Monday, December 01, 2014

Cutscenes and Characters

I'm currently playing three story-based MMOs: WoW, SWTOR, and FFXIV. I've noticed one major difference between WoW and the two other games. In WoW, a lot of the time the NPCs dominate or overshadow the player in the story.  Take the intro to Warlords of Draenor, or as I like to call it, the Khadgar Show.

There is no real equivalent to anything like that in TOR or FFXIV. WoW wasn't always be like this, too. The NPCs really only came into prominence in Wrath and later expansions.

My theory is that it has to do with how each game handles cutscenes. In TOR and FFXIV, cutscenes are done within the game engine, and the player character is always in the scene. That allows TOR and FFXIV to make the player character the focus of the cutscene. Even in FFXIV, when two NPCs are talking to each other, the camera often cuts to the player character to get a reaction shot.

Doing this ensures that the player character is the center of storyline [1], and is not overshadowed by NPCs.

In WoW, though, the player character is not in the cutscenes. I'm not sure if this a deliberate choice, a limitation of the engine, or because the cutscenes are pre-rendered. But because the player character is not in the cutscene, an NPC must become the focal point. Thus all the final, pivotal moments in WoW are rapidly becoming the province of NPCs. Tirion and Arthas. Thrall and the Dragon Aspects at the end of Dragon Soul. Vol'jin and Varian at Ogrimmar. Compare that to endings of the class stories in TOR.

To be honest, I find WoW's practice here dissatisfying.

In some ways, I think Blizzard learned the wrong lesson from the Wrathgate. That was the first major use of an in-game cutscene. Despite the player not being in the cutscene, it was a huge success. But I think the Wrathgate was an exception to the general rule. The Wrathgate was a tragedy, and as such the player's role was witness, not participant. That is what made that cutscene work.

But in every other event after that, the player is a central participant, and should have equal billing with the NPCs. Instead the cutscenes, and then the game lore, diminishes the player's role.

This didn't happen in Vanilla and TBC, mostly because there were no cutscenes and everything was done in game. Take The Great Masquerade, for instance. If that event had been implemented in modern WoW, I think it would have been a cutscene focusing on Bolvar and Windsor. The player would be "offscreen". Because that option wasn't available, it was implemented in game, and the player was just as much a part of the event as the NPCs.

1. Well, maybe not in FFXIV's Hildibrand questlines. There the player's role is not so much main character as it is horrified spectator.


  1. To be fair, WoW did experiment with including cut scenes in the game engine that featured the player character in Cataclysm. The result was Uldum and we all saw how well that worked... :P

  2. Why should the player be in the cut scene?

    He is a mere soldier, one of 10 million (literally) who did nothing but "kill 10 saberons" quests for the NPCs. I don't see 99.9% of the GI Joes on

    Everyone being a garrison commander is already on the edge of making sense. Making every single grunt the focal point of the fate of Draenor would be pants on head retarded.

  3. There is another difference between Vanilla/TBC and WotLK+.

    In vanilla and TBC we didn't save the world. Ragnaros was not a threat now, he was a weakened piece of rock trying to gain power. But we summoned him with the only intent to banish him again.

    Onyxia was messing with Stormwind but she wasn't an immediate threat. Yet we went to her lair and slaughtered her and her children.

    And I don't even know why we cared about Illidan or Vashj. It was a different planet. We didn't save Azeroth in the last second there.

    We did heroic deeds. Like medieval dragon slayer who seeked and killed dragons for nothing more then honor and profit.

    That changed with WotLK, even more with later expansions. It was no longer we that chose the time and place to fight something. We as a player were switched by the game lore from acting to reacting.

    - Malygos must be dealt with NOW or he summons the burning legion.
    - Arthas must be dealt with NOW or he overruns the world.
    - Deathwing must be dealt with NOW or he undoes the world.
    - The Sha and Mogu are totally going to destroy the world just NOW and must be defeated.
    - Garrosh is going to weaken the horde and therefore the Alliance has to intervene NOW.

    I think that changed focus forces the lore to use powerful NPCs. I have no problem to believe that a group of adventurers can summon a weekend Ragnaros and deal with him. But if I and 9 of my closest friends would be as powerful as the Lich King you can believe me that I wouldn't deal with stupid daily quests. I would have my followers do that for me. That's why they have to bring in powerful NPCs to deal wit these threats. To keep our power in check. Yes, we're powerful enough to defeat a weekend piece of rock but we're not as powerful as Khadgar or Thrall.

    And I like that. But I would love if the game would switch back to allow us to act instead of react.

  4. Playing WoW reminds me of what it would be like if we were in a David Eddings novel. Everyone in his novels is a noble, powerful and respected sorcerer/knight/etc, or something along those lines, and it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to them. They simply operate in a different world than the rest of us.

    WoW is a game where you do the grunt work, and other people take the credit at the end. SWTOR (I've never played FF) is a game where you do get the credit at the end, and the cutscenes have you interacting with all sorts of people, including the heavyweights of the Star Wars world.

