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Solvitur Ambulando: walking through ESO

The Elder Scrolls Online, ESO, mountain, waterfall, knight, sword, warrior
The Elder Scrolls Online, video game, fisherman, mudcrab, asleep, fish

A pattern has emerged since I first started playing ESO in 2015.

I’ll return to the game after not playing it for ages, find myself wanting to play very little else for several months, then gradually step away and leave it for some time. There’s always some external factor which sees be going back though and the title has become something of a mental refuge over the years.

Recently, it has helped me get through a difficult couple of months at work. The release of a new system created by our internal developers didn’t exactly go according to plan and the resulted in an awful lot of long days and late nights over the past six weeks. Hours were spent in conference calls listening to colleagues suggest the next thing to try and resolve the issue before the process was repeated the following day when the evenings’ testing wasn’t successful as everyone had hoped.

It wasn’t easy to take proper breaks during that period. The only thing we could do was grab 15 minutes here and there between calls and scheduled tests, and it was during those times I found myself reaching for the controller and logging into The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO). It was comforting knowing I had something I could escape to, a place where I didn’t have to talk or think too hard, and where the only conversations I had to have were with non-player characters (NPCs) about problems I knew I’d be able to fix with my swords.

I didn’t tend to follow up on their requests though. I’d just head off in a direction and see what I could find. I came across a fisherman sleeping on the ground, while a cheeky mudcrab tried to steal the catch drying on a nearby wooden rack; and I discovered a poor fellow in a delve who’d obviously been unable to escape after being crushed by a falling rock. And there was a house filled with the meows of many cats, each of whom had left an offering of a lifeless rat by the front door.

There’s always some external factor which sees be going back to ESO and the title has become something of a mental refuge over the years.

‘Solvitur ambulando’ is a Latin phrase often attributed to Saint Augustine and means ‘It is solved by walking’. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in the 19th century: ‘I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.’ Shakespeare’s character Prospero said in The Tempest: ‘A turn or two I’ll walk, to still my beating mind.’ And in the words of Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, ‘You never come back from a walk feeling worse.’

I may not have had enough time to get out for a real walk, but ESO provided a channel for digital strolls whenever I needed them during that project. The feeling of the world opening and uncovering its secrets as I travelled through the game’s locations on foot was just what I needed to take a mental break. The slightest hint of a new mystery to solve or path to follow through the trees was enough to make me wander off into the wilderness and forget about everything else going on for a few moments.

Looking back on the experience now, it made me realise something about RPGs as well as do wonders for my mental health. The ability to use Wayshrines to teleport across the map is kind of at odds with the usual epic-quest premise when you think about it. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a quest as ‘a long search for something that is difficult to find or an attempt to achieve something difficult’. Does this mean it’s more like a task on your to-do list if you can reach your destination in a few seconds behind a loading screen?

It feels like using ESO’s Wayshrines too much runs the risk of reducing a huge in-game map to something almost like the diagram of the London Underground. You run a few errands in town and pick up a bite to eat while you’re there before hopping back on the Fast-Travel Line; then jump off a few stops later to deliver a parcel to an NPC, get your weapons fixed and sell some inventory you no longer want. Don’t forget to take your belongings and tap your Oyster Card on the Autosave before you head above ground.

I get it though. When life is full of adult responsibilities and you don’t want to spend an hour walking between locations, the mechanic offers a convenient shortcut which allows you to squeeze as much action as possible into whatever time you can spare. I’m not saying that fast-travel is inherently bad or that I never use it: it’s certainly useful when you’re playing with friends and quickly want to get somewhere to finish a dungeon together before switching off for the night.

But I think my preference is always going to be using my feet to travel in RPGs. I want to take in all the sights during the journey to my next destination – not that I’ll always have a specific location in mind – and come across those small stories-within-a-story like the examples mentioned earlier. I may not have come across the house filled with cats in ESO and completely forgotten about the problems going on at work for a moment, if I’d decided to use a Wayshrine that day.

Head out on the digital road the next time you need a mental escape. You may just find that your problems are eased by walking.

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