OverPowered: The Middle and Continuity
By Jonathan Doyle (Ardua), OnRPG Journalist
Hello and welcome again to a special opinion editorial on OnRPG. I’d call it OverPowered, but that’d be silly.
Previously I hopped up on my soapbox to talk about The End. The end of Mass Effect 3 and endings generally in the lifetime of the games we play. This time around, I’d like to talk about the middle of the story. Yes it amuses me to be talking about the structure of a story in reverse, but hopefully at the end, if we end with the beginnings of stories, it will all make sense.
So, onto the meaty matter at hand. The middle of stories. The ever-present now in which we play.
For some people, this is going to be a complete non-issue. You play your mmos your way. Indeed there is no entirely wrong way to play an MMO, in terms of achievement. The goals you set yourself are the goals that keep you playing. Sometimes they are roleplay stories; sometimes they are getting to the end of a raiding treadmill and having the best gear in the game. Other times they are simply being the best pvper or perhaps even just wasting time in a mildly distracting online world.
Whatever your reason, for a decent number of you, the world itself does in some way matter. There are so many shared mechanics and tropes between the various online worlds available to us all that to be perfectly honest, there aren’t many major breaks from the genre as a whole. Don’t get me wrong, there are some stand out stand alone games out there that do some or all of its mechanics, setting and gameplay different to everyone else, but for the most part our online worlds are broadly similar.
That contributes to it being a genre after all. First Person Shooter games are broadly similar across the board but don’t let that sound like I’m saying every Call of Duty is the same as Battlefield.
What separates those two examples, and in fact the genre games as a whole is a mix of mechanics and story. The mechanics, well we would be here for hours upon hours if we were to tease apart the nuance of every game’s engine that is out there and how they are applied differently. That doesn’t even include upcoming systems like Storybricks. We’re here to talk about stories, and the middle of them.
A persistent world is exactly that. Persistent. You don’t load the opening chapters any more than you use level skips to bounce to the end and complete something quickly. The world is more or less the same as when you left it and always will be barring patches.
The Azeroth of today doesn’t look like the Azeroth of two years ago, but it does look like yesterdays. The changes made were given a proper story rationale, a proper story setting and allowed to play out. You yourself may have missed it, but it is a chapter of history now for World of Warcraft.
History is important after all, if there is no sense of continuity, no sense of belonging to a world you are playing in, why would you keep playing? Some of us mark that continuity through gear, others through friends. Some of us mark it through the events that unfold as the game continues to live. Story is a binding force, keeping us with the game as it unfolds to some climax. However, not everyone plays at the same speed or in the same fashion, so we in our persistent online worlds find ourselves suffering under another general trope, one familiar to comic book readers. The Status Quo is God.
The problem with everything, barring patches and expansions, always being the same …. is exactly that. Everything is the same. How often can you eat the same sandwich before you crave something, anything, different? It is in every game’s interest to keep us eating that same sandwich but to make sure that we never hunger for anything else. Patches and expansions are the spice that shakes that up. Changes the tempo and keeps us interested.
But what happens when the story becomes muddled?
No problem there in World of Warcraft generally speaking. Deathwing got mad, Azeroth got a makeover. No problem in RIFT; Ascended heroes killed Greenscale and Akylios with accompanying events to mark their passing. Sure if you personally have never gone on that raid you still can, but the canon, the official story is that they are dead and time has moved on. Continuity is maintained and the world is better for it.
However. There’s always a however. Cataclysm was a clean break. A RIFT update is a clear progression of time. Events like these in any game are well understood and accepted. However what happens when you don’t go for the clean break? What happens when for whatever reason, be they resources, money or time, you drag out the alteration of your game?
In this I have my sights set squarely on City of Heroes.
The ever present now of Paragon City is becoming snarled and complicated. Statesman is alive! Oh wait, now that you’re level 2, he’s dead. Skyway, Steel Canyon and Kings Row are all destroyed quite violently! Only they aren’t. No where is that more glaring an issue than in the Sutter Task Force where one zones from a wrecked and ruined Skyway into a pristine (relatively speaking) one. This pattern is continuing in the future. Issue 23 is coming, Praetoria is being evacuated! Except it’s also still there and business as usual. This isn’t simply an issue of quest chains painting different pictures of the time at hand, this is one of the game mechanics reflecting one reality while the story isn’t yet showing the same. The mechanics and updates to make City of Heroes sexy, vibrant and still popular after so many years are starting to disagree with the stories being written. If all you ever do is raid in a game, you probably think I am making a mountain out of a molehole. Perhaps I am. In this day and age where we demand more polish, more expertise and more… more from the games we are being given, is it all that bad to want a coherent picture of events as my character and I experience them?
There’s really only one hope if this gets worse.
After all we already accept that certain tropes are in force. There’s clearly only one saving grace for a continuity snarl, and to be honest a comic book super hero game is the best place to try it. It’s time to pull a Batman, pull a Superman, pull a Marvel Ultimates. It’s time for an infinite crisis on infinite instances. It’s time for a reboot.