Are there topics too taboo for MMO quests?

tabooA while ago I was in the middle of turning in a batch of quests in RIFT when one NPC’s quest completion text caught my eye and stopped my mindless task-turnins to really think about what was happening:

He had previously wanted me to kill this creature for some reason or another, although I am hard-pressed to remember why.  It’s one of many disposable, forgettable quests that flow around far more substantial ones.  But since MMOs these days are combat-centric and pretty much all quests require killing, we just have assumed that whatever justification the NPC gives for this mission is morally right.

Yet this quest giver wasn’t out for justice, but petty vengeance.  He wanted to play with the head afterward.  He’s obviously off his rocker and yet my character can’t really call him out on it.  I’ve caught a few other quests where NPCs have extremely flimsy pretexts for sending me on a killing spree, usually more for convenience sake than survival or retribution.

Anytime you get into a serious discussion of morality and ethics in MMO questing, you’ll immediately hit the wall of mass murder-by-gameplay. But if we chisel through that wall, we might see that there are issues beyond just this that developers have to consider when designing stories and quests for online games.

Modern MMOs require absolute scads of scenarios to fill up their questing logs. Most of these are fairly tame and play out against a black-and-white (or good-and-bad) moral setting. “My daughter was kidnapped by gnolls, please go rescue her.” “I need sixteen bulberries to create an antidote to giant spider poison.” “Go press the thingie to stop nuclear armageddon.” And so on.

However, once in a while a quest designer strays outside of the safe (and arguably boring) bounds of generally accepted reasons to go on these quests to dabble in the taboo. What about a quest in which the player is given instructions to torture an enemy soldier or exact vengeance on a tribe until they leave their homes and go off into the wilderness to die? I’ve seen these. In mature-rated games, such as Fallen Earth and The Secret World, dabbling in the taboo is more common, but it still happens even in the most benign titles.

You ever notice how most MMOs don’t feature children — or if they do, kid NPCs are invincible? There’s a rating reason behind that, because the ESRB and its associates crack down pretty hard on games that put kids in compromising situations (such as, say, an open-world FFA setting where all NPCs can be killed). Kids aren’t necessarily taboo, but MMO studios aren’t jumping to include them in most stories because they can complicate quests in ways not intended.

And there are other topics that are — if not forbidden, then generally avoided because they can be divisive, upsetting, or unable to be presented without pushing a certain viewpoint or agenda. Most players aren’t really eager to draw in real-world pain and arguments into their gaming space. That’s maybe why our fictional mass killings are so accepted — it’s pure fantasy and has no direct analogue to our real-world lives. But work in sexual or domestic violence, and then you have the very real possibility that you’re going to deeply upset or disturb some of your gamers.

So should MMOs keep some topics taboo? And if so, what? There’s probably no easy answer to that that applies across all games and all situations. I never like to come down on the side of censorship — a storyteller should have the freedom to tell whatever story he or she likes without restraints, after all. But there’s a measure of common sense, empathy, and wise thinking that needs to go into these quests too, since they’re involving a myriad of other people.

And going back to my original example, I think that quests with touchier topics should not be presented as an on-the-rails narrative. Give the player some agency in the story — whether it be a choice of action, a selection of dialogue, or a reaction how the quest is completed.

If an MMO story can make me think, can jar me out of complacency, or teach me, I generally applaud that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be shocking or controversial to do that, but it needn’t shy away from doing what it must if the situation (and world tone) calls for it.

What do you think? Are there topics too taboo for MMO quests? Have you ever experienced a quest that went too far in some way?

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11 thoughts on “Are there topics too taboo for MMO quests?

  1. Nick Foster (@goldenhornet) November 24, 2015 / 9:13 am

    Have you played the SWTOR Bounty Hunter through the early quests on Hutta?

    One of the first quests you pick up is from a woman asking you to retrieve her son from her estranged husband. It turns out the son is force-sensitive and the husband has run off with the child to prevent him from being sent to the Sith academy. Your choice is basically to let them leave the planet or shoot the dad in front of the child.

    Later the local Hutt asks you to go find his accountant who he accuses of embezzling from him, cut of his head and deliver it to his wife as a warning.

    There are lots of choices through the Bounty Hunter story to ponder what is the right thing to do….or what your character would really do. There are opportunities for doing dark deeds and opportunities for showing mercy.

  2. Chris Smith November 24, 2015 / 9:56 am

    To this day, I remember one quest in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes where a wizard (I think) asked you to kidnap folks from different races and bring them to him. You bagged them (alive), and he experimented on them. Turns out none of them worked, so he had you throw their carcasses in the river…where they turned into undead and attacked.

