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TOR and Immersion

April 16, 2013

Syl’s recent, skeptical post on storytelling in MMOs struck a little close to home for me. The ability to induce immersion and tell stories is a tremendous strength of SW:TOR, and I am not convinced we should give up on expecting this from future games in the genre. This post contains a few spoilers.

I would define immersion as the act of transporting oneself successfully into the mind of another being in another world, adopting the values, concerns and body of experience (knowledge of lore, etc.) of that being. The being in question may be quite similar to oneself, and for some people it may, in fact, be ‘myself, if I were a…’ but that is just a special case of the general principle. The other world should have enough of an impact even on a deliberate alter ego to render them for all purposes a different, if similar, person.

I am going to define narrative, a little riskily, as the specific storyline constructed from a character’s idiosyncratic experiences. In a single-player game with few choices, this converges quite closely with the game’s storyline. In an more open-ended setting, it is a combination of the game’s storyline and player-generated experiences (“…for the rest of the afternoon, the patient Jedi played a game of cat and mouse with the outpost’s garrison…”, “…we decided to explore Glarus Valley on Alderaan in search of rare biochemical compounds…”, etc.)

I have a bit of a roleplaying streak. It rarely translates to actually being a roleplayer, though I have done that in MMOs before, and it was fun. However, I am conscious of a character’s ongoing narrative at all times and I dip in and out of intervals of immersion frequently. In order to do this in a coherent and rewarding way, the game should assist me in finding out and shaping who exactly that character is, and then offer me opportunities to reinforce and express that.

As an aside, game writers have a dim inkling of the character-centricity of immersion, but they frequently mistranslate it into the need to make the character an exalted hero completely central to everything that goes on in the universe. It is impossible to immerse in something like that because it is completely outside of our experience. No one alive knows what that would be like, or even close. So we trundle along in the haze of cognitive dissonance and, at the gates of hell, count the coins we need to pay for armour repairs before our battle with the devil himself. Even though it is my main class, I have to admit that, of the TOR storylines, the Jedi Knight one suffers the most from this malady.

The game’s storyline, like lore, is important. It is the static part of the game that would best translate to a book or film, but it is also much-needed context. A character living in the game’s world must form an attitude to the events of the day. This is something we do in real life, and the absence of opportunity to do it in the immersed existence would be jarring. The events of the storyline make the character angry, inspire or depress patriotism, confer a general sense of urgency or a sense of stagnation that needs to be stirred away. Ideally, they set the mood, but they should not form all or even most of the narrative.

Syl is absolutely correct when she writes that these overarching storylines end, and WoW’s Arthas story is the perfect example of something that had begun all the way in the RTS coming to a grand finale. However, the fact that they do end simply means that new ones have to begin. Deathwing’s story was feeble and boring, and failed at filling the space left by the Arthas one. It was a failure of execution, not proof that MMO storylines are not desirable or important. Immersion requires the context they provide.

For what it is worth, Bioware faces a similar test now after the death of the Emperor, although the Hutt crisis is a decent stopgap measure, in my judgement.

Syl further advises that “…instead, the world should feature various stories to be discovered by the player and followed in his own time.” And this is where TOR does not merely shine, it blazes.

An example, familiar to any Republic player:

On Coruscant, a Nautolan refugee (Nik) asks you to rescue his wife (Ria), who had apparently been kidnapped by a local gang in retribution for his failing to make a protection payment and pressed into service as an exotic dancer. He is worried sick. After finding her, it turns out she is rather disgusted with her husband, and in fact joined the gang’s dancer troupe of her own free will. You may then compel Ria to return to her husband or let her be. You may also choose to let Nik down easily or tell him what Ria thinks of him. You may lie to Ria about keeping her secret, but actually inform Nik about what she’d done. The choices are further altered by whether or not you care about the reward, etc.

Questions to consider: Who is my character to interfere with this woman’s free choice? Do people always know what is best for them, and is dancing for the mob really the best idea? Is Ria an unbiased narrator of Nik’s flaws? Is Nik’s sob story true? Is she under duress from the gang and simply afraid to try to escape? Would this even have taken place without hardship inflicted on them by the Imperial attack on Coruscant? We are improving Coruscant and things are looking up – perhaps a second chance is what they both need? What of Force morality? What does the current companion think of it? (and they do have an opinion, expressed by changes in affection levels) Does Nik have a right to know the truth or should feelings be spared? How comfortable is my character with deception?

Because of these choices made in the little stories, playing TOR can be described as a never-ending series of questions about the character. The outcome of many of the side quests is largely inconsequential to the main storyline, so they can, and do, end very differently based on the choices made. And it is TOR’s charming habit to have the NPCs (often much later) send you mail containing some follow-up indication of where your logic led.

By the endgame, you know exactly what your character is like, what their attitudes are on war, peace, justice, love, greed, ends versus means – and if you’re grouping with other people’s characters, you find yourself rather engaged by those conversation rolls, fighting your corner for your character’s values.

When you are presented with a new planet and a new conflict, as we have been recently with Makeb, you step into your character’s familiar boots. On the character’s behalf, you have thoughts about your briefing, informed by your past choices. You have a good idea of what the menagerie of companions is going to think. You have a particular attitude, and a particular mood descends. The character’s personal narrative continues. This, I submit, is immersion.

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  1. April 17, 2013 at 19:54

    Thanks for adding your take on SWTOR. As I haven’t played the game, I was hoping someone would share their experiences in regard to the topic of story and immersion. I have also included a link to your post in my most recent follow-up. :)

  2. April 25, 2013 at 22:08

    Very nice post. As a fellow SWTOR player, I also kind of found myself disagreeing with Syl’s post but couldn’t quite put into words why (not at the time anyway). This post sums it up quite nicely I think. ^^

  3. April 27, 2013 at 03:59

    Thanks, Shintar. It is easy to sound a little ditzy and over-precious with the immersion/RP thing, but MMOs reduced only to systems, numbers and twitch-skills become awfully dull.

  1. April 17, 2013 at 19:50
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