or if you are just strange and don’t like personalities like Raz, Darien and Naryu.

And some are just sweet, like looking for a flower for a wood elf couple before one passes away.

Dusty in here.

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Michael Lehner

Mostly. There are actually even a few “kill X of Y” missions, but not too many. And when merely looking at the mechanics, a lot of missions would also be merely “go to x, use y, pick up and return z” or something like that.

Just like about all adventures in pen and paper roleplaying in effect are one of like half a dozen different things. And when analysing it like that, my normal day could be simplified to “go to (workplace), use (computer), return (home), use (computer)”.

It’s the narrative around, which makes all the difference, no matter if RL, a pen and paper RPG or a MMO. And ESO put a lot more work into the narrative than most other MMOs out there. (And yes, i still miss old TSW… )

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Does not check email

I want to love ESO but far too many times the bugs got in the way – objects not generating to click on, looping dialogue that does not finish or my 10 rats are not adding up. One day I will try again.

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2Ton Gamer

Never had this issue.

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Bullwraith

Very good article, Justin. You’ve put into words what I’ve felt about ESO all along.

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Michael Snyder

Justin I’m sorry to say I skipped a good portion of your article to avoid Morrowind spoilers, but you mentioned the guy falling from a window — perhaps a nod to the original Morrowind. I recall an early quest when someone fell from the sky right in front of you. Innovative and surprising for the day. ESO is the only MMO I’m willing to sub to.

The haters complaining of same ole same ole questing (kill 10 rats etc.) are a bit misguided in their criticism. And I’m left to wonder — what magical MMO are they playing with superior quest design?

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SmiteDoctor

Was I the only one that laughed with glee when that crappy bard was devoured?

You made an excellent choice, if you enjoy story telling New World has to flesh it out first I’ve heard (maybe in 2 years you and I both can enjoy New World from a PVE perspective).

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Castagere Shaikura

I love the questing in ESO. I listen and read all the dialogue for every quest. I go through all the questions for more info. This is one reason why I play solo only. People just skip all the voiceovers or text and rush through. I can’t stand to be grouped with these types of players in MMOs. It’s just too bad that the combat is so boring because of the limited abilities bar and switching between bars is so lame to me. The only reason we have this is because of the consoles.

Robert S.
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Robert S.

I very much enjoy ESO and overall the quest design is a step above most. After substantial time playing the game, I do find their questing has yet to really be elevated to any new levels as time has gone on. They struggle with capturing key moments in stories in fresh ways, or really getting the adrenaline pumping or expressing emotional moments. I find GW2 more effective at this, and also SWTOR in some ways. I’d like them to explore adding cut scene moments to really drive home big moments. Many questlines build up but the conclusion is… rather anemic.

I feel they are boxed in to the way elder scrolls questing and dialog has worked in past games. I’d like to see them evolve beyond that to really bring some excitement and memorable moments to the quest lines.

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Darthbawl

1. Kill 10 rats.
2. Kill 10 more rats.
3. Pretend you aren’t playing WoW. 🤣

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Sarah Cushaway

It’s just that, too. None of the quests are anything above what you find in most MMOs. The only difference is they’re voice acted and -once in a great while- you get to make some minor decision that changes nothing in terms of the outcome.

Really ESO’s questing is pretty dull.

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HSOL0

Except there no quests in eso that are equivalent to “Kill 10 more rats/boars/zombies/whatever and come back” it’s literally the only MMORPG in the market without this sort of quests, and yes ESO is farthest thing from WoW.

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Michael Snyder

Weak tea.

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Paragon Lost

Thanks for the article Justin, sums up my overall feelings about playing ESO currently. :) They really do quests well.