Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Simple Secret Of The Plot

Here's a surprise. The questing in World of Warcraft (Retail) is pretty good. Maybe you already knew that. I didn't.

I first played WoW in the Wrath of the Lich King era, a period considered by many to be one of the game's high points. I did a lot of questing then and some of it was okay and some of it wasn't. Most of it was just kind of there, I guess.

Over the years I've revisited the game a few times, mostly repeating sub level twenty content in the original racial starting zones or working through the opening storylines for the newer races. The older quest content seemed much the same as in any MMORPG, possibly because most other games modified or modeled their quest content to fit WoW's style, although looking back at the original quest content in EverQuest II, which launched almost exactly contemporaneously with WoW, questing in the two of them always seemed very similar.

I did notice a difference in the newer starting areas, especially the Goblins', but it's a truism of MMORPGs that more work goes into the starting experience than anything else before the end game. It can be unwise to draw conclusions from what you see in those first few levels. By comparison, it's all too often the case that leveling in the mid and upper levels feels rote and uninspired in contrast to the opening rush.

Last year I re-subbed to play Classic. I had a really enjoyable time for several months. I found the most worldly of Azeroths, rich with incident, deeply immersive. Almost none of that had anything to do with the questing.

In Classic I did quests almost purely for the experience and the rewards. I read the quest text and followed the plots but most of them didn't amount to much. Partly it was that I'd done most of them before but mainly it was that they weren't all that interesting to begin with. And even when the storylines were able to hold my attention the flat, uninflected writing did what it could to lose me again.

I must have seen this quixotic plot half a dozen times in games but there's nothing wrong with a good cover version.


I have noticed a tendency over the years, as new expansions launched and blogs briefly flared with tales of adventuring through the added zones, for people to compliment the storytelling. I think I first remember praise being, if not heaped, then gently spooned over the main storyline of Mists of Pandaria

That expansion, widely treated with suspicion at first, seems to have acquired a solid reputation for quality over time but later additions like Warlords of Draenor and Battle for Azeroth, less well-received overall, also seemed to hold up the flag for good storytelling. It almost seems to have become a cliche for people to praise the storylines in the new zones even while dismantling every other aspect of an expansion.

When I resubscribed it was purely to get access to the Vulpera race so I could make myself a fox. If Blizzard had simply sold the race in the store for a reasonable price - anything under $20, really - I'd just have bought it and that would have been that. I wouldn't have needed to subscribe at all. I could have made a few fox characters, played them under the new level regime to the old equivalent of the mid-40s, scratched that itch and moved on.

Blizzard, like a lot of developers, seems oddly unwilling to sell off the game in pieces. It's about the one part of the change in payment models that came when we moved, ostensibly at least, from subscriptions to free-to-play that I don't understand. 

My favorite MMORPG business model of all time was Sony Online Entertainment's original post-F2P transition, when they offered Bronze, Silver and Gold memberships and put a wide range of options in the cash shop. For a few years you could play a very limited version of the game for free or all the game for a subscription but you could also buy a wide selection of intermediary options for cash in the store.

This one deserves an explanation. Maybe another time.


I loved being able to buy races individually (well, in packs) and being able to buy individual unlocks for higher-tier armor or spells at need. The prices were cheap and the functionality was fantastic. Some months, for example, I might only need a couple, of pieces of Fabled armor and one Master spell, which might cost me a couple of dollars in the cash shop. 

Why pay five times that for a subscription that would let me have theoretical access to unlimited Fableds and Masters, few which I'd never actually see in the game? Yes, okay, technically I did still pay my subscription, but only on my old account, which I rarely played. I made a new, unsubscribed account to play on the free to play server, Freeport, and that's where I spent almost all my playing hours until Freeport finally merged with the pack and the great Free to Play - Your Way experiment came to an end.

Over the years SOE, followed by Daybreak, pulled back from that model, focusing cash shop sales on min-maxing raiders and loading everything else into an increasingly not-that-optional subscription. I'm happy enough with how that works but, like those WoW players who came back in their millions to give Blizzard fifteen dollars a month so they could have a far more limited experience with far less content than they could have been having all along if they just played the Live game, I'd happily pay an extra subscription to go back to the status quo ante - in this case as it pertained not long after Freeport launched. (Not right at launch... they did need to tweak it a couple of times to get to the sweet spot).

All of which is a long preamble to say you don't always get what you want but sometimes you get what you need. Because I couldn't just buy my Vulpera I had no choice other than to subscribe. And because you need to be level fifty to unlock the race I've had to play through a lot of content I otherwise might not have seen.

