Thursday, July 2, 2020

Broken English : ESO

I knew if I made a list of things to do I'd end up doing at least some of them. Either that or I'd do some other equally "important" stuff instead, so I 'd at least feel I'd accomplished something.

That's the way my mind works. The very act of writing something down imbues it with an almost mystical significance. It's also why I try not to make "to do" lists unless it's lists of things I genuinely do have to do.

Fortunately, with my memory, if I don't literally have the list in front of me I forget what's on it in a matter of hours. Minutes, sometimes. Writing a list in a blog post that I won't look at again after the day it's published is pretty safe. Very different from a piece of paper that sits in front of my monitor and accuses me every time I glance down.

Even without the specifics, though, just knowing I wrote something tends to keep my mind focused. Since I made that list is that I've been extremely productive in several games. I've sorted out banks and upgraded gear and finished questlines. It's been fun and fulfilling and it's fired me up to get even more done.

As far as the projects and plans on the list itself, of course, I have made no progress whatsoever. Except for one tiny thing. I did manage to log into Elder Scrolls Online again.

It's an odd game, isn't it? What does it want to be? I can't tell. Maybe it becomes clearer when you get further in but I doubt it.

Pink moon gonna get you all
I had a little bit of a mini-rant in the comments over at Why I Game and while what I said has much more universal implications, it's no co-incidence I'd been playing ESO not long before. What I was complaining about was "the relentless growth of “story”" in games. Popping on my rose-tinted specs I said "Games didn’t used to need stories. They had situations and that was enough."

I'm not sure it was ever quite as simple as that but I do know that every game didn't used to feel like a classroom excercise, where a series of variously capable students take it in turns to read a story aloud. It's a serious problem for the form, which already has major disadvantages over most other narrative platforms in that it requires regular and frequent interruptions so the player can, well, play.

ESO is an extreme example but all video games do it to some degree. What I'm referring to, specifically, is the way the medium necessitates the portioning out of the narrative in discrete, disconnected chunks. It's particularly evident in games that use a lot of voice acting, which these days is nearly all of them.

What happens is that the player engages with an NPC, who then articulates a sentence or two, then stops. The narrative flow, such as it was, comes to an abrupt and immediate halt while the game waits for the player to reply, assuming a reply is permitted or required. Even if it's not, everything pauses until the player indicates with a mouse-click that they're ready to hear the next line.

That chevron over my pet's head, even with the UI hidden... Drives me crazy!
It's less of a problem with quests that are all text. There, it's not dissimilar to looking up from a book or turning the page. With voice-acted audio, at best it's like pressing pause in the middle of a scene, while watching a movie at home, something most viewers would try to do as infrequently as possible.
Mostly, though, it's like trying to stream over a poor connection. The buffering never stops.

Every conversation is stuttering and fractured, which would be difficult enough if the breaks came at meaningful points, but that would assume the dialog carried enough meaning or interest to sustain such constant interruption. It patently doesn't.

There's so much filler and so many of the breaks feel arbitrary. It drains all significance out of anything that's said. NPCs begin to tell you their fears, their terrors, their intimate nightmares, then they break off and wait for you to let them know it's okay to continue.Take a second or an hour, It's all the same to them.

Time stops in all narrative forms if the reader or viewer ceases to engage, of course, but in no other medium is that paradox so unapolagetically served up as part of the process. It does make me wonder, when I hear people express the strength of the emotions certain games have engendered in them, how they've been able to set aside the mechanics long enough to become engaged.

Pondering a career change? Bounty hunting! Always an option.
The imagination is a marvelous engine, though. It does most of the emotional heavy lifting. It really needs to, often as not. The writing and the performance offer very little help. Elder Scrolls Online is frequently cited as one of the better examples of narrative form in multiplayer gaming. I keep looking for evidence to support that view but I've yet to find any.

The plot certainly doesn't do anything to help ESO stand out from the crowd. I'm willing to accept that nothing very significant or unusual is likely to happen in the opening scenes, which are all I've experienced so far, but even by comparison with the same stages in countless similar MMOPRGs, there seems to be precious little of interest going on here.

That's not to say the narrative doesn't attempt to impart a sense of urgency and immediacy. The starting area I've just completed faces imminent attack by a superior force, necessitating the evacuation of an entire settlement by way of a frenzied flight through some dark tunnels filled with deadly traps. If it was the opening of a movie you'd be on the edge of your seat.

I remember daylight!
Only it's not a movie. It's an MMORPG, so any sense of urgency is entirely notional. Everyone tells you to hurry but if you don't, nothing happens. Even if you take the threat seriously, the game doesn't. The words are urgent but the action is anything but, and there's a shopping list of tasks to complete before you move on.

The voice actors, perhaps understanding the situation better than their characters, generally decline to express much in the way of emotion at all, even when the script suggests they should. Every delivery is much the same; measured, calm, controlled. Occasionally an actor will use just enough nuance to indicate the presence of an emotion without going so far as to employ it.

