I am so behind with this blog post; work has been manic and I have feverously been trying to complete the machinima I started ages ago so this post kinda slipped through the cracks. Thankfully I was given a timely reminder by Windsoar’s fantastic post on the subject and it prompted me to get those typing fingers out.
OK let me first clarify, when I say games as art I don’t mean in a purely ‘pretty graphics’ kind of way. I mean art in the purest sense of the word; evoking passion and emotion, questioning our moral sensibilities and views on society. Gaming, and gaming culture, has increasingly become mainstream it’s view it has grown up but, like the disapproving parent who considers their child far too immature to deal with the real issues of the day, many parts of mainstream society do not accept that gaming has yet come of age. They think instead of Duck Hunt, Frogger and Super Mario Bros. and when gaming attempts to act its age within something more brutal or visceral (Manhunt? Mortal Kombat? GTA:SA?) There are cries that “gaming is corrupting our youth with things that, frankly, gaming shouldn’t be covering at all”. Squashing a mushroom is fine, but gamers (clearly having the mental capacity of a 2 year old) cannot cope with the moral dilemmas presented in Fallout 3 or the (somewhat humorous) commentary of American gang culture in GTA:SA. Gaming should stick to amusing Tetris puzzle games and the non-offensive shooting of zombies (cos zombies are bad mmmmmkay). But games have gone far beyond this already, and with the average age of a gamer now being 34 years old and having been playing for about 12 years, gaming has grown up with its customer base and is slowly but increasingly being accepted as an acceptable medium of artistic expression – take Heavy Rain as a case in point. From the unique control system, to the idea that you can complete the game even if your main character dies (dramatically different endings of course), to the generalstory theme of child kidnap and murder. Every step of the way you are compelled to care about the characters, in fact it's required to give you the impetus to save your virtual child.
So how does this affect World of Warcraft? Well WoW is *THE* leading MMORPG and the reasons for that are simple. It has a powerful back-story and lore – many of the older players will have followed the story of Azeroth and watched it evolve right from the very first Warcraft game. I am one such player and by virtue of that I feel that I have a certain emotional connection with Azeroth and its denizens. I’m sure many of you who have played Starcraft 2 (SC2) share a similar investment, particularly with skilled storytelling involved. WoW is also accessible; nearly every PC game magazine describes WoW as the essence of “easy to play, difficult to master”, it’s that play style that draws people in but keeps them hooked into ‘knowing their class’ so they can enjoy the endgame. The community is pretty much awesome; yes asshats exist but they’re an evil you can’t escape in such a wide ranging and diverse community. The art style is fairly simple, so as not to disbar people without high end rigs, but the characters are still expressive in their animations, the landscapes are still beautiful and the effects are still impressive. Finally, Blizzard continues to develop and expand the game world; world events do progress each expansion. This has really been emphasised in WOTLK and will be even more apparent in Cataclysm when the entire old world is remade.
But for all this, it is easy to become detached in WoW. Who hasn’t felt the laborious slavery of a rep grind or daily quest routine? “Oops it’s 6pm time to do the dailies then at 7pm we go kill the Lich King, finish by 1am maybe so I can just fit in a bit of rep grinding for the Oracles cos I really want to get the Green Proto-drake”. All too regularly we are asked to collect x number of things for which we will receive a more cheerful greeting from whichever faction we are trying to improve our reputation with. This is when burn out tends to occur.
In SC2, Blizzard really, REALLY showed their flare for story telling and I don’t mind telling you that at the end of the campaign, whilst my heart swelled with pride at my accomplishment and yet I had a tear in my eye for the frankly emotional end tale of the characters. I sincerely hope that they bring this flare across to WoW.
The thing is WoW can do better; I have seen it, with my own eyes. The introduction of cut scenes in WOTLK was a proud moment and the Wrathgate and following Battle for Undercity are moments in WoW that really will stay with me forever. “This” I said to myself “is what WoW is all about, what it should be and how it should make me feel”. Although I have not experienced it myself yet, others have told me that’s the same feeling they got when they killed the Lich King and saw the cutscene (I have seen the cut scene and can quite imagine the feeling when watching it for the first time after killing LK). So what if WoW could achieve this more often? What if WoW was more dynamic? What if WoW gave you more choices to affect the world around you? Yes phasing is one way of doing this, but what about other ways?
