Tuesday, December 14, 2010

In Defence of the Rails

I was going to go a bit silly and lighthearted today, but the first annual Coven Awards are going to have to wait until tomorrow it seems, as I find myself intrigued with another topic.  The bug first bit me when Tam asked who was driving.  Then Larisa followed by musing about the moving walkway.  I found myself biting my tongue, wanting to write a rebuttal, but (because of the work nazis) unable to comment directly.  Thus, a post is born! 

Both basically comment on the linearity of the quests as something bad.  I kept wanting to yell: "But linear storytelling is not necessarily bad just because it's linear!"  They made several other good points about several of the pitfalls, but a lot of it simply boiled down to them feeling uncomfortable with what seemed to be a direction toward linearity, as if linearity itself was some sort of unspeakable evil.  Yet, many of our favorite stories are linear.  Ever read any bestselling thriller?  A vast majority of those are simply roller-coasters in words!  What should matter is if the telling is entertaining and engaging, and both authors readily admit that the current offerings are (for now anyways, we all reserve the right to change our minds later).  In that, I agree and think Cataclysm represents a resounding success in storytelling via quests.  It is a step in the right direction, which is contrary to what it seems that both Tam and Larisa are implying.  

I would tend to agree that too much linearity is bad.  As Larisa points out, this can be somewhat alleviated by other aspects of the game, such as Archaeology.  The major gripe, then is just that the most efficient method of leveling is linear, not that there aren't other options, just that the other options don't provide a lot of experience.  If this is what it's come to to complain about, I would argue that perhaps you're playing the wrong game.  If you want the true sandbox, go play EVE.  If you want an accessible-at-most-levels game, that's where WoW is.  That's what makes WoW popular and successful.  To change that would be to change the identity of the game.  You can make a case for a lot of things that make up the WoW-identity, but accessibility is always going to be a major component.

We can complain all we want about being "too casual", "too easy", and "too linear", but all of those objections are too based in personal opinion to be valid as any kind of universal truth or direction.  After all, what is "too linear"?  The only truth we can consistently state as outsiders about WoW is that Blizzard's design goal is to have the most people have the most fun.  They can't please everyone all of the time, but they do a damn good job of pleasing the majority of the people the majority of the time.

I applaud the direction of the new quests, the cinematics, and yes, the linearity.  Questing, as a result, is efficient and engaging.  If there's one place they might cast Sacrifice of the Sandbox, it should be because of story-telling.  I guess in my mind, questing is the one place where it should be "okay" to skew towards linearity.  It's everywhere else that we should be worried about it.

I'll admit there are places for improvement.  Larisa points out a great one: the need to enable the player to replay cutscenes if they happen to miss one.  What they've done in the past where you can click on a statue on monument to replay a prolific cinematic is a great idea.  Perhaps they could add something as simple as where you talk to Harrison (or whomever), and he says "remember what just happened", showing you the scene again.  That's something that totally needs to be implemented.  Also, I'd like to see more of the storyline where it gives you several different hubs to choose form.  When you were soliciting votes for Ramkahen was a good example of this.  The storyline was still pretty linear, but you had several options.  Little tricks like that relieve the perception of linearity a bit.

Still, at the end of the day, the quality of the narrative should be what matters when questing, in my opinion.  If the design team manages to tell full and engaging story, then we should forgive the linearity and judge the game on its entertainment value.  I feel the urge to channel Maximus Decimus Meridius and ask: Are you not entertained?!  Aren't we, just a bit, worried for the sake of worrying?  The direction of the quests isn't toward "the rails"; it's toward "better story telling", and to get from where they were to here, perhaps a few rails are necessary.  We did, after all, have the railroad before the interstate and free-range chickens.  As technology improves, I believe the perceived linearity will decline.  What we should be most concerned about, though, is that storytelling continues to improve.  To work within Tam's construct: perhaps we need to start with Dan Brown before we can graduate to Shakespeare... and all this is great because we've been in the realm of "Creative Writing Term Paper" for so long.  In my view, we should focus our vigilance on the entertainment value continuing to increase.  If the value for you is purely creating your own experience, then I would argue that you're in the wrong box. 

Perhaps I'm just a smitten fanboy, however.  Tam and Larisa both make valid points, and I realize I'm taking a lot of what they said and generalizing it to the extreme.  However, I also know how generic mass perception works, and so that's really what I'm focusing on.  They may temper their thoughts with rationality, but there are certainly folks out there who won't.  At the very base of what I'm saying is simply that I think they may be nitpicking a bit.  I mean, can't you just be happy with already vast improvements?!  (To be fair, they both indicate they are, I'm just emoting my gut reaction to their posts.)  As a blogger, I know that "I'm perfectly happy" posts don't make for good conversation, so I'm sure they would both readily admit, and do, to not staring any proverbial gift horses in the mouth (as is said); they're simply bringing up great food for hungry thoughts.  And this is me, swooping in to hammer at a counterpoint.  There are two sides to every fence, right?  As for me, I fall firmly on the "Questing is headed in the right direction" side, despite any current perception of "too much" linearity, and I certainly don't think anything done in Cataclysm questing is bad for the MMO genre in general.


  1. It is, of course, true that neither Larisa nor Tam, nor indeed you or I, are entitled to pronounce univocally and universally that Linearity Is Good (or the other way). However, this is not what either Larisa or Tam seem to me to be saying. Instead, what they are saying is that linearity comes at the cost of immersion. That is, the world doesn't feel like a fully fleshed out world to them if they are discouraged from straying off 'the path'. It is, of course, again true that this reflects only their subjective experience. It could be for others that the linearity enhances their immersion (perhaps by way of the cut-scenes). When we are all being honest with each other, we will likely admit that there is no fact of the matter here, and one gnome's 'moving walkway' is another warlock's 'narrative'.

  2. I suppose a lot of that depends on how much you're willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of immersion. We can be immersed in a world without ever getting "off the rails".

    Interestingly, I can't seem to find the word immersion once in either article, though I see where you could have gotten the impression you did.

    To me, they seem to take more issue with the problems of linearity itself: namely not being able to go back at will and the lack of options and choices... not so much with how much the world sucks them in. (Though it is mentioned to some extent).

    You are most definitely correct in saying that narrative is in the floating eye of the beholder.

  3. To clarify a bit more, specifically what I'm trying to respond to is the perceived question of

    "Is the new format really a step forward for us?"

    It seems to me that both Tam and Larisa are questioning if this is, indeed, the "right" direction, to which I want to scream: YES!

  4. I don't see linearity as bad per se, if the linear quests are engaging and involving - which so far I think they are.

    My concern comes with 're-playability'. If you are forced to take the same route EVERY time, it can quickly become tedious and dull - and I have a lot of alts to level! Then again, at this point it is just a pondering concern, not a 'sky is falling' catastrophe!

    I think it's a step forward in terms of story telling and character engagement, I'm just not sure if it will hold up long term.

  5. I think that's a valid concern, but I'd rather have good story and replay suffer than good replay because you didn't ever feel engaged to complete zones or couldn't find the hubs on the first pass... which is sort of what we had before.

    I think that's what you're saying too... it's my hope that perhaps they'll be able to leak out new content as fast as this becomes stale... maybe adding just little additional hubs to zones or something simple. Only time will tell, and I'm not a big alt guy so I shouldn't be bothered too much.