The Elder Scrolls

Vvardenfell Sun-in-Shadow: A Case Study On How NOT To Write Questlines

TheElderScrolls10 - Vvardenfell Sun-in-Shadow: A Case Study On How NOT To Write Questlines
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After returning to Elder Scrolls Online after a year long hiatus (and shallow dive into SWTOR), I have returned. I renewed my subscription, rolled a warden, and set off to explore areas that I missed in the past. I decided that I would begin with Vvardenfell, rekindling a nostalgia for Morrowind that served as my formative exposure to RPG’s. I immediately fell back in love. From the diversely stylized cities and towns, to the deep political intrigue that defines Dunmeri cultural identity, I thought that Vvardenfell was a brilliant and exciting adaptation. The main Vivic arc took the player across the region, allowing them to be exposed to everything on offer and presenting a variety of unique interactions, quest styles, and enemies – all tied by a logical and world-relevant ark. After completing the entirely of the island otherwise, I was left with only Sun-in-Shadows line in Sadrith Mora. Remember the Telvanni, I was looking forwards to a exciting journey of powerful magic and challenging morals. Instead I found hell.

The Plot

At its core, the plot line isn’t the problem. A tale of a young and ambitious slave who must balance her born identity against that which she adopts seems the perfect backbone for Telvanni ambition. Yet the execution of that story, the actual realization and implementation of the narrative, is an atrocious and and burdensome mess. Her character is petty, dislikable, and juvenile from the start. She is simultaneously portrayed as a blossoming genius and an incompetent child, resulting in a mess that harbors little compassion or tolerance. The love triangle between Sun-in-Shadows, Eoki, and Power is blunt and poorly explored, resulting in a tale that is more about the bumbling foolishness of an upstart than the existential dilemma between the necessary crimes of advancement and the potential good of newfound authority. And all of this is a problem for gameplay, because despite the fact that the narrative comes no where close to achieving these things, the player is forced to pretend these are what is at stake. As quest branch after quest branch of tedious ‘intrigue’ is completed, we must continue to carry Sun-in-Shadow along her path, until she is objectively the worst party involved. Uninterested in true freedom like Eoki, nor potentially justified in her adherence to the House of Telvanni, Sun-in-Shadow is everything to be condemned – yet we are forced to follow on her heels as a courier and messenger-boy, until what? After the first ‘act’, when she is granted freedom and the right to be a mage, her character is nothing but a stagnant placeholder to disseminate new quest points for the character on their way to some new burdensome task. Unlike my journeys with Vivec, never did I feel that I was exploring Telvanni society, gaining some insight into the world of Morrowind, or even playing a role of moderate importance in this backwater mushroom town.

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The Structure

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Still, my critique of this quest is not founded in the strictly narrative premise. There are plenty of weak characters dribbled across ESO (and MMO’s in general) and to condemn a quest to this degree over that alone would be sweepingly sanctimonious. No, to compound the narrative burden of this quest, the actual structure is dull, frustrating, and unnecessary. How many hundreds of times was it required that I ride across some swamp to receive three lines of dialogue? How many thousands of times was the quest objective to be ‘speak to Sun-in-Shadow’ in whatever hole she was in this time? This quest seemed to lack all of the structural markers of ESO questlines, instead relying on a revolving door of sporadically located dialogue points to advance the plot (except, as noted above, that never seemed to really happen). Now, I have no problem with dialogue. I am a player who actually listens to it all – understanding the world, character motivations, and why is am engaging in my actions is what I love most about a game. Yet, to have a quest line that takes hours where the vast majority of investment is in riding from one unnecessary location to another isn’t exactly my concept of an engaging game. I was beating my head against the wall with each iteration of ‘just one more task’ which was never really a task at all, but simply a series of dull conversations and Sun-in-Shadows pathetic moanings.

Roleplay and Character Choice

Yet, the greatest failing of this quest, and one that all other criticisms allude to, is the utter lack of character choice or rational decision making in this quest. As I have stated before, I don’t roleplay my characters as a particular person (though many do and my heart goes out to them here), yet I still wish to have agency in the actions which I engage in, or at the very least, the rationale as to why. Indeed, this quest is set up on the back of a massive dilemma facing Dunmeri society – the relationship between slaves and the Houses. Yet, despite this, this choice is never one which the character has even a hint at addressing. We are forced to follow around Sun-in-Shadow, bowing to every nonsensical whim, with no distraction as to why. At one point, she engages in literal murder of a Telvanni council murder (and tricks you into it at that, depending on your choices) for nothing but political advancement. Elsewhere in Vvardenfell, there are entire quest arcs about stopping, or punishing, that exact thing. So what is the player left to do? Go on her next messenger quest. It is everything that a game, which even extensively pretends is an RPG, should utterly detest. Still then, we are given some choice about killing or knocking out the guards during the slave revolt, except that choice is immediately nullified, forcing players of either camp to slaughter the slave master so that they may escape. And the conclusion of all of this? Sun-in-Shadow, our serial killer friend, goes back to whatever undeveloped position we earned her in the first place. The players views on the slavery dilemma, the players views on the Telvanni system, the players views Sun-in-Shadow don’t matter for an instant.

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In Long Last Conclusion

I hope that ZeniMax makes every new story writer and developer sit through the agony that is Sadrith Mora to learn exactly what not to do. I hope that they write a story with characters that have both flaws and redeeming qualities – characters that the player might actually want to help. I hope that they develop quest lines which actually take you somewhere interesting or new, and don’t involve a hundred trips to the same tedious, difficult to access locations. Above all, I hope that the egregious pigeon holing down a path of stupidity and unwanted accessory to evil isn’t repeated.

I have now left Sadrith Mora and the shadow of that awful lizard woman which now hangs over all of Vvardenfell and I will never go back.

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