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Review: Far Cry 5

I completed Far Cry 5 a few days ago.


The visuals are quite amazing.

Mechanically, this is the best Far Cry in the series. The gunplay is smooth and tight, weapons are reasonably varied, and vehicles are generally fun to drive. Many of the more rote Far Cry-isms have also been removed. You are no longer forced to climb towers to explore the landscape, nor hunt down sharks to craft a bigger wallet. The whole map is available to explore right away. Screen clutter is practically non-existent, and what quest markers exist are fairly subtle.

Narratively, I feel it is one of the weakest in the series.


That dog ends up being a very Good Boy.

I have no problem with the Christian iconography, the political parallels to present day, the rehashing of Spec Ops: The Line-esque navel-gazing about who the real demon is (hint: it’s you), or the sometimes absurdly comical cruelty. A lot of that is part and parcel to the Far Cry series. What is fairly new is the simple fact that the player is kidnapped NINE TIMES over the course of the story. The purpose is obviously to engineer a scenario in which the player can interact with the cult lieutenants and witness some exposition first-hand. The frequency though, and the ham-handedness, obliterates any semblance of story cohesion.

Seriously, one time I completed a mission, got the “You’re Being Hunted” message, and was apparently taken out by a blowdart… while piloting an attack helicopter hundreds of feet in the air. Cue cutscene and sub-boss taunting, in which it was revealed I had been imprisoned for seven days (!?!) undergoing psychological torture and starvation. Then (spoilers) I broke out of prison for what had been the fifth time at this point, and went back to what I had been doing originally.


Walls, eh?

I think the principle problem is that Ubisoft simply cannot outrun the shadow of Far Cry 3. That game had an insufferable trust fund frat boy as a protagonist, but it also had a narrative arc with some progression, substance, and you know, a main character that talks. With the lack of any sort of internal dialog, the devs leaned real hard on Vaas wannabes and contrived capture scenarios. Hell, the main character might have been captured just as many times as in Far Cry 3, but it never felt this arbitrary before.

In any case, after 15 hours, that’s that. Far Cry 5 has good gameplay and a stunningly beautiful open world playground to blow up stuff in. But… so do a lot of other games these days. What sets the series apart isn’t the open world or general shenanigans, it’s the story and general narrative experience. And that’s unfortunately lacking this time around.


Official reviews are coming in regarding Fallout 76, and almost all of them are universally bad. Like, real bad. In reading them though, it’s very clear that Bethesda did not live up to games these people invented in their head:

The collision of Fallout and multiplayer sparks all sorts of exciting ideas in my mind, most of which have to do with post-apocalyptic role-playing. What if I ran a town, hosting elections and keeping the peace? What if I opened a shop, selling exotic items to other players in a desperate bid to raise enough caps to survive the harsh wasteland? What if I worked behind a bar, serving drinks to other players, passing on gossip and words of wisdom? What if I was the head honcho of a group of raiders, ordering other players to attack camps and loot the corpses of our enemies? What if I founded my own faction, something like Caesar’s Legion from Fallout New Vegas, perhaps? What if I wanted to infiltrate a player-run faction I didn’t get on with, befriending their leader before stabbing them in the back?

Unfortunately, Fallout 76 does not facilitate any of those fantasies. What it does instead is facilitate boredom, frustration and game-breaking bugs.

Like, what the shit, Eurogamer? “Bethesda didn’t make EVE/Star Wars Galaxy mashup, 0/10 stars.”

The rest of that review is slightly less ridiculous. There are complaints about the tutorial quests that ask you to boil water and pick up bottles:

Most missions are little more than fetch quests. Go here, get the thing, bring it back, interact with a robot, job done. It’s mind-numbing in the extreme. It’s Fallout at its worst: basic, monotonous and lacking nuance.

