A big reason I fear I will never play Mass Effect 2, or similar games, is that the story is personalized. I don’t like leaving paths unexplored. What if I killed the Texas-talking lizard? What if I ignored their water supply? I hate those “what ifs.” It leaves me the feeling that I did not get the best story as if I skipped a few chapters and then tore out a few pages. The last thing I want to do with my precious time is replay the entire game just to read a few different chapters.
As a quick aside, this is largely why I don’t alt. My main has a rich history and story that would take any alt months and months of dedicated play (and player wrangling) to match. Playing an alt, in my opinion, is even worse than replaying a game like Mass Effect 2 because most often the alt experience will be a shadow of the main read. I’ll leave that thought now for another time.
From what I hear, Bioware in Mass Effect 2 did a fairly good job at personalizing the story. It is nice knowing that my actions had an effect on the world. MMOs do this in more simple ways by opening up content gates or having NPCs mumble differently when I walk by. Now, headed as you might guess, by Bioware, the flavor of their MMO is on a personalized experience.
From the first time I ever played World of Warcraft I have hypocritically wished that my adventure would be personalized. I would have loved to deal with finality the wolf problem around the Abbey and to let the poor farmers in the Westfall farm their lands after I had dealt with the zombomachines. But, there is a huge difference between a terminal quest chain with consequences for the player and a choice that forever blocks the path not taken.
Does the degree of importance in the storytelling decision matter?
For instance, Guild Wars has a few quests where two quests will be exclusive of each other. In the A Loose Cannon / A Peaceful Solution quest branch players have to choose which errand they want to run. The path ends there, though. There is no length quest chain with hugely different stories for either path. Neither NPC is of huge importance later on in the game by coming to a personalized rescue… “Hey, remember that one time you helped me out.” It’s a simple decision with simple consequences.
Lord of the Rings Online is pushing further along with Alternate Drama Sequences. These are the inverse, in a way, of quest branching in that the NPCs will react to what players have done in the past instead of making them choose for the future. Still, this is a conservative, well-thought personalization. With the use of the games reflecting pools, I can revisit the drama sequence where I am guessing the NPCs will react to any updates to my completed quest log. (Be sure to wave to Arwen when you see her.) The path not taken can be revisited if I choose.
The ones I dislike are the ones with unforeseeable consequences. The choices that should be made with a strategy guide and a quest flow chart in hand so I know exactly what I am missing out. Developers are not always so fair as in the Guild Wars example above. Sometimes in video games players will be punished for a selfish choice. Sometimes the players will receive a pat on the head for choosing the right thing. Sometimes developers like to make players choose between little reward now or huge reward later.
In MMOs, I also don’t want a “personalized experience” with far-reaching (and unforeseeable) consequences. By their very nature we are supposed to keep characters around for hundreds of hours of play. Would you want to play through, let’s say, 50 hours of leveling and questing, in order to get back to where you were before to make the different decision? I sure as spit would not.
I think that MMO devs are making very cool strides towards better storytelling, but even though marketing might think differently “personalized” storytelling is not always better in a persistent game. If MMO storytellers insist on forcing players to choose, and forever destroy another path, there better be a pretty good reason for it. For the most part I would prefer they leave the road not taken to Frost and single-player games.
where we’re going, there are no roads