Having recently launched The Elder Scrolls Online’s Greymoor Expansion, Bethesda and Zenimax Online Studios are in the thick of The Dark Heart of Skyrim year-long adventure. I’ve been playing (and loving) Greymoor writing, “you can treat Greymoor as a prequel to or DLC for Skyrim.” Enjoying Greymoor as much as I am, I leapt at the opportunity to chat with Zenimax Online’s Creative Director on The Elder Scrolls Online Rich Lambert.
You might know Lambert from the enormous The Elder Scrolls tattoo he got after the Elsweyr announcement stream hit more than 90,000 viewers. It’s fair to say that he lives and breathes The Elder Scrolls Online and now, wears it on his skin too.
There is no better person to speak to about The Elder Scrolls Online and its latest chapter.
As I was enjoying Greymoor so much and due to the mythic nature that Skyrim has taken on, I asked Lambert how the new expansion had been received by players. “It’s been really awesome,” he tells me, and I can hear the pure joy in his voice. And because of the phenomenon Skyrim has become, I wondered if his excitement was tinged with a little relief.
The Elder Scrolls Online – Greymoor
“Managing expectations is probably the hardest part,” Lambert says when I ask him about the challenges of returning to Skyrim. “People have this notion of what Skyrim is and we want to give them that. At the same time, we don’t want to rehash stories that are already told.
“We have to walk a fine line of nostalgia versus forging our own path.”
The way Lambert and his team have forged this path is by developing Western Skyrim and Blackreach. “Western Skyrim, the overland part, that’s very nostalgic,” Lambert explains. “It feels like home. It’s a little different because it’s a thousand years in the past but it still feels like home.” And he’s right. Playing Greymoor is like coming home. The tundra, the ice, the mountainous terrain; it all looks and feels just like Skyrim. The first time I saw a giant camp, complete with mammoths, I let out a little yelp of delight.
Walking into Solitude for the first time was a real thrill too, even though things are a little different due to being a thousand years in the past. Lambert told me he gets a lot of enjoyment from trying to imagine these locations and what they’d look like so many years ago.
“Blackreach is something you’ve never really seen before.” He says that with the expanded version of Blackreach, he and his team have been able to go off in their own direction and stray from what Skyrim was and is. However, nostalgia is a powerful weapon in Greymoor’s arsenal. From the opening cinematic’s homage to Skyrim’s beginning to the town of Solitude, players are going to find plenty of familiarities.
Intertwined with memories of Skyrim are dragons. There’s no getting around that, yet dragons were a huge part of the Elsweyr campaign and while Harrowstorms replace the dragon battles as the radiant events in Greymoor, I askled Lambert if we’d see any dragons at all.
“There are no dragons in Greymoor,” he explains, before correcting himself. “Technically, there might be a dragin in our time period, in Skyrim, in Blackreach. I guess we’ll see as the remainder of the year goes on what happens with that.” He tells me that with Greymoor, the team wanted to steer clear of Skyrim and separate their version from it.
Beyond familiarity with Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls Online players will find their own built-in nostalgia thanks to the return of Lyris Titanborn. I previously played The Elder Scrolls Online on PS4 and met Lyris with that character, however, I started a brand-new character on PC for Greymoor. When I met Lyris on PC she spoke to me as though we were strangers. I asked Lambert if she would have responded differently if my character had met her previously.
“That was one of the things that took us quite a while to get right,” he told me. “If you’d met her before she talks about those things.”
With over 13.5 million players in its lifetime, there’s no denying the success of The Elder Scrolls Online despite the rough early days. Skyrim was released in 2011 and in the intervening nine years, we’ve barely seen or heard anything about The Elder Scrolls VI. We know it’s not expected for years and I asked Lambert if the success of The Elder Scrolls Online took some pressure off delivering the sequel.
I also asked Lambert if he saw surges of players coming to The Elder Scrolls Online whenever an announcement, or rather, no announcement of TES VI is made. “Last year when we did the TES 25 thing at PAX we saw a big jump in players,” he told me. “This last year as we’ve seen a big jump in players as well.
“I think part of it is that people are starting to understand that this is a real Elder Scrolls game now. We’ve fought that stigma for a while but people can see it’s a real TES game and it’s endorsed by BGS.”
COVID-19 has also driven an increase in players coming to The Elder Scrolls Online and Lambert believes it’s “a bit of a boost and a little bit of relief for players that they have something they can go and play.”
Like other The Elder Scrolls Online expansions, Greymoor exists in a period of time known as the Interregnum. In this 400 or so years, there is constant war and turmoil so the records of that time are spotty at best. This gives Lambert and his team a lot of leeway when creating stories and their own lore. That being said, Lambert told me that Bethesda Game Studios still works closely with Zenimax.