Of course, that had me trying to reach back and remember the quests in Fallout 4, New Vegas, 3, and so on. Replace “interact with a robot” with “talk with an NPC” and… does that not describe basically everything, in any game? A lot of people post memes about how Fallout 3 was finding your daddy and Fallout 4 was about finding your son, and yet here we are lamenting about being free from such mundane burdens.

To an extent, that’s an unfair comparison. Fallout’s best stories were always side-quests, with the main narrative basically acting as a vehicle to drive you around the wasteland looking for them. While holo tapes can be poignant, they just aren’t the same when you can never affect the world.

At the same time… I don’t know that I miss any of that.

I want you to remember all the things you did in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4. Think about what was fun for you. Was it…

  • Striking out and going wherever you wanted to go
  • Exploring ruins, caves, and cities
  • Collecting junk to craft gear
  • Leveling up skills, getting Perks
  • Shooting things in the face
  • Solving moral dilemmas among various NPC groups

Hey, what do you know, Fallout 76 has five out of those six things! And arguably does those five better than any Fallout has before.

I am not trying to denigrate story and narrative here. I’m just saying that I don’t miss it in Fallout 76. In fact, the whole thing is making me question the cohesiveness of the prior games. For example, how much does the ability to strike out and roam around really improve, say, New Vegas’ narrative? Back when I played, I didn’t give two shits about finding Benny beyond the fact that I had a quest entry that wouldn’t go away otherwise. As I wrote back in 2013:

But the overarching narrative of revenge never felt personally compelling, and the coming clash between NCR and Caesar’s Legion seemed a digression. This game was Fallout when I was just wandering around, eager to scavenge what I can out of crumbling ruins I see just on the horizon. When I was the Courier just trying to make a final delivery for no particular reason? Not so much. […] I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.

This is the same problem I had with Witcher 3 – the setting and the story were at complete odds at each other. Your motivation is to find Ciri before the Wild Hunt can, but oh hey, look, there are 40 hours of sidequests you can do over here first. All of which are a hundred times more interesting and immersive than the main, ostensibly racing against time one.

I appreciate the fact that you could kill just about anyone in New Vegas. Or kill next to no one. It is fairly uncommon in gaming to be able to resolve conflict in many different ways. But you don’t need the Fallout scaffolding to do that. By which I mean the wandering around, the looting abandoned buildings, the Power Armor, the Fast Travel ferrying of dozens of pipe rifles to sell to vendors for Caps to buy new shit. I was not “the Courier” when I was hunting for Wonderglue in a half-collapsed shack. I did that for gameplay reasons and because it physically felt good to do so.

So when I hear people say things like this:

To be fair what the hell is Fallout without the story and the player options/personalised quests/interesting world side of things beyond a clunky shooter.

…I feel like I’m going crazy. Open the map, walk over there, kill something along the way in an alternative-history post-apocalyptic 1950s. THAT’S FALLOUT (since 2008). You sure as shit aren’t playing New Vegas for 300+ hours for the storyline alone, son. You play it for that long because it’s fun walking around in that world, fun interacting with things, fun immersing yourself in the wasteland life.

Fallout 76 has systemic problems. The main one being the random server system, from which all other problems follow. All that glorious made-up shit Eurogamer was pining for could become a reality if there is a Moonguard-esque server that people specifically sought out and congregated on. Always-on PvP servers could also be a thing, with forced respawn areas and such. Pretty much everything is solved with servers, actually.

But all these people talking about the gunplay and the “emptiness” of the world? Clunky compared to what? New Vegas? Empty compared to what? Human NPCs with relatable human stories are fantastic, I agree. I just don’t need them to push me over the horizon and into the ruins – the hunt for Gears and Ballistic Fiber is motivation enough. There is still map to see, still ever-stronger enemies to face, and more guns to shoot them in the face with.

Fallout 76 is like when you finish (or ignore) the main story in a Fallout game but you just keep playing anyway. If you don’t do that sort of thing, then yeah, this game is not for you.

