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.