It’s always nice to be persuaded on something. It’s one of the great tragedies of the internet age that this grand, international network that was supposed to finally allow conversation between all the world’s varied perspectives seems, if anything, to have made people all the more rigid in their beliefs. They construct echo chambers composed of the daily posts on blogs and Twitters that do nothing but support their views, sharing only the most extreme, crackpot writings of the opposing sides in order to assure themselves further of their own righteousness.
But I say that an inquiring mind should embrace being proved wrong, just as I believe that a creator should embrace constructive criticism. For just as you are not your work, you are also not your opinions. Don’t you just hate those righteous, uncritical dullards who call out politicians for ‘flip-flopping’ or changing their views on a subject, because they think stubborn fingers-in-ears loyalty to a position is what ‘having integrity’ means? And while I don’t say that entirely to cover my own arse, if you do ever feel like calling me out for having an opinion different to one I expressed six months ago, then you, too, can eat shit.
I mention all of this because Firefall managed to change my mind on one thing, and that’s whether or not an MMO shooter could work. I didn’t think so, because a shooter – at least, the kind of shooters that I like – are hinged on having, on a basic level, fun gameplay. It needs to center on fast-paced, moment-to-moment action, and in an online game, that concept is going to be locking horns constantly with the connection. Especially here in Australia. It’s the compromise we permanent residents made: sacrifice internet speed for nice beaches and being in the best possible location in the event of global catastrophe.
But Firefall managed to get around it and become a fun shooter regardless. And while that’s good for me, as I said in the video, I wonder if it might be less good for business, especially for a free-to-play MMO. Such things usually make their money by luring you in with the promise of unchallenging grind and incrementing numbers, a sort of white noise for the mind that passes the time and keeps you going with a vague sense of achievement. Whereas actual gameplay-gameplay, while fun, is something that I find burns me out after a while. Firefall may yet end up on the list of games and properties that failed simply by overestimating its users, but whether or not it does, it is kind of fun.
And I think the main way it manages to avoid letting the connection speed completely get in the way of that is by concentrating on big movements rather than small ones. Which may, on reflection, be the root of my opinion on shooters generally: I like when they’re about making big, deliberate actions, rather than small, fiddly ones. An MMO based around cover shooting in tight quarters, where both sides are crouching behind chest-high walls making small advances back and forth, I imagine the connection issues in something like that would be thrown into somewhat sharp relief. You can spend enough time in one place that you’ll be able to do nothing but notice the little things, like being shoved a few feet to the side for no reason, or the game not noticing that you pressed ‘crouch’ in time to avoid taking twelve rounds to the face.
But in a shooter that lets you do things like jump 30 feet in the air or circle strafe in a wide circle around your foe flinging grenade after grenade, then your movements are big enough that the latency issues can slip by. Sure, I was still constantly getting knocked around as I moved along a straight path, and sometimes I could land four direct hits before the game would notice and start taking the enemy’s health off, but I was making so many movements and quick decisions that I couldn’t dwell. If you give me too much time to dwell, and force me to sit next to a chest high wall for too long staring at the cement texture, I may start asking myself what the fuck I’m doing with my life.
So congratulations to Firefall for finding a way for an MMO to get around the immediate congenital crippling it receives simply for being an MMO. Now all we need to do is figure out a way to get plot to work with an MMO and maybe someone could finally create one that I can like.
Let’s face it, the main appeal of MMOs is constantly working to make your personal number climb higher, whether it be by soul-crushing grind or continuous action combat. There’s not much room for a plot in a model like that, as a lot of players just want the game to shut up so that they can get back to incrementing their number. For all that, though, there still has to be a plot, and context; otherwise you might as well just be adding up in Microsoft Excel.
Story in MMOs has so far been a no-score game. How do you go through the motions of a plot when there are thousands of other protagonists besides you, visibly running around in all directions? You could cry ‘bollocks to it’ and just go with a standard ‘You Are The Lone Destined Hero’ story, a la Elder Scrolls Online, but that always comes across as kinda disingenuous, and raises the question of why any of these other players have to be around. Alternatively you could do a story that allows for the fact that you are but a small member of a large army, a la Firefall, but then you just end up lacking investment, and with a sense that nothing you’re doing is having any effect. You could take things to a logical conclusion and have a plot that the player has absolutely no involvement in whatsoever, as with Titanfall, but if anything, that was the most retarded approach yet.
I think I’ve got an idea. The solution may be to immerse the game in story but make it entirely immediate, visual, and without dialogue, kind of like Journey but with actual gameplay. Tell the players that they are all explorers independently searching for their fortunes in a mysterious, newly-discovered land of ruins and fallen splendour, littered with visual storytelling.
Say you want to give them a quest to kill 10 buttershovels. You can convey that with a questgiver speaking in simple icons, then in the area where they do the quest, the buttershovels are all thronging around a couple of corpses that bear a genetic resemblance to the questgiver, and there’s another body over by an open buttershovel pen with the ‘DO NOT OPEN’ sign lying on the ground. At that point, a story has been told with enough detail that the player can fill in whatever blanks they want, and the dialogue we wouldn’t have listened to anyway would just be overkill.
It’s the Dark Souls thing again: take a light approach and let the player’s imagination do half the work. The best stories have the least words and it’s a lot cheaper than hiring a writer. Wait. Shit. I meant, of course you should hire writers … HIRE WRITERS … WAIT COME BACK.