Open World, Closed Story

Having made it well into hour 30 of The Witcher 3, I am beginning to realize something about the plot. Namely, it is entirely incongruent with the actual gameplay.

Take your time, the Wild Hunt is not going anywhere.

Take your time, the Wild Hunt is not going anywhere.

The basic premise of Witcher 3 is that Geralt is looking for his adopted daughter, Ciri, who is also being chased by The Wild Hunt. So already there is a trajectory here to the plot, which is “quickly follow the clues to find Ciri.” But every other single element of the game clashes with any sense of urgency that the premise should be bringing.

For example, during a beginning segment of the game, Geralt finds out the baron of the area has met with Ciri. However, the baron refuses to give Geralt any details until he finds the baron’s own missing wife and daughter. Before you can do that though, you will likely need to gain some levels completing other side quests in the area. So you complete quests, level up, go find the wife, then daughter, then head back to the baron to get the full story, 15+ gameplay hours later. The end result is, spoiler alert, Ciri is no longer in the area.

Which of course she isn’t. Literally nobody is the world expects to find Ciri in the very first area indicated by the quest objective. It would actually be incredibly novel for a videogame to feature a “quickly chase down this person” plot structure and actually allow the player to find them in the first area if they are quick enough. It would also make said game really short, and almost punish the player by removing gameplay, but very novel just the same.

The problem in Witcher 3 goes deeper than just using a false sense of urgency though. The problem is actually having any plot whatsoever in an otherwise open-world game. Every time I decide to strike out on my own and investigate every abandoned shack in the woods, inevitably I encounter the end-result of some quest I have yet to accept. For example, I spotted a shack, looted it, found out there was a cave system beneath it, explored and looted that, noticed all the red-highlighted spots (indicative of quest markers), then left the area. An hour or two later, I got a quest to investigate the same shack, “discover” a monster nest in the cave below, and then fight said monster. I ended up feeling punished for exploring on my own.

I didn't want to complete that level 4 quest anyway.

I didn’t want to complete that level 4 quest anyway.

The irony here is that Witcher 3 would have been screwed either way. It’s bad the way it is. It would almost be worse if there was some kind of plot lock on the cave system, because it would engender a feeling of false open world-ness. “Go anywhere you want! …except here. And there. And over there too.” It wouldn’t be much of an open world if you could only explore the empty bits.

The other thing that Witcher 3’s open world is demonstrating to me is how much I do, in fact, loathe fixed-level monsters in open-world settings. It is getting beyond frustrating to be exploring and exploring and all of sudden, skull-level monsters. I mean, it makes sense that there might be monsters out in the world that are super-deadly and Geralt would need to become more powerful to overcome. But quite often there is no delineation going on – you’ll be killing level 10 Drowned one moment, and then 50 ft away is a level 20+ monster. I suppose that it is more “organic” than just having all the monsters coincidentally more powerful near the edges of the map, but again, it feels bad to me as a player wished to engage with the “open” world. Especially considering all this really tells me is that the “right” way to play is to not explore anything until level 20+ so I don’t have to skip areas.

I don’t know. I suppose the conclusion I am coming to is that if a game offers an open-world setting, I almost want it to have little-to-no plot, or really level-based progression of any kind. Fallout 3 allowed me to explore every corner of the non-DC map by level 3 (and had scaling monsters), which is probably why I enjoyed that game so much. Minecraft of course lets you punch trees anywhere. I don’t remember being too put-off by Dragon Age 3 either. In the Witcher 3’s case however, I may as well go back to treating it as the hemmed-in, plot-centric game its two earlier iterations were.

Review: The Stanley Parable

Given the extremely recent news that it sold 1 million copies in the last year, I figured I’d go ahead and throw out my brief review of The Stanley Parable.

Game: The Stanley Parable
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score:
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Choose Your Own Adventure games, experimental indie titles

I see what you're doing here.

I see what you’re doing here.

