Monday, July 28, 2014

Listen With Zojja : GW2

For a quite a while I was somewhat down on story in MMOs. I don't think I was alone in that. By the time we arrived at the open beta weekends for GW2, quite a few MMO aficionados had already lost patience with the so-called "Fourth Pillar" after what seemed like years of artless propaganda from the self-appointed saviors of the genre, BioWare.

Just in case anyone's forgotten how messianic the rhetoric had become, even today the SW:ToR FAQ makes the following claim:

"At BioWare and LucasArts, we believe most MMOs ignore an important fourth pillar: story. Our mission is to create the best story-driven games in the world, and we believe that the compelling, interactive storylines in The Old Republic are a significant innovation in the MMO genre."

Two and a half years on it seems that SW:ToR may not have been quite the Tortanic failure some commentators gleefully claimed around the time of the indecorous F2P conversion. If we believe recent figures the hybrid F2P model is bringing in a tidy $165m and even if we take those figures with a pinch (or maybe  bucket) of salt, no-one could reasonably deny that the ship is still in full sail.

That's Zojja on the right. Waaaay on the right. I'm giving her some personal space. Don't want to seem pushy.

SW:ToR's long-term financial viability notwithstanding, when GW2 opened the doors some eight months after the Star Wars MMO launched, that fourth pillar was wobbling badly. By then sentiment was running with a different High Concept approach entirely: Dynamism. We wanted to be out there in a vibrant, living world that changed moment by moment in response to our actions, not locked in a stuffy instance with a bunch of NPCs, answering an endless series of inane questions.

Yes, well, we know how that worked out. Hitch your wagon to a star you should expect to get burned. But that's a cautionary tale for another day. The point is that BioWare's hectoring, lecturing tone meant that I, for one, took dead against top-down, imposed narrative in my MMOs.

I'm not sure it was something I'd ever previously needed a position on - I can't recall any MMOs I'd played prior to the arrival of SW:ToR (which, for accuracy's sake, I should point out I have still never played) that had any significant narrative. FFXI had some semblance, I guess,  but I was only there for a month so it didn't make much of an impact. And anyway, Square...

I think old Gorr might just be on to something...

Between the releases of SW:ToR and GW2, however, I did play The Secret World. That turned out to be an MMO that steeps itself in narrative and does so brilliantly. It was a revelatory experience and one that neither Funcom themselves nor anyone else has been able to replicate reliably since. It simultaneously proved how seamlessly and successfully narrative can permeate an MMO and at the same time how immensely difficult that level of quality is to maintain.

Thus, when it came time to try GW2's own Personal Story, the one-two of BioWare's infuriating bluster and Funcom's effortless sophistication landed a knockout blow. Whatever we got it was not TSW which made me come over all petulant. I didn't want your stupid story mucking up my open world in the first place, ANet, and if I did I'd want a really cool story like this one over here! 

Even if I'd been in a more receptive mood, GW2's Personal Story suffers from a number of well-known issues that made it unpopular with a lot of players right out of the gate. Some people found it too hard solo while others complained the design was unfriendly to duos and parties. The continual prompts from the UI suggested your main goal should be the storyline but if you stuck to it the difficulty quickly outpaced you, forcing you to leave and level up, which many found confusing. When you were in the instances themselves, the puppet-show cut scenes seemed wooden and artificial, compared to the fluidity of the rest of the gameworld.

I'm guessing that's a bad thing?

For those who persisted the problems just kept on coming. The early promise of the story strands that branched out from the choices made at character creation dissipated as we learned that all roads lead to Claw Island. Choices seemed increasingly arbitrary without any noticeable effect on gameplay. And then there was Trahearn. And Arah. And Zhaitan. Even for some of those who persisted it all came to seem like one long series of anti-climaxes and disappointments.

I was not a persister. My first character, my Charr Ranger, made it to Claw Island eventually but by then he'd already been all the way to Arah in support of Mrs Bhagpuss's own, human, ranger, who was well ahead in the plotline. He'd seen Zhaitan "die", he knew how it all turned out and he didn't feel the need to see any of it again.

Of my subsequent ten characters, nine found their way to level 80 without feeling the need to bother much with a "personal story". Only my thief, for some reason that now escapes me, got as far as choosing an Order and she chose the same one as the Ranger - Whispers. Consequently much of the background knowledge that ANet's writers, presumably, rely on longtime players of the game possessing has simply passed me by.

Hmm. I wonder how that dialog reads in the Chinese translation?

