In a continuation of my last post, regarding Blizzard's "The Art of Persuasion" quest, Richard Bartle has responded, and I to him, over at the main VGD site. To prevent clutter in the previous post I am posting the discussion here, and will update it should the discussion continue any further.
RB: > I might be playing the old school string a bit fervently here, but it would seem that someone from such nascent industry roots as inventing MUDs might have a hard time accepting that the game mechanic option of aborting the quest is a functional story element.
You are playing it a bit fervently. I may have started with MUD, but Iíve been involved in the industry ever since. Actually, in my experience itís the people with the longer backgrounds who have a better idea of whatís going on than those who have only spent 5 years playing MMOs.
Thatís the case here. You misunderstand what it is Iím complaining about. Itís a meta-design point: if youíre going to put in a quest that shocks players out of their comfort zone, you have to mark it. Otherwise, they wonít necessarily realise it was put there deliberately, and any point you were trying to make is lost.
OK, so you abandon the quest. Fair enough, you lose XP, and you miss out on a quest chain. However, you also realise that youíre not playing the same game that you were playing before: thereís been a shift in its ethical structure. Whereas previously you might have been able to justify your actions on the grounds that they were morally justified, now you find yourself being asked to do things which arenít morally justified. Itís as if you were watching The Simpsons and it suddenly changed into South Park. So what was previously a fun game with a vague cover that all those killings you were doing were acceptable because those bad guys would have killed you if you hadnít killed them, now youíre being asked to go beyond the pale.
What if you do the quest, though? It runs just like every other quest - thereís no indication that it was anything out of the ordinary. So whereís the story element? There is none. If players arenít told somehow, ďyou might want to reflect on what you just didĒ, theyíll think itís just part of the game. They wonít recognise it as a story atom; theyíll just think Blizzard is OK with torture.
The design principle is that if you push people over a boundary, you have to provide a context to justify it, or immediately pull them back. Blizzard does know this: thereís a quest in Teldrassil where some satyr asks you to kill things you know youíre not supposed to kill, and if you do them then you get in the bad books of the dark elves and have to do another quest to redeem yourself. Thatís fine: it tells people that if they want to step over the line, they can expect consequences. Thereís no such response in the WotLK torture quest, and thatís what Iím complaining about.
>I would bet that even Bartle himself has completed the quest
Yes, but then Iím a designer, not a player: I had to complete the quest to see how Blizzard handled it.
VGD: Firstly, thanks for taking the time to comment (and not starting with ĎDear Trollí)
In no way am I questioning your experience, or suggesting you would be out of touch. Iím simply suggesting that someone whoís been playing these sort of games since their inception are going to see things differently than someone much newer to the genre ó you have different expectations and, probably, different definitions of good MMO storytelling; not to suggest those differences are wrong.
Alright, that makes it much clearer; you would have a quest with this sort of content divided into a quest category, or at least make the Ďmoral testí aim clear in the text and objectives, if Iím following. But that brings me back to the idea of actual choice, not necessarily accounted for by the quest structure but rather by player actions through mechanics. Does a quest have to be marked in order to evoke player choice and recognition? Isnít it counter to getting a point across if you put up a big neon sign saying ĎThis is a moral quest, please choose the high road or be punishedí.
The point youíre making is going to be consonant or dissonant to players, which is not going to change their mind. Given the choice, through mechanics, to do or not do a quest, youíre letting the player actually make up their mind. Itís not accounted for and itís not a part of the story if they choose not to do it, but that player knows if they did or did not do it. Maybe someone who hunts isnít going to complete the Cenarion anti-Nesingwary chains because they feel weird attacking something they agree with ó itís not part of the story or quest structure, but the function for the individual is still there. Maybe that could be called bad game design, but the player behaviour still exists even though itís not planned for ó you could go so far as to call it emergent.
The risk of defending this quest, and by proxy Blizzard, is that it implies I think the quest is perhaps perfect. Itís not, and I can agree that they tread on thin ice when dealing with torture. But I donít think itís as large a shift in ethic theme as youíre proposing. Blizzardís light, cheeky style is fairly consistent. The mage you torture responds with quirky insults, verging on the whole black knight persona, ďtis but a flesh woundĒ. The Kirin Tor mage simply turns his back and arranges books while you torture this person. Itís a rather comical situation, and taken as satire, does not condone torture.