The Stanley Parable is a visual Choose Your Own Adventure tech demo that extremely briefly examines the nature of narrative choice in video games. The “game” consists of moving around in the first-person and exploring an office building while a narrator details all the things you are doing, Bastion-style. The meat of the gameplay consists of getting to one of the endings (sometimes taking as little as 5-7 minutes) and then doing something different on the next play-through.

And… that’s about it. While the concept itself is novel, and some of the meta-humor actually relevant/damning, there isn’t really anything resembling a game here at all. The entirety of the “parable” could have just as well been summed up in a single blog post, but I suppose that would have meant forgoing the opportunity to charge $15 for the privilege of hearing it.

Nevertheless, I do recommend keeping an eye out for when The Stanley Parable appears in one of the many gaming bundles. I might not be willing to put a dollar price on this experience, but it does add value to whatever the overall bundle you might be looking at. So… take that for what you will.

No Further Explanation Necessary

So, I have been playing through Eador: Masters of the Broken World recently a month or so ago. While sitting through the opening cinematic describing the fight between immortal Masters over control of floating islands, I had a particularly strong negative reaction once it started to specify that these Masters were in reality fighting the forces of Chaos by bringing Order to the blah blah blah.

Why explain the narrative any further? Immortal god-like beings fighting over possession of floating islands is more than enough. That’s pretty cool! The fighting Chaos with Order bit? Not so much.

See this? THIS is good.

See this? THIS is good.

I’m a narrative guy – I love stories, lore, and world-building. But between a half-assed story and a no-assed story, it’s much better to go with no-ass every time. Own your wacky premise!

Nobody is sitting around getting excited about stopping the forces of evil for the millionth time just because… evil. Keep your cliche, overarching theme if you must, but just don’t try explain it right away. If I’m not interested in becoming a more powerful god by capturing floating islands in goddamn space, facing the forces of Chaos isn’t going to move the needle either.

My Mod/DLC Dilemma

I started playing Torchlight 2 a few weeks ago, and I am having some issues. Now, I did not like the original game all that much, but picking up the sequel for $5 during one of those crazy Steam sales seemed safe enough. And so far, I am not experiencing the same acute symptoms of frustration as in the first game. Except… now I kinda am.

My biggest gripe with the original game was that the loot system was broken. Specifically, there was no real sense of gear progression in a hack-n-slash Diablo-clone genre that is based entirely on gear progression – I used the same “legendary” level 3 necklace all the way into the endgame, never finding an upgrade. While I have not ran into this problem as much in Torchlight 2, the contours of the issue remain in place. For example, I ran into this gearing decision the other day:

We're back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 7, I guess.

We’re back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 3, I guess.

Maybe “higher level = better” is too simplistic a progression design, but… is it really?

The more pressing concern in Torchlight 2 though, is how a lot of things that should be rewarding are really not. Each main area map has a Locked Golden Chest which contains, as you might imagine, a lot of loot. The key to this chest can drop randomly from any mob on that particular map, or from a specific fairy mob 100% of the time.

Compelling design, right? It would be, if these chests dropped something more than vendor trash.

Random loot is random, but after spending more time than strictly necessary opening these chests up and walking away with nothing of any value, I am finding myself souring on game in general. Indeed, even the extra-large treasure chests at the end of boss encounters reveals greys and greens more often than not. Why should I be fighting bosses when smashing pottery is clearly the more profitable activity?

Par for the course.

Par for the course.

In Torchlight 2’s case though, there is a “solution”: mods. In fact, the #1 highest-rated mod in the Steam Workshop is one that tweaks Golden Chests (and boss chests) to always drop a Unique item. That’s not as broken as it sounds – items are still random, scaled to your level, and sometimes class-specifc – and does a lot to fix what I otherwise consider a problem. There are mods for all sorts of things, in fact, including Skill tweaks, doubling the amount of gold drops, Respec potions (base game only allows reshuffling of last 3 Skills), improving game textures, increasing view distance, and even additional whole classes. Indeed, one of the big selling points of Torchlight 2 was its modability in comparison to Diablo 3.

