The death (and rebirth) of narrative gaming
Gaming site 1UP have a preview of WotLK up, and despite the majority of info being a re-iteration of news that we have already heard, what stood out for me was the section on personalising the experience. To try to summarise, lead designer Chris Metzen, talks about tying the storyline to the character's development; so that as you progress through the content, your moral attitude to your character will develop, with everything becoming more of a shade of grey than shinyblacks and whites. This is all tied narratively to Arthas, and the events that lead to your final confrontation with him. This has got me all excited, moreso than anything else announced thus far, and I'll try to explain why. I've been playing computer games for a long time. I think that the first one that gripped me was 3D Monster Maze, a game that involved rubnning around a maze trying to avoid a T-Rex whilst trying to locate the exit. There was some hand-wavy initial waffle about the monster having been forozen in silicon, and it all being some sort of gameshow, but essentially there was little narrative. See T-Rex. Flee from T-Rex. Find Exit. Escape. Rinse and Repeat. A lot of fun, but hardly an immersive experience. Gradually games developed. The Sierra adventure games introduced story, and games like Times of Lore pushed that narrative style further, coupling it with top end graphics (well, for their time they were). For me, narrative-based single player games reached their zenith with the likes of Planescape:Torment and the Final Fantasy series, which despite their flaws, kept me riveted to the sceen for vast quantities of time, combining fascinating stories with compelling worlds and well-realised characters. With the advent of online games, these 3 factors that caught me up in solo games have degraded. The worlds that I found so compelling are still there, but in an online game, for all the life that exists, they are somewhat less real, due to the lack of evolution. The characters are still there, but unfortunately it is impossible to legislate the realisation of those characters, and so Xxxwtfpwn the warrior and Legoland the hunter dilute the virtual gene pool. And, the narrative stories are gone, almost entirely. For sure, there are many questlines in WoW that have a storyline, but that narrative takes no account of character, and has no impact upon the world. The limits of the genre are inherent in this, for clearly it is impossible to make a server wide change when one individual completes a quest. It can be argued that, Bernard the wolf paw collector has an insatiable hunger for wolf paws, and therefore the queue of players handing him dozens at a time might not cause him to go home to his palace (for surely with the amount of money he has paid out for those paws, he must be a very rich chap). But in true narrative the character has an impact upon the storyline and the storyline upon the character. Our heroes develop as they discover more, and their actions have an impact. It sounds to me, from reading the interview with Mr Metzen, that Blizzard hope to acknowledge this in the game somehow. I hope that this will occur at a number of levels. The journey to unlock the Death knight is a perfect time to apply some micro narrative to the game, with the player making choices that influences their death knight's start in life (or death, or undeath, or whatever). Exhibit particular cruelty on the quest to unlock the hero class, and you start with more blood runes. Show compassion and get more defensive ability. And so on. If there is moral ambiguity to the expansion's core themes, surely there is room to use that to afffect the character's abilities? This can perhaps be applied at a macro level too. We have all seen the pvp objectives in TBC that apply buffs across zones, well why not apply that to the moral choices made by the player within the narrative? If the narrative offers a choice to massacre refugees, or save them, why not keep a track of the number of refugees killed or saved serverwide, and then apply a zoned buff, or debuff, or perhaps spawn a vendor or questgiver dependent on the choices made by the playerbase at large. If you make the outcomes both desirable, but mutually exclusive, then different players will attempt to achieve different outcomes, and there will be natural player conflict. And it will all be driven by the narrative. I may be way off base here; it might be that the moral intensity and narrative complexity that Chris Metzen hints at will be boiled down to yet another faction who like or dislike you, and offer you nice things or not, and can be appeased by the slaughter of a million billion nerubians and the theft of their hats. but I hope not. And continue to dream of a day where the narrative complexty and thrills given by the likes of Planescape, are available to me in a MMO. My fingers are firmly crossed that Blizz attempt to fit a little of that into WotLK.