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Refresh Base-game Bangkorai

TLDR: With the change in focus to repeatable content based on the vast, gorgeous world space already created by ZOS, the question of base-game zone's quality once again has come into focus. Bangkorai, in particular, represents a lot of out-dated design philosophy/aesthetics that compares starkly with more recent stuff. It can also be seen through the eyes of fans who know and care about these places; while there is more latitude in vision for a place that hasn't been explored since Daggerfall, fundamental lore concerning these places, at minimum, are just as sacred to some people as the more obvious stuff like Vvardenfell or Solitude. Exploring Bangkorai, like other base-game zones, reveals a lot of weird decisions and clear mistakes that recent design has been much more careful with; a redo could be an opportunity to address these things and support replayable systems by making them beautiful and interesting to be in.

On the case for a base-game refresh
Matt Firor's recent address to the community explained a desire to capitalise on repeatable content, and to take advantage of the huge Tamriel real estate the developers have worked hard to create over the last 9 years. Although this could represent a huge change of direction, the response from the community about this has been largely positive, or at least hopeful about the future. With a focus on developing future content that can be done for years, as opposed to resource-intensive one-and-done content, there is potential opportunity for zos to get more bang for their proverbial buck. And given that the world-building is pretty much universally praised as a big highlight of ESO- that the devs continuously knock out of the park, it does seem like a shame to have these amazing zones visited for the story, ground for their mythics and dailies, and left to languish. Anything that gives reasons to be in this beautiful world is a great idea.

Increasingly, people make the observation that the base-game zones are dated. They cite the textures, zone-layout, design philosophy, tubes of content, over-crowdedness, and lack of character within racial architecture. Especially when compared with the absolutely magnificent work that's been done on literally everything post launch, the difference is striking. The difference in quality between, say The Gold Coast, Orsinium, and Imperial City (2014-2015); and Elsweyr, Western Skyrim, and High Isle (some 8 years later) is far less than the difference in quality between base game and Orsinium (less than 12 months between). Moving between base-game and DLC zones feels like moving between different games.

Being "in" the world, regardless of the reason, is simply not going to be as satisfying when that world was designed under completely different philosophy, is significantly dated visually, and which offers nothing for exploration at best, or at worst, actively frustrates it. Weird, nonsensical mountain ranges which serve no purpose but to channel you in one specific path, random rivers that flow in both directions and clumps of formless structures jumbled into one another are a far cry from the obvious thoughtful world-building of anything designed more recently than April 2014.

If we're moving in the direction of consolidating and capitalising on the world spaces we have, having all zones meet the high standard would be worthwhile. Depending on the extent and depth of the rework, it could approach the excitement of getting completely new zones.

Why Bangkorai, specifically?

In fact, I think strong cases could be made for all base-game zones. The ones that come to mind immediately, for me, include Valenwood, which represents the homeland of a race that has had no new content in 9 years, and Eastmarch, which represents arguably the most egregiously wrong shape- made even more glaring given the extraordinarily high quality and fidelity of 2020's Western Skyrim. Having a "new" Eastmarch, with a more accurate shape (relative to more recent game's visions), with maybe a "new" Windhelm, rendered to actually match the enigmatic, foreboding city we see in Skyrim, with the care and expertise more recent zones have been crafted with, would feel like new content.

Warm, wooden ESO-Windhelm vs. Cold, stone 1st-era Skyrim Windhelm.

I'm focussing on Bangkorai because it represents my favourite place in all of Tamriel, and is a good representation of all the things that could be improved on in other base-game zones. The former reason is worth labouring because I believe it reflects the sort of passion and investment that many fans have for the world of Tamriel "the main character of the Elder Scrolls"; as strange as it might seem to someone coming to this game from some other demographic, the prime reason I actually apprehensively moved to this unfamiliar genre is because I literally always wanted to see what it was like on the other side of the mountains (a sentiment I know is shared). I hungrily gobbled up all the lore and I pictured all these things, anticipating the same depth, care and nuance with which the other TES games I was exploring at the time were crafted. And while I think that the base game renderings fell short on this, I absolutely believe that the values and thought with which more recent zones are developed would be capable of handling Bangkorai in a way that would support the stories this part of the world is trying to tell.