Thing is, I don’t like using mods on my initial play-through of a game. Hell, I usually don’t even like loading in DLC that affects the core game, even when I’m playing the Game of the Year version that bundles it all together.

My situation is a bit unique (and self-inflicted) insofar as I fancy myself a game reviewer. But even before this website, I preferred going in vanilla and raw. Not all my friends had the extra spending money for the expansions and whatnot, so telling them Diablo 2 was better with Lords of Chaos installed really just means “the base game is deficient.” Well, perhaps not deficient in D2’s case, but you understand my meaning.

Good game design is supposed to be good out of the box. If developers are stumbling around for the first several months from release, that stumbling needs to remain part of the overall narrative. I failed to mention in my Fallout: New Vegas review that the game was literally unplayable for the first two weeks without downloading a crack that fixed the DirectX issues; it’s an important detail to know for when the next Fallout game is released, lest it too require Day 0 patching from players to fix what the devs rushed to production.

I suppose some of this harkens back to that debate over whether MMOs (etc) are toys vs games. There is no wrong way to play with a toy, no real rules to govern your interaction with them. In this sense, mods are sort of like adding salt to your meal – some chefs might see that as an insult, but perhaps your individual taste skews more salty than the others sharing the meal. Ergo, developers letting mods fix any subjective “problem” only makes sense. Keep the vanilla pure, and let players add the chocolate and sprinkles as they wish.

Personally though, I am much more interested in the game portion of things, or more specifically: experiences. Show me the genius of your rulesets, the compelling nature of your narratives, the excellence of your craft. Anyone can imagine a stick into a lightsaber, just as anyone can turn a crappy game good with tweaks. I am interested in what you can do, Mr(s) Game Man Person, not mod developer XYZ. I want to be excited that you are releasing another game, not that the modding community has another opportunity to fix a deficient product. And besides, only one of those two parties is getting paid. Hint: it’s not the person/people improving the game.

It may not be entirely rational, but there it is. Odds are that I will keep trucking along in vanilla Torchlight 2 so that I can give an accurate report on its (so far) many failings. It is worth noting that while you can import your vanilla save into the “game + mods” version of the game, you cannot thereafter go back – neither your character nor your gear will appear under the default game any more. While that probably has little meaning beyond the people interested in Steam achievements, it sort of highlights how even the developers believe a segregation between the two ought to exist.

In which case, I shall play their game and complain about it, rather than fix things myself.

The Pulitzer Prize for Videogame Narrative Goes to…

…Diablo 3, of course.

Super Meat Boy had just pulled ahead with the judges, until this narrative bomb dropped:

Technically, I guess this constitutes a spoiler…?

Do not let that last line wash over you; let it sink in. “Auriel, archangel of Hope, has been captured by Rakanoth, the Lord of Despair.” Hope had been captured by Despair! Is there a word to describe a metaphor so superficial and goddamn literal that it becomes a mockery unto itself?

All I can think of is “nadir.”

Neither the Diablo series¹ nor the hack-n-slash genre is exactly known for their compelling narratives, and that is fine. Campiness has its place, and that is fine too. But the shit Diablo 3 attempts to pull with a completely straight face is simply ridiculous, bordering on insulting. It feels like placeholder plot, especially in a severely truncated Act IV.

Take, for example, the exchange I posted above. Scroll of Fate? What does it add to this story that such a thing exists, or that the character is outside of it? I am not talking about the idea of a Scroll of Fate and an unbounded main character – that is perfectly fine as a story device, such as in Kingdoms of Amalur, etc – but the Diablo series has never been about that. Remove that bit of dialog (please), and nothing materially changes about the narrative. Maybe there is a tie-in between the prophesy at the beginning of the game and this Scroll of Fate, but that link is so tenuous that the writer is either being too subtle by half, or in wont of an editor with a backbone.

