Monday, October 06, 2008

Stories, Wrong Choices, and Death Knights

This post and comments may contain spoilers about the Death Knight starting quest line. I've tried to be oblique about it though. This also may change before release, but I deem it unlikely at this point.

In western RPGs, there is a tradition of allowing the player to make some choices, and changing the world in response to those choices. In particular, western RPGs love multiple endings that depend on your choices throughout the game. However, because players in an MMO share reality, we don't make choices on quest lines. Rather, we play through the storyline, and our actions are dictated by the quest designer. In some ways, the designer acts more like an author or movie director than a traditional game designer.

For the most part, this works out pretty well. MMO quests are not deeply intricate, and most of the time the best choice for the story is obvious, and that's what the quest has us do. We may feel some sympathy for Edwin Van Cleef and his treatment at the hands of the nobility of Stormwind, but it's pretty clear he's gone nuts and needs to be taken down. That's really the extent of any moral dilemma in an MMO.

But what happens when the designer/author makes our character take the wrong choice?

This situation comes up in the Death Knight starting quest line. Your character has to make a choice, and she makes the wrong one. And it's not just the wrong choice morally, it's the wrong choice for the story as a whole. As a death knight, you're sent to do other immoral actions, but those work to forward the story. This choice works against what Blizzard is trying to set up in the relationship between the Death Knight characters and the Lich King. I can see the story unfold if the character took the other path, and it is much, much stronger.

In most stories where a villain is in a position of authority over the main character, there comes a point where the villain orders the hero to do something unforgivable. This sets up the rest of the character's arc. If the main character refuses, the story becomes about becoming a hero. If the main character agrees, the story becomes about the character's fall from grace.

The quest I am talking about is a perfect set up for this choice. Only the Death Knight chooses to fall. And that choice seriously weakens the rest of the Death Knight storyline. I can kind of see why Blizzard went this way. The idea is that this is supposed to awaken some feeling of goodness inside the Death Knight. But that awakening is never demonstrated, and thus it feels like the awakening never actually happened. In a lot of ways, the final climactic scene--which, by the way, is spectacular--is rendered hollow and feels oddly inconsistent because of the choice made in this quest.

I'm sorry if this seems obscure. I'm trying to avoid spoilers. If you're interested, I'm talking about the quest A Special Surprise. Search for it on Wowhead, the quest description pops up if I link directly to it. Ordinarily, I'd just delay this post until after Wrath is launched, but I'm hoping that Blizzard changes the quest. I don't think they will, but I can hope.


  1. I thought this quest was a very good point for the Death Knight. It establishes a motivation for the actions of the character, rather than just having a reason of "because I said so."

    I don't want to spoil anything by saying more, but I particularly enjoyed the quest for it's story.

  2. I haven't played the beta but from what I've heard and read it's much as you say - you get to be evil and only at the very end does someone else decide for you that actually you're going to be good.

    As you say, there's no choice.

    Re. morals - I'm interested to see where Bioware go with the much-rumoured KOTOR MMO that they are meant to be working on - the single player game did an amazing job of showing how your choices changed the game - imagine if they manage to do that in an MMO

    i.e. perhaps you start off as neutral and the quests you accept and do push you towards the dark or light side or towards the sith or empire factions...

    We'd have an MMO where your choices in the story and your choices alone dictated what faction your character joined in the end - which is a first for MMOs I think.

  3. I found this quest to be much like Duke said.. in that you did this thing and while it was indeed the "wrong" choice for how we would like the story to go.. I looked at it like this was the spark in the story line that got the DK started on the path to breaking free and choosing a life of good, thereby spending the rest of his life atoning for his fall from grace and thus becoming a 'hero' class.

    Just my thoughts on this.. either way you raise some excellent points and I can't say I entirely disagree with you.

  4. Oh, but there is a turning point! It's a quest mid-way that presents the player with the (non)choice. How I interpreted, it's from that point forward that the character starts to be aware of their actions.

  5. The more I think about it, the more that Rohan has got an excellent point.

    There just isn't any choice in WoW - either you choose to do quests and the story line or you don't. That's it.

