It's right when you're laying down some funky orc drum beats for a topless male dancer, admiring the wiggle of his lithe hips, that you realize this is a slightly different Elder Scrolls Online expansion than you were expecting. With its vineyards, theatrics and a cheeky glint in its eye, Summerset is ESO letting loose Summer Break style.
Don't fret, there's all the high fantasy and cheekbones you could want. This is land of the elves after all, the haughtiest of all the magical races, and there’s lots of lore laden chatter about Daedric princes and the Psijic Order to wallow in. It’s just complimented with a bunch of camp and comedic side quests.
With each expansion ESO has added a new dimension to its world, and it’s slowly been reaching that glorious point when an MMO is confident enough about its fanbase to start having a little fun with them. Nowhere was this more obvious than in a simple enough seeming side quest in Rellenthil, starring a troupe of flamboyant, masked entertainers. Warning: performing arts.
The House of Reveries quest started the way so many of these things do: some stranger needing a favor, me so desperate for approval that I’ll act on the whims of even third tier NPCs. Rinyde asked me to find her brother Larydel among the masked hopefuls wanting to join the collective, and naturally the only way to infiltrate the gang was to audition. It was like The Americans, but with more juggling and hammier accents. I won’t get into spoiler territory, but it was here I found myself playing percussion for a man who was a strong supporter of #freethenipple. It’s the first time in ESO I’ve actually giggled, and it suddenly reminded me of what made Oblivion and Skyrim feel like lively worlds, rather than just stodgy fantasy tropes stretched out over so pretty backgrounds.
This wasn’t just a throwaway quest either. Despite the shenanigans along the way there was a satisfying secret at its centre and a decision to make at the end. My role might have been more stumbling jester than fantasy hero, but it felt just as significant as slaying a gryphon or battling a mad mage. The same was true of another side quest, one that was more murder mystery than high fantasy. (If you’re in the mood for Miss Marple with elves you can read more about it here.)
I don’t want to belittle the more traditional fantasy quests with all this talk of nipples and Agatha Christie, if anything the balance gives Summerset’s main questline more impact. A whole world of eccentrics is at stake, not just a few dull NPCs who have been draped around the place like hot girls in a music video.
Summerset safari tours
It helps too that while the world is one of the more traditional landscapes for fantasy, crystal clear waters, blue skies and towers, it’s packed with a crazy amount of strange creatures. In just a short walk I was savaged by a lion, a salamander, a gryphon, and—my personal favorite—a deer/unicorn hybrid. It means it’s impossible to be too grumpy about romping through a landscape of green meadows and vineyards and sandy beaches, even if that’s a little overly familiar for MMO fans, or even anyone who picked up The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine expansion. It feels like a tiny vacation for your character, even if a horrifying death is only ever one unexpected monster battle away.
Of course, there is an actual purpose to your arrival in Summerset, and it’s not paddling in the sea or snapping screenshots. The plotline for Summerset involves its ruler, Queen Ayrenn, making the decision to open the island to visitors (topical) and the mayhem that follows. You’re shepherded through the main quest lines by hottie (still just me?) Khajiit Razum-dar, who is one of the wittier ESO celebrities. He’s always a welcome site, because whoever writes his dialogue seems very aware it’s coming out of a giant cat with a mohican, so there’s a knowing tone to conversations that can sometimes be missing in your other ESO relationships. Am I projecting a little onto this Khajiit that I’ve become sexually attracted to? That’s for me and my therapist to discuss, but either way, he’s a great spokesperson for the Summerset experience.
Breaking new ground
One of Summerset’s greatest strengths is that its appearance in the Elder Scrolls lore before now has been minimal, mentioned here are there in other games but only really appearing in 1994’s The Elder Scrolls: Arena. It’s not carrying the same fan expectation as something like the Morrowind expansion, and leaves the developers and designers freer to experiment. It really shows, and I hope an intern at ZeniMax Online Studios is currently tasked with going through old lore files to find similarly unencumbered edges of the world.
While the game design tweaks are minor—the time turning powers of a new Psijic skill line, the chance to knock up some bobby dazzlers with the jewellry crafting addition—the quality of the writing and world building make this feel like a bit of standard setter for ESO. That’s not an easy thing to do with an MMO that’s the offspring of a beloved singleplayer series, especially when all your hard work is met with a smile, and then a polite inquiry about where the hell the next 'real' Elder Scrolls game is coming out. Will no one think of the developers out here sweating over perfectly rendered camels, imps and gryphon baby pets? I’m as hyped for a follow up to Skyrim as the next fantasy nerd, but don’t let that blind you to one of the best MMOs available today.