Friday, August 22, 2014

BETA:: Change

Oh look, some words.

In amongst a metric ton of fabulous stuff late last night, which includes all the new models in the Beta and some fantastic new tools for website designers to partner with Blizzard came the short story above. It has been published to act as an introduction to Warlords, as a way to bridge the gap between the end of Pandaria and the start of the new Expansion. Like the 'War Crimes' novel it provides information that cannot be given in game, simply because there isn't enough time to do so... and you know what, I'm just going to stop there, because this is where my head starts shaking and I realise that, like it or not, my favourite game is still failing to grasp a vital lesson in the business of narrative storytelling.

It's also really beginning to show its age too in this department, which is odd considering the technical innovations this Expansion is clearly embracing with both hands. New character models, different approaches to questing, a determined effort to make the game 'fun' and 'engaging'... all of these things are front and centre, and I must applaud the people in charge of the development for clearly taking the time to stop and listen to players and provide them with what they are asking for, what they crave from a game in the Modern World. All of this is what players want, and presumably the novels and the short stories are too, considering the number of people who clearly read them. I'm told it is all about an emotional investment from the novels that you simply can't get in game because of the restrictions of the media... except I KNOW that's not true. This game is capable of that, I've seen it, and you don't need novels or short stories to produce it. You simply need to grasp which stories MUST be told.

I mentioned the emotional impact of the Wrathgate Cinematic earlier in the week in my Gaming questionnaire, and it is a perfect example of picking the right part of the story to tell. When I lamented this issue and the need to provide people with yet another story as explanation to Mr Alt last night he replied I'd made the exact same complaint at the start of Pandaria: it shouldn't need an extra level of narrative to allow players to understand why they are doing what they are, that should be provided to you when you enter the game. You don't go watch a movie and then have to read a book to explain what you've just seen, it should be a self-contained experience... and then we find ourselves in a world where lines blur and immersion becomes less about how good one source of entertainment is and more about how willing a player is to make their own decisions outside the virtual world.

What it does highlight is that someone making this game feels that perhaps we need more than we have online to make real sense of what they are presenting us with. What isn't clear is if this is now a deliberate part of the 'gaming' experience or not.

Hooked on a Franchise.

An Expansive Fantasy Universe is not a new concept: go look at Marvel for proof that you can pick and choose your elements from within such concepts and still link disparate elements of them together. I doubt a lot of people who watched this movie even know that there's an intrinsic link between it and the Avengers (no I'm not spoiling you go find it for yourself) but the way in which Marvel are using elements inside seemingly unrelated movies to build up for a bigger tale down the line is nothing short of genius. This is the kind of storytelling that becomes ultimately compelling, that draws the viewer into the action, where the background story doesn't need to be understood in detail, just presented along the way. The biggest single problem Warcraft now suffers is that, like it or not, there's just too much lore. Picking and choosing stories has become almost impossible, which some could argue is one of the reasons why we're seeing a reboot of an existing storyline into an 'alternative' Universe, because it allows us elements of old and new without the need for sticking to the existing script.

In that regard, giving players more words to digest could confuse matters more in the long run. It doesn't help either that in a game where developers refuse to change huge portions of content, that lore remains as an unchanging example of what has come before. Efforts to move on the storyline have met with limited success too, as is testament from the Cataclysm 'redevelopment' from 1-60. If I believe what I'm told people just don't want to live in the past, they need new content to thrive in... which then makes the nostalgiafest Warlords is rapidly developing into a bit jarring in context. It is at this point I decide that it is time to invoke Occam's Razor and decide that the simplest explanation is probably the one that's right. Why do we keep being given extra source material to read instead of being provided it in game?

Because if it was, no-one would play it because the background isn't what the vast majority of players are in Azeroth for.

What makes me saddest of all, at least in this case, is that there is a perfect place to have provided all the details players need to understand the background of this story 'progression', but from where I'm standing it appears to have not been considered. Whatever the reasons for our sixth month delay: training new people, hardware issues, the alignment of the planets... it doesn't matter, someone could have set up a couple of flashback sequences in the Escape from the Dark Portal sequence to contain this information. Kadghar could reference it while we're investigating the Dark Portal in the Blasted Lands, there could have been a scenario like Theramore to add some flavour... but with the way this Expansion has been built, it seems clear that some parts of the 'story' have been given greater significance than others. When time is money (friend) it is probably just easier to spend your hours on balancing the classes than worrying people get your narrative without doing some homework. This makes people like me very sad, but as I am very much in the minority, that's just fine.

