11/04/2018

Story Gating

Telwyn has been playing a bit of Final Fantasy XIV recently, making use of a promotion that granted him some free game time, and summed up his experiences of both the good and the bad in two recent posts. One of the negative points he mentioned was that too many of the game's features are gated behind having to complete its main storyline (for his liking anyway), in this particular case expansion content that you're not allowed to access until you've done a certain amount of "the old stuff", though I also remember seeing people complain about much earlier gates like this before, such as not being able to buy a mount until a certain point in the story.

I've never played a Final Fantasy game myself, and from what I've read about it it doesn't really sound like my cup of tea either, but as a SWTOR player I still find its approach to story very fascinating, as there seems to be a certain amount of common ground between the two MMOs when it comes to the importance given to story within the context of the game. I don't know whether being this strict in terms of questing requirements is necessarily the "right" approach, but I can't help but feel a certain amount of respect for the game's creators for sticking to their vision, even in the face of criticism (as Telwyn is far from the first person to bring this up as a problem).

What's also interesting to me is that despite of SWTOR's love for story as a "fourth pillar", it has never been this strict in terms of its story gating. Yes, the class story is very linear and does tie into the story of the galaxy as a whole, but in terms of game mechanics, the only things that were strictly gated behind story at launch were:

1. More of the same class story - you couldn't just drop it at the end of Tatooine and then pick it up again on Belsavis. If you dropped it at any point and decided to focus on levelling through other means, you had to go back and do all the quests you missed to be able to see the rest of that particular storyline.

2. Access to your companions. (This has become kind of moot with the amount of story-less companions that you are now able to pick up from promotions and the Cartel Market.)

3. Access to your personal starship.

I also seem to remember some sort of early restriction to being able to leave the starter planet if you hadn't wrapped up the story there, but I'm not sure now whether I didn't just dream that...

Either way, for all our love of SWTOR's story, dedicated players have also enjoyed pushing against its limitations for a long time. Who could forget the podcaster who levelled from 1 to cap by doing nothing but queuing for starfighter matches? Being lazy about the class story is also an ongoing joke among players who maintain raiding alts from my experience, especially when it turns out that this or that character hasn't even bothered to earn their personal starship and now has trouble actually getting around despite of already being near or at the level cap.

The initial batch of post-launch content was remarkably indifferent about continuity as well, usually not requiring any specific prerequisites before you could access it. It was just assumed that you'd done your class story and that you would be happy for the NPCs to treat you accordingly. This could actually be annoying when it would lead to unintentional spoilers via characters addressing you by the rank you hold by the end of your class story before you had actually earned it (mostly a problem for Sith characters). I remember this being particularly egregious with Makeb, before the mission terminal on the ship had been introduced and you could suddenly end up with the Rise of the Hutt Cartel intro playing out of nowhere while you were still trying to wrap up your class story.

Shadow of Revan made a valiant attempt at making sure that it made sense to all players regardless of where they were at in the story. The "miniature class story" on Rishi is inserted in such a way that it can be cut out if you start the story arc without actually having completed your class story beforehand, and there are even separate intros for characters that have or haven't done the precursory Forged Alliances missions. I was reminded of this the other day when Vulkk expressed wonder at the optional cut scenes introducing Lana and Theron on Rishi if you never met them before. (Personally I knew that this option existed, but had never played through it myself either.) I wonder how much work went into these content variations that a huge chunk of the player base never even saw?

Looking back at that now, I can't really blame Bioware for developing the desire to start fresh and with a clean slate with 4.0. Forget having all those different story variations - when a player looks at starting Knights of the Fallen Empire, the game outright tells you to better finish up any pending business beforehand as it will be a whole new world after that.

Of course that brought other issues with it. Since the "Knights of..." expansions weren't shy about branding themselves as your new personal story, it seemed to make sense to have one chapter lead into the next and so on - like the class missions, with no jumping around. The problem is that there was nothing else to do. It's one thing to have a linear storyline taking place within a huge world, where you can wander off the beaten path at any time and then backtrack later, and another to have a linear storyline when that's all there is.

Even so, Bioware once again didn't want players to feel held back for too long. Couldn't get yourself to finish all of the KotFE chapters? No worries, just jump right into KotET anyway and we'll count those last few KotFE chapters as "auto-completed"! Then again, that can cause issues yet again, as characters might suddenly find themselves saddled with a backstory that runs counter to everything they've done before.

Yes, I feel a certain amount of admiration for Final Fantasy XIV's developers and their devotion to the game's story. On the other hand, I can totally see how this rigid system can be a drag for players - and in some ways, it offers the writers and developers an easy way out, because they'll always know what exactly each player has seen and done by the time they reach any particular point in the story.

SWTOR on the other hand is constantly torn between wanting to tell a coherent story and giving players the freedom to do things in a different order if they want to. Despite of the game's strong narrative focus, it never manages to stick to requiring this or that to unlock the next piece of the story for very long. As a long-time player with many alts I appreciate that, but at the same time I often see new players get confused about what order they are supposed to do things in and whether it's sensible to skip this or that storyline. There's no winning here: If you lock events into a linear path, players will feel restricted, but if you give them the freedom to choose, others will be confused about where to go.

The more I think about it, the more sense it would make for 6.0 to wipe the slate clean once again (more or less at least), by getting us to a point where it doesn't matter much anymore what we did as the Alliance Commander and it becomes more important to look towards the future.

1 comment :

  1. As much as I dislike the Blizzard Orcs vs Humans default for WoW (especially when I feel that WoW is best served in a cold war atmosphere like was found in Vanilla, BC, and the first half of Wrath), Blizz does avoid the story issues that Bioware has with SWTOR. WoW's playerbase is also conditioned to believe that the game begins at max level, so story is --at best-- secondary in WoW. Bioware doesn't have that luxury with SWTOR, so this dance is always going to be more difficult with SWTOR.

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