Saturday, 29 October 2016

We're All Stories, In The End : EQ, EQ2, GW2

Somewhere back in the dawn of time I played tabletop RPGs like AD&D, Golden Heroes and Swordbearer. In an eerie pre-echo of my much more extensive MMO experience, during the four or five years our gaming group lasted we tried out a dozen or so games. We'd pick them up, give them a shake, then drop them. It wasn't unlike the "three-monther" phenomenon that ripped through MMO-land for a while.

Those RPGs varied wildly in content, style and systems but one thing they all had in common was the structure. Every one expected a gaming group to follow some kind of narrative arc or storyline.

Oh, there would be adventures along the way; some scripted, some created on the fly, randomly generated or out of whole cloth at the wit or whim of the GM. Regardless of sidebars and discursions, however, the accepted and understood purpose would always be to reach some goal, known or unknown and, eventually, to find out what the heck was going on.

When I eventually arrived in Norrath, well over a decade after I'd rolled my final D20, I found myself in a world with none of that certainty.  RPGs had been all about the story but MMOs seemed to be all about the world.

No graphics engine has ever been created that could match the power of imagination. Even with Virtual Reality probably none ever will. EverQuest's late-90s era 3D visuals, seen on a 14" CRT monitor, more than half of which was obscured by the UI frame, clearly had no chance of competing with the wonders I conjured up in my mind. None at all.

Yet, almost from the first moment, Norrath was the experience that felt more intense, more visceral, more real. Thrusting a rusty sword in the general direction of shapes barely-identifiable as bats as they flapped against a backdrop of muddy textures, - yellow supposed-to-be sand and blue supposed-to-be sky - I was there.


Seventeen years later and I'm still there even though, after all that time, I scarcely have any clearer idea why than I did when I began. Whatever the story has been I couldn't summarize, much less explain it. Most likely every MMORPG has some kind of storyline and yet, for me at least, most remain ineffably obscure.

Over the years MMO developers, designers and most especially writers have made all kinds of moves to foreground the narrative, drive the attention of the player towards the why as well as the how, the what and the where. From SW:ToR's infamous "Fourth Pillar" to TSW's enigmatic throughline to GW2's Personal and Living Stories, everybody's got a tale to tell.

Only, in the patchwork, makeshift, hotch-potch world of massively multiple roleplaying games, that narrative has to fight for interest and attention with everything else. In a tabletop game, no matter how unruly, anarchic and undisciplined the players, all activity must eventually lead back to the story - or else to the break-up of the group. An MMO can persist indefinitely, successfully even, although almost no-one playing pays any attention to the plot at all.

That's why I can have seventeen level 80 characters and thousands of played hours in Guild Wars 2 and yet never have completed the official storyline on any of them. There are people in my WvW guild, who've been playing since launch, who claim never even to have seen their Personal Story beyond the compulsory five minutes that makes up the Tutorial.

In GW2 I have, at least, seen the entirety of the original storyline, albeit only while helping Mrs Bhagpuss finish hers. And I've done all of the Living Story arcs at least once, right to the end. In EverQuest my knowledge of the storyline effectively ends at the understanding that yes, indeed, there is one.

For the first few years I played I'm not sure I even knew that much. In those days the story advanced almost exclusively through the high-level content added in each expansion, which, let's not forget, at that time SOE was pumping out at the astounding rate of twice a year. That meant raiding and I was never a raider so I never saw any of it.


I think the first time I can remember actively following, let alone understanding, the plot was with the arrival of the sixth expansion, Lost Dungeons of Norrath, in 2003. It was an expansion aimed largely at groups rather than raids. Prior to that, with the appearance of the The Nexus in Shadows of Luclin (2001) and the Plane of Knowledge and associated Books that came with Planes of Power (2002) all I really knew or cared was that I had new travel options for this almost incomprehensibly vast and mysterious world.

LDON had a relatively defined pre-expansion storyline involving the appearance of a new organization called The Wayfarers. Not only did they have some quests for you to do but they contacted you directly and suggested you might want to get on with doing them. As a direct result of that pro-active approach I found myself actively preparing for the launch of an expansion for the first time.

When Lost Dungeons landed it changed Norrath for me in a way no expansion before had managed. I would contend it changed EQ itself, and quite profoundly, if only for a while. There's a whole post in that. I must write it some day. For now let's just say that before LDoN I was a solo player who liked to group and after LDoN I was a group player who soloed while I waited for my group to fill.