I'm the cobra, by the way.


And it's good stuff. For perhaps the first time I can almost see why people feel they want to "finish" a zone before moving to the next. Yeah, okay, that's a stretch. I still don't quite get that. I do, however, understand why someone would want to see how a storyline plays out.

It's not as though I haven't had that sensation in other MMORPGs. There have been individual questlines I've wanted to see through to their conclusion in several games. Even when I'm doing that, though, I often find I have to make quite a few allowances for the form.

When it comes to quality of writing in the genre, around here we often refer to The Secret World as the gold standard. I've done it myself, even while undercutting my praise by qualifying it with comparisons to middling independent movies or graphic novels. And as with those, it was always individual characters or performances or set pieces that stood out. I don't think I ever talked much about the plots in TSW

What I'm finding with the questing in the later WoW expansions is rather the reverse. The characters and the writing, in terms of the overall prose style and musicality, tend to feel a little subdued. There's a peculiar house style that pervades everything and it has a curious, presumably intentional, distancing effect. What characters say often has the feel of reported speech even though it's not. Plans have the sense of debriefings. Even regular recourse to demotic and slang can't shift the formal tone.

But as the dialog stands back, the narrative leans forward. Where I think these newer WoW quests differ from what I expected is in their clarity of purpose. I'm used to quest writing losing focus. How often are we pulled out of the moment by an odd request to go gather some seemingly irrelevant items for some unrelated purpose? How many times will a questline take a sidebar to go do something for someone new with no discernible connection to the plot?

An attempt to imbue character. Unsuccessfully.
The quests I've been doing in Pandaria and Zuldezar and Vol'Dun tend not to do that. They're not aggressively linear but they keep moving steadily in the same direction. When I'm told I need to go fetch something or kill someone the reason is usually clear. Yes, there might be other ways to achieve the same ends but the necessity of those ends being somehow achieved is not in doubt.

Similarly, it's rare for any actor in the narrative to slip out of character. Those familiar moments, when the player sits back and asks the screen "Why? Why would you do that?" are vanishingly few and far between. The characters frequently don't do what my character would in that situation but they do behave consistently with what I've seen them do thus far.

This coherency is unusual, I think. Although I'm not sure. I have a feeling, perhaps, that the quests in Star Wars: the Old Republic or Elder Scrolls Online may be of a similar intensity, but  there's a crucial difference. Those are fully voiced.

I like voice acting in video games but it is distracting. How much time do I spend listening (or more often trying not to listen) to the wayward accents? How many times do I find myself querying the line readings or the direction? And when the acting is good, how much attention am I paying to the story and how much to the performance?

WoW has plenty of voice acting but generally you don't hear someone reading out the quest text you can see in front of you. That concentrates the mind and brings the plot to the fore, I find, although I'm aware for others it will have the exact opposite effect.

The absence of voice doesn't mean the NPCs don't talk much. Gods, no! They talk all the time. No journey with an NPC, however long or short, takes place in companionable silence. They chat and sing and declaim without taking a breath, or so it feels. And it all happens in speech bubbles. I find it endearing and amusing. Mostly.

If the NPCs never stop yakking, the player character never starts. There's a complete absence of participation. We talk about the "silent protagonist" in many games, famously nodding or standing idly by, but in WoW your character just gets talked at. There's absolutely no pretense of involving them in the conversation. Every quest NPC monologues for a while then sends you off to do whatever they told you to. And you go. Quietly.

Those are not natural speech patterns. Especially in a child.
It works, too. Or it's working for me at the moment, anyway. I'm starting questlines, carrying them through, finishing them up and moving on to the next. And I'm enjoying it. A lot.

It's like reading a book of related short stories. Sometimes the characters overlap. One story leads you into the next. Situations recur or reverberate. Above all, it makes the leveling process tick along beautifully, which is, I can only imagine, what it's intended to do.

At this level, WoW is that polished machine we used to talk about. The flow is exemplary. Without effort, scarcely noticed, the game moves you from location to location, waving you goodbye while handing you over. 

The mysterious and invisible phasing means that as you move through the world affecting change, so that world changes for you. Someone you meet in one place moves to another after you've done something for them and you no longer also see them back where they were, waiting for the next in line. I imagine that causes no end of problems for people attempting to quest together but for a lone adventurer it helps keep the illusion.

How much of this I can take and carry on enjoying it remains to be seen. At the moment it feels not dissimilar to watching episodes of a long-running, episodic TV show, something like Kung Fu or The Littlest Hobo. (Ancient examples. I'd use something more up to date but I'm not sure they make those kind of shows any more). 

