Sunday, 15 September 2013

Another World or Questing In Eorzea : FFXIV:ARR

A while back Syl posted a thoughtful and timely piece on how the MMO wheel turns, how content and mechanics that once were popular become stale, drifting out of use for a while only to reappear in due time and to great acclaim as something fresh and new. Hardly surprising, perhaps, since the same process happens in just about every aspect of our lives.

Bitter Vet Syndrome.

A few days later J3w3l noted that having the complete, undirected freedom of the sandbox isn't the universal good it's sometimes claimed to be, even for its advocates and some kind of guidance on where to go and what to do next is needed to bring the possibilities into focus.

Opening for Morale Officer at The Silver Bazaar. Must be indefatigably perky.

The apparent popularity of the revamped FFXIV has taken many by surprise, not least Square Enix themselves. The Nosy Gamer comments on his most recent Digital Dozen report, in which FFXIV pushes GW2 down to third, seizing the second place ArenaNet's creation has occupied consistently since launch "That level of interest is unsustainable (I think) so I'm interested to see what the numbers look like on 6 October when the free month expires for those who purchased the game at or before launch." Me too, especially after it was pointed out last night that the Goblin server, on which I play and which had been re-opened, is once again closed to new characters, with short queues popping in prime-time even after Square added a 30 minute afk kick.

FFXIV is often referred to as an "old school" MMO. It's a fair description, if only in comparison to recent entrants to the genre. Most of the major and not-so-major Western launches of the last couple of years - TERA, Neverwinter, GW2, Planetside2, Defiance, Dragon's Prophet - have relied on fast-paced, action-led gameplay. In a period when, arguably, The Secret World represents the nearest thing to a traditional MMO on offer, FFXIV really does fly the flag for the familiar and comfortable feel of level-based, quest-driven progression towards a Trinity-centred, dungeon/raid-based gear-grind endgame.

And some form of depressive illness, unless I miss my mark.

Everything we all said we never wanted to see again, in other words. Apparently we lied. Or were mistaken. Or something. Maybe quality just will out, because other than the log-in and launch infrastructure issues caused by its unexpected popularity, as a game FFXIV arrived in an eminently polished, finished, content-rich, bug-free state. Perhaps it is all about the polish in the end.

Quality and polish aside, though, go back a year or three and I was one of those people who thought we'd seen enough static content in general and very particularly enough of those quest hubs where NPCs hang out wearing punctuation for a hat. The taste of dynamic content in Rift was sweet for a while and even when it cloyed it left a taste for more. Freeforming in GW2 lasted well and still holds its flavor. EQNext remains the outstanding object of my desires. Given that I also have no interest in gear-grinding, repeated dungeon-running, raiding or endgames in general, I would say my interest in new forms for the genre remains as far from being over as it is from being satisfied.

In which we learn that the recruitment process for the Yellowcoats is not as rigorous as it could be.

So why am I playing so much FFXIV and enjoying it so much?

Well, there's the wonderful way it looks, of course, already so heavily documented here and in the hundreds upon hundreds of screenshots taken. There's the opportunity to explore a fantastic and fantastical world with, as Lani so accurately put it in the comments, "the minimum of Achievement B$". There are the involving and interweaving classes, the intriguing races, both playable and otherwise, the whimsy and the lore, all covered here at least in passing. There's the excellent narrative, of which once again, given my previously expressed distrust even of the concept as it applies in MMOs, let alone as a core game mechanic, my wholehearted endorsement could be construed at best as ironic, at worst hypocritical.

Are you sure you don't need your glasses, S'nairoh?

Then there are the quests. Ah yes, the quests. Now we get to the heart of it. In the post linked above Syl took particular exception to these and she's not alone, not nearly. Keen, as I mentioned elsewhere, loathes them. J3w3l despises them. I bloody love 'em!

Are they anything new? No, they are not. All your old favorites - kill these, carry this, get me that, guard me here, take him there. The mechanics matter exactly as much and as little as the condition of your seat in the cinema; comfortable enough not to distract is all that's required. In MMOs I come to quests primarily to learn about the lives of the people who really live there, the full-timers, the NPCs. If running errands for them opens the door to their lives as they're lived when I'm not around, even a little, then it's a very small price to pay. 

Everquest, contrary to its name, famously wasn't about questing, yet it was as shot through with quests as the gold threads in a lounge-singer's tux. You could talk to any NPC and they'd talk back and if you could hit on just the right tone maybe you'd be asked a favor that would let you see a sliver of his life. Coming from a background of text adventures in the 1980s it all seemed entirely natural to me.

The Miqo'te? Oh, that's where she went! We thought she was lost!
(Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)

Then along came WoW. Quests stepped out of the backstreets and bars to take up their positions in the squares and crossroads of Azeroth. Like prophets foretelling the end-times the new breed of questgivers held their placards high, demanding attention. That's how it stayed until the dynamic wave, now seemingly receding, washed them all away, replacing them with a world wherein work was handed out with a nod and a wink or a tug at the shoulder and quests became something that happened to you, not by your agency.

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Which is all fine and dandy and well and good and long may it continue, but just because we invented television doesn't mean there's no more use for the radio, or, more appositely, for books. I like reading, a peccadillo that extends even to the text in computer games. Well-written prose is well-written prose wherever you find it and when I find it I appreciate it.