What's wrong with base-game Bangkorai?"

From reading the Improved Emperor's Guide, we get the impression that Evermore might be this provincial stronghold built from granite mined from nearby Markarth on the far reaches of civilisation. As a city on the edge of the Reach, and isolated from the "bucolic", pleasant landscapes of High Rock further west by the pinching southward of the Wrothgarians, we can imagine Evermore having a very distinct character, visually, and even personality-wise. Perhaps, as the remote Bulwark against tribes of Orcs, Nords, Reachfolk and even wild Redguard raiders, aesthetically, Evermore might be defined by an earthy, practical simplicity (relative to the fancy Iliac cities further west).

Mournoth, Bangkorai's "Reach".

While Evermore has no discernible heraldry, the black standards throughout the city are a nice touch (even if they're implied to reflect the Queen's mourning, rather than any core identity), and work well with the focus on crows throughout the city. In fact, the latter is one of the few things that approach giving Evermore any sort of distinct feel, tying it to the idea that it is, in fact, part of The Reach.

Bjoulsae and Lake Halcyon
Described in the Emperor's Guide as a stony stream, fordable, and un-navigable past Evermore, it is bizarre that the river seems to harbour massive ruined galleys. Even ignoring the question of how such massive ships might navigate stony, fordable streams, there doesn't seem to be any destination, unless they were intending their voyage to end somewhere high in the Druadachs, or the Glenmoril Wyrd represents a market for city-produced trade goods that can only be satisfied by massive ships. A redo of Bangkorai could address this, and possibly redesign Lake Halcyon to feel like an alpine lake, and the eastern Bjoulsae River to be something more like, perhaps, the stony mountain streams and narrow rivers of The Reach.


Climate of Mournoth
It's hard to see what's meant to be going on with the climate/biome of this region. On the one hand, we have tropical Blackheart Haven. Another quest at Bisnensel implies the area will become arid. Yet, since Arena, Evermore was depicted as a snowy place on the edges of Skyrim. Nestled in a valley between the Dragontails, the Druadachs, and the Wrothgarians, at the same latitude (if not altitude) as The Reach, snowy Evermore makes sense. Arid, yet tropical Evermore, not so much. A redo of Bangkorai could benefit from the improved verticality the devs have mastered since base-game zones (showcased in places like Orsinium and The Reach), giving Mournoth a more fitting and distinct environment that's not at odds with stuff like tropical islands.

Evermore, as seen in Arena.

Ephesus and The Dragontail Mountains
The mysterious mountain range featured in the ES6 teaser.

In the ES6 trailer, a bird's eye view pans westwards along the southern slopes of a range of spike-capped mountains reminiscent of some titanic dragon's tail, forming a formidable wall across which we cannot see. In ESO's Craglorn, we get a sense of the topographical and environmental differences between montane Upper Craglorn and the barren, rocky plains below. It has depth and substance, and feels like a distinct biome. Upper Craglorn feels like it straddles the border between snowy Skyrim and desert Hammerfell. The same chain of mountains, representing the same geographical distinction seems to be present in Bangkorai. However now they are a weird, thin like of mountains not apparently designed for exploration, but to fence off players from the world beyond.

Ephesus, High Rock's little piece of Hammerfell.

The subzone of Ephesus, the central one in Bangkorai, takes its name from a region explorable in TES2: Daggerfall, high in the Dragontails, within the province of Hammerfell. In ESO, despite the subzone name, and it's namesake dolmen, the region has absolutely no discernable character, no history, and nothing to talk to its apparent implied inspiration. The area was presumably once considered Hammerfell proper, but there is nothing to explore regarding it, nothing at all to suggest it. The localities that can be explored within the region, including Martyr's Crossing and Arlimahera's Sanctum offer nothing about this character, and, as with much else in the zone- and like the subzone itself- typically sprawl into the other structures of Mournoth, in a messy, un-readable way. Knowing the history and geographical setting, its hard to imagine a unique, distinct regional aesthetic and story not jumping immediately to mind.

Looking from Ephesus in Bangkorai down to the desert below, and a similar situation from Upper Craglorn.

