It’s been a great year for those of us who love great stories and storytelling methods that transcend quest text boxes in our MMOs. Easily the highlight of my time in SWTOR so far has been the class storylines that BioWare crafted, and they delivered the goods as promised: These stories definitely made me feel more connected and involved with my character.
However, I was not quite expecting The Secret World to be giving SWTOR a race for the best storytelling of 2011-12 here. Both use similar methods — cutscenes and voice acting feature heavily in these games — but each comes off differently in the end. I thought it was time for a little compare-and-contrast between the two.
BioWare holds some sort of world record for the most recorded dialogue in a video game at this point, but dang if TSW isn’t just as talky. Both games have a higher ratio of good voice acting to bad, and the better voice actors usually make more memorable NPCs.
SWTOR gets a leg up in this department by having your character be fully voiced (your character in TSW is functionally mute and doesn’t even shake hands for the most part). I like hearing my character actually talk, although it does take away some of my personality that I like to imagine injected into these toons.
TSW, on the other hand, offers more flavor text for its characters. You have the choice to just jump ahead to the quests or to take some time and get to know the characters by clicking on their dialogue options. Many of these are great short stories in and of themselves, and I highly encourage players to check them out.
Both games start quests the same way, by going into a cutscene mode where the NPC takes a long time spelling out why he or she wants you to do something. TSW gives you a summary box ahead of time, so if you’re in a hurry you can just skip the voice stuff, while SWTOR lets you skip the voice stuff and then you can find out afterward what you need to do from your quest tracker.
The main storyline in SWTOR almost always had much more interesting quest assignment cutscenes than its side quests. After a while, I grew really tired of talking to generic-looking and -sounding NPCs in that game that blathered on and on about a simple task that would have no greater meaning past the quest completion. TSW decided to downgrade side quests to a simple text box, usually letting the environment and text tell the story.
SWTOR was better in giving you dialogue options during these cutscenes so you felt more like a participant, instead of an observer, although you had to be careful about gaining and losing dark/light side points. So while TSW may have the more interesting quest story assignments, SWTOR kept me involved and let me do a little roleplay during this time.
Once in a blue moon — usually during a main storyline — SWTOR would inject cutscenes and scripted events into the middle of a quest. This always felt like a rare event, however. TSW seems like it does more with this.
I think that TSW has a home field advantage between the two games because the contemporary world is so much easier to grasp and related to than a “galaxy far, far away.” A small island town under attack by the forces of darkness carries more weight than an entire alien planet facing extinction from a plague. The player also relates to the environment and objects more with TSW; we know what’s “normal,” so when something abnormal is shown, it’s jarring. SWTOR has no real “normal” to it; it’s a fantastic world that’s mostly removed from our own.
I liked it every time that SWTOR give me a choice during a mission instead of before or after it, especially when it put me on the spot and had me try to muddle out a situation with no clear good or bad angle to it. TSW’s missions don’t offer any choice in them that I’ve seen; you do the same things to complete it that everyone else does, and the outcome is always the same.
TSW’s advantage is how the investigation and sabotage missions really make you think and approach the mission from a new perspective. There’s a lot of thin lines between the virtual and real world going on, and I feel more involved as a player doing these than as a guy controlling an avatar doing the missions.
TSW drops the ball here, I feel. The quests are usually great, but when you get to the end… a little text box gives you a pat on the back from your boss and your rewards. That’s it. No cutscene, nothing from the characters that assigned you the mission, nothing. And half of the time, the text box just uses a generic “WELL DONE” form.
SWTOR provides more of a satisfying wrapup from its NPCs. It’s good to hear them say “thanks” once in a while or give you a final choice that changes how it ends.
While I certainly liked SWTOR, I’m finding that TSW resonates with me a lot more in the storytelling department. It’s hard to pinpoint just one reason, but if I had to pick, I’d say it’s that the NPCs feel more like real people to me. Maybe if SWTOR didn’t bother with voicing or cutscening any of the characters outside of your main class story, it would’ve felt similar, but after a while I felt like the original personalities in that game were washed away by the sea of disposable quest-givers.
TSW’s characters have another advantage, in that many of them have relationships with each other and the area that extend well outside of just one little quest hub. Without spoiling anything, I was delighted and surprised to discover that a character I met and did missions for in the first area had a huge secret unveiled in the second that made me rethink what I knew about him.
The NPCs in TSW have funny conversations between each other if there are two or more together in a room. Lately I’ve been doing the Innsmouth Academy quests (a really awesome hub), and all three of the characters you talk with have hilarious and sometimes poignant interactions with each other. There are definitely fewer of these NPCs, but each one is well-thought out and great to get to know.
I think it’s interesting how both of these games share very similar DNA with its storytelling. Both have aspects that I’d like to see in each other’s games, but I’m not complaining that we’ve been gifted with so much great story this past year.
It’s telling how TSW’s first monthly update is basically a bunch of new missions — and that has a lot of us very, very excited. I never thought I’d be thrilled to see “new quests!” as a core update feature, but it’s kind of like the game’s giving us little sequels to our favorite stories. That makes me happy to consider.