Rift: Can An MMO Still Entertain If Its Story Doesn’t?

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“If the gameplay is good, everything else is just icing on the cake.” I’ve said this kind of thing countless times to friends who are criticizing a good game based on… well, anything but gameplay I guess. Usually I’m referring to graphics, but, in a way, this can apply to story as well. Tetris doesn’t need a story (though 2001’s Tetris Worlds tried… and it was awful). The only backstory you need to know about Space Invaders is in the name. Super Smash Bros. didn’t really have a story until Brawl’s Subspace Emissary (though you wouldn’t know it by the plethora of fan fiction). No one complains that sports games don’t have immersive cutscenes with meaningful story choices (as an Ohioan, I’m pretty sure LeBron got a ton of Renegade points for that whole “taking my talents to Miami” thing, but went back to the Paragon side when he came back to Cleveland). But is this universally true? Certainly any game can be made better by its story (there’s no way I would have made it through three Mass Effect games if it was nothing but shooting aliens for no reason), but there are some types of games, like Myst or Obduction, that are so tightly integrated with their story that I can’t imagine them being fun without it. Is the MMO genre one of these?

Maybe I’m just spoiled by Star Wars The Old Republic’s (mostly) excellent writing, but I’m thoroughly uninterested in Rift’s story. I really like the game in general, but the story just seems like an amalgamation of the most boring, generic fantasy tropes imaginable. Ok, there’s some time travel thrown in there, so that’s different I guess, but for the most part it’s all elves and dwarves and humans saving the world from dragons using magic and swords. I think that this is a lot of what turns me off to the game. I feel bad being that guy who skips all of the quest text and has only a vague idea of why I should care about any of the people I’m killing rats for, but, at the same time, I feel like I’m wasting my time reading quest text that doesn’t make me want to care about the people I’m killing rats for. So can I still enjoy the game while completely ignoring the story elements? I knew several WoW players who were hardcore raiders and PvPers who couldn’t tell a murloc from a warlock, and they seemed to get plenty from their game. But I’ve always felt like it cheapened the experience for them. If I blur through Rift’s story, am I going to feel like I missed out later? Or is it legitimately so dull that I might as well save myself the trouble?

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Do We Really Want to Be the Bad Guy?

So I finally broke down and started a Necromancer. The last straw was that I heard they’ve gotten a fairly major buff since I last played one. Also, the name Count The Shadows, a reference to one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who, was available, and the appeal was just too much for this whovian. Playing him, combined with my last post, got me thinking about reasons why I’ve never been attracted to the Necromancer in Guild Wars 2. Yes, it’s mostly because early on they can’t do big damage to save their life (though I must say that power boost from Signet of Spite is making me rethink that statement). But more than that it’s the fact that I’m basically indistinguishable from the enemy that I’m supposed to be fighting, namely the dragon Zhaitan and his undead army. Also, just look at the blood fiend:
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That’s my pocket healer. A rib cage with a spine tail and a bunch of pulsating innards hanging out in it. Ew. Just… ew. Make it a little bigger and it could pass for a world boss from Orr. Who wants that following them around? It probably smells awful too. Can Sylvari even smell?

Anyways, that got me thinking about the fact that Guild Wars 2 offers you no way to be the bad guy. There’s no two-faction system like most MMOs, and no meaningful choices to make in the story in terms of your character’s personality. You’re basically on rails down the straight and narrow, even if you’re a thief or a zombie-wrangler. But when it comes down to it, do other games really offer a choice? Sure, a lot of games give us a “bad guy faction,” but do they really? Let’s take the obvious example: World of Warcraft. Players get to choose between the zealous Alliance, and the merciless Horde. The Horde is populated by races that are clearly the bad guys: orcs, and undead, and trolls, oh my! But any Horde aficionado (like the vast majority of my WoW-playing friends) will gladly launch into a long diatribe about how the Horde is made up of races that aren’t evil, they’re simply misunderstood, outcast, and discriminated against by the Alliance, and, at the end of the day, are perfectly justified in their actions. Many Horde fanboys will go so far as to say that the Alliance are the real evil faction. Why would Blizzard do this? Is this sociopolitical commentary, or good psychology at work? I think they’re smart enough to know that, while one gets a certain amount of pleasure from playing the role of the villain in a game, after a while, unless you’re some kind of sociopath, it starts to make you feel like a horrible person, and games that make you feel worse for having played them aren’t enjoyable.

The best example I know of is Star Wars The Old Republic. SWTOR is one of the most open-ended games in terms of character personality. In SWTOR as in most MMOs, the “bad guy” Empire side is significantly larger than the “good guy” Republic side. PvP is filled with more arcing electricity than a Tesla convention. Yet in my experience, the majority of Imperials chose primarily light side actions (showing mercy, helping people instead of killing them, etc.) rather than dark side like they’re “supposed to” as a Sith. Some would say players just like to subvert the expected behavior and point to a large number of dark-leaning players on the Republic side. There is likely something to that, but even then, dark actions on the Republic side generally take the form of violent or unfeeling solutions to complex moral decisions rather than things like outright torturing people (as is commonly seen on the Empire side’s dark decisions), and still lead to the ultimate goal of protecting the Republic from the evil Sith Empire.

I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that many people might think they would like to indulge their own dark side, but in the end wouldn’t actually find it a satisfying experience. Even today’s most ultra-violent games have plots that attempt to morally justify your mass murder (whether or not they are–or can be–successful I will leave up to you). Some find this to be an annoyance, but I think it just makes sense; why bother writing a story option to turn your character evil if, as in SWTOR’s case, the majority of players aren’t going to choose it? It makes a lot more sense for the developers to write the story in such a way that most players are going to play it anyway instead of throwing resources at a bunch of underused questlines. Players are going to imagine their characters however they want regardless of how they behave in the story. I know that, even with all of the story options, I still imagined all of my SWTOR characters talking and acting a little bit differently from what their pre-recorded voiceovers dictated. The storytelling disrupts this momentarily, but doesn’t disrupt your idea of your character’s personality.