Friday, October 16, 2009

Tickled Pink: Are we solving a puzzle or living a fantasy?

Euripides at Critical QQ wrote a post where he talked about his lack of enthusiasm for lore when he's raiding. While he appreciates a well told quest chain, it's irrelevant in a raid situation. Kael'thas could as well been a featureless blue cube named "final boss" with abilities called "Phase one ability" and "Phase two ability". Raiding isn't about storytelling, it's about laying a puzzle. This post tickled the raider Larísa and the non-raider Elnía.

I'm torn when it comes to lore. I really am. Let's put it this way: One part of me wants to pay attention to it, wants to get involved, wants to live the story. Isn't this what playing an MMO is about? Escaping into a distant world, seeking the adventure, playing our roles in the history. But no matter how hard I try to listen, my mind starts to wander when it's time for storytelling in WoW.

The first time I saw Lord Jaraxxus, I found it a bit amusing to see that little gnomish warlock and then the huge dude incoming. But not even at our first date could I focus long enough on the dialogue to actually hear what they were talking about. Because when I raid - I raid. I don't care about stories. I care about performance. No matter what hero or anti-hero or bad guy or whatever we're going to face, my mind is somewhere else. I ask myself: am I at the right position? I double check my buffs and players I'm supposed to buff one more time, just to be sure, even though I've checked it a dozen of times before. I plan for my opening attacks. And above all - I pay full attention to the pointer, to see when it changes to a dagger, the signal for me to throw my favorite starter - mirror images. All those speeches - with or without excellent actor performances - is just a background noise. The only voice I'm listening to is the one of the raid leader and the only text that matters to me is the raid chat, the mage channel and the ranged channel.

So to be honest Euripides, I'm quite with you. Jaraxxus could as well look like a cucumber - I wouldn't notice much of a difference as long as his abilities were the same.

Unfortunately this lack of interest for in-game storytelling doesn't only appear when I'm raiding. I'm afraid there are a ton of great stories you can get through the quest lines which I've missed too. I'm reluctant to admit it, but it's very rare that I stop and read what the NPCs are trying to share with me in those let-me-tell-you-a-story-quests. Normally I click it through as quickly as possible, impatient to get to the yellow question mark and head along to the next quest. Maybe it's because of my lack of experience of game storytelling, maybe it has to do with the game mechanisms and the incentives to constantly progress our characters. Or maybe the narrative parts are rather poorly written. I just know that there is something that doesn't work. I fail to lose myself in the story of Azeroth. At the most I see a hazy version of it in the far distance.

If I'm going to become involved I have to do it outside of the game, by reading Warcraft novels. Thanks to a generous donation from Ixobelle I've read a few and I enjoyed them a lot. They haven't got Nobel prize potential - to be honest they're rather crappy written - but they tell the story about Azeroth well enough to make me interested.

Still I can't say that I listened more carefully to what Ilidan had to say in Black Temple just because I had read about him. Once I stood in front of him I looked at him and thought to myself: "hey, there's a celebrity", in the same manner as I would have looked at one of the wax figures at Madame Tussaud's. And then I went back to my normal raiding mode, thinking about what this "Final boss" would do in phase one, two and three, not giving a damned about who this guy was, what he had done and why I was fighting him.

I'm sure I would look differently at it if I was playing at a RP server. Who knows, may I will one day? But as things are now, I'm definitely not living a fantasy. I'm solving a puzzle.

I don't see myself as engaged in solving a puzzle or living a fantasy. I do understand the puzzling part because I have done five man heroics and some of the fights can...well...could offer some puzzling challenges. I say could because I have been level 80 for only about five months and what I have learned about running heroics is that patience is the primary challenge. Whatever strategic decisions might be needed usually go out the door once you either find an over-geared party or become over-geared yourself. The best evidence of that is the fact that I have most of the achievements for the red protodrake and never once have I been in a PUG that deliberately set out to get those achievements. They just...happened. So unless you happen to do heroics at level they are basically /faceroll; no puzzle at all.

Nor do I really see myself living a fantasy, although that is the more appealing direction. As I mentioned in my post about improving questing the problem I have with the story is that it remains discombobulated to me. I think Larisa's point about the boss being a "celebrity" is spot on. For me, the Lich King is akin to Paris Hilton; someone who is famous for being famous although I couldn't actually tell you why. His name is on the box cover; I see his picture on the loading screen; but he has no relevance to what I do in the game outside of one or two quests. It's strange to me because as a non-raider I would think raiders would care more about the deeds of the summit bosses than us little schmucks in the trenches; after all, you guys are killing the bosses; don't you even care why? But it appears you don't.

At the level we are speaking about Warcraft is a game. I enjoy playing it. I like to explore the world; listen to the music; complete some achievement in the game to give me a feeling of accomplishment. Maybe there is a sense of a puzzling but it's the entire game universe that's a puzzle. How does the mechanics of this class work; where does this road go; how do I defeat this mob; how can I make 10,000 gold in one day. Yet there is also a sense of wonder, of being in a different space and time; of projecting myself into my character so much that when she gets whacked from behind I jump in my seat. So in that sense it's a fantasy too. So do I play for the intellectual challenge, for the imagination; neither fully and both a little bit. Let me quote that grand-papa of gaming, William Shakespeare, who had Hamlet solve a much more serious riddle with this immortal strategy: "The play's the thing." Yes, the play is the thing that reveals the consciousness of the king. I play to play; it's enough.