That said, some quests do seem to make that shift, now that you mention it. Collecting poacher ears for the Cenarion Expedition made me a bit uneasy. The zealous nature of the CE is unsettling, while the poachers are comically evil (collecting deer skin for that new set of Nesingwary knives). Itís an odd combination that seems to have been executed effectively, but is surprising nonetheless.
To your point about the story value of that quest; itís exposition. Players knew the Kirin Tor were a bit shady (watching over Medivh with the Violet Eye ó wiretapping reference, anyone?) but now players are aware that torture, while not condoned officially, is allowed. This is the sort of thing that led me to suggest you might have quite a different perspective here: Iím quite content seeing that the quest is saying and not telling. If Blizzard told me that torture was bad then I havenít decided for myself; so I havenít really decided anything.
I hope Iím not driving home the subjectivity point too hard here, as I glance up to see it seep into just about every paragraph, just in a different phrasing, but hopefully you see my point in all of this.
RB: >Iím simply suggesting that someone whoís been playing these sort of games since their inception are going to see things differently than someone much newer to the genre
Well no, thatís not what you were suggesting. You said I ďmight have a hard time accepting that the game mechanic option of aborting the quest is a functional story elementĒ. That does indeed imply that Iím out of touch. It seems to be saying Iím so dyed-in-the-wool that these new-fangled ďMMOsĒ are beyond my understanding. Theyíre not.
>Does a quest have to be marked in order to evoke player choice and recognition?
Basically, yes, it does. If you look at what people have been saying in the comments to blog postings on this topic, itís painfully clear that a good many of them see nothing wrong with the quest and donít know what all the fuss is about. If you donít hit them over the head with it, these people arenít ever going to recognise that the quest was in any way making a point.
For those who do feel the quest stands out in a disturbing way, you have to reassure them that it was intended or theyíll think you put it in because thatís how you feel. If this were a tightly-written narrative game, you could probably get away with it because players would be expecting to have to look for subtexts for everything; here, though, this isnít clear. There are people arguing in other forums that this quest is simply an example of Blizzardís dark humour and thereís no subtext to be read into it at all. Therefore, in a game like WoW, you do need to mark the quest as being there to make a point, otherwise even those people who recognised it will not know thereís a subtext and will look for other explanations.
>Isnít it counter to getting a point across if you put up a big neon sign saying ĎThis is a moral quest, please choose the high road or be punishedí.
That may be, but you can mark it afterwards. They can do the quest and THEN you can indicate that they may like to think about what it is they were asked to do. This is what we see in that Teldrassil quest I mentioned, for example.
>Maybe someone who hunts isnít going to complete the Cenarion anti-Nesingwary chains because they feel weird attacking something they agree with ó itís not part of the story or quest structure, but the function for the individual is still there. Maybe that could be called bad game design
The anti-hunting quests are flagged up as making a point by their pretty clear parodying of PETA with DEHTA, and the ďDEHTAís little PITAĒ achievement you get at the end. Where is the equivalent for the torture quest?
>I donít think itís as large a shift in ethic theme as youíre proposing.
Itís perhaps not a huge shift, but itís still a noticeable one.
>Blizzardís light, cheeky style is fairly consistent. The mage you torture responds with quirky insults, verging on the whole black knight persona, ďtis but a flesh woundĒ. The Kirin Tor mage simply turns his back and arranges books while you torture this person. Itís a rather comical situation, and taken as satire, does not condone torture.
If they wanted it to be comical, they could have made it funnier than they did. It just plays as a run-of-the-mill quest - nothing to mark it out as different.
>but now players are aware that torture, while not condoned officially, is allowed.
Yes, but large swathes of the player base donít seem to think thereís anything wrong with that. If Blizzard is making a narrative point here, itís lost on those people.
>Iím quite content seeing that the quest is saying and not telling.
Those people who donít want to do it would be content with that, too, if they were sure that was indeed what it was saying. We really donít know, though - with no in-game explanation, weíre reduced to second-guessing Blizzardís intentions. Blizzard could come up with any one of half a dozen explanations. If one of them was the ďyou kill people, so whatís a bit of torture here and there?Ē answer that keeps coming up in forum discussions, your understanding of the quest would have changed. It wouldnít be about saying and not telling - it wouldnít really be about much at all, other than Blizzard thought torture was small beans in the great scheme of things. Thatís why we needed it marked here: to show that itís intended to be stand-out, and to hint at what it was saying.
