Skip to main content

The Elder Scrolls' Summerset Isle has come a long way in 24 years

From 1994's Arena to 2018's ESO.

Earlier in March, Bethesda announced The Elder Scrolls Online's new upcoming expansion is set on the mysterious Summerset Isle.

It's an interesting choice of setting for a number of reasons. For one, the island, which is situated in the southwest corner of Tamriel, is the the home of the magic-loving High Elves. As such, it's idyllic, a green land made up of farmlands, woodland parks and ancient towers and manors.

"It was the chance to turn the dial a little bit," Rich Lambert, creative director at ZeniMax Online Studios, tells Eurogamer when asked why the developers chose the location.

"It was almost a - I don't want to say polar opposite of what Morrowind [ESO's previous expansion] was - but it's a very different feel than Morrowind. Morrowind was more alien. It was a volcanic island. When you go to Summerset it feels different. It's that High Elven fantasy. It's something you don't get to see in Elder Scrolls very often, and it feels very magicky, which is what we were going for.

"One of Todd Howard's favourite sayings is, if all magic in Tamriel suddenly turned off, nobody would really notice. That is absolutely not the case in Summerset. Summerset is the birthplace of magic in Tamriel. The Altmer are the most magic-affinitied of the races. So, they're not afraid to use magic to enrich their lives, and you see that in the island."

But another aspect of the decision to set ESO's next big expansion in Summerset has got fans talking. Well... older fans, at least. Its appearance in ESO marks the first time fans can explore the island since 1994's The Elder Scrolls Arena (subsequent Elder Scrolls games only mentioned the Summerset Isles).

And as you can see from the maps of both Bethesda Game Studio's 1994 version and ZeniMax Online Studios' 2018 version, Summerset has come a long way in the past 24 years.

Here's a screenshot of Arena's map of the Summerset Isles, courtesy of YouTuber 1 Way Intersection Games.

And here's a screenshot of ESO's map of the Summerset Isles I took during a recent hands-on of the expansion.

It's worth noting the Summerset Isles is made up of three islands: the main isle of Summerset, Auridon, which is to the east of Summerset, and the hidden island of Artaeum, which is to the south east. Both Summerset and Auridon were explorable in Arena. ESO includes Summerset and Artaeum as playable areas - a combined area bigger than that added by the previous expansion, Morrowind.

Clearly, Arena's Summerset and ESO's Summerset have similar geographical outlines. It turns out the development team used 1994's Arena as reference material in the creation of its version of Summerset. "We look at it as archaeology," Lambert says. "Fortunately we could start with Arena and get the shape and the rough landmarks that were there, and then we go digging. We go searching through the tomes, searching through all the lore books that are in the game, to pull out bits and pieces of detail."

As The Elder Scrolls fans will know, the lore of Tamriel is told through the many books scattered across the various games' worlds, as well as snippets of NPC dialogue. As fans have pieced together the history of the Summerset Isles from these virtual tomes, so did the developers for ESO.

"One of the really cool things about Elder Scrolls is the lore is written from multiple perspectives," Lambert explains.

"So, you can find an account on this side that says this is what happened, and then down here it says, no no no, this is actually what happened. Somewhere in the middle is the truth. It is a lot of detective work."

Of course, there's no substitute for actually playing The Elder Scrolls Arena, which is currently the only video game in which you can explore Summerset. You can download it for free from Bethesda's website, but getting Arena running on modern PCs is a bit of a faff. (Essentially, you need to emulate DOS to run it in any system.)

To help, the developers watched YouTube Let's Plays of Arena, like the one below, "just to re-familiarise ourselves," according to Lambert.

Watch on YouTube

When it came to the development of Summerset, the developers used the 1994 original version as a reference point, but there is a huge amount of work that went into realising the Elder Scrolls Online's version - or interpretation of the place.

"There was no height map back in the day," Lambert says.

"We did that with Morrowind, where we took the original height map, and then we had to do a lot of modifications to it, because our scale is different than their scale in the single-player games. With Summerset we had to take the rough shape and layout and then do our work on that to put our own spin on it."

The video, below, from Bethesda shows off the result of the work: ESO's Summerset.

Watch on YouTube

And, as you can see, Summerset really has come a long way in 24 years.

Lambert says fans of Arena who remember the location of landmarks, cities and towns in that game's Summerset will find them in around about the same areas in ESO's version. This map, courtesy of The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages, shows the major landmarks and cities in Arena's Summerset.

"All of the landmarks are in the same rough, geographical locations," Lambert says. "We have Eton Nir, which is the tallest mountain in Summerset and kind of goes through the middle of Summerset, with Cloudrest at the very top. We have the Crystal Tower there, the city of Alinor, Shimmerene...

"If you were a huge Arena nut, you can go into Arena and see those, and then go into our game and experience those as well."

So, if you played Arena back in 1994 and - more importantly - actually remember Summerset, you may get a kick out of exploring ESO's take on the place. If nothing else, giving it a whirl may rekindle memories of hours, days or maybe even weeks spent playing the very first The Elder Scrolls game - an eye-watering 24 years ago.

Read this next