Where RPG meets MMO: how Elder Scrolls Online revives Oblivion

We talk to The Elder Scrolls Online's creative director about its upcoming Gates of Oblivion expansion

Mehrunes Dagon surrounded by fire in the Deadlands

The Elder Scrolls Online’s next year-long adventure is taking the MMORPG’s fans to Oblivion, the hellish realm inhabited by the Daedra that was the focus of The Elder Scrolls IV. Like its single-player forebear, The Gates of Oblivion expansion will explore the Daedric realm of the Deadlands, and this time its dreaded overlord will take centre stage: prince of darkness and destruction, Mehrunes Dagon. Revealed in a teaser trailer loaded with imagery of a chthonic hellscape, naturally, the adventure promises new locatiosn to explore, bosses to best, and a murder mystery narrative to sink your gnashers into.

ZeniMax has now unveiled The Gates of Oblivion in broad strokes in a new studio livestream but, ahead of The Gates of Oblivion’s launch, we’re diving a little deeper.

Will Oblivion gates burst forth all over Tamriel, spewing Daedra into its towns and wilderness? What will players face in the Deadlands? Who is helping Mehrunes Dagon conquer the mortal realm? To find out, we spoke to creative director Rich Lambert.

PCGamesN: Why did you decide to take The Elder Scrolls Online to Oblivion? What makes it a great setting for TESO’s next adventure?

Rich Lambert: I am personally a big fan of Mehrunes Dagon. And I don’t think he really gets enough screen time, if you will, in Elder Scrolls lore. Because he’s got such a soft place in my heart, and because Oblivion was my first game at Bethesda, I really wanted to do something fun, and kind of harken back to that sense of nostalgia, but with our own twist on it. So, I thought Mehrunes Dagon was the perfect story to tell next.

Landscape view of Blackwood and a city in the distant lit by a setting sun

We saw a glimpse of what looked like Mehrunes Dagon and the Deadlands in the recent teaser. Will we see these in the Gates of Oblivion? What will they be like, if so?

You will go to the Deadlands in the chapter. You will go to pockets of it, though. And then in the fourth quarter, in that story DLC we always do to wrap up the year, you’re going to spend a lot of time in the Deadlands exploring his realm. This year’s story is all about him. Mehrunes Dagon, if you’re familiar with who he is, and what he’s all about, he believes that Tamriel and Nirn, in general, is just an extension of Oblivion, and that they’re rightfully his. He’s been trying to invade and conquer it over the ages, and this is another story about that.

Can you tell us about what Mehrunes Dagon and his realm of Oblivion will bring to the game?

He is essentially the god of war and change, so he’s going to feel very different from other Daedric stories we told. This is essentially a story about a deal with the devil, and Daedra, and deceit. It’s more of a murder mystery, if you will, that you’re trying to solve. Without giving too many spoilers away, just before our time, the longhouse emperors entered into a pact with Mehrunes Dagon. They agreed to help him conquer Tamriel as long as they could rule it in his image. That’s the deal they struck.

Mehrunes Dagon created four ambitions or weapons of mass destruction to help with that. When the base game kicks off, the longhouse emperors are no more; their line has ended. Emperor Varen killed the last one – he took over; he started the whole issue with Molag Bal, so to speak, or at least Mannimarco did. So, somebody is still there pushing this agenda forward, and so you’ve got to figure out what’s going on, who’s doing it, and then how to stop this whole thing.

How will we see Oblivion as a location fit into The Elder Scrolls Online’s map? Will we see Oblivion gates pop up all over the place as we did in TES IV?

In our timeline, Mehrunes Dagon hasn’t quite figured out the science of the Oblivion gates. We’re 800 years in the past. But, we do have a new form of Dark Anchor gameplay that we’re calling Oblivion portals. So, portals will kind of appear; they will be akin to the Dark Anchors. You click on a portal and you go to the Deadlands and you do a thing there, and then you come back. Which is really cool and exciting.

The book of Oblivion with a glowing Oblivion symbol on the cover

Because this is 800 years in the past, it feels different. It is very different from what you could expect with Oblivion, but we’ve still got that same sense of nostalgia that we’ve had in previous years. So, the Deadlands will feel iconic – it’s that craggy hellscape. Then the Blackwood chapter has pockets of very familiar places. Leyawiin is one of the main cities that you’ll get to go and explore. It feels very similar. Then, as you progress east through the zone towards Shadowfen, you’re going to get to go to Gideon, which is another really iconic city in Elder Scrolls lore, and you haven’t seen that since Arena, I think.

We’re not going to split the playable space up into an above ground and below ground like we did with Greymoor. So, the Blackwood chapter will be more akin to Elsweyr, where it’s one big contiguous landmass. You’ll teleport to pockets of the Deadlands in the chapter, and then in the fourth quarter, you will go to The Deadlands like with Clockwork City, and spend all your time there.

To what extent have you drawn upon TES IV’s depiction of the Deadlands for this new chapter? What are the similarities and differences?