And then there is the Enchantress, whom is introduced as a character by being a wizard kept in stasis for 1,500 years to aid the hero in his/her prophesied time of need. While there was apparently a legitimate attempt to have this add something to the story, I could not help but think that maybe the Prophet should have let the Archangel of Fate look at his crib notes since the hero was apparently featured in them.

It could be that all of this is a setup to an expansion (or two) in which we explore all the random, seemingly banal things the companions said. But, again, that would necessitate a level of subtlety on the part of the writer(s) that is simply incongruent with the John Madden-ning the Prime Evils do throughout every step of Acts II-IV. “What’s that, Diablo? I will never close your portals to Hell? I will never close your other portal to Hell? I will never make it past your lieutenant? I will never make it to you in time? I will never actually read in-game text that is not magic item properties after this and all subsequent playthroughs?”

Damn, you’re good.

¹ I realize that this is actually an arguable point. As one forum poster described, the narrative was much more poetic and Biblical throughout (most of) D2 at a minimum. The Moldy Tome, for instance.

Factionally Imbalanced

I typically feel assuaged when reading the Dev Watercoolers, because they represent both that players have a legitimate grievance, and that the designers are on the case. With the latest Dev Watercooler entitled Faction Favoritism though, not only am I appalled by the lack of understanding, but I am beginning to lose faith in Blizzard’s ability to craft narratives worth experiencing.

So when it comes to the game’s ongoing story developments, it’s no surprise that Alliance and Horde fans are “keeping score.” Maps and charts of territory gained and lost started showing up around the time the Cataclysm shook the world to its foundations. Southshore plagued? Taurajo burned? Oh no they didn’t!

Implicit amidst most of the grumbling from either side is the assumption that Blizzard should be fairly treating both factions. Then there’s the more explicit assumption: if one faction is losing ground, then Blizzard must be biased.

Are we?

What is this I don’t even

Dave “Fargo” Kosak painfully goes on to talk about how it is precisely because of unfairness that “Hero Factories” get built. In the process of the explanation, it fully dawned on me how much Blizzard has no goddamn idea what the problem even is.

The Widening Narrative Gap

Claims about faction favoritism have never been (or should not have ever been) about the lack of tit-for-tat in territory gains/losses. Perfectly even exchanges are formulaic, boring, and have no place in stories worth experiencing. For Blizzard to address the fact that Horde gained more territory than Alliance in Cataclysm – or even to try and justify it with events that took place in the RTS games – is to miss the point entirely.

The fundamental issue vis-a-vis Horde bias is that Horde have the lion’s share of inter-faction narrative drama. Sylvannas is pulling a Lich King, the Tauren are reeling from the inadvertent loss of their beloved leader in a duel, there is deep divisions amongst the trolls, the orcs are going xenophobic, and the goblin starting experience cements the fact that your own faction leader betrayed you for profit. Meanwhile… what? Malfurion woke up, Audiun grew up, Gnomergan is still irradiated, Magni turned to diamond, and Prophet Velan has neither made any prophecies nor repaired the Naaru ship since it crash landed “two months ago.”

If the two factions represented two different creative writing papers for English 101, which would receive the higher grade? Where is the conflict between gnomes, dwarves, elves, humans, and draenei? Why aren’t the Night Elves complaining about humans cutting down trees to fuel war machines? Or Draenei starting to distrust the growing number of Alliance warlocks? Perhaps the new dwarven council decides it would be better to go isolationist, especially after a particularly disastrous gnome experiment caves-in part of Ironforge?

Bottom line: the Horde interaction is multifaceted with many conflicting goals and desires among the groups. Alliance interaction is one-dimensional, for basically no reason. Horde has Wheel of Time meets Dune whereas Alliance has goddamn Jack and Jill meets See Spot Run.

