It's not uncommon, when playing MMOs, to find that what your character is being asked to do doesn't fit seamlessly with your conception of that character's motivations or personality, but when you run up against something so out of synch that it triggers a burst of cognitive dissonance it can be disconcerting. As I've mentioned a couple of times, the whole Greenmist storyline doesn't sit well with my (mostly) loyal Lucan-supporting, naturalized Freeport citizen ratonga.
That narrative strand, which goes back to EQ2's original Kunark-based expansion "Rise of Kunark" and forms the spine of the Adventure questline in the new expansion, is difficult enough to reconcile with his understanding of himself. Add in the complex, nested set of deceptions and intrigue between the ruling elites of Freeport, Neriak and Maldura that underpin both the current expansion and the previous one, Terrors of Thalumbra, and I confess both my character's motivations and moral compass seem to have swung wildly askew.
|When you find yourself nodding in agreement with a lecture on morality given by a goblin, you know you're in trouble.|
Not unmanageably so, however. I'm comfortable playing characters caught up in events so large and complex that the demands and rigors of political intrigue behind them go well beyond their pay grades let alone their ability to resist.
And there's an exceptionally demanding requirement for "suspension of disbelief" in playing any MMO in the first place. Almost any aspect of any MMO you care to name will be incapable of sustaining even a superficial logic check. If you can't sustain a little doublethink then MMOs are probably not the genre for you.
All the same, there are limits.
The "Faction" mechanic used widely throughout the EverQuest franchise, an analog of which can commonly be found among many first and second generation MMOs, is in part an attempt to manage the cognitive dissonance caused simply by playing these games. Ironically perhaps, it's a mechanic over which I've been two in minds since the beginning.
What I don't like, however, and have never liked, is the formulaic, rote implementation. The way a player can adjust the standing of a character with faction one simply by culling another. What this has always meant in practice is that faction is impermanent and malleable to such a degree that it generally represents no barrier at all. If you want to have all the benefits of allying first to one faction, then later to that faction's sworn enemy, all you need is time and patience.
This can lead to the kind of cynical, self-serving or merely pragmatic decision-making that is the antithesis of the "role-playing" mindset for which the MMO genre is, probably erroneously, named. In the conflicting Adventure and Crafting storylines of Kunark Ascending, I'm currently stymied by my refusal to kill the same goblins, while wearing my Adventurer hat, that I just spent several evenings befriending as a Crafter.
In gaming terms there is no issue. I just need to kill half a dozen goblins for a single quest and not even a core quest at that. The faction drop that would create (even assuming there is a faction drop for killing them, which, since I haven't killed any yet, I can only surmise) would be trivial compared to the thousands of points of faction my Weaponsmith can accrue from a few dailies taking a few minutes to complete.
In role-playing terms, however, the gap is unbridgeable. These aren't wandering goblins he could pick off, furtively, out of sight, in another part of the forest. (He is, at least nominally, "Evil" after all). The goblins in question are right in the middle of Twark, the goblin settlement, in clear view of all the named goblins with whom I've taken time and trouble to establish my good intentions until now.
This is not an unusual situation for an MMO but over the years the effort made by game designers to avoid this kind of open conflict of interest has diminished almost to nothing. Gone are the days of carefully finding a corner of Freeport, where no guards path, then luring your target into the alleyway for a mugging. Now you can slaughter citizens to your black heart's content right in the town square and provided you're careful with your open AEs no-one will bat an eyelid.
All of this doesn't spoil my enjoyment, or not too much, anyway. Times change. It does mean that sometimes there are quests I won't do, even though I would like the reward. That's fine.
Less fine are the times when one of these emotional roadblocks lies squarely in the path of the progress of a lengthy narrative. When you're several hours in and committed it becomes that much harder to hold to principles that are, after all, notional in a virtual world. Easier to say "it's just a game", swallow the sour taste and do whatever needs to be done to keep moving forward.
Every time that happens, though, a thread pulls loose and the tapestry frays a little more. The big picture is made up of fine details. Keep blurring the view and one day you won't be able to tell what you're looking at any more.
There is a self-imposed solution to all this. More than one. You can keep conflicting content for different characters. You can roleplay a narcissistic sociopath. You can get over yourself.
As MMOs move further and further away from their origins in Pen and Paper roleplaying so the number of people who care about any of this, players and developers alike, diminishes. In an environment where most players don't even read the quest text or watch the cut scenes it may well be that the average player not only doesn't care but doesn't even notice.
I do, though, and it itches a little.