    Quite morally dubious.

  3. Syp November 24, 2015 / 10:39 am

    Egads Chris! That’s pretty dang dark!

  4. Xannziee November 24, 2015 / 11:25 am

    #Elder Scrolls Online has loads of quests that are emotionally complicated and complicated in a lot of other ways too. I like it and It has taken me a lot of thinking sometimes to decide a npcs destiny. I like it a lot and its both engaging and immersive in a way i havent experienced in games before…. (Daggerfall Covenant is my home in ESO)

  5. Tyler F.M. Edwards November 24, 2015 / 11:57 am

    I don’t think there’s any simple or universally applicable answer. It really depends on how things are executed. I’m hesitant to rule things out entirely.

    Personally I have a few red lines I would rather not see crossed in storytelling, regardless of medium: graphic animal cruelty, child abuse, rape and sexual violence. I like dark stories, but it’s still ultimately escapism, and those things all disturb me too much for the story to be enjoyable.

    But again, a lot does depend on execution. I’ve been lavishing praise on The Park for weeks despite it basically being Child Abuse: The Game.

    I can’t say that I’ve ever felt an MMO has gone too far (maybe some single player titles, though). There are a few that were incredibly disturbing — such as Fear Nothing in TSW, or an ESO quest involving a residential school for Bosmer and Khajit — but they told good stories, and they did give me the catharsis of letting me fight against the bad guys.

  6. Rowan November 24, 2015 / 12:36 pm

    Of the games I’ve played, TSW comes closest to that line; though as Tyler pointed out, the Player Character generally falls on the side of the “good guys.” And the “bad guys” usually get what’s coming to them (e.g., Orochi captives turning on their captors in some way). On the other hand, Nick has some good points about SWTOR, and the fact that some Dark Side choices made by the player lead down some pretty horrific paths. Even the chance for the Warrior to continue zapping Vette (and eventually allowing Dark!Jaesa to get involved, as well) is something I’m not personally comfortable with.

  7. Syp November 24, 2015 / 2:21 pm

    The Secret World definitely has several missions that touch on very sensitive — if not taboo — areas, yet I can’t recall seeing anyone ever vocally protest their inclusion. I’m constantly amazed at what this game gets away with. I suppose everyone who’s playing it kind of accepts and understands the mature rating means mature themes.

  8. Tyler F.M. Edwards November 24, 2015 / 4:53 pm

    I think TSW “gets away with it” because they never deal with dark things in a way that’s flippant or disrespectful. They don’t just throw in rape and torture as a cheap way to add drama, or attempt to make light of any of the subjects they touch on. The subject matter is always given the gravity it deserves.

    That said, I have definitely seen some criticism. The conclusion of this year’s Halloween mission, for instance, has gotten a lot of hate on the forums. Can somewhat understand why — you’re made to do something incredibly awful, and the only way to avoid doing so is to simply not play the mission at all.

    I’ve accepted it, but only because I play a Dragon, and fiddling with things without thinking through the consequences is kind of our thing, so I just figured my character didn’t realize what he was doing.

  9. Stropp November 24, 2015 / 9:23 pm

    Syp asked: So should MMOs keep some topics taboo?

    Short answer: No.

    Longer answer: Only if they aren’t going to deal with the topic in a gratuitous manner and give the player a meaningful choice with consequences.

    Games aren’t just entertainment, they’re also art, and good art whether it be paint, movies, music, or whatever makes the viewer consider their place in the world. That might just be by evoking simple feelings, or it might cause someone to re-examine aspects of their character. Games have just as much ability to do that as does a thought provoking play or song.

    To use Chris’ example above with the experimenting Wizard, the player should be given a choice in the quest (not just to not accept it) to do what the wizard wants or not. Taking the low road should perhaps pay off with a big reward but negatively affect something else later, and taking the high road has no reward or consequences like making an enemy of the wizard, but later on rewards the player.

    Both paths should make the player think about what they’re doing, not just do what the quest says to do like some kind of human automaton.

    If on the other hand, the devs are just putting in taboo topics to be edgy or dark then yeah, I’d probably not want them there.

  10. j3w3l November 25, 2015 / 6:50 am

    I enjoy these kinds of darker or deeper quest as they can be far more interesting than the standard fare but I think, once you fall into morally questionable or repugnant actions then that’s were you should be asking for the players input. They should have an option, at least to say no and move on to something else. I disliked that about Wildstar and taking the dominion faction.. The start quests want you to start torturing the other races and I just objected to that but to go forward you had to complete.

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