The Elder Scrolls Online
In spite of their ever-increasing popularity and sophistication, there's no hiding the fact that massively multiplayer online games have lagged behind their offline brethren in one key area: storytelling. Banner single-player titles like Half-Life 2, BioShock, and Skyrim have captured a sense of wonder and narrative cohesion that's proven all too elusive in online worlds populated by thousands of individuals, each playing the hero of their own tale.
With The Elder Scrolls Online, though, ZeniMax Online Studios might just have a leg up on the competition. Not only have they inherited one of the most revered universes in all of gaming, but they're confident that they know what to do with it. "The goal is to make sure the player has a believable and immersive world to play in," says creative director Paul Sage. "Staying within the lore [of The Elder Scrolls] makes that goal possible."
That's no small feat in a franchise known for its intricate world-building, one where every game features thousands of lines of text that flesh out the tiniest details of its religion, culture, and politics. "With over 20 years of lore, one of the challenges is just in knowing as much of it as you can," Sage says. "This is why we have a lead loremaster and a lead writer."
Even with all that preparation in place, don't be surprised if The Elder Scrolls Online diverges from the established canon from time to time. "History has a habit of being embellished upon by historians, and certainly our in-game, fictional historians are no different," explains Sage. "So, the books that people have read in the games aren't necessarily wrong--they just aren't necessarily accurate." Factual or not, manicured plotlines and age-spanning sagas have only ever been half of The Elder Scrolls' narrative strength. The other vital piece of the formula comes from player-created stories, those insane moments that come from interacting with the world's complex sandbox. You might not remember every single sidequest in Skyrim, but you'll certainly never forget that time you goaded a giant and a frost troll into fighting a dragon on your behalf.
Sage says the team is cognizant of how important it is to recapture that electricity in The Elder Scrolls Online, but they're also aware of the massive challenge posed by the task. "The beautiful thing about emergent stories is that the developer has very little control over them," he admits.
The best chance of success, he explains, lies in giving players opportunities to interact with and impact the game world--and, of course, allowing them to do so with their friends by their side. "There are hundreds of choices the player will make," Sage boasts, noting that the game lets people decide their outfits, combat strategies, and the fates of the NPCs they encounter. "Having other people around when those decisions are made, that's when the magic happens. You get to talk about it in real time--at the time when the emotion is the strongest--with the people who witnessed it happen. That's really powerful."