If there’s any lesson has emerged from modern MMO development, it’s that story — gasp! — actually still matters. A lot. In a role-playing game, can you imagine? RIFT had to learn that lesson, but rebounded with a pretty nifty Chronicles system, SWTOR showed that the fourth pillar wasn’t just an overused catchphrase, Guild Wars 2 is poised to demonstrate the power of a personal story, and so on. After years of story being on the brink of irrelevancy due to the tired quest box text, it feels like devs are finally waking up and trying to reclaim the spirit of RPGs with new storytelling techniques.
Except for WildStar. Maybe.
Now, I’m really excited for WildStar. It looks to have some great ideas and I’m already entranced by its visuals. But after a pair of well-meaning but facepalm-slapping articles these past two weeks, I’m kind of concerned as well. As the theme of the articles is about condensing quest text, I shall sum up the author’s arguments:
- Nobody likes reading “walls of text”
- Nobody reads quest text
- Story doesn’t necessarily equal exposition or gobs of text
- Animations and cinematics can be important story tools
- Ergo, the ideal quest text should be no longer than a Twitter tweet (140 characters)
OK, the thing is, I more or less agree with #3 and #4 here. I think a lot of us can get together on the concept that the quest text box has become a crutch for MMO storytellers and abused past the point of recognition. I am all for a variety of storytelling techniques, particularly during a quest versus at the beginning and end. It’s one of the things I love about SWTOR, because cutscenes and events can and often do happen in the middle of a quest.
But the Tweet-length quest text thing still grates. It makes me uncomfortable in a personal region best left for my doctors to diagnose. So indulge me as I explore why this makes me feel uneasy.
The first problem I have is with the assumptions that nobody likes reading and nobody reads quest text. Maybe games have trained that out of us by making quest text dull, repetitive, or over-frequent, but at least for me, I still read every quest box in Lord of the Rings Online — and those aren’t 140-character textbites, either. I love how EQII and Fallen Earth both divvied up the quest text into a dialogue between you and the NPC that put some participation in your hands. And for some people, reading is a key element of RPGs — always has been, always will be. I know friends who love scouring virtual worlds for their books to read up on the lore. SO, while these assumptions might apply to a good amount of current MMO players who don’t know any better or have become disillusioned with how text has been treated up to this point, it doesn’t mean it’s universal.
I also take umbrage with the concept that 140 characters is the maximum amount of reading our society can handle without having a brain meltdown. Now, maybe that’s not the author’s intent, but it sort of feels like it. Twitter is fine for what it is, but it’s nearly useless when you want to tell a good story or have an in-depth conversation; it’s there for snappy, brief blurbs that share common ancestry with a fortune cookie. This approach, well-intentioned as it may be, just reeks of dumbing story down for slack-jawed yokels who left school after the second grade. I do realize this makes me sound more and more like the grumpy old fart ready for a retirement home, but I can’t help feeling what I feel.
I mean, why stop with 140 characters? Why not 50? Why not do away with words altogether in quest assignments and use just pretty pictures and arrows? It makes me think of Mike Judge’s cult film Idiocracy, where the future has gotten so stupid that all anyone can read is icons. We’re already over halfway there as a culture, and iconography in MMOs is inseparable from the genre. SLIPPERY SLOPE, PEOPLES!
Let me back up from the brink a little. I guess my apprehension toward these articles isn’t so much a crusade of saying we need to hold onto large quest text boxes or else MMOs as we know them will die, but a concern that developers are kowtowing to the lowest common denominator when creating a game for the masses. Twitter-sized quest text doesn’t feel like progress or any great revelation, it just feels like the developers are telling us that this downsized text is completely superfluous. I am hopeful that the team at Carbine really will follow through on their promise of multiple storytelling techniques in their questing system, because I would hate for us to have reverted to one step away from, say, Anarchy Online’s random mission generator: objectives and chores without meaningful context.