For six months Mrs Bhagpuss and I did LDoN dungeons back to back, day after day, week after week. I already knew how to be a good group member, how to main heal, tank, pull, control crowds - the basics - but it was in LDoN that I refined those skills until they were so automatic I didn't need to think, just act. I came to appreciate and understand all the roles in a group and all the abilities of classes I didn't play. I learned tactics and strategies and most importantly I learned how to create, fill and lead a group.

It was, in the most fundamental sense, a formative experience. And yet, for all that, by the time the infamous Gates of Discord expansion arrived and broke up our happy gang (with the help of EQ2 and WoW, of course) I had scarcely any more idea who The Wayfarers were or why I was running six dungeons a night for them than I had when I started.

In a couple of weeks or so EQ2's thirteenth expansion, Kunark Ascending, will arrive. I pre-ordered it soon after it was announced and this week  I've been prepping. Not by doing the pre-expansion Public Quests; I haven't even seen one of those yet and looking at MJ's account I don't particularly care to. I've been following Feldon's To-Do List.


So far I have completed everything apart from the Greenmist Heritage Quest, which I started last night. My Berserker already knew Goblish and he did the Underdepths Saga back when Terrors of Thalumbra came out last year so those came pre-ticked.

The two colored tome language quests, Black and Red (although Red has now been removed from the pre-req as not req'd after all) were short and simple but To Speak As A Dragon is a famously time-consuming proto-epic that I've been avoiding for fourteen years. Well, I've done it now and all I can say is thank Brell I waited until I had a level 100 character with 150% flying speed and a wealth of instant travel options. Even without any fighting it took me nearly six hours!

To Speak As A Dragon deserves a post of its own. In fact that was the post I sat down to write this morning until my opening thoughts got away from me. I wandered off the path, forgot the storyline I was meant to be following. That's just how MMOs are.

When Kunark Ascending descends I'll be as ready as I can be; level 100, well-geared for Advanced Solo, all pre-reqs done. Of course, if I actually wanted to go for an Epic 2.0 weapon I'd have to go and do my Epic 1.0, something else I've studiously avoided until now. Maybe I will.

The way things are these days, I'll also have a rough idea of the plot. Only a rough one, though. The last half dozen or so EQ2 expansions have told a linear story and made it - mostly - available in solo instances as well as via group and raid. Even though I did the Terrors of Thalumbra Signature Questline, still about all I can remember is that Lanys T'Vyl is Up To Something and we don't like it

Like the ongoing, really quite interesting, storyline in GW2, in the end it's always going to be more set dressing than substance. In MMOs story always is. Your character might have to do some storyline work to get the gear or the titles or the zone access she wants but chances are you'll go on playing her long after that story's over and all the fine plot points are forgotten.

For all they share a common ancestry, MMOs aren't online RPGs. In a tabletop RPG, or even their CRPG pale shadows, the end of one story merely clears the stage so another can begin. In an MMO, finishing up the story frees up the stage for you to tell stories of your own.

I like it better that way.

5 comments:

  1. I hate plot in MMOs. Give me a world and some small stories that help give color to my own and that's it. I don't need characters/arcs/cutscenes/etc.

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    1. I wouldn't go that far. I like there to be an overarching storyline rumbling away somewhere in the background. I just prefer to learn about it in fragments, by hearsay and rumor. A plot is just another of the scores of components that go to make up an MMORPG. The problem comes when that plot moves from background to foreground.

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  2. I'm of the mindset of not really caring about story in my MMORPG's. I'm ok with an overarching story that ties everything together for the lore fans, but i don't want it force fed to me. I'd rather find clues here and there while exploring and getting myself killed.

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    1. Yep. That's about where I'm at, too.

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  3. The best element of story I remembered from GW2 was 1° the karka invasion and 2) the Marionette invasion in all maps.

    The thing is those stories impact the world, and your were only a pawn in an army. Especially the big invasion every two hours, you were just doing your stuff in the map, when a whole army of enemies - and then allies start to fight everywhere - and with the local fauna. Or you can experiment the feeling of being an army of savior being dispatched to help fight an enemy somewhere else. But it was happening within the world.

    Personal story or "living story" since always occurs in special instance created for that. This no longer happens within the world - but out of it.

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