Tamriel Infinium: Elder Scrolls Online proves the worth of a small story arc


It was the other day in Elder Scrolls Online’s Northern Elsweyr that I stumbled upon a disgraced rogue that used to run a pit of criminals before she was ousted. When she asked for my help to get back at the scoundrel who took over in her stead, I said sure, why not.

That kicked off one of ESO’s core pieces of landscape content: the small story arc. For the next hour, I was plunged into a heist that involved recruiting this rogue’s former associates and breaking into a guarded fortress to take down this bad guy. Many of the beats felt immersive and memorable: trying to sneak through an area without killing any guards, having a drunken magical cat accidentally teleport me to the wrong place, and making a signature moral choice at the end.

It was a great reminder to me that the strength of this game isn’t giving us the massive, world-saving arcs that come standard in MMOs (and yes, here in ESO as well); it’s in the smaller, more relatable moments that these questlines embody so well.

Let’s talk about those huge quest arcs for a moment. Most modern MMOs have them, these gigantic, sprawling adventures that are loaded with twists, travel, and ever-escalating threats. Since MMOs keep growing over time, these storylines are also extended, kind of like a soap opera with no discernable “The End” in sight.

There are strengths to those huge epics, I won’t deny. Studios often put a whole lot more effort into making them than the one-off tasks that litter quest hubs. We get voice acting, scripting, and some huge set pieces.

But we also have to acknowledge that there are some drawbacks to going so big. For starters, it’s really hard to keep track of these stories after dozens or even hundreds of quests. If you’ve been away from the game for a little bit (or a long while), you might feel completely lost in the narrative with no helpful in-game way to catch you up on the story.

The high stakes may be exhausting after a while, sort of like watching a marathon of Marvel superhero movies where everything has to be huge, explosive, and finish with some sort of gasp-inducing cliffhanger to the next part. Instead of being drawn more into these massive tales, you might find it becomes easy to disconnect from them as something that’s happening around us — just not to us.

What Elder Scrolls Online correctly identified is that there’s an important tier of storytelling that needs to exist between single quests and lengthy storylines. ESO — and a few other MMOs, such as RuneScape or The Secret World — make a concerted effort to provide these smaller quest arcs that can be completed in a single session while providing a more intense and thoughtful experience than a dull fetch quest.

I honestly get excited when I see an ESO quest marker because I know that there’s a really good possibility that it’s going to kick off one of these arcs. It may be only two to four quests in total, but it’ll have a beginning, middle, and end that gives me an actual story with some ongoing characters, scripted events, choices, and interesting sets.

Going on these missions never makes me feel as if I’m working on a checklist to Get Stuff Done. I’m given an objective and sometimes a couple options how to achieve that objective. That chains to other goals so that the player is hopping from one to the next in a trip that feels more natural rather than artificial.

I also think that these smaller story arcs offer the game designers considerable freedom to experiment with various genres and approaches. It’s like picking up a book of short stories where you might get horror, comedy, spy intrigue, romance, or mind-bending surprises depending on the tale being told.


I especially appreciate the “extra mile” touches that these stories offer, such as getting extra information by talking more to the NPCs or following up with characters after the story arc is completed. I won’t forget one questline that had me helping out a wannabe assassin — and then helping to smuggle her out of the region to a new life. Later on, I found her at some docks in Vvardenfell, and she ran up to me happy to see me, filing me in on what her life’s been since those events.

I really wouldn’t be put out if this and other MMOs were nothing but smaller story arcs like this. They’re incredibly satisfying, easy to wrap one’s head around, and provide a powerful motivation to keep pushing deeper into the world to find more of them.

Traverse the troubled land of Tamriel in the Elder Scrolls Online! Justin Olivetti will be your guide here in Tamriel Infinium on as we explore together the world created by ZeniMax and Bethesda in one of the biggest MMOs in the genre.
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