I flippin’ love theme parks. I loved them as a kid, and I love them as a grown-arse man. I also love anything that reminds me of a theme park—and for me, the game that feels most like a theme park is The Elder Scrolls Online.
Unfortunately, when it first launched on consoles four years ago, ESO embodied all the worst parts of the theme park experience. First of all, it was overcrowded. Also, the vibe was altogether strange, a weird simulacrum of a series of games that looked like something people liked, but wasn’t. It all felt off.
No game that’s plugged into the internet stays the same for long, and across the last five years, ESO has become much more endearing. It’s still strange, but in a good way. It’s become a place I love to get away to a couple times a year.
By now, I’ve gotten over the incongruous feeling that comes from playing a famously solitary series with other people milling around. Hearing NPC quest-givers greet seven other people like they are Tamriel’s Last Hope and then going on to greet you the exact same way has gone from disconcerting to endearing and funny as hell. Watching a scripted scrying ritual conducted in Artaeum - the Elder Scrolls version of Asgard, as far as I can tell - in order to determine who the Big Bad might be, only to have some dark elf and their baby griffin just splash through the scrying pool, also cracks me up.
I’ll walk through the beautifully landscaped fields of Summerset, and then some goofy-lookin’ knight in gold armour will appear and shout something heroic. Will he take photos with guests? Will he sign one of my skyshards?
Granted, this is the kind of pleasure you can take from being more of a dabbler than a regular player. Every six months or so, I’ll pay a brief visit and check out the latest chapter—ESO nomenclature for what other MMOs would call an “expansion”—then see the sights and spend a solid twenty minutes fumbling my way through the menus as I try to remember how to do, well, everything.
I’m not the biggest expert in what’s going on in Tamriel, but I like it that way. I like visiting a place that feels bigger than me and making my own fun in a corner for a while. I like knowing there are totally new zones to visit if I ever got the chance.
Maybe this summer I’ll visit the Morrowind Park. Or maybe I’ll check out the land of Elsewyr when that opens. I hear that’s where khajit are from, like my favourite cat-bro Razum-Dar. (Razum-Dar is not only my best bro, but also everyone else’s. He’s always happy to see me, even though I’m barely around.)
Theme parks are built with the understanding that you don’t go all the time, so their design is intended to make your one single experience something interesting and novel. Stick around a little bit longer, and that magic will fade. A lot of that charm comes from the kitschy re-thinking of something I already like—regular ol’ Elder Scrolls games. The feeling of making my way through a fantasy, alone.
If I stick around in ESO too long, all the accommodations made in the service of other people will become increasingly prominent. I’ll start to notice the man behind the curtain, the mundane machinery that made all the whimsy around me tick. In a theme park, that’s the moment when I’d know I should bow out here and be satisfied, happy to return again next year.
Stick around a little more, though, and the relationship can change again. You can learn to appreciate that machinery, and engage with the game for what it is: an MMO. You could also find yourself wanting to poke at the world more deeply, to find out what urban legends its denizens hold, if any ghosts haunt its delves and halls, take in the history of a place that’s always changing, even as it presents itself as one made solely for you.
That way, when you share it with someone else - and that’s what loving theme parks always leads to—you can see it all as new again, and understand what it took to make it feel that way.