There's a new setting and new characters each time but the problems the protagonist faces are much the same. The best you can hope for is a twist on how the story is resolved.

In time it may become more repetitive than I can take but for now, and for once, I think I can say I'd rather be questing for my levels than going on a motiveless murder spree. 

Not that there isn't plenty of killing, of course. It is still an MMORPG, after all.


  1. I was very skeptical of Pandaria back in the day, and gave it a pass for its first year. But when I finally jumped in... something of a literal given the way it starts... I found it to be quite engaging. I played it through in its second year and enjoyed it quite a bit.

    As for finishing zones, Blizz incentivizes that. To unlock flying in whatever the current expansion is you generally have a Pathfinder achievement requirement, and among the sub-tasks for that is finishing the main story quest line for each zone. You don't finish the zones, you don't get to fly.

    I know I mentioned getting the Vulpera quest line done, and I managed to unlock that race. There is a set of follow on quests at the Horde Embassy, but they are not too involved. But then I set my sights on the two main allied races in the expansion, the Kul Tirans and the Zandalari Trolls... there will be a post.

    1. Speaking of flying, another thing that's really surprised me about my experience so far is how much I actively enjoy not being able to fly. I might do a post about it. That whole argument about experiencing the content fully on the ground rather than zipping over it to drop onto your objectives does in fact ring true. EQ2 does it too, these days, and I like it there, too. Which, as I'm a huge advocate for flying in MMORPGs, is all a bit ironic.

  2. My favourite BfA storyline was the Alliance's "The Pride of Kul Tiras", available after you complete each of the Kul Tiran zone main storylines. I enjoyed Jaina's story arc and it's rare to so deeply explore a mother/daughter relationship in an MMO.

    1. I was enjoying the Kul Tiras story on my druid before I had to switch to Horde to work on the Vulpera. I'll take someone else through there soon, I hope, though I'm not sure I'll be doing all the zone storylines in a row.

    2. Ah, well the catch there is that you need to do them all on the one character.

      I think any of the zones post-MoP are decent for story. Legion is particularly fun with all its class-specific content. WoD was quite a good leveling/questing experience but it had a non-existent endgame. Also, its later story was abandoned in favour of pushing out Legion faster.

    3. Post-MoP launch^. MoP was a huge turning point for WoW story telling! I feel like hiring decent voice actors helped a lot. This is one of my favourite examples of bad voice acting in Cataclysm (the pre-MoP expansion):

    4. That could be taken straight from the soundtrack of a 1970s Saturday morning cartoon. And what's with all the pauses between the lines? At least no-one's trying to do a Scottish accent.

  3. I did notice a difference in the newer starting areas, especially the Goblins', but it's a truism of MMORPGs that more work goes into the starting experience than anything else before the end game. It can be unwise to draw conclusions from what you see in those first few levels.

    I believe that Age of Conan would be considered Exhibit A in this regard. I remember trying AoC out when it switched to being F2P, and I found the starting zone amazing. (Naked toons notwithstanding.) "How could I have missed this? AoC is fantastic!" I thought. Well, I finally finished the starting zone and went to the first "regular" zone and.... Standard MMO fare.


    I felt like I'd bought a car that after a month or so turns out to be a lemon.

    As for the WoW storylines, I've always found that the Blizz writers learned how to craft a zone story to the point where it was fine tuned and well written. The overall plot? Not so much.

    And really, as far as the writers go, they have to make the best of what they're given in as much the same way as the writers for novels set in a universe have to bow to the plotlines provided them. I'm thinking of the Star Wars, Star Trek, Forgotten Realms, and even the WoW novels here. As much as the writers would like to go and do their own thing, they're stuck with a specific plot to work with. A shame, really, because some of the authors who have written novels set in a universe versus their own work (such as Greg Keyes) create much better work outside of the constraint imposed on them by the content owners.

    1. Yeah, I'm just talking on the level of sidequests and the zone storylines. I have pretty much no idea what the metaplot might be, other than what I've heard about it out of game. I've always preferred not knowing about that level, dirctly. I like to understand it in fragments, the way a character in the world might. Of course, now that most games insist on the player character being the Great Hero, called on by Gods to be their instrument of fate, it's a lot harder to avoid.

      As for writers using a commission to do their own thing, I strongly recommend Bill Kotzwinkle's adaptation of E.T. described, accurately, in a one-star review on Amazon as " made up almost whole cloth from the author's imagination". I'd give it five stars, for the same reason.


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