>I hope Iím not driving home the subjectivity point too hard here, as I glance up to see it seep into just about every paragraph, just in a different phrasing, but hopefully you see my point in all of this.
I do, but then I see everyone elseís point, too. You read the quest one way and are happy with that; other people have read it other ways. Some of these people are also happy, and some are not happy. Whatever, they canít all be right..!
VGD: ďWell no, thatís not what you were suggesting.Ē
But it was, even if you interpret it that way; perhaps youíre used to being on the defensive on that point. Every developer knows a fresh set of eyes sees things more clearly and without preconceptions ó thatís not to say more correctly or less correctly, but itís a different perspective that should be considered. It seems that to you the quest is broken from a design standpoint, but youíre not acknowledging any other set of criteria that might be applied to judge it ó is your criteria not influenced by your experience more so than what fashion this quest is communicating a message in?
ďIf this were a tightly-written narrative game, you could probably get away with it because players would be expecting to have to look for subtexts for everything; here, though, this isnít clear. Ē
Tightly-written as in linear, short and dense, like a single-player RPG? While there is no easily condensed single story there are multiple story threads that are continued and added to, and I think some players ARE looking for subtext in the quests that make up these story threads. What was interesting with the Death Knight quests is that the bad guys really arenít that different from the good guys, because for a while the usual good guys are the enemy. Then the Ebon Blade becomes a friendly faction, etc, and now they have a storied background and their thread is more interesting going forward. The Kirin Tor also have a story thread, and this torture quest is no doubt a part of it, as they are increasingly built up to represent the secret society, the illuminati, the vanguards of good that seem to have very dark secrets. The significance is there for the people looking for it, and the people not looking for it donít care to see it; bonking them over the head with information isnít going to paint them interested.
ďSome of these people are also happy, and some are not happy. Whatever, they canít all be right..!Ē
But they can! If one player hates a game because of the music and one player loves that same game because of the music, both of them are right ó they have different tastes. Beyond quality of workmanship, games are difficult to objectify, and so too is the manner in which this quest was implemented.
As you, reportedly, donít wish to make a huge deal out of your own unhappiness with the quest, who is to say that Blizzard was trying to make a point with it? I say it fits into the usual lighthearted style because it does blend in with other quests ó nobody who already thinks torture is a terrible thing to do is going to complete the quest and suddenly think torture is fine because Blizzard treated it in such a light way. And just the same, nobody who is ignorant to the reality of torture would change their mind if the quest made a point of showcasing morality.
Say the tortured mage dies when youíre done torturing him, and the next quest in the chain has you dispose of the body. You return to claim your reward and the Kirin Tor, while thankful, think less of you now. Maybe you even lose some rep with them for doing what this lackey has commanded, breaking Kirin Tor policies. So what? Itís now become a very pragmatic quest, and those who donít think much of torture are still going to plod along and say ĎWasnít that torture quest great, I feel like such a badassí.
In its current state the quest is of the common variety, and I believe it would have the same effect on people who are fine with torture, while beating people who are aware of that sort of cruelty over the head. Surely when you played the quest, yourself against the practice of torture, you saw what they were trying to say. Itís a highly sardonic and deadpan mockery of any government, and maybe specifically the US government and the trouble theyíve gotten into lately in the press. A good portion of the audience, I would bet, are on the same page, and the rest are not. No matter how you create the quest itís going to satisfy one part and turn off the other.
What I find odd is that you seem fine with giving players a way to think, and letting them go down that path. Because the DEHTA quests are obvious and thinly veiled, and more or less tell the player who the good guys and the bad guys are, then itís fine because a line has been drawn? In that case you have a quest writer telling players what to think, and whose place is that?
All the better that the quest ísayí rather than Ďtellí and allow players to make up their own minds; thatís how theyíre going to think anyways. You cite the satyr quest in Teldrassil as being perhaps a good mark to hit in order to make a morally challenging quest, yet the only thing to do is redeem yourself; itís built into the quest and comes off as artificial. You didnít really do anything wrong, this is what the quest is supposed to do. So does that teach players that doing the wrong thing is fine if you do something nice afterwards? The logic just doesnít hold up if what you want to accomplish is to sway someoneís opinion.