Monday, July 2, 2012

It Was the End of the World As We Know It, Part 2

This is Not Our Story

It's his story.
Here on Summer Holidays, I've been able to catch up with a few titles on my XBox, in addition to WoW-- particularly the new content for Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim.

These two titles and so much WoW makes me think a lot about how games do a story. There's a lot of questions that come up in regards to the story the developers give us and how much of that story belongs to the players.

That last one is a doozy. Many game writers would hear me ask that question, sit up straight, aim their nose at the ceiling and tell me to go to hell. The whole controversy revolving around the ending of Mass Effect 3 has put writers in a corner trying to take control of their artistic license and come up with polite responses like the one suggested above. "We should be able to tell the kinds of stories we want to tell and make the games we want to make." There is some approach being taken here to suggest that the story in a game is inviolate as the printed words of a book.

I want to be sympathetic to that. And I don't suggest story-building by committee is the way to go, but these writers are forgetting the first lesson I learned in media classes a freshman in college: each medium for presenting a story or set of information has its own set of rules, its own strengths and weaknesses. The media are all different and you mustn't come to a new medium with the expectations of the old.

When we play games, we actively engage with the stories like no other medium that came before. I'm not just following Commander Shephard's exploits in ME3. I am Commander Shephard. I made the choices that got Shep to the Citadel at the end of the game. I made the command choices that determined who lived or died in countless situations along the way. I pulled the trigger every single time Shephard, with her Widow-X sniper rifle, took down an operative that was standing in her way.

Bioware's success was that they could create such a fantastic framework for all those choices and get me so wound up about those characters. Bioware's failure was that they couldn't maintain that framework of choices all the way to the end.

As for Warcraft ...

Chris Metzen and his team of writers fall into a different pitfall of the same problem in that they distance the players from the main action. We keep thinking that it's the players who are propelling this adventure, but it's not. It is the story of the main lore characters.

It was moderately irritating when it was written how Maev Shadowsong ultimately defeated Illidan at the Black Temple. It was off-putting when Onyxia's death was completely retconned to have been caused by Varian Wrynn. (Really, I didn't even see him there. And once upon a time, Merinna soloed the former Lady Prestor.)  We knew better but didn't like it when The Lich King's downfall was given to Tyrion "Ice Cube" Fordring.

But I think a much bigger chunk of the playerbase (since this is the first time, thanks to LFR, that a truly big chunk of the playerbase got to see the last raid of the expansion) realized that we were all just extras in Thrall's Story and found that deeply dissatisfying. Especially if we were Alliance and watched our own faction bend over and take it from the Horde for an entire expansion in almost every other respect.

Players like us want to feel that we are impacting the world, but in Cataclysm we do not. We are watching a story unfold, but ultimately it could have been observed much more easily (and perhaps more satisfyingly) as a good book or well-made movie. The Madness of Deathwing fight in the Dragon Soul reveals this problem with our interaction of the story. We're down on these atolls fiddling with Burning Tendrils and Restorative Bloods while no real damage occurs to DW unless one of the other Dragon Aspects is actively magicking him. He throws a claw up on a rock and we attack it off and on for about three minutes and finally Alexstraza or Nozdormu or whoever really knocks it off (Even if they say we're doing it "together").

I think that MMO storytelling has its own special rules that are even different from regular computer games. In an MMO, we can end the threat against the world, but the surroundings still have to be all messed up for new players following after us, for example (which is why nobody will repair the gates of Stormwind in the forseeable future).

Joystiq has an article by Rowan Kaiser that addresses the Mass Effect situation directly, but could also be pointed at Warcraft to show it's story weaknesses. In a nutshell he points to a problem of developers "putting mythology above its storytelling." To focus on the mythology (or lore) is to remove an emotional context for a player or reader because the bigger order of the world becomes far more important than any of the little lives (like ours) running around in it. 

This is what happened in Cataclysm. The World was Under Threat, but ultimately, that problem was too big for us characters (even 25 of us) to fix ourselves. Somebody was going to have to play the deus ex machina to come and save our butts and this time, that deus' name just happened to be Thrall wielding a shiny new Dragon Laser.

Allow me to stop and vent a little about Thrall:

I've never really liked this character. He's a fantasy version of 18th century literature's "noble savage." The noble savage crosses cultural lines to teach us how there are values that fall outside of our traditional norms, particularly a closeness with nature, that are "good." He is idealized, and is wise beyond other characters because of ... mystical shit, or something.  I've never found any new or exciting ideas in the character of Thrall. And now that we see his heart's desire is to play the role of modern dad and settle down with Aggra(vation) and raise some Thrallings, I doubt that I ever will. I've always sort of laughed at the idea of Horde players falling for that claptrap and then calling the Night Elves a bunch of hippies. 

So, yeah, I don't especially like feeling like a footnote in that guy's story.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy lore, but it's supposed to be in the background. Mists of Pandaria is being touted as the first expansion to really break with the old lore, but I have a feeling they are just going to fill it up with some new lore. We know that the last raid of the expansion will be against Garrosh Hellscream, but I expect it to be written that Thrall probably did him in too. If we're lucky, it might be Vol'jin who famously warned it would be his arrow that dropped the current Warchief. 

Warcraft writers may have to let go of their lore characters to give the players back their own stories, but there is no sign of that going to happen.

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