MMOs and the Immersive Story

Here’s something I think Star Wars: The Old Republic gets right, and where World of Warcraft continues to fail: story immersion and the lasting effects our characters have on the game lore.

Right along, Warcraft lore and fiction has featured many prominent characters. From days past, characters like Anduin Lothar or Grom Hellscream have dominated the story. The Real Time Strategy gameplay removed the player from the actual storyline, in a way of speaking, in that they were clearly playing a game — directing units around a battlefield — and not playing a character of their own making. We commanded Thrall, or Cairne, or Tyrande, but they also existed outside our control and were automated during cutscenes and the like.

Gameplay of this sort existed in three games, minus expansions, of the Warcraft franchise. The lore became established around these characters. Enter World of Warcraft, where the player is able to create a “hero” of his or her choosing, entirely from the ground up. This player takes their hero through questlines and grand events, interacts with some of the lore figures of old, and altogether experiences a very Warcrafty experience. However, something happens: the players accomplishments are slowly being eschewed by pre-determined storylines.

For an example, I’ll point to a classic: Varian Wrynn versus Onyxia. In the game, our character is a crucial part of unveiling Lady Prestor to be the black dragon Onyxia. The storyline is long and involving, especially for Alliance players. Then, we are given the option to enter Onyxia’s Lair as part of a raid group and take the old girl down, making her pay for her deception. Great, right?

Only none of that officially happened. In fact, it was written in the scrolls of Warcraft lore that Varian Wrynn killed the dragon Onyxia.

I’ll give you another example. When we topple Illidan at the Black Temple, Maiev Shadowsong appears to extract her revenge on him. The credit for the kill, in terms of lore, goes to Maiev, with much support from Akama. And when we kill Arthas, the ending event and cinematic focus on Terenas Menethil, Tirion Fordring, and Bolvar Fordragon. In Cataclysm, the ending cinematic — and in fact, many of the cinematics throughout the Dragon Soul raid storyline — is entirely about Thrall, Aggra, and the Dragon Aspects. Mention of “the heroes who aided us” is given, but we remain faceless in terms of receiving this credit, as we do during many other, major lore events. You would think that they could use technology to on-the-fly cinematically insert our character as one of many who, for example, stand beside Thrall and Aggra on the Maelstrom skerries as the story reaches its conclusion.

Compare to Star Wars: TOR, where there are very few “key lore figures” — save for enemies that you take down. Much of your class storyline and questing experience puts your character at the center of things. You have choices that affect some of the quests you take, and how you interact with quest-givers (or targets). You also see your character in all of these pre-scripted events, even if they are in the background.

I can hope that this is taken into consideration as the story moves forward. As in my example with Onyxia… for quite a while, the community accepted that the Onyxia storyline ended when Our Characters did what we did. It was only later on, in the World of Warcraft Comic, that the writers chose to input Varian Wrynn as the slayer of Onyxia. With luck, if there is any mention of the events we affect in our gameplay of TOR, the Bioware writers will try to give a nod to our player characters more than any “key lore figure.” Even if they have to be generic, by saying “Sith Agents toppled So and So” or “Republic Soldiers freed Who’s His Face” at least we can say “Yeah, I was there, I was one of those guys.” When someone like Varian is written into the story entirely in our stead, all we can say is “I remember exposing Onyxia, and killing her, but that isn’t canon — they say Varian Wrynn did it.”

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