If You Don’t Know About It, It’s Easy to Overlook

Cross-posted from my Tamriel Rebuilt blog, which originally hosted this article on June 26th, 2018.

Author’s Note

This will probably turn more into a ramble than a blog post. This is in answer to criticisms of why Tamriel Rebuilt (TR) has chosen to ignore most of the lore from Elder Scrolls: Online (ESO)and an explanation to why some folks still vehemently dislike ESO, from my personal point of view. (Other devs of TR may have different reasons and I do not write this to represent the whole…yadda yadda…)

A little story time: When I first came to TR (well, more like when I second came to TR–I first joined something around 15 years ago, but disappeared into graduating high school and college and getting a career in between…) I had this same irritation with our mod: Refusing to look at what was now canon for the TES universe felt like laziness at best and arrogance at worst on part of the TR dev team. So I pushed to get ESO lore into the mod, usually through use of small Easter Eggs: Iliath Temple in Roth Roryn, naming NPCs in honor of RP characters in ESO, and some mentions of Davon’s Watch and the Stonefalls storyline here and there, to name a few.

More overt use of ESO lore was an uphill battle however, and usually I was defeated in my pursuit. At the time, I accepted this reason (out of the many given to me): TR has already developed most of the land ESO covers, so it doesn’t make practical sense to go back and rewrite 15 years of work to make room for a retcon or addition by ESO. As we’ve discovered with the Spring-Now-Summer Release, mods move at a glacial pace, and thinking about redoing all that land in ESO’s style is just painful! For those who still love ESO and are baffled by our choice, I keep coming back to this explanation as the main one. In playing Tamriel Rebuilt (and Project Tamriel), you’re stepping into a world that was the headcanon at the time, based on the lore that was available to us then.

Even accepting this reason for myself at that time, I still felt driven to get ESO recognized in TR. As a Lead Quest Developer, and later as a Beyond Skyrim writer, world-building was my playground. I delved eagerly into both the older (pre-Oblivion) lore of TES as well as ESO lore, and sought out favored headcanons for why this retcon was made, or how that strange piece of lore fits into the grander scheme, all for the purpose that I find ways to incorporate it all into TR.

In short though, I found that it just wasn’t possible, and not because TR devs were stick-in-the-muds.

The fact is, Oblivion and later games make blatant retcons to TES lore. The one that always get talked about is the Cyrodiil jungle. Just like the ESO hatred, at the time it surprised me to find out that some people had gotten really angry over the Cyrodiil retcon. When I first played Oblivion at the tender age of 17, I thought the looks and voices of the Dunmer were terrible and that Cheydinhal didn’t look remotely like Morrowind architecture (as some ingame blurbs claim), but that was as far as my dislike went. The quests were well-written, and I enjoyed being able to rampage around on the back of my pinto horse in a world that had real life animals (the strange distorted Morrowind fauna always bugged me for some reason…no pun intended) and continue to learn what had happened to Tamriel in wake of the Vvardenfell Crisis. In the end, what killed that game for me had nothing to do with the lore: it was that I have never been terribly good at the number crunching behind RPGs, and so the level-scaling of the creatures in Oblivion ruined me. After spending hours trying to run down a short stretch of road and constantly getting murdered by the wolves and cougars that spawned on it, I gave up on the game. (Now I play with Obscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul and the game is great.)

Skyrim was a similar experience: the world seemed fine to me, albeit the tones of racism and “You’re the chosen one and the only one who can save us!” prophecy felt recycled from Morrowind. Still, it felt a little more like a return to form–if solely by the fact that the Dunmer had (sort of) growly voices again, the elven faces were rugged and fierce instead of soft and pudgy, and the Dunmer once again had that survivalist feel that sets them apart from other universes’ dark elves. I still sometimes play Skyrim. Like Oblivion, any retcons were ones I could ignore, or, like the jungle thing, ones I could accept because the rest of the world was coherent and interesting. Or, if the lore REALLY bothered me that much, I could mod it right out of my game and post that mod on Nexus for like-minded lorebeards to enjoy.

