10 Nov 2010

The Lament of Lost Adventures

Buried in both Greek and Roman mythology is the tale of a lone hero facing impossible odds in order to complete twelve incredible tasks. The tale of the Labours of Hercules is of truly epic proportions, describing how a single man is battered by fate and fortune, toiling to redeem himself only to be struck down. It’s a raw and deep story that’s much more than any TV series or animated movie could hope to achieve.

Such fantasy tales have been around for thousands of years. Our culture and history is filled with great people achieving great things on behalf of other people. It’s why it makes such a rich seam for game developers to dig into – there’s a vast amount of scenarios and encounters just waiting to be retooled.

While the questing back in the Vanilla days of Warcraft had some truly memorable trials, I’m beginning to feel that a subtle shift has occurred. Tales seem to be less about the journey they take you on, instead focusing on a series of moments. Tasks seem to be less Herculean and more run-of-the-mill, as if it’s something that’s expected instead of something monumental. In order to explain further, cast your mind back five years to the earliest days of the game.

One of the most memorable questlines from the origins of Warcraft was The Great Masquerade. Both revered and reviled in equal measure, the quest started off innocently enough in the Blasted Lands before slowly revealing a deep political intrigue. The story continued through the Blasted Lands, Blackrock Depths, Stormwind, Blackrock Spire and concluded at Winterspring, making it a journey that would take weeks or months to complete. It even paused partway through, with A Crumpled Up Note being the only clue that the chain continued.

For the determined raider, completing The Great Masquerade was a must. The prize at the end was the Drakefire Amulet – the only way of gaining access to Onyxia’s Lair. At the time the raid instance was one of only two available in the game (the other being Molten Core, again with an attunement quest). At the advent of Wrath in patch 3.0.2, the attunement requirement and questline was removed. Although the instance was revamped later in the expansion, the epic journey to enter the Lair was never replaced.

Another equally arduous task was the way of upgrading armour to Dungeon Set 2. Introduced shortly before the arrival of Naxxaramas as a 40-man raid instance, the long questline provided players who were unable to raid with a way of improving some of their gear. The route to this new armour set was incredibly complex, involving a large amount of gold and having to defeat some unique creatures.

Nowadays, gear upgrade quests have been pushed aside in favour of using badges, emblems or even points as currency that players can earn and spend on a selection of items. While this is simpler to manage and easier to set up, it also means that content becomes worn out as we churn through it again and again simply to collect points. It’s unsurprising that content boredom is a common complaint.

Arguably the most prominent questline in Wrath is the Wrathgate. Although short by comparison with quest chains in Vanilla, this one is punctuated with rich encounters and concludes with an in-game cutscene. As a player, this feels somewhat at odds to me – I feel that for a fairly small investment I’m rewarded with a fanfare and trumpets. I haven’t done anything that’s truly epic – I haven’t earned the reward.

While Blizzard’s storytelling has definitely evolved, it’s not all been in the same direction. We can now see the impact we have on the world through phasing, but the trick is used to mark the passing of time as much as it’s an indicator of what I’ve achieved. I have a real concern that “removing the suck” in further development might put an end to these questlines altogether.

It’s easy for me to look back on the early days of Warcraft with rose-tinted goggles, especially considering how much of a chore these things can be to complete when they’re more of a time sink than a challenge. I guess that while adventurers just need to travel to have an adventure, I think heroes need to perform heroic acts. And while heroic acts are fine in isolation, legendary stories are more than just a collection of heroic moments.

Image of Hercules fighting the Lernaean Hydra, circa 525 BC. Currently at Getty Villa.

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