Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hiding Story in SWTOR

It often occurs to me that the basic story information in the Old Republic is the best kept secret in the industry. No other game takes its most interesting story elements and narrative quest series and hides it in the most obscure places imaginable.  It takes a remarkable amount of persistence just to know what current activities are being offered, much less piece together random elements into some kind of coherent narrative.

This is certainly true for the Shroud.  The Shroud was introduced into The Old Republic last April, with the Makeb expansion.  It was done with little fanfare at about the third mesa you travel to; given to you by an innocuous droid waiting on the side of the platform.  There are two impertinent droids in the same area, in fact.  By that point, you are focused on saving the planet from complete destruction and saving everyone on it, when a little droid wants you to drop all that heroic nonsense and return to Coruscant for a little chat with SIS.  Of course it makes no sense to do it then, even with a personal plea from a very charismatic agent in charge, so at that point I just filed it away for future reference.

The second problem with the quest is that initial task is to fly to various marked locations and scan the area with a special device called a macrobinocular, a device that gives the quest series its name.  What's misleading is that this has all form and structure of a pretty basic daily quest.  'Go to three locations, click on the objects you find there, and I'll give you a reward."  In fact, that second quest you picked up from the droids is exactly that: go to a planet and fish up an evil relic.

What's different about these quests is that after you complete your three locations, there is a capstone quest at the end that takes the form of an unusual puzzle.  This is an environmental puzzle that asks you to navigate your way through rooms, manipulate objects, and discover relationships between things in your surroundings.  Suddenly, your boring daily quest transforms into an intriguing challenge of logic, creativity, and observation.

These are fair problems, in that all the clues are present at the location, and often the initial solution gives clues to how the further steps of the puzzle are to be solved.  At the end of each sequence, you receive a message from an individual, ostensibly an agent of the Shroud.  And piece by piece we match wits with these lieutenants, at each step drawing closer and closer to our main adversary.

So this is my problem with the way this all is set up:

The way they are presented to the player is designed to be obscure.  The developers don't really want you to know what's going on, initially.  They want you to be drawn in, bit by bit, until you realize that you are caught up in something much larger than a few transmission relays.  By being so secretive at the beginning, they don't properly set up the anticipation that the Player needs to push through the first boring steps.

What they should be doing is broadcasting loudly that these macrobinocular missions form a narrative quest series that delivers major lore points.  The Shroud is a first class villain and antagonist, something that SWTOR needs very badly. While there is a lot of posturing between the Empire and the Republic, the main story is not about the conflict between them.  Instead, it has been other villains that both can fight from different sides.  This is true of the Hutt Cartel as well as the Dread Masters.  Our mysterious agent fits this description perfectly, and needs an introduction and narrative support that befits a major villain.

Yes, I know there is a tradition in MORPG storytelling to hide lore in dark places, just waiting for someone to look there, and this series honors that tradition. But in my opinion, what The Old Republic is missing at this point is a major lore figure to step forward and capture the imagination of its players.  SWTOR needs an Arthas, a Grommash, even an Emperor like the one from Return of the Jedi.  Let's be honest, no one ever really feared the Hutts, even Toborro, who was genuinely insane. The Shroud has the potential to become such a figure.

This is the power of lore.  Not that it supersedes gameplay and social interaction, but that it fuels our enthusiasm for both.

 Post sixteen in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

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