    Imagine how better it would be if like KOTOR, you can choose to do the quest, yes - or you could choose to kill the quest giver for loot. Or maybe you'd be able to run another quest that involves you killing the aforementioned quest giver.

    Then you'd have a real sense of impact that your character is choosing their own path through the world and that their decisions have an impact rather than just having one road to go down re. the story line.

    The more I think about it, tbe more I reckon that that is the USP that a KOTOR MMO will bring to the market as I said above.

  6. ...And warming to my theme (and then some), it's real shame that there isn't that feeling of choice in Wrath as the central figure in Wrath, Arthas/the LC became who he is through making the wrong choice.

    I.e. as a prince of his realm he had a choice to uphold the kingdom, to deal with the plague but instead cracked under pressure and turned to evil.

    So the events that Wrath deal with are all about someone choosing the wrong path & it's a shame that we as players cannot make this choice in WoW as well.

    Having said that Wrath does from what I've seen try to tell a strong story from beginning to end which if it's done right will be a fantastic experience, so kudos to Blizzard.

  7. it's from that point forward that the character starts to be aware of their actions.

    Perhaps, but that awareness is never demonstrated in any of the quests. And in my opinion, that means it never happened. Motivation needs to be backed up by action.

    It's entirely possible to interpret it as your character not caring and still serving the Lich King faithfully. Which makes the transition to rebel jarring and awkward.

    If, on the other hand, your character refused, it would actively show a small measure of defiance, show that the Death Knight is not completely in thrall to the Lich King, and can be redeemed. Especially since it would be very easy to refuse in that specific quest without affecting the rest of the storyline. Simply lie to your commanding officer that you completed your task.

    You could even reuse the elements involved in or right after the climatic quest. They would work perfectly there.

  8. I'm pretty sure you are not in full control of yourself. Just like the Forsaken you are under control of the Lich king. It is only through the last quest that you anger/emotion etc.. and the help of a certain someone that you regain who you really were. Remember you are brought back to life by the Lich King. There wasn't a whole lot of choice there. Unless I'm not remembering the quest correctly. Its been awhile.

  9. I know exactly what you mean and I agree. Standing there at the end of the "special surprise" I couldn't help but feel like it was anti-climatic.

    I think it is actually meant to demonstrate the depths to which your character has fallen in contrast to the redemption that is to come but still...

    It would be better if the dialog showed that your character had actually hesitated instead of just clicking through the windows like all the stupid "listen to his story" quests.

  10. The problem with Edwin Van Cleef is that he wasn't was really a victim. The Defias were in cahoots with the House of Nobles from the the very beginning, Lady Katrana Prestor arraigned it all. The new quests in Dustwallow Marsh show there is a connection between the Defias and the Black Dragonflight.

  11. I've played through the DK starting quests twice now and I'm sorry but I disagree.

    That middle quest did little to change the DKs' perception of their actions. It was merely something that he/she experienced but as far as I'm concerned, my DKs were just as faithful to the LK as ever. That they continued to further the LK's campaign without hesitation after that quest is proof in the pudding.

    The DKs' change of heart actually occurred at the end, at the big revelation about why they were trained and ultimately sent to fight that grand battle.

    Had that revelation not been put forth, and had the LK been genuine in his motives, I believe my DKs would've continued to do his bidding. They only had a change of heart due to being tossed to the sidelines, so to speak.

    With the way the quests worked, they terrificly illustrated all the Ebon Knights as a whole. They are not redeemed individuals. The very reason why that "weapon" could not be redeemed in the hands of their leader, and instead needed someone else's hands, show credence to this.

    DKs are children who've been wronged and are coming home to serve their "father" a cold dish of revenge.

  12. Rohan - coming in VERY late here, but you are right on with your analysis of the DK questline. I just did it yesterday, and that was EXACTLY my experience. They should have put that quest after the quest where you ride the worm, and then done something to indicate a choice, or at least a change. Then send you off on the final quest slightly differently.

    That final quest, btw, was the kind of thing I've been wanting to see in an MMO for a long, long time. That's the kind of scene that I think MMOs were born to create.