And so when Fargo says:

In the midst of this crisis, the Alliance is going to need to pull together like never before. At the BlizzCon lore panel we promised that key Alliance characters are going to get more time in the spotlight throughout Mists and the subsequent patches, and I wanted to reiterate that here. They’re going to come out of this stronger than ever, but the road ahead won’t be easy.

…I die a little on the inside. Alliance “pulling together” presumes a division that doesn’t exist, leaving the implication that Alliance will simply see some territory gains and some more Jaina/Varian screen-time. Wrathgate was the closest the Alliance has ever come in actually being angry with each other, and it was simply between Varian and Jaina, the latter of which has never been presented as even being part of the Alliance in any meaningful way.

All the while Horde will continue getting all the interesting narrative, what with Garrosh’s overreach, the growing problem with Silvannis’ blatant disregard for the use of plague and desecration of the dead, and the brilliantly implicit tension from the widening gulf between the Horde that Tauren and the Trolls pledged to so many years ago and the monster it has become. If Baine Bloodhoof doesn’t liken Garrosh’s militaristic Horde with the violent centaurs that Thrall helped Cairen defeat so many years prior, Blizzard will have left the ripest, low-hanging fruit in the history of narrative fiction to wither on the tree.

I wish I could say I have faith in Blizzard’s ability to do a narrative course correction. And I would… if I thought they understood why the present heading was wrong in the first place. Instead, the best any Alliance player can hope out of the lore team is summed up in the Alliance battlecry:

We’ll Keep Trying!

Choosing to Miss the Point

The unofficial blogging theme of the week is Choice, and while I was not going to comment on it, the sheer force of a thousand bloggers missing the point simultaneously slowed the rotation of the Earth enough to make it necessary. So allow me to clear up a few things.

1) You cannot have “meaningful” narrative choice in MMOs. Nor would you want them.

In case you need a reminder, we are talking about Massively Multiplayer Online games here. Assuming “meaningful” choices existed, who is going to be making them? You? Or the ten thousand other players on your server? You cannot all be making meaningful choices pretty much by definition. Remember the Siege of Undercity? No you don’t. The Siege was completed by Arthasdklol hours before you logged on. If you solve the Arthasdklol situation by instancing everything out, at what point does A) the choices cease to remain meaningful, and B) the game ceases to be an MMO?

The lack of “meaningful” (narrative) choices in MMOs is not a bug, it’s an essential feature.

“What about MMOs like EVE?” I hear you cry. Obviously Sandbox content is a bit different than designer-created narrative content. But it is important to not get too pedantic with pitting player-generated stories against a coherent narrative, the latter of which is what everyone is talking about when they speak about choices anyway. If the headlined EVE scams and interstellar drama is put on a pedestal, why is WoW intra-guild drama not similarly enshrined? Heard that Dragonwrath legendary story yet? If EVE has “meaningful” choices due to nullsec shenanigans, then so does every social game. Which begs the question of whether these “meaningful” choices only exist in the context of social interaction. In other words, the game proper has nothing to do with it. Maybe Game A creates better incentives than Game B for social interaction, but just because you build it, does not mean the horses will drink. Or something.

2) You cannot have “true” failure in MMOs. Nor would you want them.

Raise your hand if you have ever failed an escort quest in an MMO. Now keep your hand raised if you think escort quests get any more interesting or fun if the person you are escorting permanently dies and you can never retake the quest again. If you still have your hand raised, lower it if the reason is because you hate escort quests with a passion and wish you could kill the dumbass you are escorting yourself, for running headlong into unnecessary mobs or how they move with the speed of a narcoleptic 3-toed Sloth that missed it’s insulin injection.

The people with their hands still raised should use it to slap themselves in the face for being a liar. Didn’t your mother raise you better?

