Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Closer Look at Story

I want to take a closer look at the stories of the Makeb expansion of Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Officially called Rise of the Hutt Cartel, this expansion was supposed to be a show-piece of BioWare storytelling at its finest.

Just a quick recap of SWTOR history:  The Old Republic launched in December 2011 and as players hit the initial stories, their reports were enthusiatic.   As the story content ended many player felt underwhelmed by the remainder of the game and throughout 2012 the game lost subscriptions from a possible high of 2 mil. to estimates around 500,000 or lower.  About a year after launch, the game released a free-to-play option and announced the Makeb expansion in what was largely viewed as a bid to save the game from free-fall.




This last bit was important because this wasn't merely filler content quickly dashed off in a weekend to keep the joes moving.  Hutt Cartel represented a chance to get back to the thing that BioWare does best:  tell exciting and engaging stories through gameplay and to show the SWTOR model for the future.

It was clear that the developers couldn't sustain stories for all eight classes on a long-term basis but possibly they could craft a single, unified story that could carry the franchise forward.  It was their opportunity to convince everyone that the Star Wars MMO had enough depth to be a vehicle for story.

All this happened over a year ago.  Why talk about it now?  Because for me, SWTOR has once again reached a plateau.  And I need to ask myself if there really is anything to look forward to.

Solid Premise
At the heart of the first Republic story was the character of Lemda, a kidnapped princess whose father was the founder of Makeb and leader of its ruling council.  Our job was to rescue her.  Layered on top of this basic story was the fact that she was also a prominent scientist who held the key to understanding what was happening to the planet.

As an opening premise, this was very strong; it clearly defined what we were supposed to do as characters within the story, and it helped define our actions as heroic without going overboard and making us into superheroes.  We also could see the figure of Lemda as a representation of the planet as a whole.  Figuratively, by saving Lemda we were saving Makeb.  In this, I was reminded of a similar role that the character of Princess Leia took on as a representative of the fledgling Rebel Alliance.

Within the context of The Old Republic, this story made sense as well.  The Republic stood as a beacon of freedom and peace to the galaxy, and clearly the planet of Makeb was in danger of losing both.  If the Republic could step in and save the people of this crumbling world from their calamity it would embolden the hope of all such marginalized worlds.

In addition to Lemda, the story introduces two other characters at the landing zone, Lane Ferow and Prosk.  Lane and Prosk deliver some genuinely enjoyable dialogue and I could see the truth in their stories, the accountant and mine foreman suddenly thrown into a military situation far outside their normal experiences and asked to do the impossible and making the best of the situation.  I found myself wanting to help them.

I really liked their presence, and the sacrifice at the end was meaningful, if abrupt.  Each of these characters had a story:  the veteran mine boss who proved to be a leader of men and someone who would reach out in compassion to Lemda just as she was mustering the resources to escape;  the young accountant, only a few years out of college and obviously in over his head, but trying hard to rise to the occasion; and the brilliant scientist risking her own safety to put together the connection between Hutt drilling and planetary instability.



Limited Execution
However, while the premise was strong, the actual execution of the quest was weaker.   The main activity is for your character to check each of the camps of traitorous mercenaries to see if we can find Lemda.  At each camp we clear the mobs around a computer terminal and either place a call to, or are interrupted by one from, the leader of the mercs.

Here is where things get a bit sloppy.   The major storytelling mechanism is this series of holocalls from the merc and later, Prosk. What exactly was happening with these holocalls was unclear to me. 

Obviously, we can't be calling the Regulator leader:  this would give to him our exact location and reveal our mission objective so he can move his kidnapped scientist away from us?

Alternatively, the reason for this call might be to introduce the minor boss of this mesa to the players.  We get to exchange a little trash talking banter so that when we finally face him we recognize him and get a sense of satisfaction in his demise.  We are building him up as a challenge so that our heroic characters can defeat him.

The problem with this theory is that the enemy leader we're talking to on the holo isn't actually the minor lieutenant we face at the end of the mesa.  Instead, our holocaller is the commander we meet much later on the Storm Carrier, presumably the Regulator in charge of all the mercenary forces in this area.  By the time we do meet him on the carrier, we have entirely forgotten about him.  By using two different Regulator leaders in this story, we weaken both of these characters.

More importantly, the holocalls are a narrative seed that the writers are planting, in hopes of a surprise payoff much later in the story. But in execution there are too many of these narrative devices, they are presented unclearly.  This is the very first mission on the planet, and we've been given a strong set-up. The realization of the story must be equally strong.


