Sometimes when the light dawns it hits you like a ton of bricks.
Mike Schramm at Wow.com wrote two posts recently (here and here) noting with approval the trend in MMOs to de-emphasize text, particularly quest text, in favor of a more visual model. The ultimate source of inspiration for these posts appears to be an interview with Warcraft creative lead designer Alex Afrasiabi where he repeatedly denigrates the importance of the "the story" to Warcraft. While I have a more fundamental disagreement with Alex that I'll save for another time, I want to focus today on the implication in Mike's post that the purpose of questing is to immerse players into the story.
Damn, that hurt.
It never occurred to me before that the purpose of questing in a video game is to immersive players into a story. It's strange to me that anyone would ever think that having the text scroll across the sc r e an l i ke th is c o ul d create an immersive experience. Presumably some developer made it the default in an attempt to give quests that "olde" aura. Yet the reality is that slow speed text is irritating. The first time I ever used the escape key was to find a way (I hoped) to speed up the scrolling. It's a good thing the instant quest text feature was there because otherwise I might not have made it past the trial account.
If Warcraft designers think that quests should create an immersive story they have bigger problems on their hands than just slow scrolling text. The word immerse means to plunge into, to dunk, or figuratively to be absorbed by. There is nothing in the game play design of Warcraft that makes the story absorbing. There's nothing that makes it flow. Warcraft seems designed to break up flow, to force us to experience the story in bits and chucks, in pulses. Go out at night and stand in front of your car and have your partner repeatedly flick the headlight on and off. That's not immersive; it's irritating. Sometimes irritating can be another word for attention getting but attention getting is not absorbing. Attention has to be held continuously for absorption to occur.
If we define immersion as the state of flow, the state of absorbed attention, then it should be obvious that the enemy of this desired state is interruption. Yet the game play design constantly interrupts one's attention on the story. The failure of questing to absorb me into the story has nothing to do with the way "the story" is written or the fact that it's text based.
Breaking up is easy to do
First, the nature of questing itself is disruptive to the story. When you take a story and chop it into a 4500 bits, throw those bits to the four winds where they are picked up by it hundreds of different NPCs, and then ask your average person to recreate that story in their own head over the course of months or even years you are simply asking too much. I can't do it; I'm confused; I don't get it. It's no wonder that people want the quest text out of the way as fast as possible. You have given the average user an impossible task and so they brush on by it. And I'm only speaking about intellectual comprehension. If the story is so disjointed and chopped up that people can't understand it, why would anyone expect people to be absorbed by it.
Here is a challenge for Alex and Mike. Take the novel War and Peace and rip every single page out. Throw those pages off the roof of the Blizzard headquarters. Collect them all and read one page every day in the order they were collected. If you find the story (notice I did not say the task) immersive after one week, you too can be a Warcraft game play designer.
Second, consider all the interruptions to the story from a purely mechanical point of view. One of the biggest disruptions to game play is inventory management. I'm supposed to kill ten rats to help save Stormwind from the plague yet five minutes later I'm not back in Stormwind to report to the quest giver that the rats are dead; I'm back in town because I need to dump all the garbage that I collected because my bags are full. Then there is the whole issue of leveling professions, trading on the auction house and dealing with a character's talents and abilities. Yes, I grasp the technological reasons for limited bag space. I get the fact that much of the trash that we pick up is designed to heighten the realism of the game world and give us a monetary start in life. But with all these distractions and interruptions it's no wonder that some people get their story by reading the paperback novels.
Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. [ACHIEVEMENT]
Seriously, how many people curl up by the fireside with their favorite book and read the same scene over and over again for hours at a time. Yet that is what we do with dailies; that's what we do with heroics. Such behavior might absorb us into the game but it's the antithesis of what it takes to make a gripping story.
The Point of this Story
The point I want to get at here is that it bewilders me why anyone would think that the point of quests is to immerse players in the story. I've always seen questing--as I've seen killing mobs, playing the auction house, running instances--as tools to absorb me into a fantasy, an alternative world. It's the game itself that holds my attention. I think that placing the burden for story cohesion and player absorption is asking too much from the questing mechanic as a function of game play design. Questing is a lousy way to tell a story.
In saying that I don't mean to suggest that the story, the lore that serves the basis for the game, doesn't matter. I think the story matters a great deal. I think the written story matters most; that's my fundamental disagreement with Alex that I hope to get to in another post. But when the creative talent makes the lore inaccessible in the game it's two faced to claim that the players don't care about the story. The game design itself discourages us from caring. When Alex tells his new talent "nobody cares about the story" it's a vivid example of blaming the victim.
8 hours ago