Monday, October 11, 2021

I Go, I Come Back: Questing In New World And Why There Might Be More To It Than You Imagine.

It's probably best to consider this a placeholder for a post I may or may not get around to writing. As I said in a reply to Naithin's comment, I spent so long playing New World today I haven't left myself time to write the post I was working on in my mind as I played. I suspect that's going to be the way it goes for a while.

Here's the premise, together with just a handful of examples to illustrate my thesis. There seems to be a general consensus, based on almost every mention of the topic I've seen, that quests in New World are perfunctory, pedestrian and unimaginative, that the mechanics are well-worn, there's a great deal of repetition and, as Naithin says, that the quests are bland and colorless. 

That isn't all entirely outside my experience. There are some filler quests, as there are in every mmorpg, and it's certainly the case that, mechanically, there's very little that feels unique, original or even unusual. 

Almost every quest can be boiled down to "Go to a place, do a thing, come back". That, however, sums up the very great majority of all the quests in all the mmorpgs I've ever played. In no significant part, it's what I like about the genre. 

I am and have always been a serious, unironic lover of kill ten rats and fetch quests and I quite strongly prefer "tasks" to "quests" as the staple diet of my gameplay. To my way of thinking, objecting to those aspects of the genre is like complaining tennis involves far too much hitting a ball over a net.

It's true, then, that I would most likely be quite happy if that was all the quests in New World had to offer. It's not, though. 

What the quests do, very successfully for me, at least, is add accretive, incremental detail to the aspect of New World I'm already finding the most absorbing and satisfying - the worldbuilding. Take, for example, the lengthy quest sequence I did yesterday and today, in which, unfortunately, I was so absorbed I neglected to take any screenshots or make any notes.

Here it is as I rememeber it. There's a somewhat self-satisfied chap in Everfall, who fancies himself a scientist of sorts. I suspect he's entirely self-taught but maybe I missed the part where he tells us his qualifications. 

He has a theory relating to the mysterious obelisks that, quite honestly, I couldn't follow but it sounded convincing while he was explaining it. One of the things he mentions early on is that the builders of the obelisks must have had technology we can't understand but he knows (somehow, I forget how) that they used astrolabes and he wants to examine them.

This leads to a prolonged sequence of fetch quests, where the player character has to visit a set of three named obelisks, fight a bunch of skeletal guardians, grab an astrolabe and bring it back to town. I forget exactly how many sets of three he made me visit but I'm pretty sure I went to at least a dozen towers.

Every time I brought back a set of astrolabes he speculated further on the obelisks and the civilization that made them. At no point did I ever think he really knew what he was talking about. He was smug and self-satisfied and very patronizing to my character. 

All of that served to increase my own curiosity about the very things he was investigating. Far from feeling I was being sent on a series of busy-work, cookie-cutter quests put to gether cut-and-paste style by some hapless intern, I felt as though I was involved in something really quite significant. I also felt as though my character was using the questgiver to further her own ends, playing him as he clearly believed he was playing her. 

As a player, not just as a character, my experience was satisfying and interesting. I already wanted to visit all the obelisks. I want to visit all of the massive, ancient structures. I find them fascinating as objects and intriguing as mysteries. The quest series offered me a systematic process for doing that, together with a narrative rationale to support it.

As with the majority of the quests I've seen, I thought the dialog was well-written by the standards of the genre. I find the characterization of most of the questgivers is quite distinct. Some of them are nuanced and subtle, others drawn in very broad strokes but whatever the stylistic choice, all of them have definable personalities. 

They all also work to build an understanding, for the player-character and for the player, of the world they inhabit. The bulk of the lore in New World, as I said before, comes in the form of found objects - letters, journals, diaries, notes - but the quests almost without exception have their contributions to make as well.

It's through the quests, more so even than the lore items, that I believe I'm beginning to understand the difference between the various kinds of... what should we call them? Monsters? Undead? Creatures?

There are more kinds than I realized at first, but for now let's stick to the two main types, the Lost and the Corrupted. At first I didn't really see the difference between them. I thought they were just different names for the same thing. We'd call them zombies in other games, I guess. As I listened to questgivers talking, though, I began to realize how little I knew. And how little I still know, for that matter. But I'm learning.

I learned two very significant things today, both from quests. I learned it's possible to become Corrupted through conscious choice and that it's possible to become Lost through despair. 

One quest deals with a powerful man. The questgiver hints he may have bolstered his reputation on the back of the efforts of others. That man, faced with the growing threat to the people for whom he felt responsible, chose to allow himself to become Corrupted so as to gain strength to deal with the threat. Needless to say, from the perspective of those who didn't follow him, it didn't work.

