Role Playing

One of the most meaningful quests I have ever completed in World of Warcraft actually occurred in Cataclysm. It was called “A Bird in Hand.” Ostensively, it was just another boring, linear quest in a string of half-hearted attempts to spice up the killing of X mobs. Then came this part:

Originally, I pummeled her repeatedly for the sheer novelty of it.

For those unfamiliar, the quest asks you to choose between roughing up the harpy or simply yelling at her. You can mix and match a bit, or you can continue to pummel the harpy until she eventually tells you everything she knows. At the end of this dialog “tree,” you have the option of either letting the harpy go, or having the NPC slit the harpy’s throat. Which options you pick is entirely irrelevant to the game. No future NPC references your actions in any way, the rewards are the same, each option takes an equal amount of effort.

And it was, in all seriousness, one of the best moments in WoW questing.

Because it was not until that moment that Azuriel the draenei paladin was anything other than a mere user interface element. The quest forced me, as a player, to step back and ask myself a question that was never hitherto asked: is your avatar you? What would Azuriel do? And what I found in answering that question was a hidden depth to the game, an unburied black monolith that was full of stars.

Of course, then the quest is over, the fever-dream passed.

So allow me to disagree with anyone who has suggested that the choices in SWTOR are dumb, meaningless, a waste of time. The fact that every Trooper has the same general story as any other Trooper is irrelevant. The biggest success of SWTOR – regardless of what happens in the future – is NOT necessarily voices and deeper narratives, it is that the game represents one of the biggest moves into mainstreaming the RP in the MMORPG that I have seen in years, perhaps ever.

When I played through Deus Ex, or Fallout, or any typical single-player game, the main character was a stand-in for me. What would I do, as a cybernetic super-solider? How did I feel about letting bandits go? What would I say in the ridiculous, impossible situation so far removed from my own life? I don’t know whether it is the first-person perspective of those games or their overall structure, but I do feel different when it comes to MMOs, and my time with the SWTOR beta specifically.

It is one thing to get someone to put themselves into a game, and quite another to get them to bring a character to life and imagine what this entity separate from themselves would do. Mainstreaming the mechanics of empathy, making it fun? That is some Nobel Peace Prize shit going on. And I am only half-joking.

“Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”
-Jackson Browne

Having our game decisions result in discrete consequences makes for a better simulation, yes. Then again, in the real world the decisions we make when the consequences are irrelevant or unknowable is a definitive aspect of one’s character. If you helped an old lady cross the street, and she got hit by a car a block later, was your original decision truly meaningless? Are consequences the only arbiter of morality? Is intention irrelevant? You tell me.

All I know is on that soot-filled day in the burning mountains of Hyjal, skin caked with sweat and the still-warm blood of ten harpies, the paladin Azuriel beat Marion Wormring to within an inch of her life. To an inch… and no farther. For in that one, singular moment did Azuriel have a choice: the choice to walk away. And so… she did.

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Posted on February 2, 2012, in Philosophy, SWTOR, WoW and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I agree, actually, that it’s one of the biggest moves in mainstreaming it. I just feel that there was so much more that could have been done. Consider the ramifications of your decisions in Fallout, Deus Ex, and the like. When you make a decision there, it has waves of meaning throughout the game world. Siding with the Brotherhood of Steel makes the roads safer, but it becomes harder for everyone else to get old tech. That makes people in the gameworld dislike you. Siding with the Legion in New Vegas made common people afraid of you and unwilling to work with you. There were consequences.

    I also don’t like lumping “irrelevant” and “unknowable” together. They have nothing to do with one another. I agree that many consequences are unknowable both in the game and real world. That doesn’t make them irrelevant; if anything it makes them MORE relevant as you may have unintended consequences even years down the road. The wide-spread usage of DDT was unknowable, but it was far from irrelevant.

    That small semantic complaint aside, I wholeheartedly agree with the rest of your post. I want to see more role playing in MMOs; i just want the role playing to matter. More on that in my response to your comment on my site, which I’ll go work on now.

    Great post! I love this discussion, and the tone we’re keeping!

    • The irony is that I’d almost prefer less consequences for (moral) decisions in gaming. Because once your decisions start getting tied to mechanical bonuses (can’t visit favorite city once I side with Legion), the RP possibilities diminish. You can’t really roleplay 5% extra critical hit versus 5% haste; likewise, it is a huge struggle to ask a player to NOT metagame a decision once they understand they will be getting X instead of Y.

  2. I barely remembered this quest the first time I did it. The second time I asked Thisalee Crowe to kill the harpy, and she slit it’s throat without pause.

    It strikes me that after walking away, you still refer to her as “the NPC” — whereas the above exchange brought that character to life for me [I usually don't pay much attention to WoW NPCs], and I was very excited to see and work with her again in the Molten Front questline.

    WoW really needs to do more stuff like that.

    • I have little attachment to story NPCs in WoW, even recurring ones, because they seem so disposable. I read quest text all the time, and quite a bit of it is actually entertaining, but there is almost never an opportunity for me to associate a given quest-giver with their witty dialog.

  3. I mostly remember this mechanic from a new quest in the Northern Barrens. You are asked to interrogate a captured quillboar and get to choose the method of doing so, even if they all work (I think). Personally I was very amused to be able to tickle a confession out of him. :P

    The quest you mention in this post however was actually a negative experience for me, because it was done in a group and my partner clicked through the dialogue really quickly, so the harpy just fell over dead before I even had a chance to talk to her and I just went: “WTF just happened?” Which is just one more reason why I’m eternally grateful that Bioware prioritised making their quest choices compatible with group play in TOR.