Sunday, November 20, 2016

Enemy Of My Enemy: Some Thoughts On Faction In Kunark And Elsewhere : EQ2

Telwyn at GamingSF has a thought-provoking post up called "Kunark factions and character loyalties". It chimes with some things I've been thinking about this week as I've been playing through the Adventure and Tradeskill Signature questlines in Kunark Ascending. The two tracks run in parallel for the most part but there are moments when you can almost see the sparks fly as the two streams cross.

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.

I love faction work as a game activity. I find the slow process by which my characters incrementally improve their standing with a particular race, city, organization or other grouping within the game both relaxing and satisfying. It's always there in the background, something you can pick up and lay down as the mood takes you. Something to do when you can't think of something to do. I miss it in modern MMOs that don't use it.

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.


  1. I am not much of a PVP player but your discussion on careful AOE use reminded me of a peculiarity I experienced in WoW only yesterday. I had a world quest in a PVP area that I wanted the reward for. Not a big PVP fan as mentioned, but I went into the area.

    The quest was to kill NPCs and or Players until a sufficient number were dead. I noticed everyone was only killing NPCs. Enemy faction members would run right by me at low health to get the NPC. seems that is where the efficiency was.

    So, I fought with my enemy in a PVP flagged area and everyone - and I mean everyone - was careful not to engage each other. As a Bear Druid it meant my damage was very limited (2 of my core attacks are AOE)...

    I found it all very weird, but didn't want to disrupt the way people were playing. Felt so wrong.

    1. We used to get a lot of this in Rift when I played at launch. There were no separate servers for PvE/PvP. You had to flag if you wanted to fight. Rift, however, was built around huge, open-world battles and healing someone who had flagged for PvP would automatically flag you for PvP too. Throwing AE heals during an invasion or a rift would frequently leave unsuspecting PvE players open to attack by players on the opposite faction. Imagine the fun!


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