Note: This entry assumes some knowledge of the Elder Scrolls world. For a good primer, check out A Pocket Guide of the Empire, Third Edition.
I’ve always wanted to start a band, despite having little interest in making music. I just want to NAME the band. Narrowing down the near-infinite possibilities to a single combinations of words (or just sounds) just has to be character building.
Which is pretty much how I feel about The Elder Scrolls VI. I don’t want to make it. If Bethesda wants to really push the open-world RPG forward, rather than just coasting off of the success of Skyrim, then they have a lot of difficult work ahead of them. I don’t envy them that challenge. Yet even if – as I suspect – they do just tweak and further simplify the same formula they’ve been using since Morrowind, they’ll still have one decision that requires a lot of creative thought, and I’d love to be a fly on the wall when they’re trying to hammer out this singular detail. I speak, of course, of the setting.
To say that the setting is important to an Elder Scrolls game would be both understated and blindly obvious: it’s the sole titular identifier for each game. While the title of Arena reflected the series’ origins as a gladiatorial combat game (before design changes that made it much more like Wizardry, the series that was the team’s chief inspiration), Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Skyrim are named after the Imperial province l in which they take place, and while Oblivion is in Cyrodiil, it is the titular plane that is most central to its plot. Setting makes or breaks these games; I’d argue that Oblivion‘s focus on plot over developing an interesting central setting is one of the key reasons it had a considerably weaker narrative than its predecessor. Bethesda seemed to realize this, and made the geography and culture of Skyrim the central focus of the latest series incarnation.
So when Bethesda starts thinking about Elder Scrolls VI – as they already surely are – one of the first, and most important, decisions that needs to be made is where it will take place. I’ve put some thought into this, and have found that one potential location stands head and shoulders above the rest.
It’s a process of elimination. First, a couple of assumptions:
1. It will take place in a single, contiguous location…
Arena took place over all of Tamriel, because – like pretty much every other game of the time – the world was not modeled in any particular detail. But Daggerfall zoomed in the focus to High Rock and some of Hammerfell, and Morrowind zoomed in even farther to a single large island in its province. It allowed Bethesda, for the first time, to model their world in detail. No more cookie-cutter towns and randomly generated NPCs. Everything was hand-crafted, everything was distinct. And it was a much better game because of it. I wondered, when playing Skyrim, why Bethesda had this massive war take place before the game even started. Why not have Elder Scrolls V take place during the great war? Because it would require you to move all over Tamriel, that’s why. The relatively narrow focus works, and for Bethesda to return to a “galavant around the world” structure would take away their greatest strength.
2. …that hasn’t been done before.
Bethesda has never done the same location twice, and I see no reason for them to start now. Skyrim and Cyrodiil have been thoroughly covered. They could do the mainland of Morrowind, but the culture of the dark elves was laid out with such detail in Morrowind that the dev team would have a lot less creative leeway, not to mention the fact that their current stable of writers probably aren’t good enough to capture the nuance of that setting. Daggerfall is old enough that they could “re-do” High Rock or Hammerfell, but High Rock is the most generic setting in Elder Scrolls (it’s basically Britain) and there have been more games in Hammerfell than any other province (as there was a spin-off adventure game, Redguard, taking place there.)
It’s worth noting that this assumption eliminates ALL the human-majority provinces. I think Bethesda intentionally pulled back from the alien culture of Morrowind to appeal to a wider audience, giving them provinces that – while featuring elves and the “weird” beast races – were dominated by easy-to-understand humans straight out of history (Imperials are Romans, Nords are Nords, etc.) No more. Either Bethesda has to water down the fantasy societies they’ve spent so many years building up (i.e. be total dicks) or do something a little strange.
Here’s my picks, in increasing order of General Sensibleness:
Orsinium is a bad choice because, uh, it doesn’t really exist. The ancestral home of the orcs was just beginning to be rebuilt, but was sacked by Hammerfall and High Rock in the early fourth era. No info is available on it for the current place in the timeline, so Bethesda would have a lot of creative freedom…but they’d have to do High Rock/Hammerfell again (it’s too small to be its own thing) and I just don’t see Bethesda making an Orc-centric game.