Many Branches Make a Lustrous Thicket (or something like that)
Let’s take an example from Fallout 3; very early on you’re given a moral choice. On the one hand you can blow up the town of Megaton for a large wad of cash and a nice penthouse, on the other you can save the town which doesn’t earn you much cash, you get a considerably shoddier house but you also get more side quests opening up and the love and respect for the local people. You aren’t significantly disadvantaged either way you choose to go so really it comes down to a moral a choice, a choice made all the more difficult by the fact that you have just spent the last 3 – 5 hours building up a relationship with the townspeople… but by God that’s a lot of cash, CHACHINGA!!!!
This obviously isn’t going to fly in a MMORPG, certainly not in WoW at any rate. OK you could phase it, but then which timeline becomes the canon for what happened; did the town get blown up? Didn’t it? If it did, well that just completely invalidates half your players’ in game experience because technically ‘it didn’t happen’. But let’s twist the narrative slightly and take an example from the Goblin starting area; it’s been described a little bit as GTA:Goblin Island. I warn you now this bit talks about the Goblin starting area in Cata: one of the opening missions involves you gathering a posse of like minded thugs and shaking down some innocents for cash on behalf of your boss. But what would happen if you were then given a choice about how to resolve this; how about you decide not to shake these poor innocents down, or you steal the money and keep it for yourself, maybe you lie to your boss about what happened or you just do a runner and hope he doesn’t catch up with you. You use narrative and storytelling to punch home the morally ambiguous issues. Ultimately it won’t change the fact you get on a boat in chains, but the how and why you got there in chains is down to you. It builds that emotional investment in your character.
Branching quest lines are the most basic way of implementing choices to make your character's back story your own. More likely they are going to be easier to implement during the levelling stages, particularly the earlier stages, but it will make your level 80 character much more uniquely yours and once you have that basis formed you can branch it out further and add layers. Using the Goblin analysis again, what about a rogue being able to steal the money from the innocents? What about warriors beating seven barrels of shite out of them, or a mage/warlock scaring the bejesus out of them with demons or sheep? (Sheep Runz? Yes sheep!) What about when you get off the boat and depending on your choice of whether to beat up innocents or not leads you to whether you get access to joining a local thug gang cos your reputation gets you in? Or maybe the family you saved has set up a new home on the shores of Azshara and wants you to help secure the family’s future?
This, of course, would take a lot of time to do properly and the more a questline branches the greater risk of balancing issues arising from different quest rewards. It also takes a lot of effort and artistic direction to get the quests/cinematics/music to evoke the feelings and sensations to give the choices some sort of moral impetus. Blizzard is very averse to denying content to anyone, hence way you can swap from Oracles to Frenzyheart and back again if you want. But with more MMORPGs introducing this kind of content, particularly with Star Wars: The Old Republic coming out soon by the kings of story telling Bioware, WoW does run the risk of falling behind the curve.
World PvP: Making the War Real
War is hell; except in Azeroth it’s not really. It’s quite civil really. OK I play on a PvP server and many people don’t and that’s cool but I do think there is a lot more scope to bring the realities of the growing escalation of war between the Horde and Alliance to everyone. Ganking isn’t war, timed battles in Wintergrasp isn’t war. Don’t get me wrong, BGs, WG and ganking all have their place and I’m not suggesting any one of these elements be removed or replaced. But what about areas where world PvP is a little more… intense?
I’m sure many of you remember Halaa in TBC; for me, this is what world PvP was all about. There was a strategic objective, a town, and at a time when plenty of level capped players would knock about the area a tense back and forth situation could arise which in extreme cases ended up with massive battles where Horde and Alliance would have pitched battles over the town. Attackers could take to the air with bombing wyverns/gryphons, whilst defenders could launch raids to deny attackers air superiority. Raids, skirmishes and full on ‘unit’ engagements could break out at any time. It was, in my opinion, what world PvP should be.
So how could that idea be developed further? Several games have tried, Age of Conan promised you the building of castles and sieges, WAR offered you unrelenting world PvP and Dark Age of Camelot probably managed to achieve both to a degree. Probably the most realistic world PvP is found on EVE Online where players can control whole swathes of the galaxy in the name of their Corporation. It’s a brutal existence out in space but to the victor comes the opportunity for manufacture and political dominance. Guild Wars 2 is introducing a feature where random bands of barbarians can attack villages; you can fight with the barbarians, against them or just ignore them… and so can any other player in the general vicinity raising the prospect of PvP. So what about WoW? How can the lessons learnt here be applied to WoW?