Missed Opportunity
A further problem with this storytelling device is that the holocall doesn't generate a lot of satisfaction or payoff.  We could have easily structured the quest so that these calls made sense.  We could have framed the story so that it was important that we make as much fuss as possible so as to draw attention away from another team. Or the enemy leader is actually able to track us and it is he who is calling us, trying to slow us down. A little clarity and care at this point would have made all the difference.

What would have been far better, what would have made more sense from the story perspective, would be to focus less on the captain and make much more of our interaction with Prosk. This should have been more about the search and rescue (which directs attention to why we're here), and less about the staring contest with the Regulator captain (which directs attention back on the character). 

Instead of the holocall, we should have found some article that used to be in her possession, some piece of information that pointed in her direction, some fragment of the data that she had managed to gather.  That would give the player reinforcement that we were getting closer to our rescue target, and it would serve to build up the character of Lemda in our minds.

We could use the items we found to fill in the details about this unfamiliar character, and it would make the quest something less mechanical, less like the hundred other quests we completed throughout the zones.  Clicking on computer terminals doesn't move the story at all and each one is a missed opportunity to strengthen the narrative.  That things we do out in the field needs to reinforce the story presented by the dialogue.

Bioware's Bad Habits
What this pointed to, for me, was a few bad habits that the Bioware quest-crafters have fallen into.  The first is making quests objectives so long in coming that you forget why you're out there in the first place.  We spend 5 minutes in dialogue, presenting the problem, and then another 15 minutes or more completing it. By the time you're through with the last objective, you have very limited memory of that briefing at the beginning, particularly if you've taken side quests and bonus quests along the way, and particularly if the objectives were entirely generic computer terminals.

Another problem with BioWare storytelling is that it relies on spoken dialogue far too heavily to deliver story progress.  We needed to talk to the merc commander because that is the mechanism that the storytellers were given to work with.  A cut scene of us finding physical evidence of Lemda's presence would have been more interesting and drawn our attention to where it properly belonged,  but it wouldn't have involved voice-acting.  When all you have is spoken dialogue, every problem is a conversation.

Third, this was a perfect opportunity to exploit environmental storytelling to really reinforce the predicament that Makeb faced, but it was largely ignored in this case.  Yes, we toured the mesa and we investigated the Regulators camps, and each was fully furnished with appropriate art assets, but I didn't come away from there with any lasting impression of the mercenaries.  Nothing explained what they were doing on this particular mesa. There wasn't any clues in the generic camp furnishings to suggest what they were guarding, or what they had captured, or even what this particular mesa was used for by the original residents of Makeb.  It was an entirely artificial arrangement of opponents.

The investigation of the camps would have been an opportunity to tell the Regulators' story.  A burned town, a small mining outpost, a prison with captured citizens - each of these could have conveyed the mercenaries' evil, or greed, or mercilessness.  As it was, the Regulators' presence on the mesa made no sense.  They were there simply to provide opposition to my character's progress.

A story is a promise of resolution
The purpose of this quest was to introduce us to the story character Lemda, a character who will figure prominently throughout the Makeb expansion.  The progress of this story should have drawn us continually back to that purpose, finding her, finding out about her, speaking to her first as a disembodied voice, and then finally face to face for a satisfying payoff.  Instead, we spend the entire quest clicking on impersonal objects and speaking to an impersonal leader

The story does many things well:  it introduces us to the citizens of Makeb and makes us personally aware of their struggle.  We see in the characters of Lane and Prosk what the ordinary residents of the planet are facing, and we see Avesta and other leaders fighting to restore order and peace to the crumbling planet.  And it gives the players a way for their character to actively take part in that restoration.  We're not merely observers and bystanders, but agents of good.

Each of these stories was present but they were almost struggling to be told amidst the sameness of featureless groups of humanoid opponents and similar-looking computer terminals.

My major lessons from this first zone was in three parts.
1.   First, it is at the beginning and ending of the quest, the points of communication, where most of the story is told.  These parts did a good job of framing the story and our character's involvement in it.

2. The mechanical parts in the middle didn't really contribute to the story much at all.  There wasn't anything in the way of environmental storytelling at the Regulator's camps to communicate why they were there, what kind of trouble they were facing, or more importantly, how they had interacted with our search and rescue mission.  Generic computer terminals didn't contribute to a feeling of incremental success in our mission;  I didn't feel as though I was getting closer to my mission objective, literally just checking boxes.

3.  More stories need to be told than just the one of the player character.  Prosk and Lane was a good example of this, reaching into a tale where they weren't the stars but were still important at the conclusion.  The end of this was also a time for more in the way of a cut scene that highlighted the conclusion of this mission, the sacrifices and the value of the information gained.

At the end, I felt rewarded and acknowledged, but I also thought that so much more could have been do to intensify the storytelling experience.  I'll have to examine what they've improved with the next mission.





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