The Blackwood chapter for Elder Scrolls Online is sending some mixed messages. Some of the design is impressive, yet that which is turns out to be pushed far into the middle of the main quest, and most of the introduction is visually dull or unimpressive. The dreary courts and plazas of Leyawiin and the smaller towns simply don’t provide much of a unique impression, which is admittedly difficult to do with dark, grungy, medieval European architecture. The unique, fantastical imagery of the Deadlands is obviously comparatively more impressive.
The architectural details and motifs of the interior in the Deadlands are not as sophisticated and aesthetic as previous designs, however, and rely on basic, plain, open spaces with detailing and small additive geometry such as pillars and trim to characterize most of it. The exteriors, on the other hand, are visually the greatest part of the DLC.
Usually I don’t mention the story or gameplay much, and only focus on visual design. But this DLC sticks out like a sore thumb, and the experience has ushered me to elaborate on the problems with Blackwood as a game.
The story introduction in Blackwood is surely by far the most unimpressive, begrudgingly boring adulteration of ESO lore in the history of ESO. Forget bringing back a throw-away character as the lead and guide of the main quest, and forget that she is hardly any more developed in this DLC than she was in the others. The very process is abysmal; it’s as though the writer(s) intended to check all the wrong boxes. We are introduced to a multitude of uninteresting and nigh irrelevant characters and discover a mildly sophisticated plot (pun intended) to frame the Dark Brotherhood as the assassins of various politicians in Leyawiin, which develops the initial exposition toward the greater plot. Half the time, the player is informed of occurrences in the plot by following their nose toward the next clue, which is a perfectly fine mode of exposition on its own, except that the characters mostly just regurgitate what to do and where to go, and sometimes talk about characters that the player has no connection to and may as well be omitted entirely. The supporting character, Eveli, seems to have no purpose more than providing needless, brain-dead commentary about the details of the current quest. I recall Stephen King advising something like “only write a sentence if there’s a purpose to it.” In addition to the supporting characters up to the introduction, she is largely a vehicle for story building and exposition, which is fine if it were put forth in addition to character development, for otherwise we would only need to read a piece of paper or a book in one of the levels, since the character itself would be needless –which she is, and which the supporting characters are as well. Indeed, I may as well seek out the World of Warcraft format of providing all the storyline in a logbook that the player doesn’t have to read, because at least then the developers are confessing that the storyline may as well be irrelevant to the quest. It is only halfway through the main quest that everything, quite suddenly, becomes more interesting, with the development of the ambitions’ backgrounds during their training. So, clearly, there is present the ability to write something that at least feels worth following, yet we are given breadcrumbs in the beginning. Why?
Let’s compare this to one of if not the best DLC, as far as I’m concerned: Orsinium. In Orsinium you are immediately presented with an interesting scenario in which you engage in combat seconds after entering Wrothgar. The primary characters are presented in a sensible way, and in no time you are engaged in a fierce siege alongside the King of Wrothgar, the event of which begins to act as the vehicle for much of the remaining introduction. This is “show, don’t tell” done right. Interesting, unusual, interactive events occur in synthesis.
The gameplay designers seemed to have abruptly forgotten what gameplay is and needlessly fill the quest chain with petty circumlocutions concerning practically irrelevant details of the happenings of expendable or inconsequential characters, many of which the player hasn’t really met. The first few dungeons are filled with typical dull-as-dishwater enemies equipped with the usual unimposing qualities and artificial “unintelligence,” as it were. All to string together an overly convoluted plot about a Daedric sect intent upon causing problems for the political elite in Leyawiin for the sake of introducing the greater plot regarding Daedric schemes. The problem here is that the story development is tied together with the game development in an incompetent way. Forcing players to undergo boring gameplay for the sake of plot minutiae –insofar as we can consider it gameplay— is never acceptable in game design. The first hour of gameplay is appallingly uninteresting; going into a stranger’s house to look for clues regarding characters that the player couldn’t possibly care about is one thing, but doing so for boring plot progression is even worse, because the player can’t even take interest in the story.
One might think that the popular activity in ESO is anything but the main chapter quests, be it PVP or raiding, and that may be true, but then what did players pay money for in Blackwood? Especially those that didn’t pay for the more exclusive editions and don’t have those extra perks. Blackwood is surely overpriced in terms of the other ESO DLCs as far as questing goes.