Archaeogaming in Elder Scrolls Online: Back to the Beta

Below is a post that I was told to take down by Zenimax Online during the beta testing of Elder Scrolls Online earlier this year. I am reposting it now, but unfortunately the original images are no longer available. Hopefully the text is enough for now. I am looking forward to joining the full game soon for months of archaeogaming. -Andrew


I had the opportunity to participate in two full weekends of beta testing of the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), the MMO slotted for release on 4.4.14 by ZeniMax Online based on the hugely entertaining, lore-heavy Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda Softworks. This post details my archaeological experience in playing the beta over the weekend of January 11th and 12th, and is not intended to be a review of the game (which I thought was quite fun to play for the short time I had access to it). I shot images of my display with my iPhone, so apologies for the dubious quality, but there should be enough detail to show you a bit of what I saw. Although I do not think that this post violates the Terms of Service for the beta, readers might want to copy/paste for later reading.

Going into the ESO beta, I wanted to accomplish a few things, in no particular order: 1) explore the world to see if there were ruins, 2) identify threads of lore connecting this world of the past with the world of Skyrim set 1,000 in the future, 3) learn if archaeology was part of the game, and if so, to what extent, 4) perform actual archaeology (both real and experimental). In my brief hours in Tamriel, I was not disappointed in meeting every goal, even if some of what I found was disappointing. More on that later.

Players start off in the dark, otherworldly Oblivion as part of a massive jailbreak. All are in either rags or the uniforms of veteran soldiers. Rags in one century pretty much look like rags in another. As we fled down torchlit corridors pursued by skeletons, we armed ourselves with rusty weapons typical of Level 1 in any dungeon crawler. Crappy bladed or staff weapons change little over time, too. Ultimately the player emerges into a great hall to assist “The Prophet” (voiced I believe by Michael Gambon . . . really) rematerialize into human flesh and then escape to Tamriel. The Deadric Hall was gloomy and gear-filled, but not overtly dwarvish/Dwemer, window-dressing for fast action into the guts of the game.

I followed the Prophet’s lead and emerged aboard a ship moored on the Redguard island of Stros M’Kai and its Port Hunding. It would appear that the technology of wooden ships changed little over 1,000 years. The same could be said of, erm, crate-and-barrel technology. But as soon as I stepped off the boat, I was gobsmacked by an architecture alien to me and likely to the rest of the Elder Scrolls games.

I was in a palm desert, and set among the trees were walls and buildings resembling Arabia with curves and peaks, towers, and the rich colors of red and gold. The port looked new, hardly lived in, and having lived in Phoenix for a time, I know that even if something was built decades ago, it still looks new in the desert light. A palace, a bazaar, shops, and inns, the port bustles. Having limited experience with the Redguard from my time playing Oblivion and Skyrim, I was unsure what to expect regarding architecture and design.

I half-expected to hear a muezzin make the call to worship, and to see lines of Arabic-looking script wrap around each building’s walls. As I explored Port Hunding, I noticed that there was no writing anywhere. I began to suspect Redguard illiteracy until I began finding books and letters.

One letter looted from a corpse led me directly to archaeology in ESO: “A reward is hereby offered for all Dwarven relics delivered in good working order. Monies paid depend on condition, rarity, and usefulness of said relic. Pieces of relics are also accepted, depending on condition. –Rulorn”

This note was found with a gear of Dwarven manufacture. I took both from the body and set off to find Rulorn, no doubt a shady dealer in Dwarven antiquities. I already had a sinking feeling that the archaeology in ESO would mirror that of other games: relics equate to money, and stealing relics makes for good quests. But this is a virtual world, and I am looting from a fictitious race. And because this is an MMO, the relic I just looted returns to its findspot for the next player to discover. And steal. And so on. The ethics of this kind of iterative looting has me quite confused and a bit conflicted on what it is I’m doing with these artifacts.

In any case, I collect three other gears and return to Rulorn in the port. Already I feel dirty as the dialogue with him begins:

Rulorn: “Yes? Do you have something for me?”

Me: “I found something you might be interested in.”

And so it goes until I give him the goods, and he gives me the cash. In a wrinkle, though, he turns out to be a scientist who needs these ancient parts to create an automaton that he’s built from other artifacts he’s collected. I pull the lever and the machine activates. Rulorn and I have a partnership now, not unlike Indiana Jones and his various handlers. It’s time to discover more ruins, and the island of Stros M’Kai is dotted them, mostly Dwemer, a dwarven race, master machine-builders and miners.

On my way, I pass by discarded astrolabes half-buried in the sand and elevated roads with the appearance of Roman aqueducts. I meet up with another non-player character (NPC), Noramo, who gives me my marching orders: “Despite the age of these ruins, I suspect the usual defenses are in place. As I am averse to danger, would you explore the ruins to locate any Dwemer generators inside?”

Of course I agree. He unlocks the doors into the Dwemer tomb, and I, like so many other gamers before me, enter to avoid traps to find the loot, stealing it for my handler so that I can have a payday, and so that Noramo (in this case) can have his generators for science. It’s a familiar trope in science fiction film, fiction, and games: scientists stealing unknown technology to reverse-engineer it for their own ends. But who am I to argue? I’m just the gopher in this quest. Along the way I see ancient halls crowded with pipes and ducts and machinery. I fight and destroy clockwork beetles. I discover the mundanity of a smoking pipe, a quill pen, an ink pot. Later I find a table topped with the tools of a blacksmith, left behind and looking brand new.

