Blog Archives

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.