Monday, July 10, 2017

Taking Sides

Syp started the ball rolling last week when he suggested MMORPGs would be better without side quests. As well as spawning its own lengthy comment thread, the modest proposal sparked replies at GamingSF and Endgame Viable along with a comprehensive and convincing rebuttal from Azuriel at In An Age.

I've been mulling all week. I find my own views are...complex. Contradictory. Conflicted.

My instinctive response was to leap to the defense of the "Side Quest" as a fundamental, structural component of the entire genre: one of those essential elements without which it would be awkward to argue a game was an MMO at all. That lasted about as long as it took me to remember all the MMOs that have managed passably well without one or more of those so-called "essentials". Levels, dungeons, races, classes - you name it and you can bet some developer threw it under a bus back in pre-alpha.

It would, then, without question, be possible to design an MMORPG with no side quests and still have it be, indisputably, an MMO. But would that be a good idea?

No. Not to my mind. For one thing, Azuriel's argument, that "Sidequests are the mechanism by which imaginary worlds are built" is persuasive.

Trapper Borgus? Trapper Bogus, more like!
So-called side quests are often the parts you remember best, longest and most fondly. I'd be pushed to recall a single line of dialog from the "Ages End" storyline that formed the narrative spine of EQ2 for a decade but certain phrases from far less portentous plots come back to me over and over, like restless ghosts.

Mrs Bhagpuss and I often croak "Oh, my aching back!" in imitation of the malingering dwarf who doles out a series of tedious "quests" at the entrance to Thundering Steppes. I recently added someone to my GW2 friends list purely on the strength of a conversation we had that began when I sent him a tell about his character, who he'd named after Baby Joseph Sayer. Only a week ago Mrs Bhagpuss, making a new character, named her after a quest-giver from a quest she hasn't done in a decade. I could go on. And on.

Side quests are like off-topic conversations in a movie. They bring both the characters and the world they inhabit to life. It's more than two decades since I last saw Pulp Fiction, for example, but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of it is the "Royale with cheese" speech.

That scene does absolutely nothing to further the main plot but it's of paramount importance as to why the movie had such an extensive and long-lasting impact on cinema. Seemingly irrelevant details like this make the difference between bumping your nose on the back of a wardrobe or pushing on past fir branches covered in snow.

Suuure you did. Got a doctor's note?
Apart from being the warp (or is the weft?) in the weave of the world, side quests are also integral to gameplay. Or they are if you want to have a particular kind of game. You can hardly call your game "EverQuest" and then not put any quests in it, can you?

And yet...

The original EQ did indeed have plenty of quests but you didn't have to do any of them, not if you didn't want to. You could level up, equip yourself and generally find plenty to justify your $14.99 a week without ever stooping so low as to do a favor for an elf or help a halfling out of a bind.

What's more, the game kept its quests to itself. There were no feathers over anyone's head, no question marks or exclamation points or slowly rotating neon donuts hanging in the air. If you wanted to find out if an NPC had something on her mind you had to ask - and not by right-clicking and listening to a voice actor or watching a cut scene, either.

No, you had to read a wall of text and then type in a reply. If you were good at spotting keywords or just sufficiently verbose you'd get an answer and on it went. And you had to pay attention. The game didn't record anything in a journal for you. There was no journal, other than the notepad and pencil you kept next to your 15" CRT monitor.

Well, you were either there and you know all this or you weren't and you really don't need to. We won't be going back there again, will we? Oh, wait...

Of course, those weren't "side quests". We didn't have side quests back then. We just had quests.

In fact, we couldn't have side quests. Can't have sides without a main and main quests hadn't been invented yet. I played EQ, Dark Age of Camelot, Anarchy Online, The Realm, Endless Ages - a whole bunch of early noughties MMOs. If any of those had a through-line or a central narrative or a Main Quest Sequence then I never tripped over it.

"Quest". It's "Quest"! For heaven's sake get the jargon right!
Come to think of it, that doesn't mean there wasn't one. Just that, if there was, I neither knew nor needed to know about it. The games themselves certainly made no attempt to push Story at me. What they served up was Lore and plenty of it. Also, world-changing events, but even those you mostly had to discover for yourself. If there was a story it was one we lived, not followed.

