First, let me apologise. “Virtual cinematography” is up there for one of the most indulgent, self-absorbed wankery imaginable on an indie site of all things, but it’s a crucial element these days in video games. Framing the shot matters and after burning almost 50 hours in The Elder Scrolls Online, it’s something I’ve come to appreciate a lot more.
ESO promises many things, but it’s never pledged to reinvent the wheel. Recreating Tamriel without the constraints of an MMO is difficult enough, let alone building a framework and a series of megaservers to contain tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of unruly fans.
So a lot of old habits have carried over. One of the main ones that’s received no attention is the way quests are presented. A NPC stands in a forest, adorned with an arrow like a halo. Sometimes they’ll run up to you and meekly beg for help. Occasionally you’ll find a note on the ground that’s read out in angle brackets, like somebody at Zenimax forgot to remove the placeholder.
But no matter the prelude, the delivery is the same. The object of your attention is centre-left; the dialogue and chat options always centre right. That’s it. Nothing changes. There’s no over-the-shoulder shots, wide shots, Dutch angles or anything even remotely vaguely intriguing. It’s just the same view, over and over again.
I’m not well versed in the Elder Scrolls lore, although I went into my experience excited to see where The Prophet’s madness and what bars the suave, flirtatious Razum-dar would lead me to.
But not anymore. My senses have been numbed into recession. It’s now just a case of fast-forwarding through everything possible, save for the meetings, flashbacks and conversations between NPCs you’re forced to watch.
It’s frustrating when you consider it doesn’t have to be this way.
Longing for a story I could engage with a little more, I impulsively decided to redownload Star Wars: The Old Republic again. I hadn’t played Bioware’s foray into MMOs for two years, despite my enthusiasm for my dual-wielding Sith sociopath at the time.
Logging back in to what’s now become a free-to-play experience – and being reminded of how much better an experience it could be with endless customisation packages, level boosts and even an purchasable Ewok – it was quickly evident what I’d been missing in ESO this whole time.
It’s not that the quests in The Old Republic are enthralling. They’re uniformly terrible, thanks to their chief obsession with fetch quests of the worst kind. But even in their infantile, World of Warcraft vanilla-like state, I’m still fully aware of what I’m doing. There’s a logic, a sense to killing 10 Republic soldiers, extorting their Commander and then deactivating another eight robots for good measure.
It all comes back to the conversations with the NPCs, making you stop and listen to those otherwise meaningless chats with captains, lieutenants and agents of shadowy organisations across the galaxy. By properly framing all of these otherwise meaningless interactions, even side quests held my attention long enough for me to understand where all the pieces fit.
The Old Republic isn’t exactly groundbreaking when it comes to virtual cinematography. The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 adapted quests in clever ways too, arguably more convincingly than Bioware did. But having it at all is a far, far superior option to the static, lifeless presentation Zenimax has chosen for the the hundreds of quests throughout Tamriel. By keeping things moving, even if it’s nothing more than a bland conversation, I’m at least visually engaged. After 50 hours in ESO watching characters front-on, shrugging their shoulders and folding their arms, I couldn’t care about the plot if I tried.
Part of development is learning from your rivals, their successes and their failures. And boiling ESO down a part of the game that many seasoned MMO veterans ignore for efficient grinding would be hubris. But it’s certain that when you’re trying to break into the highly competitive MMO market, especially with the tens of millions Zenimax have poured into ESO, every little bit counts.