All of this sits awkwardly with the gameplay itself. I've seldom played any MMORPG where the narrative drove the gameplay so relentlessly and single-mindedly. Last night I wanted to stop a good half-hour before I finally logged out because there is simply never a point at which the narrative reaches a natural break. Every quest leads inexorably into another. It's enervating.

Since, as I already mentioned, nothing proceeds without the player's permission, any sense of urgency is entirely artificial. I could have stopped at any point short of the middle of an actual fight. It would make no difference whatsoever. It's not like the old days, where you'd have to reach a save point before you could answer the doorbell.

At this point the game instructs you to wait for the refugees to get to safety. I do what I'm told.
No, the problem is an aesthetic one. I like to get to the end of a chapter or an episode before I put down my Kindle for the night. I feel the same about gaming. You'd think that it would be easy to abandon something as uninvolving and arbitrary as this mid-scene but ingrained habits die hard.

All of which, perhaps surprisingly, is not to say I'm not enjoying ESO. It's... okay. The world is attractive enough, although the new zone I've reached appears to be drenched in eternal night, something of a shock after the previous one, where midnight felt like mid-afternoon.

The combat, which seems to be universally reviled, is still, at the inglorious heights of level nine, simplistic and not at all unpleasant. I spent a while trying to use the various spells coherently but eventually I realized that simply pounding the left mouse button killed everything about twice as fast as playing "properly" so for now I'm just doing that.

I've died once in four levels and that was because I got stuck on a piece of furniture. It's very likely I'd have died more if it wasn't that the starting zones are extraordinarily busy. Every quest step plays out like a conga line as three or four players arrive in quick succession. Areas that were clearly designed to be approached carefully and with caution are laid wide open as swathes of players hack and slash through anything that moves.

City of Eternal Night. Or just some backwater fort in the wolf hours.
I finally hit the infamous mats barrier, my inventory filled with endless body parts and other crafting essentials. It would be annoying but I've chosen to solve the problem by selling everything and doing no harvesting, mining or gathering at all. Perhaps that would be a terrible idea if I planned on staying for the long haul but I'm just a tourist in this town.

The game does have something, I can't deny it. It's enjoyable in the moment. I feel like I want to see more although I'm aware I've been here before. My first character felt much the same at the this level but it didn't last.

When I was him, though, there was no One Tamriel. I'm curious to see if combat becomes arduous and unenjoyable in the mid-teens, as it did with him, or whether making everywhere the same level also makes combat feel like this forever. I hope it does. If I can carry on mashing one button and winning I might get a lot farther this time.

That said, there were four other games on that list. I've managed to get as far as installing AdventureQuest 3D on my Kindle although I've yet to play it that way. DCUO I have lined up for August, when Wonderverse drops. Shintar pointed up some freebies in Neverwinter that I really don't think I ought to ignore. She also mentioned a bike race in SW:toR that sounds like my kind of thing.

I can't see ESO hanging on for long. Still, I think I'll play a little more today.


  1. LOTRO has the worst example of this in my experience. Usually the questing, especially the epic quest line is very passable, simply because the source material is so good. Even the Cliff's Notes version of The Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit is going to deliver something.

    But when the epic quest departs from Tolkein, oh my. (Part of ESO's problem I think, is that its every quest is EPIC and HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT. Again in LOTRO, the mundane fetch quests have a certain spark, simply because of what Tolkein made. At one point you deliver pies to various householders in Hobbiton before they spoil, quite endearing. ESO lore though is sub, sub-Tolkein, probably even sub-Jordan, which leaves it what, at the Feist level?).

    But LOTRO yeah, when the epic quest departs from Tolkein. Can't remember where it was, but the quest line is literally multiple installments in an instance listening to the melodrama of a Prince and his sweetheart. After each chunk of narrative, two crabs literally spawn for you to kill with one hit each, then you move on. The whole thing is maddening, but hey the two crabs mean you are playing a game and not watching an animated drama.

    - Simon

    1. I didn't mention it this time but yes, the Jordan factor is very evident in ESO. I suspect the people who sing the praises of ESO's writing are the same ones who keep publishers churning out the blockbuster fantasy series that clog the shelves of the SF+F section in the bookshop where I work. I've never really had much time for those authors so I guess it's not surprising I don't go much for lukewarm copies of their work in games.

      LotRO's shire quests are somewhere towards the other end of the spectrum, I think. They're very jolly and generally don't wear out their welcome. They do feature altogether too much running from one place to another but that's a problem with the mechanics rather than the writing.

      One thing I meant to mention in the post but forgot is the incredibly repetitive nature of all the quests I've done in ESO this time around. Quest after quest has almost exactly the same structure. I know it's a perennial problem with MMORPGs but usually there's at least a pretence of variety. It feels like a cheap import in that way. I'm still waiting for even a hint of the depth people often asscribe to the questing there. I suspect I'll be waiting a long time.

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