Telling stories matters, but in the scope of this Expansion what now is far more pressing is actually taking the action live. I can only hope that after two expansions of after the fact exposition, Blizzard might already be listening and planning the transition to the NEXT Expansion with a little more thought.


dobablo said...

I always thought that the Guardians franchise was a little beyond my comprehension to follow.

I like universes that are supported by a range of media. There is a place for film, game, tv, books, webisodes and a whole host of media-types to interact and tell a story.

Essential stories need to be in the game, but is this an essential story? I know that Garrosh has opened a portal and pulled some Orcs from a parallel universe; do we need to know how it was done? No. Would I like to know? Yes, but since it isn't essential to play WoD it is a prime candidate for secondary media.

Singing Paladin said...

Before I comment, just want to say first of all that in no way would any discussion we have on twitter on differing viewpoints upset me, because frankly, I like to think that we're not a bunch of twitter trolls who think that we can only argue our case through insults, tears and generally being dicks. Like Wil Wheaton says: ‘Don’t be a dick’.
Anyway, putting that aside, there are a couple of reasons why I feel that the books are a better way of conveying the story that the game just can't convey as well.
First, there’s the viewpoint of the story. The difference between movies and games is that movies are in their way stories that are told from the viewpoints of multiple characters, none of which are in any control of the viewer, over a long period of time. The viewer therefore has to spread his emotional investment with these multiple characters. He therefore is willing to see what happens to each of them.
With a game however, the story is usually told from the viewpoint of a single character that the player is in control over. In this case, the player’s emotional impact is primarily focused on this character, because he’s forced to focus on keeping this character progressing to move the story along. He therefore becomes central to the story, and the emotional impact of the characters outside of this particular one is lessened. We may play games to experience a story, yes, but ultimately the story we are interested in is the one of the character being played, which in the case of WoW, is your own character that you helped make and shape to participate in the world you’re experiencing.
If the story is completely dependent on the character that you’re playing, that’s all well and good. However, what if the story requires events that the writers and developers want to be completely outside the player character’s perspective? Events such as Wrathgate, while they are definitely emotionally impacting, are only short-lived events, the time they require to be told is short enough for the player to maintain interest before he wants to go back to what his own character is doing. This makes them perfectly suitable to be displayed in-game. However, what about long term events outside of the player character’s perspective, that require a large amount of time to convey the story, such as Garrosh’s trial, or the battle of Theramore and the after-effects of the Mana Bomb when Jaina found her dead apprentice and watched as Kinndy turned to dust in front of her, thus breaking her emotional state from being an advocate of peace and moderation to that of a colder woman who was willing to destroy Orgrimmar until she realises what would have happened if she had? These stories can’t really be told in a five minute cinematic to justify the effect they have on the game’s plot. When the player is playing the game, the majority of his emotional focus is on the character he’s playing, he can’t really force his attention on the other characters without wanting to go back to find out what his character’s doing. The player also doesn’t like losing control of the game, and thus constant interrupting flashbacks to events that happened outside of the player character’s perspective. Ultimately, we play a game to be entertained, but the story that we are immersed more by is the one told by the player character, and the game has a hard time trying to break that immersion into the player character to focus the story outside of it.
By being outside of the constraints of the game, the novels allow us to break our focus from the player character and shift it to the characters involved in the novel’s story. You therefore become more involved in the non-player characters you interact with in the game and are able to understand more, the reasons why they are acting the way they are in the game. This allows you to be far more immersed in the player character’s interactions with these characters, because thanks to the deeper experience you had in the novel, you understand the characters feelings and are more willing to become involved in their story.

Singing Paladin said...