That pre-lapsarian world lasted a few years. Then World of Warcraft came along and changed everything. Or so the legend goes. And, yes, it's undeniably true that WoW's model of gameplay, particularly the level-by-quest format that's relevant to this discussion, was adopted so widely over the following decade that it came to constitute a new orthodoxy for the genre.

But it was WoW's unprecedented commercial success that irrevocably and inaccurately attributed the quest-based format to the first ever MMO, leaving every other developer toddling along behind, hanging on to Blizzard's shirt-tails . In fact, by the time WoW launched, the floodgates had already breached. EQ2, which launched two weeks before Azeroth opened its doors to the paying public, plumped for an almost identical system. Quest-driven gameplay was set to become the meta for the genre whether or not WoW got there first.

Over the years that followed questing became so ubiquitous, so unavoidable, that whatever luster it briefly enjoyed, tarnished. And yet, even as excitement over unfettered access to an infinitude of unrelated quests began to fade, along came Lord of the Rings Online, upping the ante with its inevitable foregrounding of a central quest-line so portentous no-one could hope to ignore it.

The final nail in the coffin of player freedom hammered home when BioWare joined the party; with their Fourth Pillar the assimilation was complete. MMOs had morphed into single-player RPGs that single players didn't have to play on their own. Go, socializers!

Almost without anyone noticing there was anything odd about it, we woke up in a future where every MMO, even supposed sandboxes, had to have a plot. A story. A narrative. A beginning, a middle and an end. It was like a collective bad dream from which the genre is only now beginning to awaken.

Wait while I get you another pint, old-timer. Then you can tell me more about your fascinating life. Said no-one, ever.
How did it happen? And why, exactly? Why did just being in a world, killing monsters, leveling your character and getting better gear cease to be enough? How did MMORPGs sleep-walk into becoming a narrative medium?

Don't look at me. I drank the same Kool-Aid  everyone else did. And, like I said, I'm conflicted.

It's not as though I don't welcome some direction. I was never swept up by the sandbox craze that followed the perceived failure of the Theme Park narrative. I like to go my own way, sure, but the exhilaration of taking the path less taken requires there be a path more taken, too.

I've heaped enough praise on The Secret World's story, after all. I'm invested in the GW2 "School for Dragon Slayers" plotline even though I know it's incoherent nonsense. I've even found much to like in the ultra-linear central narratives of the likes of Twin Saga and Blade and Soul. I enjoy a good - or even not-so-good - story as much as the next addict.

Stepping back, though, trying to be objective for once in my life, I have to wonder whether, rather than putting side quests on ice, it isn't the Main Quest itself that should be deep-sixed. If side quests add breadth and depth to the world, don't main quests try to put that world in a box and close the lid? When it comes to exploring a new world, the contrast between side quests and main quests can feel like the difference between hitch-hiking across the USA and taking a "twelve cities in ten days" coach tour.

You'd better close that fourth wall - I think your meta's showing.

None of which is meant to suggest that side quests are perfect as they are. The love and attention the writers give to some side quests make reading the label on the back of the ketchup bottle feel like studying classical literature by comparison and, much though I love settling down to a good evening's rat-killing, I'd hardly describe pest control as "questing. I'd far rather see a bulletin board in the market square or a notice pinned to a wall, signed by the relevant council official, declaring open season on vermin, than have to listen to some NPC's spurious backstory, trumped up in an intern's lunch-hour to justify the slaughter.

As players we need stuff to do - but everything we do doesn't have to come with a tale attached.
That's why someone invented "tasks. Or "missions", if you still want to be able to pretend to yourself that what you're doing matters.

Quests, though; if you're going to dignify them with the name, quests require gravitas. Or humor. Or pathos. Something.

I'm all for improving the quality of side quests. Reducing the quantity, though? Or eliminating them entirely? Nope. I'm dead set against it. In fact, I want more and I want better.

As for grand, all-encompassing, over-arching Main Questlines, well, if there's a petition going around to get Main Quests out of MMOs and back into single-player RPGs, where they belong, show me where to sign! I've got my pen right here.

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