As Destiny 2 quickly approaches, one of the talking points that game director Luke Smith has repeatedly returned to is Bungie’s desire for this installment to “unhide the fun.”
I have played approximately one hour of the first Destiny—and downloaded, then deleted the sequel’s beta without opening it— so there are certainly gamers who have a better grasp on what that idea means for that series.
But, generally, it’s a good idea, right?
Sometimes that responsibility—to unhide the fun— should fall to the developer. In the case of The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind, a little help from Zenimax Online Studios would go a long way to making ESO:M’s PvP more easily accessible.
The biggest criticism that I leveled against the game in my review a couple weeks ago was that, for me at least, the multiplayer was essentially broken. I waited for 10 minutes multiple times, only to not get placed in a PvP match. Same deal for the dungeon finder. For those kinds of basic features, a more obvious on-ramp would be much appreciated.
But sometimes the fun needs to stay hidden. Sometimes the fun being hidden is why it’s fun to begin with.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is filled to the brim with examples. It’s a massive game (the maps from Twilight Princess, Wind Waker, Ocarina of Time and Skyrim all fit pretty neatly inside the borders of BOTW’s post-post-apocalyptic Hyrule), but one that showcases an unparalleled attention to detail, brought to life with mischievous flair by Nintendo.
There are no obvious markers to draw the player to the mysterious dragons that flicker through the “open air” adventure’s open sky. There’s nothing but swirly markings on the map to indicate that three of the game’s 120 shrines are hidden at the center of labyrinthine mazes. In fact, I can pretty safely say that I would not have discovered the game’s most involved and rewarding side quest, “From the Ground Up,” without detailed instructions from Mike Diver over at Waypoint.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind similarly hides its best side quest, “The Memory Stone.” I’m going to tell you how to find it, and then spoil it. If you own ESO: M, I would suggest you hold off on reading this and go play it for yourself. It only takes about 45 minutes, and you won’t regret it. Otherwise, read on—“The Memory Stone” is a master class in narrative quest design.
“The Memory Stone” is excellent, in part, because it refuses to form its narrative in the depths of Elder Scrolls lore. Tamriel is a world that is constantly mid-sentence—and, often, better for it; it makes the world of ESO feel real—but, as a player, I was constantly bogged down, unable to escape the feeling that I was trying to parse the syntax of a centuries-old run-on sentence.
But “The Memory Stone” is entirely self-contained. Instead of telling the story of Tamriel as a whole, it tells the story of one man’s tragic life.
I found that man, Gilan Lerano, on the western edge of Vvardenfell in Balmora— a city halved by the Odai River, a tendril of blue that snakes its way inland from the Inner Sea, coming to a halt a few miles after passing through.
On the northwestern side of the Odai, the player encounters an elderly dark elf named Gilan Terano mid-argument with his son, Mils. As the player approaches, Mils storms off, and Gilan explains that he and his son have been estranged for many years. He has a daughter as well, Neria, though she doesn’t harbor the same anger.
Gilan won’t explain the cause of this estrangement beyond saying that he has spent his years slaving away for his employer, Master Drenim, and he will spend what little time he has left in Tamriel doing the same.
“I will serve him until I die, no doubt,” Gilan says. “But that will not be long now.”
As the player probes the fault lines of Gilan’s fractured relationship with his children, we see that he is heartbreakingly aware of his longstanding faults.
“I failed them as a father, but… they are safe, aren’t they? I kept them safe,” he asks, obviously not entirely convinced.
Gilan hands the player the titular memory stone—a magical artifact that causes ghostly reenactments of memories to play out when the player enters the areas where the memories first took place (think the pensieve from Harry Potter, but with an enchanted built-in GPS). Gilan asks the player to go to the locations marked on their map, and experience his memories.
“You will know soon enough [why I didn’t spend more time with my children],” Gilan says. “As will they I hope.”
The player has the option of speaking with Gilan’s children before they embark on their quest. I decide to speak with Mils first. I find him on the dock across the river from his father. He wants nothing to do with the me. Either he is still fuming from his fight with his Gilan, or he is truly damaged. I suspect both.
“I have nothing to say to that man,” he hisses. “What is it about ‘I don’t want to talk about my father’ that you can’t understand?”
I leave him to his work and head to his sister’s waypoint. Neria works with guar—a reptilian creature that the denizens of Tamriel keep as pets/livestock— at a stable in town.
She is kinder than her brother, but still, their is obvious daylight between her and Gilan. She tells me that she knows nothing about her father’s work.
“All he’s been able to tell me is that part of his contract with Master Drenim forbids him from disclosing any of his master’s business, even to his children,” she says. I leave her to her work and head out to in search of the memories that I hope will help me understand.
Wisely, “The Memory Stone” places its markers close together; all four are just outside Balmora. Their nearness allows the player to move through the quest quickly, and, as it becomes apparent that all four represent important moments in Gilan’s life, it gives a sense of the nearness of his distance. He may be estranged from his children, but in terms of sheer mileage, he was never far away.
The first marker finds a young, red-haired Gilan proposing to his wife, and the mother of his children, Bravora Faren. The young Gilan is nervous and sweet—it’s obvious that he’s spent most of the day trying to figure out how to pop the question. Bravora is affectionate and confident; you get the sense that her adventurous spirit is helping Gilan grow to be more confident himself.