It’s definitely a huge inspiration. Obviously, we can’t completely change what it looks like. There’s this iconic look and feel to it. But, like we always do, we have multiple biomes to help make it easier for the players to explore the world. In the chapter you’re going to see that hellscape with all the fire and brimstone, and then in the fourth quarter, you’re going to get to see that plus a couple of other biomes that help flesh out the worlds. Because you’re going to be in the Deadlands all the time, you’re going to get to explore a lot of that and see plenty of new things.

The Deadlands are just one plane of Oblivion – are we going to see any other places like the Shivering Isles or somewhere like that?

Not specifically. You know, because this is focused on Mehrunes, we want to focus on his realm, who he is, and how it all works together. And then the yin to his yang is the Blackwood chapter. So, the biomes there range from Scottish-inspired highlands and moors, to the Argonian swampy forests.

What other kinds of baddies and challenges can we expect to tackle in the new Oblivion content? I’m guessing plenty of Daedra!

Daedra are a big part of it! And, as you probably know, because Mehrunes Dagon is a Daedric prince, he can’t meddle directly in the mortal realm. He needs some people to help him. So, he’s got a lot of cultists – you’re gonna be dealing with cultists. And we’ve got some new Daedric creatures and then, of course, him in his realm of fun.

An Argonian battling Daedra with Mehrunes Dagon in the background

Can we expect any big blowout battles, perhaps in the fourth chapter with Mehrunes Dagon?

We have lots of very, very cool things planned for the main story, and the side content for that matter. In addition to that, we have a brand new 12-player trial, as well. So for the veteran players that really want a challenge, the dungeon team is going to test them again.

It’s called Rock Grove. And it’s a story focused on an Argonian tribe that worships Mehrunes Dagon. You’ll be going into their area, learning a lot about what they’re doing, and getting your butt whooped by some very interesting encounters.

Last year there were some really popular new features and systems added, like the Antiquities system. Do you have plans for any new systems or features in that kind of vein this time?

We do. There will be new antiquities that you can dig up for sure, because that was such a big thing. But I think that the big new system that I’m really excited about is companions. Companions are essentially your permanent adventuring buddies. So, you unlock them in the Blackwood chapter by doing some quests, and once you have them unlocked, you can level them up, you can equip gear on them, and you can assign their roles and their ability – so you can choose for them to be more of a tanky, healer, or damage dealer role. And there’s also a rapport system associated with them, where they have specific likes and dislikes. As you level up through those, you unlock more quests.

It’s definitely something that we have seen players ask for a lot, especially those that have played Skyrim. Companions were a big part of that. This is our way to give players another avenue to roleplay their characters and develop social bonds without necessarily having to do that with players. You’ll be able to use these companions pretty much anywhere in the world – we’re still doing our tuning and tweaking and performance assessment impact on these things. I’m pretty sure they won’t be allowed to be used in PvP, but anywhere outside of PvP, you can use them. And they would essentially replace a player, so if you and a buddy wanted to do a four-player dungeon, you could do that and have two companions, and you can complete the content.

We also have a new tutorial coming. So, every chapter, we always build a new tutorial. And this year is a little bit different in that we’re still going to teach you the basics of the game in terms of how to use your map, how to equip abilities, those kinds of things. But the big difference this year is we’re going to let you choose your own story.

This has been something that players have requested for a long time. So, there’s a point in the tutorial where you get to choose, ‘Do I go to the base game? Do I go to Elsweyr? Do I go to Summerset? Do I go to Greymoor?’ It’s up to you what you want to do, rather than in previous tutorials, which were so focused on the story of the new chapter. That’s going to be a thing that I think our players are going to be excited about.

Daedra worshippers praying to Mehrunes Dagon in Elder Scrolls Online

How do you strike a balance between delivering content for the Elder Scrolls Online as an MMO but staying true to the spirit of Oblivion?

I think that the biggest thing that we constantly remind ourselves of is that any stories that we tell in the world are always told from the point of view of the characters that are in the world. So, for instance, when we’re telling a story about Mehrunes Dagon, there is no dungeon master at the very top telling you exactly what’s going on, and what the truth is – there is only one truth throughout. The hallmark of Elder Scrolls is that you explore the world, find out a whole bunch of different points of view from various characters and what they know, and then you piece together what you think the truth is.

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I think that is the hardest part of storytelling in Elder Scrolls. Then, in the MMO itself, it’s making sure that you adhere to those pillars.

It’s like that ‘history is written by the victors’ kind of idea, isn’t it?

It is, and it kind of mimics real life. But it is definitely a hallmark of the The Elder Scrolls world – there are just people living in the world and you’re telling their stories from their point of view. So, there are multiple sources of truth, which is a lot of fun, and hard at times for us to tell interesting stories.

Are there any particular characters of note that you’re really proud of that we’re going to encounter in this new chapter?

There are two really big fan favourites coming back this year. One is Eveli Sharp-Arrow. She was the Bosmer in pigtails in Orsinium. She has been a hugely requested returning character, and then Lyranth, who was a Dremora in the base game – she was in Shadowfen and Cold Harbour, and one of the Imperial City dungeons. She’s back, and they’re kind of your guides and confidants throughout the entire year.

The Gates of Oblivion release date arrives with the Flames of Ambition DLC on March 8 and Blackwood chapter on June 1.