During my time with The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited, I witnessed one of the strangest narrative design decisions I’ve ever encountered in a game. After completing the first couple of missions (more specifically the first 1.5 chapters, whatever that means), The Prophet, your liaison into the bizarre world of Tamriel basically tells you to wait for his call indefinitely. That’s right, he basically puts your journey on hold like someone who said they’d call you after you confessed your love to them. There’s no immediate timetable as to when The Prophet will get back to you, and the main quest line immediately disappears from your Journal. Of course, players are eventually able to get back on the ship and finish the primary quest, but this strange occurrence brings up an interesting question for The Elder Scrolls Online and MMOs as a whole: is a primary quest line really necessary?
The vast majority of my playtime in The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited has involved running around to random points on the map, picking up new side quests, completing them and reaping the rewards. Never once have I cared about context, as the MMO genre has always seemed more number and loot based than more narrative driven endeavors. At the end of the day, does it really matter which quest is designated as the basis of the primary storyline when all the majority cares about is the level and gear rewards that come from completing it? Would it be more worth the developers time to create more meaningful gameplay interacts rather than designing a traditional campaign? While some people truly admire the narrative construction in The Elder Scrolls series, the appeal to many people, including myself, has always been the freedom that comes from exploration. Walking in X direction might give me a cool new piece of equipment, whereas travelling in Y direction might provide stunning visuals. Never once have I found myself playing Skyrim for the story; in fact, I’ve often wondered if Skyrim would be a better game without all of the Dragonborn contextualizing.
Let’s imagine, for a second, that there was no main quest line in The Elder Scrolls Online. Would anything really be different? Players would still grind out their levels constantly and there would still be a massive hunt for the coolest gear imaginable. There seems to be the assumption that The Elder Scrolls Online would be Skyrim: The MMO, but this thought process has only served to hurt its reputation since its PC launch last year. There’s a decent chance that the world would enjoy it far more if it strayed away from conventional open-world game design, focused on honing its MMO elements, and generally tried to use the Elder Scrolls IP to brave more novel territories. Unfortunately for gamers far and wide, we’ll never know that an Elder Scrolls MMO will look like without a main quest line, which is certainly a shame, as trudging through the main story in The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t feel nearly as epic or meaningful as it perhaps should.