The next marker finds Bravora with a secret of her own. A nice little double entendre plays out as the couple stands on the edge of a canyon. Gilan, looking at Bravora, suggestively tells her that he’s enjoying the view. She segues into talking about viewing bigger houses; she worries they’ll soon run out of space. Gilan doesn’t get it— Why would we run out of space?
Then it clicks: “You’re pregnant!”
“That’s what happens,” Bravora quips back, “when one enjoys the view.”
They fade out; his ghost takes a beat longer than hers to disappear.
I follow my compass to the next marker. When the memory starts, Bravora is on the ground; bleeding out. She has been gored to death by a monster as the pair traversed the wilderness.
“Take care of the children,” she tells Gilan.
“We’ll take care of them together,” he insists.
She whispers, “You’ve made these years so wonderful,” and fades out of Tamriel.
His ghost fades out too, just a beat later. I run to the next marker, on the northern edge of town. When I arrive I’m introduced to a character that I’ve heard about but never seen: Master Drenim. We learn that Bravora has been working for Drenim; Gilan has been helping her. Due to Bravora’s death, the couple was unable to claim a precious crystal and Drenim lost it to a business rival. Drenim demands that Gilan work the debt off.
“I understand you have some aptitude for magic,” Drenim says, cutting a cruel deal. “You will serve me.”
Gilan asks what will become of his children if his entire life is spent in service to Drenim.
“You will see them when I have no need of you,” Drenim says; a low-level super villain. “Or you will see them on the streets.”
Gilan acquiesces and I’m back in the present. I return to the old Gilan, still standing where I left him, tending to business outside his home. He is pleased that I have completed the task and asks me to go find Mils and Neria and ask that they come back so that he can tell them something about their mother. If Mils won’t come, Gilan adds, tell him it’s about his inheritance.
“I feel like I can finally leave them with answers I’ve never been able to provide,” he says.
I go to Mils first and tell him his father wants to speak with him about his mother. He still isn’t interested. I tell him it’s about his inheritance. Now, he’s insulted. “I don’t want his money any more than I want his apologies! Does that man really think that he can buy me off after ignoring me my entire life?”
I leave him alone, and go find his sister tending to guar on the other side of town. She says that she’ll come see her father and, helpfully, that she’ll convince her brother to come, as well.
I head back to Gilan’s house, and as I enter, Mils and Neria are ahead of me, mounting the stairs. Neria is attempting to convince Mils that this is the right thing to do. It isn’t working.
When they arrive upstairs, Gilan doesn’t respond as Neria calls his name. The siblings turn and walk to his room. Gilan is lying dead on the ground. Neria is distraught. Mils, no less venomous now than when his father was alive, spits, “Couldn’t avoid disappointing me one last time. Good riddance.”
But suddenly Gilan rises from his body, as ghostly after death as he was in his memories.
“Soon, I’ll be able to share the truth with you,” he explains. “To share everything with you. Thanks to the efforts of this kind traveler, I have archived my memories on this stone. I hope one day… you will find it in your hearts to forgive me… And find the father, and mother, you never had here. I love you. I have always loved you. You’ve both made me so proud.”
Mils is angry: “Why couldn’t you just fade away like you always do? Why couldn’t you just let me forget you?”
Neria tells him that it isn’t just about him; that it’s about their family finally being together.
After their exchange, I approach Mils. He is finally willing to talk.
“I thought I knew my father. I always thought he hated me, and that’s why he was never around. I came to terms with that long ago. I had a father, and I hated him. Now he’s gone. How am I supposed to face what’s in that stone knowing I was wrong.”
And then the quest is over.
That final moment caused in me, as a player, a feeling of melancholy that I haven’t felt since I finished The Last of Us. “The Memory Stone,” like Naughty Dog’s high-water mark for storytelling in games, doesn’t give us neat resolution. It finishes with the restoration of the Lerano family still unfinished. Mils hasn’t seen what’s in the Stone. He knows only that he was wrong.
Interestingly, this turn cannot happen until Gilan is dead. The arc of “The Memory Stone” is bookended by death. The Lerano family falls apart when Bravora dies in front of Gilan. The Lerano family cannot begin to come back together until Gilan dies in front of his children.
As Mils angrily questions his father’s ghost, he gives us a key to understanding the problem at the heart of the family’s estrangement. He asks, “Why couldn’t you just fade away like you always do?” Gilan has been missing from his children’s lives for so long that his presence only causes harm. The healing can only occur when Gilan is somehow removed—a ghost, or a phantom trapped in an enchanted stone. Gilan became estranged without ever being far from his children. In a funhouse mirror twist, the healing can only occur if he is present, but somehow, far away.
“The Memory Stone” makes excellent use of foreshadowing. It instills a sense of mystery in the player early on—Why did Gilan, who clearly cares for his children, spend so much time away from them? Why can’t Gilan tell his children about his work for Master Drenim? It introduces these questions—and the fact that Gilan will die—early on, and then lets them gestate in the player’s imagination for the next 45 minutes.
And, wisely, the mechanics of the quest allows for that kind of reflection. While many open world side quests find the player trekking to a waypoint to kill a horde of enemies or fetching an object for a needy NPC, “The Memory Stone” allows the player to be passive; to observe the pivotal moments in the arc of a man’s tragic life. We don’t fight, we don’t fetch. We watch.
“The Memory Stone” succeeds because in our quest to help this family heal, we are as passive and helpless as they were as it fell apart.
— Andrew King