Sunday, April 26, 2020

Common People

I should probably begin this post with an apology. I wrote it in response to Redbeard's thoughts about the importance of NPCs to our game worlds. There are two distinctly separate threads in Redbeard's post and I've allowed them to get horribly tangled in my reply.

The first is how important NPCs are to making the world feel inhabited, lived-in, convincing, real. It's something Bethesda found out the hard way in Fallout 76. Even when they realized their mistake it was far too late for some people.

The second is whether the ever-spiralling importance and significance of the player character in relation to events that shape the imaginary world serves to distance the player from the game. I should really have posted about the two things separately. I may well do that another time. For now, consider this a broad introduction to both topics.

On the first I wouldn't imagine there would be a huge degree of dissent. If you're interested in immersion, role-playing, narrative or lore, NPCs are absolutely essential. Even if all you care about are stats, gear, progression and glory, complete and total disinterest in the imaginary world that provide them would be difficult to maintain. If you really felt no need for any of that, chances are you'd be playing another kind of game entirely.

Anthropomorhic animals have a head start when it comes to emotional engagement.
Something like a battle royale, perhaps. As Mrrx explains in an excellent post on the game that's supposedly every parent's nightmare (tm The Daily Mail), there are plenty of ways to engage players without using NPCs. Just not in an MMORPG. Although maybe Fortnite is an MMORPG. I might wait until I've played it before I leap to any conclusions on that.

The extent to which NPCs matter varies from gameworld to gameworld. In games with strong, linear narrative structures like FFXIV there are times (quite a lot of times in my limited experience) when it seems as though the main reason players are even allowed into the game is to facilitate the stories of the NPCs.

In the kind of MMORPGs I prefer, the NPCs take something of a more democratic stance. They live there, you live there (well, your characters live there and you through them), you'd all just better try to get along.

In the original EverQuest, World Warcraft or EverQuest II, in Guild Wars 2 and most especially in the exemplary Vanguard, I never felt my characters were substantively different to the townsfolk, farmers and guards, who handed out jobs that felt like the kind of things Steinbeck would have had the Joads do, had they lived in Norrath not the Dust Bowl. The threats may have been wasps the size of turkeys or ratmen stealing apples but the reason they had to be stopped was so the crops could be brought in safely and merchants could bring them to market.

All of those games did have detailed and epic narratives but they took place somewhere high above the mortal perceptions of my humble characters. In some cases quite literally, away in other planes of existence.

EverQuest is one of the rare games I've played where even non-speaking NPCs seem to have personalities.
The practice then was to tell those stories only in raids. And by most estimates of the period only something like ten per cent of players raided. The rest of us picked up fragments, rumors, scattered news from the ethereal front lines.

It reminded me of warfare before modern telecommunications, where everyone knew something was going on, something that might change their entire way of existence, but it was all happening a long way away, somewhere across the water. If the war ever came to you, by the time you heard about it, it would be too late to do anything - as if you even could - so why worry? Meanwhile gnolls were stealing babies and orcs were in the woods and someone better do something about it and the someone might as well be you.

I used to feel very strongly about this kind of thing. Long before there were any MMORPGs I played a little Dungeons and Dragons. The group I was in played a bunch of different tabletop rpgs over five years or so in the mid-eighties but our first campaign was AD&D, first edition, and it set the pattern for all the others.

No-one was interested in fighting gods. We drew our line at trans-dimensional travel. Small dragons terrorizing market towns we might deal with if we felt no one else was going to do it The occasional minor demon lordling, at a pinch. By the time we hit level eight, though, our suspension of disbelief was shot.

That's why we kept starting over and over in new campaigns and new systems. Well, that and the insatiable curiosity for novelty among some of the group, plus the almost pathological passivity of the rest.

GW2 balances the very large with the very small rather well. Figuratively and literally.
When I transferred my roleplaying affections to online games I kept that mindset. Or tried. For many years I remained uncomfortable with extraplanar excursions and battles with demi-gods. I played so many characters partly so I could keep going back to the beginning, the leveling game, where the enemies were mortal and the stakes small.

As Redbeard says, "MMOs present a conundrum: you need to keep people interested by showing off "more" and "better" and "cooler" with each new expac". As characters get stronger so must their opponents and you can't sell your third, fourth, fifth expansion with a marketing campaign based on "yet more farmers with beetle problems in the lower fields, only this time the beetles are really big".

Developers seem to have two fundamental solutions to the problem of how to keep the players from noticing they just bought the same game for the umpteenth time: spectacular visuals and extremely big numbers. The new cities and zones become more fantastical, more other-worldly, more alien. The mobs become bigger and tougher and louder. All the numbers go up.

In many MMORPGs, higher levels turn into a dadaist fever dream, where you find yourself fighting woodland animals that could easily solo the raid bosses your guild took months to master a couple of years ago. Instead of battling ancient lich-lords you're back to beating up badgers because handing ten of their skins to a gate guard gets you a bracer better than the one the elder dragon dropped at the end of the last expansion.

My berserker in EQII now has 166 million hit points self-buffed. In solo instances the bolstering system bumps that to over half a billion. I upgraded one of his Ascension spells to Expert yesterday. It hits for between 86,340,040 and 178,114,878. The numbers are so big I can't read them without punctuation. That spell can be upgraded three more times.

Gnomes, eh? What you can do? Well, punt them, obviously.
Account based systems just confuse matters further. All my characters in Guild Wars 2 have senior military rank. Everyone who's anyone recognizes them on sight, even though most of them have never done anything more adventurous than some dailies and a few holiday events. It's disorienting. At least my EQII characters had to finish a few quests before people started addressing them as Mortal Champion or Drakinvess.

