Monday, May 10, 2010

quests and the importance of narrative

In World of Warcraft, quests are mostly seen as a means to an end. You do them because they are an efficient leveling method, not because you particularly enjoy doing them (especially considering most of them are variations of the infamous "kill 10 rats" cliché). Almost all players check the "instant quest text" option and don't even read the role-play part of the quest text - we skip to the objectives. Quests that can be considered a mean in themselves are very few and far between.

I recently came across a particularly good quest from Vanilla WoW: Until Death Do Us Part. It's a grim, depressing quest from an Undead mother who asks you to place a pendant in the grave of her late husband. However, this isn't a tribute to honour his death or anything alike – she wants to get rid of the necklace that reminds her of him because he failed in protecting them from the Plague! He was a paladin whose only concern in life was "the Light", and he ended up neglecting his wife and children in order to fight the Plague. She was left all alone in raising the kids and when the Scourge won, they ended up infected by the very evil he fought so much against. Indeed, she has no reason to be grateful.

(BTW, this is one of the reason I cannot relate to the Forsaken. As a commenter said, the Plague changed them. They don't have human feelings. It's all very alien and unsettling)

There is no redeeming end. Since you turn in the quest at his grave, there is no dialogue, but rather gloomy, haunting narrative. I take the liberty of copypasting: "You place the worthless pendant on the grave, and the gemstone within the setting seems to dull noticeably. As you stand to leave, you look down at the pendant; it lies lifelessly over the hands of the relief sculpted into the top of the coffin. Your thoughts are interrupted by a stiff, cool breeze passing over the Sepulcher. For a moment everything around you is silent."

The peculiar pessimism of the quest made it a favorite. It's a major classic to me, in the veins of Pamela Redpath (the most heartwarming quest ever), Saving Sharpbeak, Tirion's quest chain in Plaguelands, Linken's odyssey and the sweet references to Zelda and Bridenbrad's attempted, but ultimately unsuccessful rescue.

MMOs aren't well known by their plots, they even have "lore" instead - a very malleable backstory that often seems to be all but an afterthought. It's remarkable that there are quests who, in spite of being contained in a media that by design is almost wholly deprived of depth, somehow manage to bring out emotions of the player. Good narrative being such an underutilized tool might be the genre's biggest shame.

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