Star-Fired Beef

Spoilt by Story?


I’ve been playing a fair bit of The Secret World lately, because Samhain always is the best of the MMO holidays. Every time I come back to TSW I get all tingly in anticipation at the prospect of digging deeper into the lore of the game. I know it has been said before, by many people, but there really is no MMO out there that can compete with the way TSW handles story. Even SWTOR has to take a back seat here, I think.

It’s not just the story or lore itself that brings TSW head and shoulders above the competition, though. It is the atmosphere which it both feeds off and creates. It just all comes together to deliver an experience that really is second to none in the genre. I think that the defining aspect of it is the investigation missions. Not only do they engage your brain in a way that no other MMO can, they force you to learn about things that inform the background lore of the game. Whether it be decrypting morse code that a ghost is sending you via a van’s headlights, learning old (pagan?) names for herbs to use in a summoning ritual, translating all manner of ancient languages, or using classical art references to find hidden keys, it is all deeply immersive.

The quality of writing – both textual and verbal – is incredible, given what we normally put up with. Even though it is good, I still think a fair bit of the SWTOR dialogue is slightly-to-overly melodramatic, at least for the Imperial Agent storyline I played. I think the LOTRO flavour writing is very good, particularly in the Shire – I really like how they captured the Hobbit lifestyle. But the quest dialogue, and the flow of the story, it seemed too compartmentalised, too disconnected from the rest of the world. It felt too much like the WoW level of writing quality, too…gimmicky?

Anyway, the point is that I think I’ve been spoilt by the quality of writing in TSW, and now it is really difficult to get excited about any MMO that doesn’t live up to that standard. I’ve come to realise that in an MMO, what I am craving is the experience of being a part of a larger story, where I am discovering my place in it just as much as I am shaping it. I think this is the reason why I haven’t been able to really immerse myself in GW2. The dialogue was absolutely shocking, the personal story was just boring as hell, and other than that there is, as far as I could tell, no overall story that I felt a part of. ArcheAge was pretty bad, too, in terms of writing quality. Plus, the main story ended abruptly and with no sense of having changed anything.

With the vast majority of MMOs these days having virtually identical gameplay experiences – with minor variations in combat and minigame offerings – the defining factor for me, I’ve realised, is the world-building. The lore. The background. The atmosphere. The writing. If the game won’t meet my standards for these, then I’ll either have to turn to sandboxes like EVE, where I write my own story or participate in ones created by others, or literally write my own stories. I need to get back to my WoW fanfic, since it is the closest I’m going to get to that game for the foreseeable future. There is a certain satisfaction to be gained from using your own perspective to flesh out parts of the story that you see major problems with, or felt were entirely neglected.


5 thoughts on “Spoilt by Story?

  1. I’m in the same boat as you are on this. I’m sad that TSW doesn’t get more recognition than it does, because it’s obvious they have professional and top-notch fiction writers on this team. This game always prompts me to scour wikis to learn more about the “lore,” which I’m usually thrilled to realize is often a re-imagining of our own world history. It’s brilliant!

    I’m also in the same boat in GW2 as you. I was a huge supporter of GW2 at launch, but as the living story trundles along, I just can’t get into it or the characters. It all seems almost laughable and over the top drama with seriously cringeworthy dialogue and characterization. There’s really only so much “Oh, JOOORY!” I can handle in an episode before I feel like muting the NPC chatter.

    I was just never able to get into LOTRO’s writing. It was too dull and often humorless to me. And when they did try to be funny, it fell pretty flat, IMHO. And I’m someone who loves Tolkien – The Hobbit and LOTR were my introduction to fantasy as a genre.

    FFXIV has some fairly strong writing to it, if you don’t mind the more archaic language and Japanese humor. It takes some getting used to, but it’s one of the newer games that I find where I really care about what’s happening in the stories and to the NPCs my character associates with. It does a great job of making your character the hero, which is something I find lacking in a lot of MMOs. I won’t say the writing is as strong as TSW, however, but considering it’s been translated over and maintains its Japanese quirkiness, it’s usually a fun and pleasing tale.

    • Yeah I’m really kind of shocked (and not a little bitter) at the fact that Blizzard, who have the resources to attract the best of the best, either haven’t noticed the difference that professional writers can make, or refuse to invest in them for some reason.

      I found that Turbine captured the whole pastoral England atmosphere really well in the Shire, which was a pleasant surprise in an otherwise fairly bleak and dangerous world. My first character was a Dwarf, so I didn’t make it to the Shire until mid-teens, and the change in mood was so great for me that I laughed in delight at some of the dialogue and quests I encountered. But you’re right, outside the Shire the writing is quite stiff and serious, to the point where attempts at humour feel out of place.

      I do love Japanese quirkiness and humour. 🙂

  2. I’d never look down on anyone’s want for a good story, even in a MMORPG, but to me the way these games ought to try and excel isn’t with top notch writing, plots, and cutscenes, but with with worlds that feel more alive and dynamic. That’s easier typed than done, though, and I absolutely applaud games like SWTOR and the TSW who have gone a different path and invested so much in classic story telling.

    That’s just not what I want in my MMO, however,

    • Oh I agree, MMOs shouldn’t try to excel at story at the expense of gameplay and world-building. But when today’s offerings are so alike in their mechanics and approach to engaging the player, I naturally gravitate to the ones that have put in the effort to at least tell a good story, even if the player isn’t the hero as such.

      I see where you’re coming from, but to me a world that feels more alive and dynamic requires top notch writing and plots (cutscenes can be useful but are optional). I fully believe that even a sandbox like EVE needs an overarching story to give context to the player stories. I liken it to the devs being the DM in a tabletop RPG, giving the players options for adventure and shaping the world to reflect player actions (or inactions).

      This is why I hold out so much hope for EQNext and Star Citizen – they come closest in their stated design goals to what I want.

      I can’t remember you talking about your MMO playing in the last few months, what are you into? What keeps you interested in it?

      • I dunno if they really need an overarching story. Ultima Online’s originally was “The gem that the world was bound to was shattered into innumerable shards, creating parallel worlds with unique fates. You live on one of these worlds.” It also lacked any quests, and barely resembled the single-player series which it had spawned from. Still, it was compelling.

        I do agree that in a modern sense, MMOs benefit greatly from quality writing, and writing helps a lot to create a sense of belonging to a world and its unique cultures. I just don’t need overarching plots or contrived ‘you’re the hero’ stories. I prefer a world just detailed enough that I can find anchors, but not so detailed that I feel like someone else is sailing my ship.

        As for my MMO play currently, I am mostly done with the genre. I keep hoping for the same indie spirit that has swept so many other genres to be able to afford the expense of MMOs, but we aren’t quite there yet!

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