“When we did Dark Brotherhood we thought we knew exactly how the Dark Brotherhood worked,” Lambert explained. “We pitched this thing to Emil [Pagliarulo] who was the guy that did the Dark Brotherhood stuff in Oblivion. I think I sent him a three-page high concept doc of what we wanted to do.
“He sent like nine pages of feedback back going, ‘Oh, this is where you got it wrong. And this is an important thing to think about.’
The lore is one of the mosty important aspects of The Elder Scrolls, however, not everything is documented. In fact, the way Lambert explained it to me, it’s almost like generational-storytelling.
Lambert also tells me that it’s “amazing how much isn’t written down and can’t be written down.” He says there are questions that you don’t even realise you need to ask until you start creating something and coming up with those questions through creation is a lot of fun.
This brings us to the (dark) heart of Greymoor. The gothic-horror storyline involving vampires, werewolves and zombies. Asking why the undead were at the forefront of this expansion Lambert is matter-of-fact in his explanation; “Ultimately when we start thinking about what we want to do next, we look at what we’ve done in the past. And when you look at the last few chapters that we’ve done they all feel very, very different.”
Morrowing focused on the nostalgia of TESIII, with its weird landscape and alien feel while Somerset was classic high fantasy. Elsweyr focused on the Khajiit and dragons and even though the narrative was important, Lambert tells me it’s more difficult to do a serious, dark story involving the Khajiit.
“I don’t want to say silly, but the Khajiit are more happy go lucky so Elswyer felt lighthearted. We wanted to do the opposite of that and going into Skyrim, into the ice and snow and having dark undertones, felt like a very radical departure from Elsweyr.”
Greymoor is more than just vampires and werewolves though. It includes what Lambert refers to as “Indiana Jones meets Tamriel” — scrying for antiquities. Each expansion has added something to The Elder Scrolls Online, be that a new skill line or new class, however, in Greymoor, Lambert and his team wanted something different. A new kind of “back of the box feature.” As he tells me, “a new class or new skill line added more depth to the game but it didn’t really change how you played the game. The thing we were really looking for was how we can give something to the players so there’s a new way to play the game.”
Lambert knows Elder Scrolls players like to explore and find things. He knows they like to discover lore and dig into the world more than what they see on the surface and that was the initial “nugget” of the idea.
After someone pitched ‘Indiana Jones meets Tamriel’ Lambert and his team had to figure out what that meant. In the early days of testing and creating scrying and antiquities, Lambert reveals the team was playing a prototype in Microsoft Excel.
In addition to playable Excel versions of systems that would later appear in The Elder Scrolls Online, Lambert said the team iterated on paper a lot too. By the time the team was creating and adding the new system to Greymoor, they had a lot of confidence and knew what they wanted the mini-game to be. They also expanded scrying and antiquities beyond Greymoor by adding relics to all existing zones in the game. Depending on where a player explores, they’ll find different types of relics too.
“It’s not questing or more killing, it’s a different way of playing. Michael [Schroeder] said it best by saying it’s a differnt verb you use when describing how you play the game,” Lambert explained. Scrying and antiquities also dive into the environmental storytelling that The Elder Scrolls is known for and Greymoor itself is no exception.
Lambert readily admits that the best way to tell a story isn’t necessarily through words. “It’s something we’ve refined over the years,” he says, “There are lots of cases throughout the world you’ll see. For instance, a dog may be sitting next to a tombstone, just sitting there with a sad dejected look.
“Those things tug on your heartstrings and can be even more powerful if there’s nothing to accompany them. It leaves it up to your imagination to wonder what happened.
“Putting those things all around the world makes it more believable and more alive. A living breathing world is our mantra and we constantly talk about it when we’re coming up with our stories.”
Greymoor is one part of the year-long Dark Heart of Skyrim adventure and it already feels like one of the best expansions to The Elder Scrolls Online. Returning to Skyrim, even without dragons, is a big deal and the expansion of Blackreach lends a new perspective to the nostalgia.
Dealing with the undead is also a wonderfully, dark and twisted narrative that allows Greymoor to flip between the kind of nonchalant fun and the serious dramatic turns the series is known for.
Best of all, the addition of scrying and digging for antiquities adds a new layer of depth to exploration and a new way to play The Elder Scrolls Online. We’re only a part of the way through the Dark Heart of Skyrim but, so far, it’s more than worth your time.
Greymoor is available for The Elder Scrolls Online on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
Thanks to Rich Lambert for his time.