Game plotlines have gotten complicated.
We've come a long way from "the Princess has been kidnapped, go rescue the Princess". The Super Nintendo acquired a pile of RPGs with complicated plotlines, the gaming industry had a brief but ill-fated flirtation with live-action directing, and we've attempted all sorts of curious branching plotlines and fully explorable worlds.
Somewhere in here, the gaming press and public came up with an interesting term. "Theme park". A "theme park" game is one that calmly shunts you along from awesome event to awesome event, like a Disneyland attraction on rails. You get to see a lot of amazing stuff but, in the end, you had little to no choice in your actions. The most popular accusations, and the most damning of them, tend to be leveled at World of Warcraft. The curious part is that World of Warcraft plotlines never involved choice. People claim to have felt more immersed in the game years ago, and despite the complicated and deep plotlines that now fill the World of Warcraft universe, and the identical amount of influence players have on the world (namely, none), the game just doesn't grab people like it did.
Now, part of this is probably just people tired of WoW. The game has been out for a very long time and people are bored. But I think there's a different reason – one that can be analyzed carefully, and, with effort, avoided. In order to demonstrate that reason, we're going to have to take a journey back in time, tens of thousands of years ago.
Or, if you'd prefer, six years ago, to the release of Ice Age 2.
Spoiler-laden plot synopsis: The main characters of Ice Age are happy in their new home paradise. Then disaster strikes! The gigantic ice wall that's holding the ocean back is beginning to melt, and the entire population must migrate to the other end of the valley, where a boat awaits to rescue them. Will they make it in time?
Well of course they'll bloody well make it in time. It's a kid's movie. Right off the bat you know that it will have a happy ending, and that means everyone's gonna survive. The problem is that they've already tipped their hand. Nine minutes into the movie and you know the whole plotline. Sure, it's a kid's movie, and that means it will be happy, but that doesn't mean they need to tell you how everything will work out. Compare Ice Age 2 to Hook. We all knew Hook is going to have a happy ending also, but we didn't know how. We didn't have the entire plotline of the movie spelled out in the very beginning. This is important.
Second, the Ice Age 2 universe feels painfully contrived. Hundreds of creatures are all crammed together in the very end of an ice-filled valley, which is next to a gigantic wall of ice, and right beyond that wall is the entire ocean. What the hell? How did they even get there? Ice Age 1 ended with them walking into a sun setting over a gorgeous vista, Ice Age 2 starts with this:
Did they enter the valley on the other end, then troop all the way down here? What do they eat? Everything around is ice and bare dirt! The universe feels incredibly artificial – there's The Place That Everything Happens In, and then there's an impassable barrier ensuring that you're not allowed to think about stuff outside that place, and then there's an infinite ocean.
As the movie goes on, there are a lot of events. Many things happen. But in almost every case, these things are small self-contained events. Character gets in trouble –> character gets out of trouble. Hooray! Trouble is over! Let's move on to the next trouble! There are only a few plotlines that last any appreciable time, and as mentioned, none of those are really suspenseful. To make matters worse, Ice Age 2's closest attempt at a bad guy – a pair of prehistoric water carnivores – have no personality, no motivation, and no reason for the viewer to be interested in them. We know they're gonna lose. They're bad guys. You can largely discount any scene where they show up because you know in the end they'll be completely irrelevant. (In the end, they're completely irrelevant. Surprise!)
It felt like the world was created for the sake of the plotlines they wanted to make. Like they had a checklist of things they wanted to include, and by God they were going to make sure to include all those things, so they went down the list and when every event was checked off they called it a movie and released it.
Move forward three years and we've got Ice Age 3, which takes a dramatically different approach. Two minutes in we've got a plot point: the main character's wife is pregnant! Three minutes more and we've got another: one of the side characters is getting easily exhausted while hunting, and wants to leave the group! Another two minutes and we've got yet another: the main character is neglecting his friendships for the sake of his pregnant wife! Another five minutes and we've got a fourth plotline: someone's found some eggs! And then they hatch dinosaurs! And the dinosaurs don't play well with the smaller and fuzzier babies of the area! And, seriously, what the hell is the plot of this movie?
The answer is that there isn't a single plot. Everything listed up there is important and interwoven. Instead of having a single backbone plot, with subplots interspersed like a monotonous drumbeat, Ice Age 3 interweaves every plotline together – the short ones, the long ones, everything. The "main" plot isn't even started until 25 minutes into the movie.
