Bethesda’s CJ Grebb on the art of The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood

Elder Scrolls Online

CJ Grebb has been at Bethesda’s ZeniMax Online Studios for nearly 10 years. The beating art heart of Mythic Entertainment, later BioWare Mythic, Grebb was art director on titles like Dark Age of Camelot and Imperator before heading to ZOS in 2012. Since January of 2019, he’s been the art director for The Elder Scrolls Online, Bethesda’s world-beating fantasy MMORPG. The look and feel of the modern Elder Scrolls experience rest in the hands of Grebb and his team of talented artists.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated work-from-home orders, Elder Scrolls Online has eschewed releasing a single major expansion in 2021. Instead, players have been treated to an evolving, year-long arc, with updates dropping every couple of months. With the Blackwood expac now in players hands, we got to speak to CJ via email about his involvement in the series, the process of creating art for a game as huge as Elder Scrolls Online, and what lies in store for the rest of 2021.

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The Elder Scrolls Online features one of the biggest shared worlds in gaming. When you’re
operating at that kind of scale, how do you give each new expansion biome a distinct artistic vibe of
it’s own without disrupting cohesion?

For cohesion, we try to keep the vast majority of the world we build as steeped in reality as we can.
I realize that can sound odd considering it’s a world filled with magic and gods and mystical realms.
However, the vast majority of Tamriel citizens are not magical or born from ancient royal blood.
They’re normal folks living normal lives, and therefore the backdrop to all the fantastic things that
happen in Tamriel should be pretty normal as well. On top of that, the lands of Tamriel (even in the
second era) are old and well-travelled. Most of the structures and settlements are built on the bones
of past structures and settlements, and we try to treat that history with a lot of respect. So: base it in
reality and remember it’s really old. That’s the starting point.

For the specific look of new areas, we generally pull ideas from the real world, looking at various
cultures around the globe and using them as an artistic influence in the architecture and characters
we create.

With that bedrock of realism in place, we allow imagination to take over and let our artists get
creative.

What are some of the ways that you and the art team have put your own personal stamp on this
universe that has passed through so many hands?

I kind of cringe at the phrase “personal stamp.” It implies that we’re taking some kind of ownership
over the world of Elder Scrolls, which isn’t really the idea. We definitely have a perspective on what
makes something “Elder Scrolls,” and our artists are tasked with keeping that perspective in mind
when they’re creating art, but I believe attempting to take a sort of claim over the world of Elder
Scrolls is a dangerous mindset.

An artist creates. In that process, there are a lifetime of influences, preferences, and experiences all
being folded into that creation. That’s the “personal stamp” inherent in all art, not just concept art. I
prefer to talk in terms of “what can we do that we haven’t done yet,” or “what can we create that
will make the players have a genuinely new experience in Elder Scrolls?”

Considering the episodic nature of the 2021 ESO content calendar, has your design process
changed at all? Are you and the team fleshing out designs for the entire year or does work-from-
home dictate an expansion-by-expansion plan?

We absolutely have the entire year’s story in mind when we begin work on any individual release.
We attempt to make sure all of the concepts are working within the larger storyline of the year’s
story and are always looking for ways to keep those thread running throughout the art.

The Blackwood DLC saw the return of major TES villain Mehrunes Dagon. What are your design
considerations when bringing such an important and well-known character into the game?

Well, we had a template, certainly, as we met (will meet?) Mehrunes in both Oblivion and Daggerfall
and could begin there. We wanted to honor that look, of course, but we were excited to have the
chance to update it.

Joe Watmough took on the task, and worked with Leamon (our loremaster) to make sure his designs
made sense as they related to the larger history of Mehrunes Dagon. I asked Joe if he wouldn’t mind
giving his thoughts:

First I looked at the older representations of him in previous TES games.I wanted to make
him feel similar to the past incarnations, but talking to Leamon made me realize we had a
little freedom to change his appearance.

