The Explorer’s Conundrum

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

19 thoughts on “The Explorer’s Conundrum”

  1. I have to figure that the ability to personalize the play experience in an MMO is inversely proportional to the amount of the story that can be scripted. The only truly personalized MMOs are the likes of EVE and Darkfall. Everything else is just some variation of the quest flowchart you describe.

    I very much doubt that most gamers who demand a more personalized, more “meaningful” story experience have any clue just what the hell they mean by that.

    Quite soothful, thanks for bringing the discussion.

    1. I beg to differ; a more personalized, more meaningful experience is most precisely what I desire, and I know exactly what I mean by that. I mean that I want my actions to change the world, and to have irrevocable impacts on everything and everyone around me in proportion to the magnitude of my actions. That is to say, I want what I DO in virtual worlds to matter, in the same way it does in the real world. I want to be able to embody a true hero or villain, and to have that mean something to other players, and to the NPCs and world at large.

      I desire agency.

  2. Moondog is quite right, if everyone has the choice A or B, this is not really too personalized.

    In all MMOs we cannot really change the world – EVE claims that (chaos theory enters here) your actions in a tiny frigate can cause or prevent a war in some trailers a bit too much for my liking, but indeed it is a sandbox driven by player actions. Quest driven games cannot offer this.

    Imagine if there would be an instance/phase for every decision differnet players made at different times. Ugh…! :)

    What would be nice would be a one (instanced) server world approach where player actions really can change the entire servercluster/world. This would really create a changing world, and not a static content world that nobody cares about once he fiinshed this or that dungeon/quest/mission already several times. It would be nice if player chars would die a natural death of old age after 3 months or so… imagine the possibilities! :)

  3. NPC mumbling can make all the difference between a dynamic world and a dead one. This is a lesson I learned long, long ago, back in my SNES days.

    In Secret of Mana, NPCs had their own canned generic phrase that they would repeat to you, regardless of where you were in the game.

    But in Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals, NPCs changed their dialogue with every little thing you did, whether it’s clearing out the nearby cave or taking out the local Sinistral. Everyone had their own little story to tell, so I would run back to earlier towns to find out what had transpired in my absence. That alone made the game a lot more memorable and enjoyable.

  4. I’ll tell you what I don’t like (for free even!): When just to advance (get XP, whatever) you have to do things that you wouldn’t normally. Like help the Royal Alchemical Society with their plague that will cause “Death to the Scourge! And death to the living!” That seems like an entire couple of zones. Whereas by not helping D.E.H.T.A. all I did was miss out on a small chunk of content that would have probably annoyed me anyway. What I’d like is an option where the bad guys (whoever you think the bad guys are) tell you their plans, and you have the option to thwart them, rather than just doing or not doing the quest chain.

    I’m not really too bothered about whether I change the world in MMOs, though a bit of phased content is nice :)

    1. Word. Let us deny those quests with which we do not agree and instead choose others. Don’t force us to agree with things that are Out Of Character in order to progress a linear plotline.

  5. I agree with you on the drawbacks of story-driven RPGs. A game makes a poor delivery vehicle for a complex narrative.

    On the other hand, the argument for not playing alts in MMOs falls down, in my opinion, because MMOs aren’t primarily a narrative form. Most of them barely have any kind of narrative worthy of the name, and even where they do it’s almost entirely incidental.

  6. I think this idea that BioWare is developing (in Dragon Age:Origins also) is akin to what happened at the early age of of tabletop RPGs, when people used to play “linear scenarios” with very little room for player’s deep influence. It was ok at first, but after a while you feel like the content (which is “flat” in MMOs atm, where you feel you can access it all) is not reacting to your actions. A game experience where you can, further down the road of your adventures, feel the consequences of some of your actions can add meaningful depth to the storyline, making you “feel” the story better. Ideally you’d want MMO to have bits of it, in the sense maybe of “story adaptation” rather than modification so that you can explore the full content, but it’s tailored to your character.

  7. I understand the concern, but really it’s a measure of how good a game like Dragon Age is that I stopped caring about what other decisions might have been like and settled down to enjoying the results of the oens which I had made.

    It’s like the difference of playing RPGs with a GM you trust who will work with you and your character to make a cool story and playing a choose-your-own-adventure book where you might turn a page and fall into an unannounced death trap.

    I think with games like ME2, the question is whether you can learn to trust the game or not.

    1. Trust is HUGE. If you have to go to an external flowchart/wiki/FAQ to get the most out of a game’s story or mechanics (*glare at FF series*), in my eyes, that’s Twinkie Denial territory, and ultimately, evidence that you can’t trust the game to be interesting (or even playable) on its own. If trust is broken, it can kill a game.

      I’ve been playing FFXII finally, and apparently, I’ve missed out on the Zodiac Spear because I opened an innocuous chest early in the game without knowing it would have any effect. That’s not a huge deal unless said spear is necessary to get the most out of the story. I think I’ll be OK without the spear, but it still bothers me that now I can’t trust that it’s OK to open *any* treasure chest, since I don’t know if I’ll be cutting some part of the game off *without knowing why or how I did so*. Choices without a clear understanding of what is being chosen or how it will affect the future aren’t good choices.

      *cue political tangent*

      1. You’re safe. The Zodiac Spear was the only thing they stuck in there, hidden in an optional area of the game if you happened to know the right combination of chests not to open. And you most certainly don’t need it to beat the game – it’s almost better not to have it, as it has a high enough attack to render some things almost pointless.

  8. Yeah I agree with about the unseen consequences, they can annoy me too. It raises doubts that Bioware is going to make that mistake with ST:TOR, making a lot of story-driven instances that affect later instances and their availability to players, and thus divide players into smaller and smaller groups. They could make the instances replayable and decisions rewrittable, but that’s going to create a whole load of headaches of it’s own.

    What’s the alternative for storytelling and persistence in MMOs? Instances split up the population. Phasing in WoW does likewise. It’s funny but I think Mythic had the best idea with public quests. Add in scaling from skirmishes in Lotro. Reversiblity of the scenario so once one side is beaten it can eventually be reverted back the way it was originally, but not resetting instantly, i.e. limited persistence. Then collect a few of these public quests together into a campaign, so for example once 3 are completed an extra one is opened up, and so on.

  9. I really don’t like when they introduce morality. Even all the ones people celebrated like The Witcher I felt were just too black and white many times. And often the selfish/bad path is just outright evil or bullying.

    For instance, i have never seen a game where there is a reward for a playing a character that believes in “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps”. You either have to constantly help people, or be a bully and insult and beat them up. If you don’t then you will miss out on something later (such as cheaper Force Powers in the KOTOR series).

    Dragon Age:Origins probably comes closest to having different moral choices that don’t punish you. In short I get so dissapointed by the paths I feel like often they are not worth pursuing. I wonder if they had a more diverse writing staff if that would help give us more choices by merely having more worldviews to influence them.

    1. Morality? Blame Richard Garriott and his Ultima series for that :)

      Reminds me of Yahtzee’s rant about morality in his Bioshock review. Mother Theresa eating babies, mmm.

  10. If it’s of any conselation, the other thing the recent Bioware RPGs do exceptionally well is make you feel like the path you chose was the right one. With the exception of the ending portion of Dragon Age and a couple of the more extreme “jerk” options, I’ve never felt that I’ve chosen anything other than the most appropriate, satisfying and epic route, regardless of my choices.

    1. Yeah, that’s a claim to BioWare’s fame… I wonder if that would even be possible in a persistent, I-will-play-this-same-character-for-100-hours MMO?

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