Tuesday, August 24, 2021


This morning, as I was pondering my promised post on the quality of the written word in Bless Unleashed, an epiphany struck me: there's no attribution in mmorpgs! 

I post countless screenshots of gorgeous images but I never credit the artists. I quote quest text and dialog that amuses or moves me but I never mention the name of the person who wrote it. I can't. I have no idea who it might have been and no way to find out. 

The most I could do, at a push, is quote the names of all the people in the relevant departments. They do show up in the very small print for some mmorpgs, if you know where to look. (Although not always) You have to be willing to spend the time searching and even then there's never any kind of specific credit given. You can't see who drew which image or who wrote which words or even who designed which zone or which questline.

The construction of this entire paragraph is eminently naturalstic. It's how we speak.


To an extent it's an accepted limitation of the collaborative process. Movies are scrupulous about listing everyone involved in excruciating detail. They hand out awards based on the credits but even there, when more than one or two writers are involved, the detail doesn't break down to who wrote which scene, let alone which line. 

In TV it's even less clear. Some of the smartest, snappiest, most memorable dialog comes out of "the writers' room", where there might be upwards of a dozen people contributing. Unless someone comes along after and claims ownership in an interview, you'll never know who wrote that great one-liner you keep quoting.

Mmorpgs are collaborative but not in that way. Or at least I don't believe that's how it works. As far as I understand, most quests are written by individuals. There's more of a team ethic on the overall structure of main story quests or narrative arcs but the text, dialog and NPC conversations will usually be the work of specific writers (or more commonly designers), who could be, but are not, named and credited.

No-one speaks like this except bards in fantasy novels. Ricardo is a bard. And a liar and a con man. This is him putting on a show for my character's benefit. She fell for it.


It makes it awkward to praise or criticize or even simply review the "writing" in any given mmorpg. If I say I think the writing in Bless Unleashed is above-average for the genre, which I do, then I'm suggesting that applies to all of it, which it doesn't. Equally, when I say I think the writing in Elder Scrolls Online is stilted and artificial, which, again, I do, then once again I'm making a sweeping statement that condemns the better writers working on that game along with the rest.

It's really annoying. I would love to be able to tell you to keep an eye out for any quests written by Jane Doe because she's a really naturalistic writer with a great understanding of how people actually speak while advising you to skip the ones by Joe Blow because he writes dialog like he's churning out refrigerator manuals. 

But I can't. I have no idea who writes what. It's like reading a short story collection in which all the names have been cut out with scissors. At the end you know some of the stories were great and some of them sucked and a lot were somewhere in the middle but you have no way of following up the writers you liked or avoiding the ones you didn't because you don't know who the hell any of them are.

With all that in mind, about all I can say with any certainty is that someone at Round8 or Neowiz can turn out fluent, convincing, demotic speech in everyday English when required. About three-quarters of the quests fit that description. Maybe more.

Loraine is Ricardo's long-suffering girlfriend. She knows him a lot better than my character does. His fancy language doesn't work on her. Shame I met her afterwards.


Whether they're all written by the same person I have no way of knowing. I'd have to do some serious close textual analysis even to come up with an opinion on that and even then it wouldn't be much more than an educated guess. My gut feeling is that there are two or three different authorial voices at work but that could just be an indication of the quality of one person's writing as they modify their register to reflect the speech patterns and personalities of the various NPCs.

It could also be a house style. I haven't yet seen enough to tell. A lot of mmorpgs, long-running as they are, end up having a house style, either by design or by necessity. I would say with some certainty after fifteen years that EverQuest II definitely employs a very specific house style in almost all NPC dialog to the extent you'd have to imagine they use some kind of in-house style guide.

However it's come about, I find the writing in Bless Unleashed a pleasure to read because, not in spite of, the quality of the prose. This is not something I'm generally willing or able to say about imported mmorpgs, especially the free to play ones. What I'm much more likely to say is that I find them amusing, entertaining or delightful even though they sound like gibberish half the time.

Meet Meyhen. Refreshingly atypical for a weaponsmith, in looks if not in attitude.

Dragon Nest, Twin Saga, Blade and Soul and many more over the years have baffled, confused and delighted me with their fractured, broken translations. Very often I could tell the original storylines and dialogs would have been nuanced and emotionally involving in the original but those nuances and emotions had been leeched out by the inept transfer from one language to another.

Bless Unleashed offers a rare opportunity to compare and contrast, in the same game, the "just run it through Google Translate and paste it in" approach with the full, hand-crafted, pride-taken work of an actual, human translator. It's revealing. And oddly satisfying. It proves my theory or at least adds some data points towards a proof.

There's a series of quests in Bless Unleashed that might well have become one of my favorites, had the translations been done by someone who knew how to speak idiomatic English, something you might reasonably take as a requirement for the job.  They all involve an elf and a seagull. The elf appears in seemingly random locations as you level up, often confined or restrained in some way. Sometimes she's in a cage, sometimes she's tied up. 

