For adventurers in The Elder Scrolls Online, journeys across Tamriel have been lengthy, leaving hardly a stone on the map unturned. Set many years before the main RPG series, TESO's given us looks at those games' key locations in an earlier age – some still undeveloped, others at their peak. Last year's Blackwood expansion revisited The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion and before that Greymoor took us back to zones from The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. High Isle, however, takes Elder Scrolls fans to a brand-new location, where they'll discover lore and cultures that have never been explored in the series before.
We ask creative director Rich Lambert if making substantial additions to the huge RPG series increases the pressure. "Oh, absolutely," he laughs. "Yes, yep. 'Don't let us down.' Yes, there's all kinds of pressure there, for sure." But it's also something the team could get really excited about, owing to having a lot of freedom in how to tackle the new chapter, which kicks off the Legacy Of The Bretons storyline. "But the flip to that is it's also almost more difficult because there is no kind of box," says Lambert. "You have to go in and you have to figure everything out from scratch. So it's definitely been a fun challenge and a different challenge than what we had in previous years."
A loreless place
High Isle is certainly different. Home to half-elf, half-human Bretons, with a 'mediaeval Mediterranean' vibe, the island and surrounding Systres Archipelago have only been referenced a few times in previous Elder Scrolls games. Here it's completely built out, and you can explore it for yourself. It's a deliberate shake-up. "One of the things that we always do whenever we are thinking about where to go next is to kind of look back at where we've been," explains Lambert. "We look at not only the stories, but the visuals, the biomes, the types of places the players are exploring, and we knew we wanted to do something that looked and felt very different than anything we've done in the past."
Beyond deciding on a previously-unvisited location, this emphasis on doing something different also applied to the story, which is all about secret politicking to end the legendary Three Banners War (and the cult-like Ascendant Order, which wants to put a stop to the peace talks). The out-of-the-way island seemed like a perfect location for such tricky dealings. "It was a speck on a map in Redguard [a 1998 PC spin-off ]. There's no lore written about it. There's no lore books. So this is all whole cloth for us."
"Some people will say they are on the more mundane or boring side. But they have this really cool, interesting culture [...] They are very into the pomp of family politics, and the various houses. High Isle, in particular, is kind of the epitome of High Breton culture. This is a very, very affluent place. This is where a lot of the nobles go when they take their vacations." But it's not all about the high life. "There's tournament grounds everywhere. There are knights in shining armour, you know, all of that kind of stuff is there," says Lambert, "but there's also kind of a seedy underbelly as you start to dig through and see that not everything is perfect in this place."
It's in that muck of politics and clashing classes that the story starts to take shape. "We knew we wanted to tell a story that wasn't this kind of cosmic threat that we've been telling over the last few years," says Lambert. "There's no big giant Daedra coming in to take over the world and destroy Tamriel. This is a grounded political-based story, and that's kind of led into the tie-ins with the Three Banners War."
Like High Isle itself, the historical Three Banners War is a big part of Tamriel's history that hasn't really been explored much until now. Lambert explains how the stage is set as the players join in events: "Each of the provinces is kind of split up into factions and alliances, all vying for control over the Imperial City and the Ruby Throne." A group called the Society Of The Steadfast wants to bring things to an end with secret peace talks, while the Ascendant Order, led by the mysterious black-clad Ascendant Lord, wants to make sure the Steadfast fails.
As well as the location, the Bretons, and the war, the All-Flags Navy also features – "...the largest Navy that ever assembled in The Elder Scrolls universe," says Lambert – a natural fit for islands in turmoil. All of these elements that have been on the periphery of existing Elder Scrolls games have been brought together to form a new slice of world and lore that feels right at home. "We were able to take really important pieces from the lore and weave them into this story and weave them into this area," says Lambert.
Because of that focus, High Isle conveys the sense the power struggles are between real individuals and factions. As well as getting to grips with the Steadfast, you'll build up an impression of the rival organisation. "As you go through the story, you learn more about what fuels them, what motivates them, why they are as troublesome and pesky as they turn out to be," explains Lambert.
And while magic takes a back seat, that doesn't mean the Order isn't a threat. "Again, this is all more in the grounded reality so it's not [that] the Ascendant Lord is, you know, an all-powerful wizard," says Lambert. "The Ascendant Lord is a knight in armour, is exceedingly well trained, and is exceedingly good at martial combat. So, you get to see kind of the other side of things rather than 'I am wizard, I zap you with my staff ', right?"
The struggle to end the war can be every bit as gripping to play through as dealing with the threat of some magical or supernatural apocalypse (if not more than). "It comes into the story and the storytelling and, you know, characters can be interesting without having world-shattering powers," says Lambert. "What we're really focused on this year is making the characters interesting, making the stories feel kind of like the stories we used to tell in the old days." He compares the approach to early update Orsinium, which was focused around rebuilding orc culture.
High and fighty
High Isle, and the Legacy Of The Bretons storyline that begins in it, plays to what Lambert considers the strengths of Elder Scrolls Online. As well as appreciating the freedom to go off and do whatever chapters they want in any order (you can jump right in with High Isle, Summerset, or anywhere in between that takes your fancy), he believes that "players love the world because it feels like it's believable."
Say what you will about The Elder Scrolls, the world that's been developed since 1994 has always been easy to get lost in. "You can go into a story and get multiple perspectives of that story told at the same time, so it feels very relatable. It's like real life where there is no kind of omnipotent being at the top that says 'This is the single source of truth'. There's always multiple sides to any story, and we recreate that in our world," says Lambert.
You'll get two companions to provide fresh perspectives close to home in High Isle: Ember, a Khajit, and Isobel, a Breton. Each has their own storyline, and will assist you with tackling harder parts of the game. Lambert says introducing elements like this has encouraged players to try more of what TESO has to offer. "In the last few years, we've focused more on giving players new ways to play the game rather than just 'Hey, here's the same thing over and over,'" he says.
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One major activity being introduced in High Isle is Tales Of Tribute, a card game that enables players to get together and chat while slinging paper. "I could just walk up to you in game and challenge you to a match. So, like you would a PvP duel, you can just duel over cards, right? It's a really, really cool system. It's meaty, it's got lots of depth," says Lambert. "And this is something that I've wanted to have – you know, this concept of tavern games or pub games or something like that – I've always wanted to have. It's really cool that we're finally able to do it."
If more tavern games make their way to TESO, Tamriel could become a new local for many. As players are able to jump into the game wherever they want, each new expansion only brings more possibilities for how they spend their time, whether that's treating it like an offline Elder Scrolls RPG and finishing quests, or taking part in activities with other members of a like-minded community.
"MMOs are a great way to socialise, or can be a great way to socialise, even if you can't get out to do that, or don't want to get out to do that," says Lambert. "I think we've seen over the years, especially during the pandemic, with the influx of players and whatnot, just how important these types of things are for people."
The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle is out now on PC, and is coming to PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, and Xbox One on June 21. We'll see you in there for a catch up on all things High Isle, have a pint over some cards, and wait for the Three Banners War to blow over.
This article first featured on the cover of Play Magazine #14. For more fantastic interviews just like this, be sure to check out subscription options at Magazines Direct to get industry-leading analysis delivered right to your door (or digital device) each month.