I complete the quest and then decide to just explore the island. My time is limited. One of the best things about the Elder Scrolls games is that one can choose to just walk around in the world stumbling upon things. I treated this rambling as an archaeological surface survey. I found more Dwarven artifacts, made a note of them, and then decided to either collect a diagnostic piece, or to leave it in situ, photographing it only, moving on. I came to the realization that I was actively role-playing an archaeologist, which is strange, because I am one in real life. Very meta.

As I explored, I continued to look for evidence of writing outside of books and papers. I wanted to find markers and monuments and was not disappointed. I found the Tower of the Singing Sun, and next to it the skeleton of a looter, his pickaxe nearby, and his journal in his tent where he’d written about breaking into the monument to find treasure. I sighed again.

As I traveled on the island, I did find several luminescent cairns which contained runestones within them. Digging them up revealed the quality of each rune. The runes are likely used for crafting arms and armor, and require translation, something I was unable to do or find over my weekend of play.

Ultimately I had an inventory of the runes Ta, Okori, Okoma, Jora, Jode, and Dekeipa, but was unable to discern anything of linguistic merit. I’ll have to wait to buy the real game to go further there.

Farther along into the central desert stood stone markers taller than I was, incised with repetitive design elements, an attempt at art, but communicating little (to me anyway). On occasion, I discovered large amphoras buried in the sand and decorated in various geometric patterns. These could not be collected, but their contents were available for the taking, mainly grains.

After taking a break from study to kill a bunch of mobs and complete some quests to level up my toon, I hopped aboard a ship for another island, Betnikh, home of Orcs, and ancient home to a race new to me (and perhaps to the Elder Scrolls lore): Ayleids, the Wild Elves. The Orcs I met in Skyrim were largely confined to enclaves of primitive huts and camps walled with logs. Entering the Orc city in ESO, I was overwhelmed by the Cyclopean walls and massive stone buildings befitting this brawny, proud warrior race.

I was in for a surprise, however, as I stepped out of town.

I met my first “orcheologist” — an Orc archaeologist. Azlakha told me the following: “The Ayleids–Wild Elves as some call them–have always fascinated me. They are long gone but their ruins remain on Betnikh. From these we glean how they lived and died, so many years ago.”

My response (chosen from a list of two things, one being “Goodbye”): “Isn’t research a strange occupation for an Orc?”

She laughed off my condescension and gave me some quests to do, namely to explore ruins. The good news: I did not have to loot anything as I learned about the Wild Elves. The bad news? The ruins were populated by ghosts and monsters and contained evil magic. So archaeology-as-gateway-to-evil-stuff rears its head in this game as it has in so many others. I went off to find the ruins anyway, curious about this new culture, its art, and architecture. Along the way I found the skeleton of another dead looter and his shovel.

I dropped down into an underground tomb and photographed the bones of the warrior-king Targoth. He was laid on a bier surrounded by grave goods of weapons and armor and a sack of grain.

His ghost asked me to return his warhorn to him if I wished, to restore some dignity to his death, and the deaths of his people. I did so and was left with a good feeling having repatriated the artifact. Had I kept it, I could have sold it for money.

Later in the day, I came across a series of pyres. I’d met a priestess earlier who had told me how to activate these to see visions. I cared more about their location in the world, and what these pyres would look like. In my real-world job, I just published a book on saucer pyres from the Athenian Agora. What would ESO‘s look like? Upon arrival, I noticed a stone platform holding a bowl of fire, and next to it some nautilus shells. I’m not sure why these shells were chosen or what purpose they served, but the universal fire-in-a-bowl was present. I received my vision. It had something to do with werewolves.

I spent my remaining moments in the game searching for plants, performing a kind of palaeobotany. I wanted to see if I could find plants similar to those found in Skyrim, to compare properties as well as shape. Then I kicked myself when all of the plants on these two islands were wholly different from Skyrim: different ecosystems. That was a satisfying feeling.

I was also keen to see what would happen to the trash items I discovered and no longer needed (e.g., rags, poor-quality weapons, etc.). In World of Warcraft, players can discard items and collect them later if they have not yet logged out of the game. Players can keep items on their person, can share them with others directly, or can keep items in the bank. In ESO, I could carry items or could store them in places that I owned, and could trade directly with others, but to drop something to the ground was to destroy it. There will be no in-world trash middens and rubbish heaps. This also puts a damper on my hope of crafting something unique and then tracking it as it moves across the game. I was also hoping to identify real trade patterns in ESO, but that looks doubtful.

At the conclusion of my two days (maybe 10 total hours of play total out of the 48 I could have had in theory), I am keen to explore the full world from an archaeologist’s perspective. There are still ruins, but largely Dwemer, and now Ayleids. There is archaeology actually in the game, but trending towards looting, traps, and magic. I found that there is a lot to study as I compare cultures then and now, and that there is a new language to learn in the runes that I find. I’m also curious to see if players can complete quests and level up while being respectful towards in-world cultural heritage. I’ll blog more about this starting in April 2014.

And I am looking forward to doing the same once the new MMO from Bungee, Destiny, launches. As of January 13, 2014, people who pre-order the game are eligible to selection into the beta there.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


3 thoughts on “Archaeogaming in Elder Scrolls Online: Back to the Beta

  1. Hi there !
    My name is Bartek and im archeology student from Poland. Im glad that im not the only one interessed in this problem. Actually im writing my year pass work about archeology in games. Your blog will help me much. I would also like to contact with you if you will let me. My e-mail is

  2. Pingback: Archaeogaming and punk archeology in discard studies « Discard Studies

  3. Pingback: Unearthing the History of Westeros – Backroom Whispering Productions

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