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Elder Scrolls Online's return to Skyrim won't be shackled by nostalgia

Skyrim is such an iconic part of PC gaming that even those who haven't ever played it can likely rattle off some version of "I used to be an adventurer like you." Its popularity has nearly outlasted two console generations and birthed one of the most prolific modding communities in PC gaming. It was even ported to the Amazon Alexa (along with dozens of other platforms). "We've only released it like 47 times on 57 platforms at this point," Bethesda Softworks senior vice president Pete Hines says during the livestream revealing The Elder Scrolls Online's next chapter. "If you haven't played it yet, I don't know what to tell you." 

On May 18th, players have another opportunity to revisit Skyrim. The Elder Scrolls Online, the MMO set 1,000 years before the events of The Elder Scrolls V, is dedicating its next year of updates to the frigid homeland of the Nords, starting with a major new update called Greymoor. This isn't the first time ESO has visited the locations of previous Elder Scrolls games like Morrowind and Cyrodiil—even parts of Eastern Skyrim were in the original campaign. But the towns and legends of Skyrim are such well-tread soil that it's hard to imagine ESO can return to the Nord homeland without becoming a cheap vehicle for TESV nostalgia and memories. That's exactly what The Elder Scrolls Online wants to avoid.

Stories untold 

We didn't want to retell the Skyrim story. [Bethesda] did it. They did it amazingly. And we wanted to forge our own path.

Rich Lambert

"We didn't want to retell the Skyrim story," says ESO's creative director Rich Lambert in our interview following the reveal of ESO's new chapter. "[Bethesda] did it. They did it amazingly. And we wanted to forge our own path." This isn't the first time Lambert has said that tonight. He's repeated it during our interview and the reveal livestream, like it's his own Dragon Shout to "FUS" away the long shadow of immensely popular singleplayer Elder Scrolls games.

"What we tried to do with [Greymoor] was tell our own stories and not necessarily set up prequels or existing characters," Lambert says. Instead of wallowing in pure nostalgia, giving an origin to every detail of the dragonborn's adventure, The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor seems hyper focused on a few chunks of Skyrim that players will remember while mixing in new ideas of its own.

Of course, even set 1,000 years in the past, ESO won't ditch everything you remember from The Elder Scrolls 5. "We did the same thing with [the Morrowind Chapter] where we were telling our own story in a familiar place," Lambert says. Despite no Dragonborn, Stormcloaks, or actual dragons, players will return to familiar locales like Solitude and Morthal. But the biggest focus is on the vampire clan that has infested the giant underground expanse that is Blackreach.

Counter to Skyrim's revolutionary heroics, Lambert describes Greymoor as "gothic" and dark. In a trailer we were shown at the event, ESO's heroes explore an abandoned town trapped in a bloody red mist. After a scrape with Nord warrior Lyris Titanborn and company, a vampire escapes in a cloud of bats to a giant underground fortress that looks like a proper gothic cathedral. It sets up a dark, sinister aesthetic that Zenimax plans to explore throughout the year.

Blackreach as it exists in The Elder Scrolls V is a huge, underground cavern filled with glowing mushrooms, dwarven ruins, and abandoned but dangerous dwarven automatons. Not every player will accidentally stumble into its depths, but those who do often find themselves hopelessly lost in its winding passages.

ESO's Blackreach will be even more labyrinthian—mushrooms and falmer included. As if it weren't already imposing enough, Zenimax has designed Blackreach to be even larger. The underground nightmare will make up almost half of the playable area added in the Greymoor Chapter. It will have new enemies too, because what better inhabitants for a province-spanning cave than an army of vampires. There's even a town down there, Lambert says, though I'm now realizing he never specified whether it was a friendly settlement or one full of terrifying bloodsuckers. I'm scared to find out.

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These are just the threads of a story that Zenimax has revealed so far. Greymoor will have familiar (enemy) faces and recognizable places but Lambert says again that Zenimax has gotten good at "reading between the lines" of The Elder Scrolls lore to write history of its own. 

Telling their own stories, as Lambert explains, can be a challenge. Zenimax Online Studios works closely with Bethesda's loremasters to negotiate what does and doesn't work for an Elder Scrolls story. "We can bounce ideas off the team down there, and they will tell us 'yup, you got it right' or 'nope, you got it wrong,' or 'actually, dragons aren't in this time period," Lambert laughs, referencing ESO's previous expansion that saw dragons invading the desert wastes of the Khajiit homeland despite it being well established that dragons weren't present at that time period. Lambert and Bethesda's loremasters managed to reach a compromise where the sudden appearance of dragons was a one-off incident. "That was a five year fight with me."

I can't help but wonder what bitter negotiations had to take place when fleshing out this part of  Skyrim's ancient history, but Lambert wasn't willing to divulge much.

ZOS is also designing new features to complement players' adventures into the dark underbelly of Skyrim. In addition to Greymoor's story, the new chapter will introduce the Antiquities hunting system that Lambert likens to Indiana Jones.

Hunting Antiquities is "a whole new verb to add to your adventuring repertoire," says senior systems designer Michael Schroeder in the reveal stream. Through a series of clues, exploration, and mini games, players will hunt down various relics of Tamriel's past to eventually uncover Mythic Items. Each is a unique piece of gear meant for max-level players. You can only wear one at a time, but each has some kind of effect—one is a necklace that gives a movement bonus in combat and an even greater speed boost outside combat, for example. The good news is that whether you're into PVP, running dungeons, or just exploring alone, there will be Mythic Items that enhance your playstyle. 

I'm glad that Greymoor's reveal event focused more on things that Zenimax is changing—like Antiquities and Blackreach—than on what's staying the same. To me, the worst fate for ESO: Greymoor would be a Skyrim theme park where we're invited to run along and point at each individual thing simply saying "yes, I remember that." While Zenimax Online Studios certainly isn't shying away from familiar touchstones from TESV, Lambert is committed to putting the team's own mark on Elder Scrolls canon. 

Though ESO has to color within the lines traced by the loremasters at Bethesda, I trust that Zenimax has found at least 50 shades of Greymoor to paint with. Like the Elsweyr chapter last year and Morrowind before it, I look forward to seeing how The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor fleshes out this new region of Skyrim. And though Lambert is keeping his lips sealed about what exactly awaits players in Blackreach, he says it'll be the start of a whole new year of online adventures. "I have a plan," Lambert says. "A roadmap that takes us out a long, long time."

Lauren loves long books and even longer RPGs. She got a game design degree and then, stupidly, refused to leave the midwest. She plays indie games you haven't heard of and will never pass on a story about players breaking games or playing them wrong.