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‘The Elder Scrolls Online’ developers reveal the “secret sauce” to writing a prequel story

The Elder Scrolls Online has been going for 10 years now. It’s a sprawling game which opens up all of Tamriel to explore, but how do the developers at ZeniMax keep track of what’s going on everywhere and what parts of the world they should let players explore?

“That’s decided by the studio leads,” Bill Slavicsek, narrative director at ZeniMax, tells NME. “We do want to make sure that a region has a capital city and covers anything we know would be in the area in our timeline as well as the games set in the future.”

“Once we have a good idea of where we’re going, we try to figure out what stories to tell there by keying in on what makes it unique,” adds Michael Zenke, who makes sure all the stories told in ESO make sense asZeniMax’s loremaster.

The Elder Scrolls Online. Credit: Zenimax Online Studios.

Having such a wide array of games and regions to draw from is both a blessing and a curse. Inspiration abounds, but so do lore restrictions and timeline constraints.

“We love to find ways to incorporate existing lore into our time period, as long as it makes sense for the story and the history of the world,” says Slavicsek. Fortunately, Elder Scrolls Online is set quite a while before any of the games people played before, so it offers “a huge advantage for us in exploring new characters and ideas,” Zenke explains. “This affords us incredible opportunities to show ‘old’ places in new ways. In particular, Elder Scrolls Online is probably best known by players as a game that focuses on character stories.”

It’s easy to explain away why characters introduced in ESO don’t appear in later games, as myths and legends often fade into obscurity. However, it’s still important they make sense within ESO itself.

Elder Scrolls Online
Elder Scrolls Online. Credit: Bethesda

“When we introduce new characters or events, we make sure to ground them in the lore and cultures of the world,” Slavicsek says. “In Gold Road [the upcoming DLC], for example, while we introduce a Daedric Prince that doesn’t appear to exist in the future, we made sure that the story dealt with that in a satisfying and hopefully surprising way.”

If you do spot any lore discrepancies, Zenke has an answer for that. “Historical documentation is a very unreliable source, especially in a world like Tamriel. That’s part of the secret sauce of ESO.”

If 10 years of ESO sounds daunting, fear not. “There are no limits to where you can start, find the region or story that best matches what you like to play and begin your Tamriel adventures there,” Slavicsek advises new players. “After that, our hope is that the world and storytelling draw you in and you go from there.”

Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor
Credit: Bethesda

But how do they keep things consistent for people who have been fans of The Elder Scrolls since Arena? The truth is, they have a very loose definition of consistency. “Consistency means different things to different people,” believes Zenke. “Elder Scrolls Online is consistent in allowing players to take up arms against Daedric Princes, or exploring the snowy peaks of Skyrim. But the individual experience we all have when we log in is ultimately what ESO is all about.”

“The only place we want consistency is in the tone and feel of the world, that every story we tell feels like an Elder Scrolls story,” says Slavicsek. “Anyone who has stuck with the franchise from the beginning has experienced change, as both the world got bigger and the technology improved. But our goal is to always continue the Elder Scrolls tradition—the story is the story of your character and what they experience. Everything else is hearsay and the opinions of unreliable narrators.”

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