Spinks said...

We mock that little gnome warlock (with Jaraxxus) every week in raid chat and argue that as loyal hordies we could save some time by just ganking him when he walks in.

I'm feeling like a bit of a freak now because I do like the NPCs and the storylines running through the instances. I'm not saying it's great literature, mind, but I think it's cool to be able to interact with the story by playing through bits.

I wonder now if I'm the only one! :)

Kromus said...

Really? This post suprised me Larisa.

I LOVE raid stories, Karazhan was an amazing mystery-- it all made no sense, predictable dining halls to what the hell a dragon? and Curator? it was amazing!

Then you got a quest item for killing the required boss and got a bit of Medvh storyline. It was great.

I remember always thinking, What the hell next? it was an adventure.

As for the puzzle bit, I love a good puzzle, and I only go into cucumber mode if the boss is boring.

To me, alot of the WOTLK bosses have been cucumbers, they don't entise me. Illidan I loved, I cared so much about the story, same with akama, it was great. So many questions to be answered.

[b]However[/b] I don't read quest text, so this must mean that I enjoy a good raid storyline because I feel part of the adventure, but standard quests just don't give me that.

I've read this post feeling rather suprised, Larisa. I imagined you be into the storylines.

Hinenuitepo said...

I hear you, Larisa. I've always been a very perfomance-focused raider, but I'm working on changing that.

It's good to stop and smell the roses sometimes!

Beniffer said...

I love little characters like Wilfred Fizzlebang, sometimes I even create little stories for them in my raid videos, which was the case for the little gnome:

This game wouldn't be as popular if it the details behind everything were gone. Part of the Blizzard touch that makes the game so polished things that Kromus writes.

Klepsacovic said...

I like the stories, but I wish there was more time for them. There I am at the escort quest in the instance clicking through dialogue which suddenly he hops up and wanders away and the box asks if I want to start the quest as well. What quest? I was just talking!

Overall we're solving puzzles and some people put them in a fantasy. No one can truly escape the puzzles.

Tesh said...

It's just as well. Story isn't going to be the strong point of an MMO anyway. I've said that for months now. It *can't* be with so many players. It's all about the play.

(Of course, I have problems with the WoW play methodologies of heavy treadmill use, since I don't consider chasing loot to be "playing". I'd spend the money and effort used on story that is useless on better gameplay instead, but that's a bit tangential.)

firespirit said...

Ohh, boy do I ever disagree. I love the lore steeped in raiding. Yes, it is a puzzle, but what is the reason we are going in there?

I was a big WC3 Fan, so to finally get to see KT, I was absolutely ecstatic. I ventured into ulduar before doing SPeaks, and I have to say I enjoy ulduar better now that I know a bit of the story.

Dorgol said...

I want more stories in my raids. I love Vael in BWL as much for the fight mechanic as for the fact that he is a boss with a background.

Ulduar's story was FANTASTIC, as we were introduced to most of the bosses - and not just the FINAL boss - throughout all of Storm Peaks.

Blizzard seems to be giving us a little more of this in Icecrown - where the bosses aren't JUST obstacles before Arthas. Instead, some of them are known to us and have their own story.

Naithin said...

I'm somewhere inbetween, although I guess overall, quite similar to Larissa.

I often skip quest text ingame. I do care what raid bosses look like, but for aesthetic reasons only. I get tickled by encountering people featured in lore, but while fighting them?

It's all gravy. It doesn't matter who or what you're fighting, all that matters is doing it RIGHT.

Later, though? When it's all over? Well, Wow wiki is an awesome source of lore information. I <3 reading the lore out of game, and finding out details I've either overlooked or are never mentioned ingame.

It's just simply not relevant while the encounter itself is actually in progress.

zetter said...

I find the bosses in Northrend I pay more attention to who they are and what they say than in BC. I am not sure if it's because I love the lore of the scourge ect but all of it has grabbed me more than say the raids in BC.

As for Wilfred hes fantastic he always causes comments on Vent as he reminds us a lot of our old Guildmaster who was also a gnome who died a hell of a lot in raids

What's my main Again? said...

Before and after the fight I care about why we are there.... either that or I don't pay attention at all. During the fight its all business.

It is nice though after to think of what you just accomplished and where that stands in relation to Lore.

Then I remember that it took 10/25 of us to kill one thing and I feel weak.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't have ever gone into raiding if it wasn't the main way to see Story Progression. It's my major drive to keep raiding and keep my loot up to date, so that I can keep seeing the new elements of the story.

Fish said...

I think the problem with raid storylines is that some of them have a firm basis in lore and are appreciated by players and suitably epic, but there aren't enough epic characters to fill out raid content.

Kara was awesome, way better than I expected from reading about. I disagree with killing off Illidan, but he is pretty epic. However most of the TBC and wrath bosses seem to be there just for players to kill and take their stuff and have no place in lore or storyline.