Then came ESO. I did the same thing I had with Oblivion and Skyrim: I played it through, and mostly enjoyed myself. But the more I played, the more I realized how disjointed the lore was. A friend once asked to me list all the retcons I could find in just Morrowind, and it was quite substantial. Here’s a piece of it:

  • The Morag Tong was outlawed.
  • The Dres are obsessed with slaves, and even other Dunmer poo-poo them for it. (Compare to the “evil slavers” but yet 3-dimensional and somewhat-sympathetic Telvanni we see in TES3.)
  • There’s a tribe of Ashlanders called the Mabrigash, when “Mabrigash” is a term for an exiled witch-wise women.
  • There was a Dunmer in Ebonheart talking about Dagoth Ur’s return–centuries too early.
  • There were no Kwama Foragers, which becomes important when you realize that Kwama Foragers climb into Kwama Workers to make Kwama Warriors.
  • Dunmer can have purple, yellow, brown and gray eyes, when the lore states multiple times they have red eyes.
  • The Lusty Argonian Maid was not written by Crassius Curio.
  • Nix-Hounds are literally used as hounds by Dunmer. ( In older lore the only reason Nix-Hounds are called that is because of their unearthly howling; they otherwise don’t resemble dogs at all. And no, the  ESO Nix-Hounds don’t howl.)
  • There’s no room on the ESO map for Blacklight or the Redoran holdings; similarly, the Dres lands were squished out of existence between Deshaan and Shadowfen: Narsis is on the same latitude as Mournhold.
  • Mephala is a Lolth knock-off, complete with spider fetishism.
  • Argonians, Nords, and Dunmer are allies, when these three races have been at each others’ throats for literally eons.
  • The architecture is all stone brickwork: no ancestral Velothi towers made with adobe anywhere.
  • Hey, at least they have Daedric architecture, but the Daedra are considered evil and there’s very little sign that the Dunmer used to worship them and still revere the Good Daedra.
  • Dunmer actually care about conquering Cyrodiil and other Empire politics.

I thought maybe it was just some simple oversight to have all these mistakes, because my goodness, is TES lore thick and riddled with realistic inconsistencies.  And so at first it seemed to be. Then ESO: Morrowind came out. The painful retcons and additions continued. Things like:

  • Telvanni towers are stone towers with mushrooms grown on top.
  • Morrowind is open to non-native colonizers, including on Vvardenfell.
  • Vivec the city was built in the Second Era, instead of the First or the Dawn Era as suggested by the 36 Sermons.
  • The 37th Sermon was added to the 36 Sermons of Vivec (Sermon 0 doesn’t count).
  • Suran was Redoran except it has Hlaalu architecture because apparently Hlaalu were builders before they were merchants and Redoran let them take over the town afterward.
  • Seyda Neen existed in exactly the same form in the Second Era.
  • Dunmer armor is made out of metal instead bonemold or chitin.
  • Ordinators got a new set of armor that was vaguely Roman in style.
  • Velothi adobe-style architecture is gone.
  • Vivec demanded a new Ebonheart be built–in Imperial style apparently.

And on and on. Playing ESO and ESO: Morrowind became like a kick in the teeth for me. This isn’t nostalgia speaking (or lack thereof–after all, why else would they add Seyda Neen except to stroke nostalgia?), it was the continuing disrespect and laziness the devs showed to the old lore I had fallen in love with.

You see, I’m a fan of most high fantasy (really, I don’t play any other video game BUT high fantasy unless that game is truly amazing), but TES (as portrayed in Morrowind, Redguard, and Battlespire) took it a step further. It was weird but realistic in the manner of sci-fi, harsh and twisted like grimdark but not given to the grimdark fan-service of sex, gore, and horror. The world felt genuinely real and not a series of cardboard cut-outs to represent good and evil and the storyline du jour; the religions were complicated and philosophical, not just pantheons of big powerful people who, if pleased, would give small not-powerful people their healing powers. ESO reflected none of this in its writing. It reflected more what Skyrim had become (and perhaps Daggerfall and Arena before it), another high fantasy world with little to set it apart from all the other high fantasy worlds, and full of cheap memes for a quick sell. ESO: Morrowind was like fan service to a fanbase that still hated it. I kind of feel sorry for ESO, putting it that way….