We wanted to push his look to something that wouldn’t be confused with Malacath as there
is some visual overlap between them so I looked more at the Dremora for inspiration,
especially for his face. (with a little Darkness from Legend for good measure)
In the end, I referenced his look from Daggerfall a LOT and based my first sketches on an
updated version , even using a similar pose.

For his armor, we used that layered Daedric style with the blade-like shapes to bring it more
to ESO’s Daedric style and added the chainmail to emphasize his warlike nature.

Similarly, Blackwood continued the Gates of Oblivion storyline, a realm that is near-and-dear to
many long-time TES fans. How do you modernise the look and feel of that world while still gesturing
to the atmosphere of the original?

I’ll assume you’re talking specifically of the Deadlands, Mehrunes’ plane of Oblivion. First order of
business was again honoring the past games. The Deadlands are well-travelled (and weirdly beloved
considering they’re essentially Tamriel’s version of Hell). So, making sure that players would instantly
recognize the plane was a top criteria. The desolation, the inhospitable rocky terrain, the lava flows,
the crimson skies – we knew we were going to replicate all of it.

The challenge becomes “how do you make something aesthetically pleasing that by definition should
be unpleasant in every way?” And the answer, of course is “just make it pleasing to Mehrunes
Dagon and don’t worry.”

And yet we got to make our own additions as well. If you played TES IV, you explored some Daedric
towers but didn’t get to see a great deal of Daedric interiors. In Blackwood, we were given that
chance with the introduction of the (spoilers) Daedric vaults, which are pure Daedric/Deadlands
architecture nestled in the hidden swamps of the zone. This kind of opportunity – the opportunity
to truly add something new to the lore and history of Elder Scrolls is one of the best parts of our
jobs. And because the Gates of Oblivion storyline culminates in The Deadlands themselves, we knew
that we were designing an architecture set not only for the chapter, but for the final adventures in
the DLC as well.

We began with the shape language and overall aesthetics of TES IV, and then allowed the artists to
get creative. What new shapes could work in this world? What materials feel correct for a Daedric
fortress? Are the stratified aspects of Daedric culture represented in their structures, their
furniture? What to Daedra hang on their walls? This is where the artistry begins to expand outside of
just concept art, as other artistic disciplines begin to have their input and make their own
contributions to the whole effort.

Throughout all of this process, we’re still stopping ourselves every once in a while and asking “does
this look like something you’d see in the Deadlands? Does this look Daedric? Does this feel like it
could live in Mehrunes world?” If the answer is still “yes,” we move forward.

The Waking Flame DLC, the next chapter in ESO’s year-long Oblivion adventure, has just been
announced. Where were your efforts most concentrated in this update?

The Dungeon DLCs are always interesting. We generally set the dungeons in existing areas of Tamriel
so new architecture sets are not on the agenda. What IS on the agenda are new armor motifs, new
monsters, new world objects, and new Effects art.

The new Waking Flame armor motifs both play into the Gates of Oblivion storyline, dealing with two
factions in Tamriel who both find themselves following Mehrunes Dagon. Despite this connection
they’re vastly different in appearance and were both designed with an eye towards some of TES IV’s
original armor designs.

We also had fun creating new Spider Daedra variants as well as an awesome new magma variant for
the Ruinoch.

The earlier question about considering the entire year comes into play a bit here. The Dread Cellar’s
story largely revolves around an object we first encounter in Blackwood which has no real impact on
that zone’s story. We learn some dark things about it in the dungeon adventure, and will truly feel
its impact in The Deadlands later this year.

We’ve known that Update 31 will include visual updates and resolution boosts for current-gen
platforms. Do technical changes like these affect your design process at all?

Certainly not in terms of what the concept artists are working on. Their task is to imagine and
create, and we don’t place many restrictions on them at that phase of the process. Adjustments for
the realities of draw calls and polygons and texture memory eventually come into play, of course,
which is where the artists in other departments shine as they translate the concepts into game
assets, which is an art in and of itself.

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Our heartfelt thanks to CJ and to Joe for taking the time to speak with us. The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood is out now on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Find out more at ElderScrollsOnline.com.

David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.