And this is Mokoro. He seems to have wandered in from another game entirely with some context for Meyhen that may or may not be accurate. With that hat and monocle, does he look like someone who'd know?


Despite her difficult situation, she never acts like a prisoner or as though she's in any way afraid or worried. She's snippy and snarky and either knows a lot you don't or has a very tenuous grasp of reality.

She sends you off to get various items or perform various tasks and as you comply she begins to refer to you as her apprentice and to act as though there's some form of established relationship between you, even though you have no clue who she is or why she's in the odd situations you find her. Let alone why she travels with a large seagull.

The quest dialog for this entire series is horribly mangled. It doesn't even limp off the page, it crawls. None of the jokes land and quite a lot barely make sense at all. For many imported mmorpgs that would be par for the course. 

In Bless Unleashed, though, because most of the quests aren't like that, because most of the dialog spins along with a sprightly shimmer, reading as well as good genre fiction usually reads, it's possible to say with some confidence that, in the original, the elf-and-seagull questline most likely is genuinely funny. 

Brightfang, with an impeccable example of gnoll logic. Also, gnoll sentence structure.


It's easy to see how it would be. Even as it stands the strength of the characterization somehow comes through. I would love to play through the whole thing once whoever did the rest of the translations gets around to fixing it. That's going to happen, right?

All the quests that aren't like this are good. I don't necesarily mean they're good as quests. I mean they read well, the character of the questgivers are recognizeable, consitent and believable in the context of the setting and that the dialog has the ring of something someone might actually say. That is the most important part to me.

I never expect originality or inspiration from mmorpg quests. We all know the quests are there to facilitate the mechanics. It's fatuous to pretend otherwise. Quests are means to an end. The point of them is to make the process enjoyable, even fun, by adding character, context, humor and pathos to the rote action of killing ten rats or picking ten flowers.

Shabiki, on the other hand, have a full and accurate grasp of syntax. They're just not so much on grammar.


Bless Unleashed manages to present most of the NPCs as characters with a backstory and a life outside of standing on a street corner giving out xp and tokens to anyone who'll talk to them. It's never more than a sliver of life but it adds up. 

All it takes to make dialog come alive is for the person writing it down to be thinking about how it would sound if someone read it out loud, which is ironic considering Bless Unleashed has almost no voice acting. It's noticeable in some mmorpgs how voice actors say different words to the ones in the text dialog. I'm guessing that's because they balk at reading what's written. In this case they would be fine to go with the script they were given.

None of this is to say the writing in Bless Unleashed is anything special. It's not going to win any literary prizes. It's not even going to win any Game Industry prizes, or I shouldn't think so. It's not The Secret World.  

Here's Clarice, the elf I was talking about. That's her seagull, too. Squawky. I didn't take any screenshots of her talking. Just of her sitting there with her hands tied behind her back for reasons. Reasons she never explains. Reasons we're probably better off not knowing.


It is, nonetheless, better than average professional work for the genre. I personally prefer it by a wide margin to some of the more widely praised examples, particularly the aforementioned ESO, where I find most of the quests over-formal and unatural, or World of Warcraft, where quest quality seems too variable to be consistent with the game's status in the industry.

As tends to be the case, I'm more interested in the smaller side-quests than the main storyline. I like all the little vignetes that shed light on the way people live, quests to get errant children to stop playing near the undead or help would-be crafters to earn their letters of merit. I find these kinds of stories important and effective in establishing a connecton with the world.

The main story quest, though, is not at all bad by the admittedly low standards of such things. It is, to be sure, the exact same plot that at least half of all the mmorpgs I've ever played have used but it's a good iteration. I find myself suitably outraged by some of the cynical actions of the villains, appropriately taken aback by some of the plot twists. It's not Hamlet but it could be a halfway decent story arc in Xena: Warrior Princess

The plot thickens. This is where I started to think I wanted to know what was going on.


In the past I've said some fairly negative things about the mere presence of central narratives in mmorpgs. I do tend to think of them, as at best, necessay evils. That said, having a solid storyline does carry you through the game. It can at times feel a bit like being chivvied along by a particularly enthusiastic personal trainer but it does get you where you need to go.

Without the direction provided by Bless Unleashed's Campaigns I suspect I'd be a few levels lower and I'd probably end up bowing out sooner. There's some motivation in finding out what happens next. If the tale weren't told as well as it is, though, I'd likely have lost interest already. If you're going to hang your gameplay on a story hook, the moral goes, at least make it a sturdy one. 

Bless Unleashed has a number of pleasures, chief among them the way it looks, but it's a good read too. Well, most of it. If only someone would give those few, faulty translations another pass it would be up there with the best.

Not that the best stand very high in this genre but you work with what you've got.

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