With the far superior aesthetic control demonstrated post-launch, we can see parallels for all 3 biomes presumably intended for Bangkorai in neighbouring zones. Mournoth, at the same latitude as The Reach, Ephesus with Upper Craglorn, and Fallen Wastes (southern Bangkorai) with Lower Craglorn. A Bangkorai refresh could offer improvements in making these biomes distinct based on similar, adjacent biomes developed since post-launch. Like Upper Craglorn, perhaps a distinct Ephesus biome could better be represented as elevated relative to its surrounding biomes, as if it were sorrounded by- and within- the Dragontails like its inspirational region was meant to be, rather than cut off by the 2d wall of rock we have now.

Projecting biomes across similar latitudes

A mountain pass in Upper Craglorn. Is this what Ephesus would look like?

What's right with Bangkorai?
A few things I actually love about current Bangkorai.

The sunken road is cool- this undermountain smuggler's road that few people actually even know about, that needs to be explored to be discovered. I think this place is more fitting as a Point of Interest than some that currently exist, because it says something about the world.

I really love the idea of the Viridian Wood, I think it could be a signature geographical feature of Mournoth. There's no real forests in The Reach, so having one here would give the region something distinct. I guess the trees are meant to be giant Junipers? I wonder what the real-world inspiration would be? Being unfamiliar with northern-hemisphere biomes, I wonder if its meant to be inspired by caledendrous forests of Scotland or Scandinavia?

Likewise, I really love the idea of Jackdaw Cove, as this major centre for the folk of the Western Reach. As it stands now, unfortunately, its really just a messy jumble of walls going every which way, and ugly towers. I think this place could be a signature place for Mournoth, and I can imagine if it was redesigned using the absolutely gorgeous "Nordic" towers we saw in The Reach and Western Skyrim. Given the purportedly Nordic history of this region, I don't think using these would be particularly egregious.

Mostly, Fallen Wastes (Southern Bangkorai) is actually pretty cool for a base-game zone. I love the giant Ra Gada statues, they feel really evocative. I love that it supports a gate to Lower Craglorn, though it highlights that there's not a similar one on the western side of Bangkorai, leading to the Alik'r.

I love the story associated with the Murcien's Hamlet quest objective. It makes the place actually feel like part of the region its set in, and stands out from much else in doing so.

I love that there's a Viridian Watch tower, which speaks to the supposed Direnni history associated with this part of High Rock. I wonder if, given Summerset may have set a canonical architecture style for the Direnni, if there would be room in a base-game refresh to replace some assets to more closely resemble these. I can see arguments for and against it.

I love that there's a gate at Jackdaw Cove that would seem to lead into Skyrim's Reach. I think a base-game refresh would present opportunities to do something more interesting with it though- at the moment, it is non-functional, and you have to use a cart (which we're grateful was added in due to player demand). I think there are interesting possibilities for it. Such a gate would be not only inter-provincial, but maybe inter-alliance. Maybe it would have once been a very significant and highly-controlled feature of the world. Right now, it seems to separate two regions both controlled by Reachfolk, so who knows the degree of control, or its significance now?

Please give us a base-game refresh!
The preceding were just my ideas on what they could do if a base-game refresh were on-the-cards. I think that there are cues that can be taken from both core lore and primary descriptions (including some that ZOS have written or iterated themselves), some basic inferences that can be made based on the surrounding landscapes and biomes, as well as guesses at what was intended, even if that's not always super intelligible with the base-game zones. Of course, the degree of re-doing of any sort of base-game refresh would be in question; some of the things I've described might be as simple as texture updates. Others, far more fundamental and far reaching. I think that wanting to capitalise on existing zones for the basis for adventure, exploration and repeatable content is a good reason to give the base-game zones like Bangkorai some love, and perhaps fix some of the obvious mistakes committed at a time when the game's design had a completely different philosophy and focus. I suppose that some stuff might represent ships already sailed up the shallow, stony Bjulsae to inexpliccably capsize in the Halcyon waters of development reality, but there's still hope that the value of these zones, and what they represent to some of us, can be recognised and capitalised on in the event of a base-game refresh.

What do you think? How would you bring Bangkorai up to the standards obvious in more recent zones? What other zones need love the most, and what would you do to change them?
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