During my first boss fight in Bethesda’s new MMORPG, The Elder Scrolls Online, I had what I thought at the time to be an epiphany. I was fighting a local militia captain who was conspiring to kill the new queen of the Aldmeri Dominion, and I was killed fairly quickly. As the NPC who had accompanied me into the battle fought on, however, I was offered the choice between returning to life at the nearest fast travel anchor point, or, if I preferred, exactly where I was already. I wouldn’t have to walk across town to return to the temple in which the treacherous captain had planned her ambush. I wouldn’t have to start the battle from the very beginning. After a brief delay while my physical form coalesced, I could keep fighting as if nothing had happened.
As a long-term RPG player, I was a bit giddy. It seemed unfathomable to not be penalized in any substantial fashion for being killed in an encounter. We may be long past the days where games take away half your gold, or send you back to the last save point a few hours ago on the other side of a very, very long walk, but in this fight, at least, I was being given the equivalent of a new health bar to keep grinding away at a more powerful opponent. I defeated the captain (with a lot of help from the NPC), but there was another tantalizing opportunity in the possibility of a respawn-in-place game mechanic.
Single-player Elder Scrolls games have long been praised for opening up and rewarding player exploration, but removing character death as a primary concern would be a radical, controversial, and exciting step in open world design. If character death wasn’t going to send me back to the last geographical checkpoint I had passed, then I could travel anywhere. Not only was I not limited to a choice between primary storyline quests and optional mini-quests, following a single-player storyline or group dungeons, I could choose, it seemed, not to fight at all. I could instead walk to the far corners of the map, visit towns far beyond my level, see monsters I had no hope of defeating, fall and be reborn, and carry on as if nothing had happened. An entire world seemed to be opening before me, just as quickly as my character could run.
Alas, it was not really the case, although sorting out exactly why not is a bit complicated. In simplest terms, the respawn-in-place death mechanic is not permanent. It is available for a finite number of uses, although it can, apparently, be recharged with the proper skills and items. In terms of open-world design, however, I had formulated a plan to set out for areas my character wasn’t ready for. RPGs are games of numbers—character attributes, experience points, collecting enough resources to craft an item, killing enough enemies to level up—and I wanted to find out if I could defeat those numbers by ignoring them entirely. I was looking for a world that would let me travel where I wanted regardless of whether I was prepared to interact with the location on the game’s terms. I was looking for the thrill of discovery, but I found that Elder Scrolls Online had in many ways anticipated me.
After you complete the netherworld level which serves as The Elder Scrolls Online’s tutorial, the game drops you in an introductory city in the realm of your choice, with the option to travel to a low-level starter island. In early betas, this starter island was the non-optional first location. In a sense, by allowing players to bypass the low-level starting location, The Elder Scrolls Online is already throwing players in over their head. Unless, of course they’re playing in a group.
I wanted to find out if I could defeat those numbers by ignoring them entirely.
In the early stages of the game, difficulty is inversely proportional to the size of your group. Solo players will find main storyline quests fairly difficult. Players in groups of more than two or three may find them almost comically easy. It’s dangerous to go alone, but even a little companionship makes a big difference.
At its best, this means that by finding a higher-level player, new characters can complete tasks well beyond the capacities of their level. I found myself tracing the same paths as other players, running to the same battles and non-player character events. Once, I found myself following a man with the head of a lion, taking a few feeble swings of my own as he fought the undead guardians of three nodes of supernatural energy preventing us from entering the catacombs below. At other times, relying on proximity and serendipity failed me as a multiplayer strategy. I still can’t return to Mathiisen. The entire town is trying to kill me, and I seem to be the only player whenever I log on who wants that bastard Condalin dead.
At its worst, it can feel like the map is almost too well-populated, every location a task, and the world itself a checklist. There is an abundance of challenge, but no mysteries—missions you cannot complete, but none that you cannot access. Every ruin is haunted, it seems, every townsperson a conspirator, every animal possessed, but there is always someone behind it, and you’ve probably already talked to them.
I walked from the beaches of Vulkhel Guard to the cliffs of Skywatch only to find that joining the Undaunted, an NPC group of braggarts who talk tough but never actually leave the Salted Wings Tavern, would give me access to a quick-travel point that could have saved me the entire journey, and open up areas so far removed that they revealed my travels to that point as nothing more than a brief stroll. I took my time signing up with the Undaunted, but the “group” is available immediately after the tutorial stage. For a single-player game, this kind of access so early in the game to a (relatively) high-level area would be nonsensical, but for an MMO, it’s a canny design choice, offering scaled challenges to initial player groups of various sizes. In this sort of world design, for the individual player there’s not always much difference between where you’re supposed to be, and where you’re not supposed to be—the only place you’re really not supposed to be is by yourself.
It seems wrong to want to turn all this into a criticism. To take one corner of a huge, incredibly well-designed world, and to say that it all just seems so, well, designed. It might not be reasonable to ask a non-procedural digital world to feel like no one has been there before, because even in the real world, that’s not what travel is. I can credit The Elder Scrolls Online for making me want for a moment to find a tavern in a distant town, and ask a local what life was like there because it was possible that I didn’t know the answer already. Bethesda has spent millions creating a world in which it is impossible to run out of things to do. There are battles to be fought, dungeons to be explored, materials to be gathered, items to be crafted, and legions of players to keep you company. It might be greedy to ask for locations of exquisite uselessness. Even imaginary worlds must have their limits.