The end result is that you never quite know what's going to happen. Oh, sure, it's going to end happily ever after, it's a kid's movie, we know that. But it's unclear what "happily" means in every case, and it's certainly not as obvious what the exact events are going to be. With that many plotlines running in parallel there are ample opportunities for them to bang into each other and interfere with each other, such as when the mommy mammoth needs for the hunter to defend her against attacking dinosaurs, despite his feelings of inadequacy. Dual plotline resolution, go!
And finally, Ice Age 3 spends a lot more time attempting to insert personality into the various side characters. With mixed success, I'll admit – the "main villain" is still little more than an angry killing machine. But this time it's a killing machine with a name, and backstory, and significant history with one of the main characters. I start caring about him because his behavior will actually have long-term consequences with the other characters in the movie.
Now, take a look at MMO questlines.
Today, each zone has a single largely-linear questline. You're shunted along a backbone plot from one event to the next. Sure, each event is related to the plot, but none of them go outside the plot in an unexpected manner. Each quest is predictable – hell, with few exceptions, each quest gives you the entire quest description before you've even accepted the quest. And there's no way to escape the relentless march of the plot. There's nothing outside the plot, there are no surprising interactions. You start the zone, and several hours later, you finish the zone.
But several years ago, things worked a bit differently. Sure, each quest was, if anything, even simpler. But zones tended to not have single unified plotlines. Often, they had a pile of smaller plotlines. And you weren't shoved along a single plotline – if you went and explored, you could find a different plot. You could pursue these in any order you wanted. There's the opportunity – you're walking around the world doing one quest, and bam, you walk straight into another quest! It didn't feel like you were on rails nearly as much, it felt like you were walking around in a significantly more alive world, where each player would end up experiencing the world in a slightly different order and with a slightly different flavor.
Another problem is the characters. I think this is a situation where, with the best of intentions, MMO design has gone in exactly the wrong direction. Modern MMO quest design is all about participating in epic plots. But that's the problem in a nutshell. It's not your plot, it's someone else's plot. It's Thrall's plot, or Asha's plot. With the old style of MMO quests you had limited choice, but you still had the option to say "haha, screw that, that's not worth the effort". And a lot of the best-known MMO plots were single people asking you for assistance with their person problems. With the modern style, it's the big leaders of your faction or alliance, requiring that you help them with whatever disaster has popped up lately, and if you don't, you can't continue the plotline. It doesn't feel personal.
As an example of how subtle but important this can be: Imagine you're talking to the Emperor's engineer. He tells you that he needs a left-handed sprongwhacker in order to build a machine to drive back the Infernals. You go and retrieve a left-handed sprongwhacker and give it to him. He says, "hey, thanks! Here, have some platemail." Received: [Platemail of the Emperor].
Now imagine a different quest. You're talking to a mechanic in a village. He says, "oh man, I'd totally make you a set of platemail, but I'll need a left-handed sprongwhacker. I used my last one yesterday!" You go and retrieve a left-handed sprongwhacker and give it to him. He says, "fantastic! Here's that platemail you wanted." Received: [Sprongwhacker-Imbued Platemail].
Which of these feels more personal? Well, the second one does by a long shot! You did something, not because a guy told you that you should, but because you wanted to. And your reward is a permanent badge of honor. You found that sprongwhacker, and this is the platemail that proves it! Whereas in the first place, you just got some random platemail. In fact, pretty much every piece of armor you find in a modern MMO is random. Every once in a while, a quest will offer a reward, but it's rarely thematically appropriate and never mentioned in the quest text. There is exactly one difference between a quest that offers equipment as a reward and a quest that doesn't: the quest that offers equipment says "you can choose one of these pieces of equipment as a reward".
I think this is a problem. I want to feel like I earned that equipment, and I want to feel like the person giving me the equipment has noticed that I am worthy of a new shiny piece of armor. As it is, there isn't even acknowledgement that you've gotten equipment. It feels like a perfectly mechanical side effect of pushing the "complete quest" button.
The fundamental problem is that MMOs are trying to design their questlines like they're movies. Movies have it easy: they can tell you who the most important people in the movie are. They can focus on one character and now it's important, or they can give backstory with sad music and now you know the other character's important. But with games, we already know who the most important person in the game is. It's you. It's the player. It always will be the player. And that means that every event, every plot point, has to interact with the player, not a bunch of other characters that the designers are dancing across the screen in the hopes that you'll get entangled with their plot.
If you want me entangled, you need to make me entangled. And that means either giving my avatar a chance to develop some personality of his own, or giving me a chance to influence my own story, even if this is something as simple as giving me a choice between which stories I feel like pursuing.