If you have memories of Blackreach from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, they likely involve giant, glowing mushrooms, getting hopelessly lost, and chasing down a horribly elusive humming plant while dodging dangerous dwarven constructs. If you never made it to Blackreach, you aren’t the only one. Even Pete Hines, senior VP of global marketing at Bethesda, didn’t make it deep underground when he originally played Skyrim.
As Hines put it during a livestream, finding Blackreach begins with a "swim all the way to basically where you think the game is going cut off the map." You have to hop across ice floes, and he remembers where "there's some random hermit in a cave who's like 'Oh I have the magic floozit that lets you get into Blackreach.'"
Finally, you venture underground through dwarven ruins and emerge into a cavern full of skyscraper-sized blue mushrooms glowing like a swarm of underground jellyfish. Hines says "it's amazing." Yeah, Pete. Except it’s also a horrible upside down world that you can get eternally stuck inside like an unending dream from Inception. And it's coming back in The Elder Scrolls Online's next DLC chapter.
Blackreach is a huge cavern whose map you can't zoom out far enough to see all of at once. Forget trying to navigate by spotting landmarks: each dwarven tower and giant glowing mushroom looks like the one next to it. It's like one of those lingering highschool nightmares where you try to escape but can't find the door out.
In every other RPG dungeon, I methodically clear each part of the map, making sure to check every "wrong" way for important loot before eventually going the "right" way out towards whatever boss or cutscene is waiting for me. In Blackreach there are no right ways. There are no wrong ways. There are only "which ways." Blackreach broke me.
To better illustrate my own experience first encountering Blackreach, I dug up some footage from my Twitch streaming days. Thank goodness I'm a hoarder inside and outside of RPGs. I don't recall how I got to Blackreach, whether I found it myself or some sadistic viewer suggested I seek it out. After fighting my way through the Dwarven ruins, I found a mechanized door with a button that led to the cavern. My first words, when I stepped out, were "Oh shit, this place is cool!"
An hour later, I'm walking into yet another giant golden-gilded door looking for a way out with or without finishing my quest. I rub my eyelids with my non-controller hand. "This is where I just was," I say to my viewers. "I hate this place. This place makes me sad." That, folks, is the Blackreach journey in Skyrim.
A new nightmare
In May, The Elder Scrolls Online is taking players to its own version of Western Skyrim which includes its own version of Blackreach. I thoroughly enjoy ESO. I particularly liked last year's journey to Elsweyr—a homecoming for my Khajiit character. But Blackreach? I am frightened.
Unlike in The Elder Scrolls 5 where it was just one of many explorable dungeons, ESO’s creative director Rich Lambert says they're "going bigger" this time. Zenimax has reimagined Blackreach not as one single cavern but an entire expanse constantly underneath the player’s feet anywhere in Skyrim.
Lambert says that Blackreach makes up about 40 percent of the playable area being added to ESO in the Greymoor Chapter. Blackreach is big enough in ESO that it will have its own distinct biomes. As almost half the map, it sounds like Blackreach is becoming the Dark World to Western Skyrim’s Light World.
Whereas Skyrim’s Blackreach was inhabited mostly by Gollum-looking Falmer and elusive singing nirnroot plants, ESO’s thousand year prior timeline allows it to take some liberties. The Falmer and giant Chaurus insects will still be there, but a province-sized cavern is also a perfect home for creatures that dislike the light. Vampires have made the caverns their home.
During our interview, Lambert says "This might be a little spoiler-y," (you've been warned) "There's actually a group that found an entrance to Blackreach. There's a town down there as well." Lambert didn't actually say whether the inhabitants of this settlement are friends or foes, but I suspect an enemy encampment wouldn't be referred to as a "town."
Given its size, it makes sense that Blackreach won't be entirely a combat zone. In the way that ESO usually works, players will need to meet other characters to begin quests that encourage them to explore the area.
More importantly, ESO lends itself to a different type of exploring. Open world RPGs like The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim actively encourage players to "get lost." Not knowing what cavern or quest you might stumble upon next is part of what makes Skyrim feel so massive. In Blackreach though, it's just a bit too easy to get lost. Instead of being encouraged to get lost, you're forced. The reins of exploration are wrested from your claws.
A sandbox MMO is different. Getting lost is never the goal, and ESO, as with other games like it, facilitates your world-hopping. You're never too far from a fast travel point and a map of the area is always at your fingertips. If you're like me, you may even have an add-on mod that gives you a handy minimap. That may destroy the sense of exploration for some, but when it comes to Blackreach I am all done with aimless exploration, thank you.
With a better sense of direction at my disposal, I'm hopeful that ESO's Blackreach won't be so intimidating. It may be larger, but I expect I'll have more quests to guide my way than the singing Nirnroot I spent over an hour chasing in TESV. My original impression of Blackreach was awe at the unexpectedly gorgeous cavern I'd stumbled into. With an even bigger space to explore, more quests, and better ways to navigate, maybe I'll even be able to stop and smell the roses, or giant mushrooms, on my next trip there.
ESO is sending me to a Blackreach that I might actually want to spend some time in. It almost sounds like my Khajiit won’t want to pull all his fur out after a couple hours underground.