At any rate, even after the disappointment of ESO:Morrowind, I was still bull-doggedly hopeful. I told myself, okay, maybe people just don’t understand what made Morrowind such an amazing game and setting: it WAS 15 or more years ago that that game came out, and the mechanics of the game are quite a bit different than Oblivion and Skyrim, so the newer fans probably have a hard time getting into it long enough to taste that sweet sweet moonsugar lore. On the surface, as stated, TES appears to be your generic high fantasy setting, and people tend to like and therefore play what they know. For example, many of the Dunmer-playing roleplayers I met in ESO played them like drow–aka robber barons or twisted demon worshipers–instead of the survivalist Dunmer who live as close to the land as druids (if evil druids who vivisect silt strider brains to make them obey…).

I eventually left Morrowind in ESO behind to escape this dissonance, and instead settled in Hammerfall and the Aldmeri Dominion zones–places and races I didn’t know much about. So far so good. The Valenwood zones had some good writing, and I will always love deserts done properly as they are in Alik’r.

Then…I began writing some quests and books for Beyond Skyrim, and to do this, I researched the old lore again. This shot me in the foot. Even though I had liked these ESO zones on the surface, here, too, I found the retcons and silly or lazy lore begin to creep in. The illogical Khajiit architecture, the uninspired elven landscape, the two-dimensional Redguard society, the Bosmer fascination with Hircine and werewolves with no mention of the Wild Hunt, the Green Pact and its semi-retcon (one quest has the Bosmer light-heartedly burning down trees), the Orsimer’s alliance with the Redguards and Bretons, the Khajiit being-thieves-because-they-don’t-have-the-same-ideas-about-property thing being replaced with a boring racism trope, the lack of Khajiit and Bosmer conflicts due to their religious and metaphysical differences, the retcon of Senches into normal tigers and the rest of the furstocks disappearing (normal tigers guarding temples instead of Pahmar is one symptom of this), the retcon of dro-ma’artha to being symplistic evil spirits instead of complicated symbolism for the spheres of the Daedra… By the end, it had piled up just as high as it had for me in Morrowind. (I later tried the DLCs: Clockwork City and Summerset, and it was the same story.)

That was when I gave up on ESO for having good lore. I fell right in line with Tamriel Rebuilt in agreeing it should have no place in our mod, and became a filthy ESO hater.

In summary, this all leads to me to the second reason TR does not recognize ESO lore, and is what I put as the title of this blog post: if you don’t know the lore of TES that well, the mistakes of ESO are easy to overlook. The game itself is pretty good, and if they had been writing for any other world but my beloved TES, I think I would still be happily playing it today.

But…they wrote for TES. And they botched it, many times over, in the base game, in the DLCs, even re-retconning their own retcons at times with a cavalier attitude that baffles me. TR is a mod that subsists on world-building first and stroking nostalgia second, and to sell our game not at all. It can’t exist in the same sphere as ESO, which by necessity survives by lining up its priorities the other way around.

And for me personally, that lack of solid world-building and focus on selling games is what ruined ESO for me, and, with TES6 on the horizon and probably following in ESO’s footsteps, TES lore as a whole. The lore train has apparently moved on, but to me it’s in the direction of a worsening trainwreck, and honestly, I now would rather spend my money on games that respect their internal consistency and are willing to make their fantasy worlds realistic and gritty–but without getting stupid with the fan services or half-thought-through plot devices to make a deadline. So here I am, still modding Morrowind with TR, because I still love Morrowind–for what it was, and in TR at least, what it will always be.

Haters gonna hate, including this hater. I try to distinguish myself by at least turning that hate into creation–you know, the Dunmer way. 😉

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