The Secret World stands as the high-water mark of MMO prosody thus far. FFXIV quest text
can't match those standards. It is, however, sufficiently deft and mellifluous to merit close reading for pleasure. It's quirky, nimble, amusing and occasionally poignant. It's also remarkably consistent in tone and style, as though the entirety of the quest codex was compiled by a single individual, clearly one steeped in both the traditions and tropes of the genre and, somewhat unpredictably, possessed of a sound working knowledge of British vernacular and dialect speech.

Says a lot about the goblin mind. Such as it is.

Is it worth playing FFXIV just to read the quests, the way it certainly is worth playing TSW to watch and listen to the cutscenes? No, they aren't that good. If you're already playing FFXIV, though, do the quests, the optional, side quests, not the obligatory class and main storyline narratives, add enormously to the pleasure and depth of the experience? I contend that they do.

Put aside the knowledge that yet again you're setting out to kill an arbitrary number of irrelevant creatures. Ignore the inevitable suspicion that having done so you'll be sent straight back to pick up something you passed on the first trip. Think instead about what it means to the notional person who sent you on this errand, how he expressed his needs to you and how your actions will, or won't, change his life.

If you let them, these vignettes will open windows into another world.

8 comments:

  1. Haha, I wouldn't exactly say despise although they did irritate. Those chat bubbles, the vast amounts of dribble, the back and forth fetching.. Even the ridiculous npc names kind of denoted the experience as a joke (I know understand why bots are named as they are, they're square Enix employees!)

    You do make it all sound oddly intriguing though, and if I wasn't over that launch day fever I would probably pick it up again. In the mean time I'll just live vicariously through your own experiences..

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    1. The NPC names actually have a surprising amount of species-consistant rules made for them (for instance, you can tell which tribe any individual of a race belongs to simply by looking at their name). Roegadyn Seawolves even have an entire dictionary of how their names are put together. As a name-nerd in MMOs, I found it pretty cool how there was actually effort put into these seemingly-random at first glance names.

      If you don't visit the Lore forum on the official boards, though, all those nuances are not explained anywhere else.

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    2. If you only saw the Lominsians you'd assume the names were either randomly generated using an algorithm that didn't differentiate between vowels and consonants or that the devs had just thrown a bag of Scrabble tiles in the air. When you look at the other races living and trading in La Noscea, though, or travel to the other cities, it begins to dawn on you that if every other NPC has a name that clearly follows certain rules and, y'know, looks like an actual name you could imagine pronouncing, then it's quite likely the Lominsians know something about their naming conventions that you don't.

      Similarly it took me a long time to realize that all the public notices and signs that I took to be either pure gibberish or a made-up language in the mode of GW2 were in fact in English but using an extremely baroque font.

      One of the things that particularly endears FFXIV to me is the way all this stuff is there but is never explained or even brought to your attention. It gives the whole thing a depth of field that feels very satisfying. The other side of the coin, however, is that it can very easily be missed completely, giving entirely the wrong impression.

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    3. Yeah, the Seawolf Roegadyn names are some unholy derivative or Welsh or old German or something. There's a pronunciation guide on the Lore forums for them. You totally understand why the Hellsguard just translate them into english (they're the ones with names like 'Cracked Fist' and 'Tall Willow').

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  2. ... It looks like Sweetnix is eating your head in the last screenie. :P Nice pics though!

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    1. The perennial problem of the Lalafel, to have every conversation with your head stuck somewhere you'd rather it wasn't! There's also a really annoying bug that spins the camera to point directly up during interactions with NPCs so you end up looking up their noses.

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  3. I do appreciate these aspects to the game, although I'm not convinced with the storytelling being that great. The little stories as you state above, those about individual characters lives are often excellent. But the overarching "main storyline" quests seem often to be poorer quality. I'm not a fan of some of the voice acting, if you're going to include voice at all, I'd say quality matters. Most jarring for me was the bizarre visions of the Empire protagonists just before the first dungeon. It went on far too long and was just plain *bad* IMHO.

    The overall message of this post about going back to story-by-quest gaming I'm fully in agreement with though. At present I'm back into LOTRO with a vengeance for this very reason. It's a game with layers of depth and detail hidden in the quest narratives.

    Telwyn@gamingsf (gah, the link between Wordpress and Blogspot doesn't seem to be working this morning!)

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    1. I'm finding the main storyline quite compelling and I particularly liked the long Garlean Empire sequence, which took me completely by surprise. The frequent and lengthy cut-scenes do sometimes make me feel I'm watching a movie rather than playing a game, but as with TSW, where it often felt like I was attending a festival of Independent Short Films, I don't really have a problem with it so long as I'm enjoying what I'm watching.

      The voice acting, however, is something else entirely. It's terrible, for one thing, but that's not unusual in MMOs. What I have never seen/heard before and hope never to again is the kind of partial, incomplete and inconsistent voiceover Square are offering here. I can see no other explanation than that they ran out of time/budget for the voice-work and just launched with whatever they had in the can. It's very jarring to have voice-overs stop and start at different points of the same cut-scene and you never know, going from one stage to the next, whether there will be audio or not.

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