[TSW] Narrative Silence

The year of story MMOs: 2012. The three big MMOs that year all had story as a big bulletpoint. Star Wars The Old Republic had a fully voiced monstrosity.  Guild Wars 2 parsed theirs out with the Personal Story. And The Secret World, kind of mentioned it as part of missions and things. Surprisingly, I think The Secret World won as far as narrative delivery of story and lore.

I enjoy the way all three games deliver story content. There are flaws in all three. I don’t like how heavy The Old Republic can feel. I don’t like how disjointed all the arcs and “personal” narration fees in Guild Wars 2. And, I don’t like how the cut scene for a mission in The Secret World can have the barest relation to the forthcoming content at hand.

Yet, it is this artistic delivery style that has The Secret World coming out ahead in my opinion. For each mission there is a cut scene. In most missions the NPC starting it rambles on about troubles and issues. In some missions they talk to nearby NPCs. In the main story there is some action involved sometimes. Through it all, I am silent.

In The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 my character speaks. Not for me, mind you. They speak to guide the narration. Sometimes I can choose how to respond. Other times I have to accept whatever dumb thing falls out of my character’s mouth. It would seem obvious for my character to talk. Yet, this might be one of the most immersion breaking aspects of these two MMOs. I am guiding some other character. It is not me.

In The Secret World I stand in receptive silence to the wisdom or lies told to me by the NPCs. My character is doing the same thing I am. Nodding or shaking my head along. Some of the NPCs throw a joke at the fourth-wall to discuss my silence. The NPCs accept it though. It is a thing. In that silence I feel much closer to my character than in the other two big MMOs of 2012.

This is not a new concept for those games of the RPG tribe. In many RPGs, the only form of communication is “X”. The NPCs are happy to talk to the player because the player is the hero. I am the hero.

This is what I like best about The Secret World’s cut scene writing. I am silent, but I am still acknowledged as the driving force. As much as some NPCs despise my foreign-ness to the local situation, they still accept that I will change things. I might be killing ten undead shadow rats of filth in The Secret World for the mechanical distillation of the quest, but I am still being directly acknowledged for doing so.

Each mission also follows up by an email from my faction’s superior officer. All I did was “send report”, which could have said anything in my mind. FunCom has to respond to this “report” in a conclusive manner as if I had wrote something on the subject. Again, they do a really good job, and I feel like my superior is actually talking to me on something I would have approximately written to him.

I hope future MMOs that want to include some sort of personal story really take note of The Secret World’s style. It is one of the best in my opinion.

–Ravious

5 thoughts on “[TSW] Narrative Silence”

  1. Just wanted to concur. It’s by far the best approach I’ve seen, helped very much by also being the best implementation of any approach. The way different NPCs manage to put over a range of reactions to my character’s involvement, from derisive to approving through all points in between builds a real sense of involvement. My character is never just The Hero. Sometimes she’s somebody’s hero, sometimes she’s just another dupe, sometimes she’s The Man, sometimes she’s The Problem. Most of the time it feels just how things happen in our world when you get mixed up in other peoples’ issues.

    I wish TSW had done better so others might have copied it more.

  2. On the downside, in TSW you will never imagine your character shouting at an NPC: “I can do anything I want, because I am voiced by *Jennifer Hale*!”

  3. I had the exact opposite reaction that you did: NPCs telling me what to do while my character stood there slack-jawed and mute really removed all feeling of agency. I’m not super happy with the class/race-based voice and limited dialogue inherent in the other two, either, but I at least feel like I’m part of the conversation with the NPCs (with highly constrained choices).

    For a while, RPGs were splitting the difference with voiced NPCs and text-only protagonists that you could envision talking however you wanted, but that’s another sacrifice on the altar of production value after Mass Effect. I keep hoping someone’s going to figure out a good enough voice synth that it becomes viable to have RPGs with lots of dialogue choices (and actual changes to the conversation based on them) again.

  4. I’ll take either TOR or TSW’s approach over GW2. You hit the nail right on the head with that one… disjointed. The way the story is presented, the way the cutscenes are narrated and illustrated on screen… the inconsistent “sometimes you get to choose” responses all just made it very difficult for me to become invested in the story in any sort of meaningful fashion. It’s just one of the many reasons I WANT to like GW2, but I just don’t.

    I also agree that TSW’s presentation is very good. I rather like the “silent protagonist” approach and always chuckle a bit when an NPC tosses a barb at “me” for standing there like a mute.

  5. Comparing TSW with the story of TOR or GW2 is hardly fair. Its like comparing the finest steak in the world with rat or dog meat. Not that it is the finest steak in the world mind you but it is in comparison.

    The silent protagonist thing didnt bother me at all. The variety of badly voiced regional actors and dull generic storylines in TOR or the weedy plantman general in GW2 who basically steals your personal story away from you both killed the story element dead in those games.

    TSW on the other hand, whilst far from perfect, offers storylines which grab my attention and pull me in. Hit and miss mind you but mostly hit.

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