The type of “failure” frequently enshrined by these bloggers is the sort of failure that results in a Game Over screen in single-player games. And the difference between reloading your last save after a Game Over and abandoning a failed quest and retaking it is… what? That’s right, there is not a damn single difference. Too Damn Epic asserts:

What happens, though, when your games are rigged so that you can’t lose?  That’s the underlying problem in most MMOs.  You can’t lose.  They’re jury-rigged for success, and as Gandhi said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”  Tweak that a bit for our purposes, and you get:

“Choices are not worth having if they do not include the option to make mistakes.”

[…] After all, in WOW, you can’t really make mistakes.  You can undo talent trees.  You can wipe on braindead PvE content to your heart’s content until you “win”.  You don’t lose anything in PvP.  In an effort to make games more accessible and retain subscribers, we’ve lost the capacity to fail – and in the process – lost the capacity to produce meaningful choices.

“You can wipe on braindead PvE content to your heart’s content until you ‘win.'” Err… so you are saying that you can fail until you succeed? Just like in any game ever made? Maybe there is a serious psychological difference between re-taking a quest and hitting F9 that I am not picking up on. Or perhaps the failure scale these individuals use have only two pegs: Faceroll and Battletoads. And as someone who actually played Battletoads on the NES back in the day, the game did not get more fun when you spent four hours memorizing all the walls in the racing level and the pitfalls in the tube level only to die in the snake level and have to redo everything all over again. That sort of designer bullshit has exactly one function: to turn a five-hour game into a 40 hour nightmare.

The bottom line here is that MMOs having a permanent failure state is actually a worse penalty than any single-player game, with the exception of Russian Roulette. Once you accept that a permanent failure is off the table, we are really quibbling over the length of player time to hold hostage. And honestly, I want to meet the Carebears who look at PvP and say nothing is lost when you get thoroughly owned by a Frost mage that is now teabagging your corpse. Somehow -1 Dignity and +1 Blood Pressure never evened out, in my experience.

3) What is “meaningful” choice anyway?

I have put “meaningful” in scare quotes every since I read SynCaine’s post on choices, and based on the example he used, I think everyone should as well:

A game like Dragon Age is full of ‘fake choice’, where every quest seems to have multiple solutions, but the end result is just different loot or some placeholder NPC switching up one line with another. Not that it really mattered in DA, the game was still fun and its story was good-enough to see it to the end. I’d just never put it anywhere near The Witcher in terms of moral choices and tough decisions.

Err… did we play the same Dragon Age? Assuming you beat DA and/or don’t mind 100% spoilers, just casually glance at the Epilogue Wiki page. Perhaps his point was that epilogue slides are just “switching up one line with another?”  I have not played The Witcher myself although I own both 1 & 2 on Steam (SynCaine must have just missed the deal a few months ago), so I cannot compare the two. What I will do is make a wild assumption that what choices The Witcher does offer the player does not come in the form of mutually exclusive content, which appears to be the gold standard of “choice.” If the Witcher does have mutually exclusive content, it will be in the radical minority of games.

I am making a point of this not just because what is “meaningful” is subjective, but also because I think this usage of choice is dumb. Flavor choices are inexplicably dismissed as shallow or meaningless by bloggers, when they are absolutely critical in developing an identity, or affinity to your character or the narrative as a whole. Planescape: Torment is brought up a lot as the pinnacle of storytelling, for example, but how much “real choice” does Planescape actually have in comparison to, say, Dragon Age? Very little. The brilliance of Planescape came from the depth of the “meaningless flavor choices” (all 800,000 words of them) which otherwise pulls you into the narrative in the wholly unique way that only video games can.

Besides, if you believe flavor choices are meaningless or have no consequences and therefore are not choices, how do you explain the apparent success of the F2P cash shop model? Or the likely fact you have things hanging up on your wall right now that you paid for and yet have nothing to do with the structural integrity of your domicile?

Individual expression is, indeed, the most interesting choice you can make despite – or perhaps in spite of – the likely fact that no one else cares.