(cont. from previous)
The other reason is more of a personal one, and that’s the visual aspect of the story. I hate horror movies and horror novels. I’ll admit I am very squeamish with realistic interpretations of blood and gore. I remember walking out of Jurassic Park because I just couldn’t handle the scene of the T-Rex going out of his pen and munching on the lawyer. To this day I refuse to watch movies such as Saw and Hostel, and heavy gore movies such as the first scene of Saving Private Ryan I’ll still look away from. With books it’s kind of the same, because the descriptions of those books allows me to visualise in my head the description of what’s being told in the book, and I’m able to picture a pretty realistic interpretation of the scene, which I can and will react to.
However, I loved games such as Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat, and don’t even flinch really at scenes in games such as Manhunt, which is pretty much the same torture porn genre as films like hostel. This is because in my mind, the effect is lessened by the graphics displaying those images, the blood is essentially pixelated, and therefore cannot be a realistic interpretation. These days horror games such as Outlast and Dead Space can’t really rely on visual blood effects to scare the player like in movies, and tend to rely on jump scares to provide the fear effect they want the player to experience. This emotional impact isn’t just relegated to horror, but with other emotion inducing games. There has to be a decent visual impact provided by the event to convey the emotional message.
Let’s not forget that WoW is a 10 year old game, with the graphical style representing that. To its credit, the game may have evolved it’s graphics over the years with the water effects and the new character models, but certain elements of the story were being told before those evolutions arrived. Therefore the graphics of the game make it much harder to convey the visual element of the story being told. It’s why I can’t really get into machinima movies, the story, voice acting and dialogue might be great, but I just can’t get over the use of the in-game graphics, as dated as they look.
Without the visual elements to push the way the scenes look, the novels rely on your imagination to visualise how the story plays out. And therefore, you can paint a more realistic interpretation of the scene in your head to provide the impact they require.
Don’t get me wrong, games can still provide a massively emotional impact on me visually, I’ll admit to shedding tears during the endings of Metal Gear Solid IV and Valiant Hearts. The scene of the Wrathgate was certainly one of those impacts, however the scene was set during Wrath of the Lich King, and was one of the first ‘cinematic’ experiences in the game as a whole. Therefore I think the impact was more provided by that fact that this was an entirely new experience for the game that just came out of the blue, Blizzard didn’t even state beforehand that they were doing this sort of thing back then, and therefore players became emotionally invested in this new and surprising experience. These days, the in-game cinematics don’t really have the same reaction anymore.
So this is why I believe the novels should be read if you want to be more emotionally invested in the story. I do still hope however like you that, especially with the visual elements of the game being improved, especially the character models, Blizzard can provide more impact with the story and why things are happening through the game rather than through other media, however I don’t think that we should not turn away from story-telling outside of the game. In my view, it enriches our experience of the game as a whole, and allows you to visualise the events happening in such a way that they affect the world around you acts, which will ultimately affect your player character.

Jasyla said...

This is the reason why I completely stopped paying attention to story in WoW. Now, I was never a big lore junkie in the first place, but when I felt like big plot points in the main story were a mystery and given the answer "oh, it was in the book" I was really disappointed. I love books, but I've never had the inclination to read books based on video games, don't really know why, I guess there are just so many other stories out there. So being told I needed to buy and read something that was not available in the game in order to understand the game struck me as ridiculous.

I also wasn't really thrilled with how in the leadup to WoD it seems like you need to have played the Warcraft RTS in order to understand what's going on. I never played that particular 20 year old game, so I felt really out of the loop.

marathalbt said...

I think you hit it on the head, and I have high hopes it may come to fruition. We could really use a good Scenario. I have read the book, and wont spoil any story line, however, the end of the trial and the escape would make an excellent Scenario. We zone in as spectators and see all the action unfolding and need to fight off attackers and to try to prevent him from escaping.

They still may surprise us, cross fingers. There is a vast gap in the story and timeline between the final cut scene after defeating Garrosh and what we see in the Cinematic reveal. I have no idea what patch 6.0 content looks like and hope it fills in some blanks.

Grimmtooth said...

Out of curiosity, where did "six month delay" come from?

Tobias Tegge said...

@Singing Paladin:
Usually, I don't think of myself as the center of the universe. I didn't do that for my character. Why can't he lurk in the shadows and see the story unfolding from afar? That would be better for his health anyway ('cause clothie).

Nah, you don't have to. Unless you think, one had to play WC III to understand WotLK. Blizzard's very good at ignoring as much of the RTSs as possible. ;)

No story = no world. World might be important in World of Warcraft. And it's not... I mean, look at the Theramore scenario. That was awful. It deliverd no story, no information at all. And to this day a lot of people hate to do it.
For me, for people around me, background is important. Even to simply know that it's there makes the game more layered, substantial. But you don't have to tell all of the story at once. We're playing a series, not a single movie. And acutally, we're indeed playing a game and this sort of game is good for getting across a world with evolving story lines. Maybe world and story should merge.