At some point it really ceases to matter whether opponents are the avatars of gods or overgrown domestic pests. Trying to hold the line on suspension of disbelief in the face of numbers that big would be fatuous and self-indulgent. It's a game now. The only question is whether it's a good one.

As the explosions get larger, the stakes higher (We have to save the world! What? Again?) and the numbers bigger, immersion and emotional involvement, for me at least, retreat into a dark corner and sulk. NPCs, though, they just keep on trucking.

Each new hub city, each forward camp and outpost, needs to be populated with people for whom all this is normal life. Or life, anyway. Often the NPCs I find myself working with seem almost at a loss to understand how they got there. Particularly the gnomes. The number of quests I end up taking on for gnomes who've somehow found themselves out of their depth in dangeorus waters yet again would fill a large volume of my virtual memoirs.

Social distancing in Khal bank.
I don't mind the gnomes. Their confusion and ineptitude does, at least, make some attempt at grounding the insane enterprises in which we engage. I'm in no doubt what I'd prefer, though.

Nothing beats recognizeable, human-scale cities and villages, their streets filled with murmuring shopkeepers and the hum of daily life. Bree in Lord of the Rings Online, as Redbeard suggests, or my favorites, Ahgram and Khal in Vanguard. It's ironic the full name of that game is Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. It always felt so much more like Vanguard: Tales of Ordinary Folk.

But Vanguard enjoyed the luxury of failure. There was never even a first expansion to shunt us into the Planes or back to the alien homeworlds from which several of the playable races supposedly came. It's easy to stay true to your roots if you never leave home.

I suspect incompetent NPCs, battles with demigods and vastly inflated numbers will be the best MMORPG players can expect for the foreseeable future. Better that than maintenance mode and closure, I guess.

Might as well just accept it and play on.


  1. Ironically enough, I think Elder Scrolls Online has a way out of this exact problem of immersion with their fantastic adaption of level adjustment. Out in the field, no matter where you are, there are things lurking out beyond the cities that can kill you. No matter that they're in a starter zone or a new expac zone, ESO's level scaling adjusts so well that you have no problems believing that there's a dangerous Tamriel out there.

    To be honest, when I first started playing ESO after the Morrowind expac was integrated into the base game, I thought Morrowind was a starter zone since that was where people started. I only found out later that it was a full expac, and a decent number of people out in the world were actually at (roughly) max level, having the same issues killing baddies as I was.

    The only --and it HAD to be major-- issue with ESO is the story itself. You hang around with the exact opposite of the hoi palloi so much that you lose sight of what those common people are about.

    Even the original design path for WoW would have been better than what ended up happening: more and more raids in different parts of the world rather than a "bigger better more more more" expac track that has long since exited the world of reality and now ventures into discussions with whether it makes any sense to throw the lore of the original Warcraft and Vanilla WoW out the freaking window just to make things edgier and more conducive to the latest expac.

    Maybe some people like the expacs because, like a telenovela, you get to see the double dealing and exploits of the elite of a game world (minus the sex, of course; can't have that in WoW apparently). But when WoW's game world timeline from Vanilla to now is far less time than even the Napoleonic Wars, it's kind of hard to maintain immersion when --as you put it-- "We have to save the world! What? Again?" becomes standard operating procedure.

    All in all, a great post!

    1. I wish I liked ESO more. The aspects you mention always seem well done but I find the writing turgid and the combat unenjoyable. Visually it's impressive but that's not really enough to keep me motivated when I try to play it. I'm often thinking of having another go though.

      The issue of endless world-threatening crises is a perennial problem but Guild Wars 2 seems to me to be a particularly bad example. They actually began with what could have been a five act structure with the Elder Dragons but they almost immediately veered way off course, first with the Scarlet storyline, then Palawa Joko.

      If we're going to be fighting gods and elemental forces I prefer the way these things are handled in EQ and EQII, which is with an episodic timeline that takes many years to resolve. At least that way you get a sense of scale. Playing the entire thing through on one character also helps.

    2. Oh my goodness is the ESO NPC dialogue so badly written.

      A long time ago in a literature class there was a big discussion about the writing style of James Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans and The Spy) versus Mark Twain (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn). Cooper's writing style was grounded in the English tradition of how dialogue should written, complete with flowery and overly long phrasing, while Twain wrote like how people actually talked. When you take that and examine ESO's dialogue, you see how it tries to be overly explanatory in the Cooper style as opposed to just speaking how an NPC would really talk.

      What I found when writing One Final Lesson was that if I spoke the dialogue out loud, I eliminated a lot of poor or overly winded phrasing. There are plenty of times in ESO that I wish that the writers had actually DONE that, because if they had they'd understand the dialogue sounded like it was stumbling all over itself. If they'd done GW2 and SWTOR did, with actual back and forth discussion between your toon and the NPC, it would have ended up a LOT better.

    3. And yet ESO gets plenty of praise for the writing. I'm fairly sure that's because the people writing it and the people praising it are all fans of the kind of 600 page fantasy novels that clog up the shelves of of the bookshop where I work. Except that instead of the long pasages of descriptive prose those books rely on, all we get is the stilted dialog, which is the part where most of those authors are weakest. Effectively, the artists carry all the weight of the description and the writers are left with just the flat, unnatural speech patterns of cardboard characters.

      Also, the voice acting isn't great. Even john Cleese sounds like he's phoning it in.

    4. I personally think that the dialogue is the reason why people liked David Eddings so much. He could write dialogue in such a way that people got the info they needed without being so freaking long winded over it. Some other parts of Eddings are meh, such as world design/world building, but his dialogue is spot on. He got what Twain was about, and why so many others don't is beyond me.

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