A 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?