Bronte said...

I am a huge sucker for lore. In any given-game, immersion via smart and engaging storytelling is what keeps my interest and drives me forward as a player. WoW has done a good job of it so far, even though there are times when they sacrifice lore in the name of propelling the storyline or microtransactions (gender changes, race changes, name changes etc.)

I touched on the subject slightly in the Halloween MMO events post (linked below). But your post has sort of motivated me to put together my own thoughts on the subject. So stay tuned for that.

Also: Keen and Graev have been made some recent posts about lore and how teh concept of RPG is fading fast from MMORPGs. Worth a read. Here is a quick link for that as well:

Larísa said...

You’re not a freak! I think I am. It’s not that I don’t WANT to enjoy lore while I’m raiding. It’s just that my mind is so preoccupied with other stuff that I can’t pay it the attention it deserves.

@Kromus: Oh, I’m like that too. “What’s next”. Exploring a new instance… nothing, absolutely nothing beats the joy of that. But no, I can’t really engage deeply into the storylines in the game. Reading the novels works better for me. For some reason. Maybe I’m just oldfashioned, accustomed to literature rather than gaming as a storytelling device.

@Hinenuitepo: yeah, I too would like to smell the roses. Maybe it’s just a sign that I’m not the best raider ever seen. I need to focus on the execution or I’m all lost.

@Beniffer: Oh, I like the polish too. It’s just a pity that it somehow is a bit wasted on me. But one day maybe…

@Klepsacovic: oh yeah! Remember the escort q in… was it Mana Tombs or AC? One of the instances in Terokkar at least. I never had a clue what it was about. Suddenly we were walking out.

@Tesh: I think one of the reasons why storytelling doesn’t work is that we’re not playing it in a linear way. Not at all. I never ever have any idea about where on the timeline I am. What stardate is it in this instance? Going back in CoT doesn’t make it easier ofc… Maybe some sort of graphic timeline, like an xp-bar, would help a bit.

@Firespirit: I think it’s not about agreeing or disagreeing. It’s a matter of different approaches to the game, different experiences, and I don’t think one way is better than the other. As long as there are people who really appreciate the dialogues in instances it makes perfect sense to me that they are there.

@Dorgol: Oh, I guess I’ll have to try once again to catch up in the story and engage myself into it before entering Icecrown. It remains to see if I’ll succeed though.

@Naithin: exactly my view. But I need to spend more time reading Wowwiki. Tankspot can’t be the whole reason for the game…

@Zetter: Well, he IS a gnome. I love gnome NPCs too. Even though I don\t pay any attention to what he is saying.

@What\s my main Again: I’ve never thought about being weak killing the boss 25 against 1. But you’ve got a point!

@Anonymous: Well, as I said to Firespirit : it’s a matter of taste.

@Bronte: I’ll check out on that. Sometimes I wonder if it’s easier to get involved in the stories if you’re a veteran than it is fur us who came late to the game.

jeffo said...

I really like storylines. When I chain quest with a group I'm usually the slowest because I'm the one who's reading the text -- I want to know where I'm going, what I'm killing or collecting, and why. I think a good chunk of Wrath did a great job of storytelling, particularly through Dragonblight and culminating in the Wrathgate. Once we get into the instance, however, I don't really think about the lore at all. After all, as the old expression goes 'when you're up to your ass in alligators, it's difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.' Everything becomes secondary to getting the job done.

Leah said...

you know, I think I'm a little bit of both. on one hand, Arcatraz in tempest keep is one of my favorite instances ever, becasue the characters you encounter there are absolutely epic. between the bickering spouses and the out of mana gnome mage in the end? that place always makes me snicker :P

I also very much enjoy the flavor announcements in ToC and I alwasy listen to them (except for a 5 man, that speech is way too long for the size of the instance)

At the same time, regardless of the role I play (and I play all three depending on a mood/need) when were' raiding, my mind at some point shifts into a choreographed dance mode. how is my positioning in regards to other raiders/boss, where do I move and when which abilities do I use, do I need to refresh my totems, should I switch my trinkets, etc, etc, etc.

P.S. one of my favorite things to do is when we're about to engage XT to key my mike and do XT imitation, so that people think we accidentally pulled him already :P I only do on experimental/off/alt nights and I don't do it every time, so it almost never fails to freak people out "evil cackle"

Carra said...

SW: TOR its main focus will be on storytelling. Seeing how I click through all the quests myself without reading a word I wonder if that's such a good choice.

But I've seen other games in which it does work. Real story driven rpgs can work. Anyone who played Planescape Torment can confirm that.

Adding voices to all the quests will be a fresh start. Reading a quest is quite different from hearing it.

Even better are interactive quests. Give us choices! WoW doesn't have any. What if I'm giving the choice to keep a slave for myself or free her? With more free choice I'd care more about the story. In WoW I'd just have to free the slave and continue with the next quest. It doesn't matter if I skip a quest. In a good rpg I could meet the slaves family later which would either be happy to see me or want my blood.

WoW is a fine rpg but as far as quests go it's not very special. Give us more interactive quests and let our choices create a wave through the rest of the game.