5. Summerset Isle
The home of the Aldmeri Dominion, and that’s a problem. While the Empire was established as a complex, morally ambiguous entity, the Dominion (as portrayed in Skyrim) is just a bunch of racist assholes. They’re also mono-cultural, so setting it here would mean Elves Only. Lame.
4. Black Marsh
I personally think Black Marsh would be an interesting setting, but it has no mass appeal. As its name implies, it is a giant marsh populated almost exclusively by Argonians. Unlike Vvardenfel, with its ample natural resources and its curious status as an Imperial protectorate, Bethesda would have trouble coming up with a good reason to have a representative sample of all the races in such an inhospitable environment. And the Argonians are probably the most alien of the races, so that wouldn’t help win over anyone outside the hardcore fans.
The problem with Valenwood is mostly geographical. It is, as far as we know, a big collection of densely-wooded forests and jungles, with maybe the occasional patch of rolling hills. I just don’t think it offers the geographical diversity that Bethesda wants from their games. There is also the problem that it’s a willing part of the Aldmeri Domion, so it’d be almost as monocultural as Summerset.
There are a number of known landmasses outside of Tamriel, but most can be dismissed out of hand. Yokunda is destroyed. Aldmeris is lost. Atmora is even colder than Skyrim. This leaves Akavir, the most developed of the Foreign Lands.
This entry at UESP provides what little info we have about Akavir. It has an East Asian flavor, with the Thousand Monkey Isles and Tiger-Dragons (a nation of “cats that have tried to become dragons” ruled by the sole cat who has succeeded. Yeah.) Bethesda could come up with some reason why a bunch of Tamriel people went over there (fleeing the Aldmeri Dominion?), and have a pretty interesting place.
But I think it’s just too weird. They could retcon stuff, tone it down, but they’d be leaving so much of their built-up lore behind in favor of creating a new continent from scratch. And this IS a whole continent, not the size of a province. I wouldn’t put it past Bethesda to give this a shot, but it would be difficult.
Which leaves us with our final choice: Elsweyr. It has a fair amount of geographic variety; though much of it is desert, it also boasts jungles near Valenwood to the west and a generous coastline along the eastern side. The Khajiit have a rich culture, but are more (for lack of a better word) personable than Argonians, and there are numerous sub-races to add variety to the mix. There are a lot of interesting cultural quirks that could be explored, including the tension with Valenwood; the drug trade; the complex politics of the many small states and their ruler, the Mane; the moon-focused religion; and the trademark sense of humor. It may, in fact, be TOO complex for Bethesda’s current team, which tries to make more straightforward narratives. Wheras Morrowind had numerous factions with no “good guys,” Oblivion has a straightforward good-vs-evil plot, and Skyrim features a binary “choose a side” conflict that is only somewhat more nuanced. So it’s a good thing that Elsweyr no longer exists as a legal entity, being a protectorate of the Aldmeri Dominion. Unlike Valenwood, it doesn’t seem like an overwhelming majority of the natives are on board with this. Setting The Elder Scrolls VI in Elsweyr would allow Bethesda to create a binary tension (Elsweyr as it has traditionally existed vs. The Aldmeri Dominion). Bethesda would have to make the Dominion much more complex than its current state to actually make this interesting; but frankly they need to do that anyway, and this would be an excellent platform for it, the sole location where the dominion is neither hated enemy nor beloved ruler.
Perhaps most importantly, Elsweyr would *allow* Bethesda to coast. They could reuse the same mechanics from Skyrim and most people wouldn’t care because there was a fresh new world to play in. I’m not saying Bethesda should do this, but it certainly makes Elsweyr a more attractive candidate for them.
Finally: Elsweyr is just an awesome name. Instead of hearing people ramble on about Skyrim this and Skyrim that, you’d end up with the following exchange:
“So, John, haven’t seen you at the bar lately. Where have you been spending all of your time?