All of which has left me, these last couple of years, in very much the same position I'm in when I play Everquest. I'm aware there's a lot more going on than I understand but it all happens in a fog. All that I know comes from fragments, rumors, hearsay. Somewhere in Norrath (or over it or under it or beside it) raid guilds slowly mine narrative from the rockface of high-end content that forms the dense core of each expansion but none of it really affects me. Just knowing there is a storyline is enough. I've never felt the need to know all the details.

Tyria has been like that. There's a huge iceberg of established lore from GW1 looming ominously below the surface but I'm happy prancing around on the little bit that sticks up above the surface. Or I was.

For what, I'm certain, are extremely sound reasons, ANet have declined to expand or continue the Personal Story, which always sat so uncomfortably alongside their "dynamic" world. Instead they decided to combine the two High Concepts of the current MMO Generation - Dynamism and Narrative - into a single Even Higher Concept - The Living Story. It took a while for them to get that working but the engine finally seems to be ticking over nicely.

Developments have been interesting enough for me to make the effort to buy the Destiny's Edge novel so as to get somewhat up to speed, as I mentioned the other day. Still haven't actually opened it yet and there wasn't really all that much effort involved, either, come to think of it. It was more that I noticed we had a copy in the SF section at work so I bought it on a whim. Still, it shows I must be engaged with the plot because spin-off novels from video games are along way out of my comfort zone when it comes to what I choose to read. In fact, this will be the first.

After every mission comes a frank and fearless debriefing session.

It's good timing as much as anything. Long enough has passed that my negative reaction to BioWare's bullying tones has faded into the mildest of irritable memories, allowing me to recall that I do quite like stories, even in my MMOs. Moreover, now that we don't get those stick-puppet playhouse scenes in new content any more they've acquired a curious nostalgic glimmer.

As I read around various forum discussions or listen to lively debates in map chat, as current developments in Tyria are pulled apart from all angles - Scarlet, The Eternal Alchemy, The Pale Tree, The Elder Dragons, Destiny's Edge, the whole rickety paraphernalia of open-ended genre fantasy storytelling - I noticed a lot of references to the Personal Story, particularly those of Asura and Sylvari. For once, instead of shaking my head in disapproval, I thought I might just go take a look for myself.

One more Myth Dock and I'm done.

As it so happens I have a young Asura just starting out in the world. He's made it his mission to Find Out What's Going On. For a Snaff Prize Winner like him (just how many Snaff Prizes do these people give out, anyway? Does every Asura get one?) that should be a snap. Indeed, it's already paid dividends. That lecture, extensively and pictorially quoted above, by the (late) Professor Gorr was a revelation. When we get to Claw Island (again) we might call it a day but before that happens I'm hoping the veil will have been pierced by the bright light of finally getting a clue, at least a little.

It may be coincidence but in one of the other MMOs I'm playing when I can tear myself away from GW2, City of Steam, my main motivation to log in is also the storyline. My Goblin Gunner there has finally reached the point her predecessor was at when they shut down the R2 version of the game last year. The possibility that after more than two years I might find out who the guy sending me the mysterious messages is and what he wants from me is strangely motivating. That and all the free stuff...

So, stories: they're not all bad after all. They can even be quite entertaining. Who'd have thought?


  1. Stories are awesome. Even in SWTOR, the story is really engaging. The trouble with stories and MMOs are that it's not your story, and everyone knows that. Somehow, single player games get away with it (which is what SWTOR should have been all along, I long ago suggested...)

    In GW2 I almost got to level 40 and the only thing keeping me in it WAS the story. During a solo levelling experience (which is what MMOs are for the most part) story has the opportunity to make it less painful. Sure, you grind, but you get a little story bit after - which breaks up the monotony.

    This coming from an EQ guy as well where a story was different - a story was what we told to each other while we were medding or waiting for a camp respawn in a grindy area. Somehow, those stories felt more authentic.

    In WildStar, they take it one step further I think - you have zone and regional stories, and then tasks - and they conveniently list them under the sub headings so you can choose to ignore the tasks that have no effect on the broader story arc.

    In sandbox games, players are the story. In Themepark MMOs, the story is illusionary - although still sometimes good the first time through.

    1. Would you buy a book from me, a random guy not especially good at writing books or buy a book from a writer?

      Also, exactly how many in games like EVE are actually dictating the story?
      Is it any different from joe shmoe POV if the story is being manipulated by developers or from a few players that have invested years in the game?


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