Well how about escorting caravans or supply wagons? You’re recruited to protect the wagons as they move up to the frontline to support the troops. What if opposing faction players are recruited to destroy those caravans and disrupt the supply routes? Those caravans move at random times across the world map, a recruiting call is put out in capital cities, hey presto instant PvP. Simples. Let’s add a morally ambiguous question though, how about what you thought were supply wagons were actually innocent civilians from the opposing faction looking to settle the frontier region. Your orders are destroy them all, men, women, children. If you don’t, you won’t get paid and the enemy may set up a new town which will vastly support their war effort, but if you do…
I don’t know about you guys, but even in a game I am reluctant to kill innocents. But for the more morally ambiguous of you what if there is some reward for not killing them; rep bonuses or rep loss if you give in to wanton slaughter. Yes it’s all Pavlovian in nature but you’re forcing players to face those moral choices through reward and punishment and to live with the choices they make. It can make you very invested in what you’re playing and gives rise to some fantastic story telling opportunities which really is the basis of art in film and media terms. You’re adding layers, presenting choices and by players making those difficult decisions they are confronted with some of the harsh realities of a wartime situation.
This is where realisticly the whole idea gets unhinged slightly because with raiding you’re going to find that those personal choices can’t really be made when you have 24 other people hanging about. Aside from offering some cutscenes, which I think with WOTLK Blizzard have shown they are moving in that direction anyway, there is little opportunity to throw in interactive storytelling beyond killing the bad guy. Even if you throw in puzzle choices, well the past has shown that most of the WoW demographic actually get frustrated with puzzles, particularly if they’re raiding the same place each week. What might be fun and novel in a singleplayer storytelling game does not, in this instance, transfer across into MMORPG. And really, how long before the solution to the puzzle is put on wowhead? It would make the whole idea superfluous.
But are there other ways you can make choices past the levelling stages of the game? Aldors and Scyers was an attempt but as Windsoar mentions on her post there was no moral choice involved it was all about min-maxing, let’s face it even if there was a moral choice I’d probably still go with the min-maxing.
But what about something else? What about a Gates of AQ type event except with two factions? Two competing factions encouraging you to gather resources for them and shunning the other side? To progress the world story players must pick a faction to support, the choice is made purely on how they feel towards each faction; let’s call them the Bunny faction and ‘Orrible Bastard faction. No there’s no reward for favouring one faction over the other so it’s a moral choice of whether you want to see the Bunny or the Bastards achieve victory; whichever faction gathers the resources it needs first wins and it is that faction that ‘controls’ the new area that has opened up so it all depends on whether you like Bunnies or Bastards. You’re tied into the faction, you’re not penalised if you’re trying to min-max, if the faction you supported loses out you don’t lose out, but the tone of this new area can be completely changed by the decision you made and by the decision the several other thousand people on your server made as to who won out.
OK I admit that that can cause problems when you look at things like canon and the fact that you’re going to have ‘different realities’ on different servers. It depends on whether Blizzard would accept that or not, which I doubt they would, they tend to be quite tight on the narrative they want. So again take it out a layer, have the event run for a month, run for six months or whatever and add the results from all the servers for an overall winner. Considering that during the Gates of AQ Blizzard kept running totals of all the resources gathered by each faction for each server, this is not beyond the realms of possibility. Once a winner has been decided Blizzard then just has to change the NPCs’ tabards and the tone of the script ready to be released during the next patch. Yes it's an extreme example and probably a very one off event if it was even considered but it is do-able.
Examples of Too Much Freedom
Now these are all ideas about freedom of choice, making players face those choices to tell a more personal story and in the end result in something memorable, unique and verging closer to ‘media art’ than what we see currently. But the online populace can be fickle and not all things that sound great in your head play out quite so well when implemented. The t’interweb is awash with failed MMORPGs who thought that by giving players more freedom they were creating something special. Star Wars Galaxies is a good example, the idea that you could be anything, do anything and act according to whatever moral compass you decide is such a tempting idea. But how do you implement these things? I’m not going to labour this bit, I’ve laboured enough but I do want to raise awareness that grand ideas about totally open freedom do not usually translate well. EVE Online is an exception (but remember thats a spaceship game and doesn't have classes in the same way WoW does - plus it's quite an small but dedicated player base), but Star War Galaxies is often the reality. I would argue that to create a MMORPG that can really be considered art the storytelling process has to be directed in some measure. How else are you going to make players face those uncomfortable truths of their actions, how else are you going to make satirical commentary on aspects of our modern lives unless you have that directed questline in which to make that commentary?
Because We Can?
So, can expressive media art be done in WoW? Yes of course it can, and to a large degree with the introduction of phasing and cut scenes it is already already being done to a limited degree, but the real question is should it be done in WoW? How far do you push the boundary before the game stops being WoW as we know and love it and becomes something else entirely? That is a question which really only you as an individual can answer.