That, though, is just their perspective. By the time I ran across that quest, I'd already begun to wonder just how bad a time of it the Corrupted were really having. In some ways they seemed like they might be doing better than the colonists themselves. 

It's easy to think of the Corrupted as some kind of automatons. Cogs in a machine, albeit a functioning machine. The Lost look like zombies, the Corrupted like demons but neither is either of those cliches, or not exactly.

There are frequent references in quest dialog and lore to the ability of the Corrupted to work together. They have cooks, they eat meals, they have differentiated functions within what is clearly a working society. There's mention of some kind of controlling intelligence in the way the workers synchronize their efforts.

A hive mind? Domination? Demonic possession? Who knows. Not me but I want to. 

The Lost are in some ways more disturbing than the Corrupted. I know that now I've met the woman who wanted to become one so she could be with her lost, Lost lover again. 

In a very good quest with a somewhat bathetic ending, I learned the Lost are those who can't take it any more. They're the ones who gave up. The ones who couldn't take the strain, the fear, the endless dying and waking up again, not dead after all.

I have yet another post brewing about the way New World addresses the genre trope of resurrection. It's not the first game to acknowledge it but in my experience it's the only one to examine it closely and clear-mindedly, considering what such an existence might actually entail and how the human mind might cope, or fail to.

There's plenty of detail on that topic in the notes and journals but by their nature those stories are once removed. In quests it's first-hand experience. When despair becomes the substance of a quest, when your character realizes the import of what she's being tasked with doing and the possible consequences, it makes everything feel more immediate. More personal. 

Those simple, mechanical things - going to a place, doing a thing, coming back - none of them seem quite so simple, so mechanical, any more.

With all stories, it's as much about what you bring as what you find. For all that, imagination needs something to work with. I'd contend that in New World the quests come with plenty of fuel for the imagination included. 

More, maybe, than at first it may appear.


  1. Would you go so far as to say that the worldbuilding is served by the simplicity and the monotony of the quests? More so than it would be by a questing system that favored intricacy, originality and/or variety?

    1. That's a really interesting question. At first thought, I kind of would, to a degree. It refers back to the way I found the world to be at it's most immersive (and convincing) in the first alpha, when there was no quest content or written lore of any kind and very little physical evidence of the previous civilization. The lack of any real context or explanation for what man-made artefacts and settlements there were, or for their abandonment, couple with the very convincing representation of wilderness around them, made for a very eerie and unsettling experience... for a while.

      Eventually, though, imagination runs out with nothing fresh to feed on. You can only explore so many abandoned farms or virgin forests before they all start to look much like each other. The current version of New World does a much better job of seeding ideas for the willing mind to work on, while still leaving an awful lot unexplained.

      If the quests were similar to those in most mmorpgs, with much more self-contained, narrative-driven storylines, it would become less about what we, the players, can learn about the world and more about sitting back and letting the writers tell us what they've made up. Absolutely nothing wrong with that but it makes a nice change to see it done another way, for once.

      I do think, once again, it's an approach that can only take you so far, though. Eventually we'll have read all the lore and done all the quests and by then we'll either know what happened or we'll know we aren't going to know. At that point someone's going to have to pump in some more clues to prime the imagination-pump or actually give us some kind of conclusion that both satisfies but also opens up the next phase. If Amazon's writers and designers manage to pull that off we'll have one of the best virtual worlds we've seen for a long time but I think a lot of people thought much the same about the Secret World and look how that went. Then again, Amazon have a lot more resources than Funcom...

  2. Yes! Very much agree! I did the astrolabe quests recently, and also felt that it was opening a part of the story to me, not just sending me to fetch stuff. I find the environmental and, well, mimetic storytelling of New World to be really compelling. I kind of feel they might have fallen into this - after all, there was no PVE until suddenly there was, so a storytelling solution that didn't break existing systems had to be implemented.

    But here we are, with an MMO that genuinely feels like it's opening the story to me, unfolding it one zone at a time - not just giving me Chapter x in an infinite series of complicated but disconnected chapters.

    1. That actually sounds plausible. Imagine that -- that the mimetic storytelling, as you call it, is actually the result, not of an overarching design vision, but of a storytelling solution tacked on to a design that didn't really allow for it! Should we hope for another ad-hoc solution to open up the next phase Bhagpuss is already thinking of?

    2. That does make sense. It must have been hard enough reformating the entire game for a different audience and it's clear they kept a lot of the structure from the original concept. Adding a traditional epic You Are The Hero storyline might well have been just too awkward. Serendipity, I guess.


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