I seem to be referencing a lot of song lyrics lately. Perhaps I’ve been reading Inventory Full too much.
Anyway, the last few weeks have seen me playing more of Elder Scrolls Online than anything else, and I have some fairly mixed feelings on that.
First the news, then the navel-gazing.
Rise of the alts:
Recently over the course of two days I manage to get both my alts (well, both the ones I actually play) to max level with the aid of a lot of XP boosts and dungeon spam.
By now my main has maxed out every crafting profession except for jewelry, which appears to be have been designed as punishment for mankind’s sins, so I was able to immediately outfit both characters in gear 100% crafted by myself, with mats I gathered myself, all of it epic or legendary quality.
That is a good feeling. I love being this self-reliant. No need for other players or prayers to RNGesus. I have all the power, and it feels so good to read “Made by Maigraith Santh” on all my gear (again, except the jewelry). Also, being able to choose the styles has effectively given me a second outfit slot for both characters, though with the disadvantage that I can’t use any armour type the way I would with a “real” outfit.
Also, why can’t I dye weapons without using an outfit slot? Can you answer me that, Zenimax? With all your science?!?
I know that if you really want to min/max dropped sets are often better than crafted, but this gear is still more than powerful enough for any of the content I’m likely to do. The first thing I did on my templar after equipping her new gear was solo a world boss that kicked her ass when she first arrived in Stonefalls. Took a while cause her damage isn’t great, but I did it.
In fact, ironically my alts are now much more powerful than my main. My main is using a hybrid magicka/stamina build that I find fun and flavourful, but which is deeply sub-optimal. My alts may not be perfectly min/maxed, but they do hew much closer to traditional builds. My templar is a tank, and my warden a pure caster.
Though, I have to say, I have some regrets in regards to the templar. Turns out I don’t like tanking in ESO very much.
This is not a problem with tanking itself. The lack of an AoE taunt or even any threat boosts to help hold crowds is a bit weird, but mostly the tanking mechanics in ESO are fine.
The problem is this game doesn’t need tanks.
Oh, I’m sure if you do really high end stuff like raids you probably need a tank or two, but the more casual content I frequent can just be zerged by a bunch of DPS. You barely need a healer, and you definitely don’t need a tank. If you try to actually play as one, you’ll quickly realize how worthless you are. You can keep the boss taunted to make yourself feel useful, but there’s really no need.
Worse still, the community knows it. Everyone just bolts through in full “go-go-go” mode. Try to keep up if you can. I’m not a fan of that playstyle at the best of times, and as a tank I find it intolerable.
I suppose I can use her to solo hard stuff my main can’t. She laughs at public dungeons, and seeing if she can defeat more world bosses could be an interesting challenge, I suppose. Perhaps I could finally play through the Craglorn story. It seemed interesting, but my main couldn’t hack it.
Then again, I’m not really sure what I’m doing with any of my characters these days.
Running on a treadmill:
Leveling my alts led to a bit of a revelation. See, I leveled them almost entirely without questing. I mostly run dungeons, dolmens, and the occasional battleground. My warden has completed maybe two or three non-dungeon quests ever. My templar finished Stonefalls and started on Deshaan, but that’s about it.
And you know what? I didn’t miss it.
This is a strange experience. Questing is generally my focus in any MMO. Exploring worlds and stories is the entire reason I play video games. And yet in ESO I find I enjoy it most when I play it as a sandbox game — wandering, gathering, crafting, thieving, decorating, and generally doing anything but the story.
Somewhere out there, a sandbox purist is smirking and tenting their fingers.
But this is not some change in my tastes, or at least not a radical one. It’s unique to ESO, a combination of unusually engaging non-combat activities and unusually dull story-telling.
The thing is, everything in ESO is the same. Every zone has the same collection of quests, group events, world bosses, delves, and skyshards. And all of that content is built around standard formulas. If you’ve seen one delve, you’ve pretty much seen them all.
This is normally where story comes in to save the day. While ESO takes it to an extreme, formulaic content design is hardly an uncommon quality for an MMO to have. But stale gameplay can be given life by an engaging plot or characters — see SWTOR.
But even the story in ESO comes from a cookie cutter. It’s all the same. Bland generic cultists are trying to blow up the world in service of a Daedric Prince. The only thing that changes is which Prince, but they’re all the same, too. In theory each Prince is meant to have their own domain and personality, but they all come across as the same megalomaniacal mustache-twirler. I just stopped caring.
I am enjoying playing sans-story, but it does leave me with a nagging question: why? Why am I doing any of this?
I like to have purpose in games. It’s the reason total sandboxes have rarely held much appeal. I want to know what I’m working towards; I need a good motivation.
Usually, that’s story. I earn gear so I don’t find myself outmatched when new story arrives. I explore to earn a deeper understanding of the setting. I make alts to repeat old story or experience it from a new perspective.
Absent any investment in the lore, I don’t know why I’m playing. This is such a foreign way to approach gaming for me my brain is having trouble processing it.
Part of me feels it’s good to broaden my horizons like this. It’s a new way to enjoy gaming. But another part me of feels like I’m going to look back in a few years and wonder why the hell I wasted so much of my life picking flowers in Tamriel. I grind to make better gear to wear while I grind. I fear I may be flunking my “will this make a good memory” test.
I’ve reached this point in other games, but usually I quit soon after. When I stopped caring about Guild Wars 2 from a lore perspective, I quickly stopped playing, even though I still largely enjoyed the gameplay. Yet ESO lingers. I think it’s some mix of a satisfying gameplay loop combined with sunk cost fallacy, but I’m not sure what the balance of those two forces is.
Sometimes I wonder if the course of history might have changed if I’d never played Thieves Guild.
Thieves Guild was really, really good. In both game mechanics and story-telling, it was full of wit and creativity, and it played to ESO’s strengths very well. The good will from that DLC kept me going for a long time, but only now am I beginning to realize that it was an aberration. The charm and cleverness displayed by Thieves Guild is largely absent from the rest of the game.
I will say again that ESO is a very well-designed game, and it does many things very, very well. But it has no soul, and that’s a problem I’m still struggling to solve.