View From the Road

A View From the Road: Cut/Scene

John Funk | 17 Aug 2009 21:00
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That idea of a linear, guided plot may be going out of vogue in single-player games, but it's something that MMOGs have wanted to do for ages - but haven't been able to implement until recently. See, the problem with having a story-driven MMOG is that one of the very definitions of the genre is that it takes place in a persistent world. This means that even when you're not logged into the game, the world exists and goes on. It also means that it's largely static - one of the main criticisms leveled at the genre. Orcs menacing a nearby town? Great, you can spend all day slaughtering those villains, but when you log off, they'll all have respawned, and continue to threaten the helpless villagers.

It makes perfect sense from a design perspective. If I killed all the orcs and it stayed that way, then no one after me could ever do the quest, and the designers would have to continuously make new content for everyone, which is a waste of time and effort. But it also means that players feel like they have no impact on the story and the world.

WoW's "Phasing" system was designed to specifically address this problem with a persistent world, and it does so remarkably well. Completing objectives moves you into a different "phase" of the world, where lo and behold, the world has changed! The orc camps are cleared! Meanwhile, your buddy (who hasn't finished the quest) runs up there, and gets beset by the ravenous orcs.

In a game like Aion that doesn't have that, though, the cutscene serves the same purpose. It marks the end of a particular campaign and moves you on to the next one. This requires a bit more suspension of disbelief, because the enemy is still where you ought to have slaughtered them, but it still connects you to the world and makes you feel like you're making a difference.

It's not perfect, of course, and no matter how many cutscenes there are hailing your character as the noble savior of the downtrodden, the idea is slightly undermined by the nagging knowledge that every other player in the world alongside you has been hailed as a champion in the exact same way. How many Chosen Ones can there be, anyway?

Of course, this is where the strengths of the MMOG come back into play - because even with a guided storyline and cutscenes up the wazoo, they aren't single-player games, and they have the single most variable and uncontrollable component of storytelling there is: The human element. By providing the cutscenes, the game establishes a framework for the story, but it's up to us to fill in the details in a way that a single-player game really can't.

After all, you might be as much of a Chosen One as I am, but how many Chosen Ones have cornered the Mithril market to create a successful blacksmithing enterprise, huh?

Yeah, that's what I thought.

John Funk actually got Aeris' final Limit Break once.

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