  5. You can also see this in the way the CGI trailers evolved after the first one. The original trailer was all about the sorted collection of adventurers - the stand-ins for the players - preparing to face threats to Azeroth. The BC trailer was similar, but that time a named character (Illidan) played an important role too. Ever since then the expansion trailers have focused much more on the story and characters.

    Making story a bigger part of WoW was a good decision by Blizzard, and I'm guessing one made to counter Bioware's encroachment on their territory. But you're absolutely right that TOR (I can't speak for FFXIV) makes the player feel as though they are fully part of the story in a way that WoW can't. I think this is in part because TOR was designed from day-one to be a player-centric narrative-driven MMO. WoW just wasn't - story-telling mechanics were an after-thought, tacked on after release. And it shows.

    Speaking of Bioware, have you had a chance to play Dragon Age: Inquisition yet? Curious to know what you think.

  6. There is one bright spot in WoW's cinematics this expansion. Run Grimrail Depot once you're at 100 and you'll be treated to a couple in-game cinematic transitions that highlight the party and take advantage of the pretty new models.

  7. In WoW, a lot of the time the NPCs dominate or overshadow the player in the story. Take the intro to Warlords of Draenor, or as I like to call it, the Khadgar Show.

    There is no real equivalent to anything like that in TOR or FFXIV. WoW wasn't always be like this, too. The NPCs really only came into prominence in Wrath and later expansions.

    I kind of have to disagree, to be honest. Even back as far as Burning Crusade (and from what I remember of Classic), the player character was always treated as just another soldier. Another adventurer. Another cog. Most quests don't treat the player as some special person, but instead as a member of a group that just happened to show up at the right time. This is especially so in group quests; they tend to frame things as you and your group of friends doing something to further another NPC's agenda.

    Raids, which is where most of the real story happen, are the best examples of this, though. I mean, let's just go over a few of the bigger plot ones:

    - AQ is about you being part of a combined effort run by the Bronze Dragonflight to beat back the Qiraji.
    - Onyxia, while initiated independently, is about Bolvar sending you as a force to kill her, and then he takes credit. In fact, this was retconned so that he actually DID kill Onyxia, alongside Varian, Broll, Valeera, and Thargas!
    - Karazhan was the players acting as agents of the Violet Eye.
    - Tempest Keep was the players acting on behalf of Khadgar and A'dal.
    - Mount Hyjal was the players being Jaina and Thrall's army.
    - Ulduar was the players clearing out the place for Brann, who took all the real credit.
    - Trial of the Crusader was staged to train the armies of both factions, for the final assault on ICC.
    - ICC, as a result, was just you as part of the faction's army. It then ends with Tirion saving the day.
    - SoO is you as part of your faction's army (literally, in some places), and ends with the faction leaders taking the credit.

    Mists and Warlords are actually the ones who are pushing the idea of the player being an important figure more, what with the Wrathion storyline in Mists specifically calling you out (though at the end of the day, everything you did was still in furtherance of Wrathion's goals that he was taking credit for), and you being the commander of the only major foothold in Draenor in Warlords. But we'll see if this ends up meaning anything in the long run.

  8. @Gevlon, I don't think that's entirely true. Consider that I've pointed out two games (TOR, FFXIV) that are in the same genre and same style, and yet do not have this problem.

    The bigger issues is that this is generally a problem between cutscenes and in-game events. In TOR and FFXIV, there isn't really a difference between cutscenes and in-game action. The player character is equally involved in both.

    But in WoW, the player character is not involved in cutscenes, but is involved in in-game action. So the more that storytelling shifts to cutscenes, the more the player is removed from the story.

    @Adam, I haven't tried Dragon Age: Inquisition yet. My problem is that I want to finish DA:O and DA2 first, but just haven't put in the time to do so.

  9. I think a very important point is the disconnection between how it is in cutscenes, and how it is in general. I would love a game in which i was just another grunt/soldier/adventurer and not a hero. But in wow they go through a LOT of trouble to call you hero at every moment, yet somehow in the cutscenes you are never an important part of what is going on. For me at least either way hero/grunt would work just fine (allthough im getting a little tired of being the biggest hero from lvl 1 in most mmos), but when they tell me one thing, while showing me another, it upsets my suspension of disbelief enough to annoy me.

    The worst example of this (Spoilers inc) is in the final parts of talador. In the attack on shattrath. One moment I am standing next to the npcs attacking the orc warlord in question, and i might add doing most of the work. The next moment there is a cutscene in which my character has magically vanished from existence and yrel and (i think it's) Gurotar kills him off with a little help from Khadgar... (AWESOME cutscene btw)... And then bang cutscene is done and im just standing there at full health again, thinking... Uhm wtf did I do while they were killing the warlord?

    Tldr: Give me one or the other, let me be a hero or let me be just another adventurer. Dont call me a hero while having me watch the real heroes do their heroing, thats just demeaning

  10. Umm but in Draenor the player actually IS in the cutscenes? :) You're right that WoW didn't do this in the past but now definitely happening in Draenor - many 5man dungeon cutscenes include you now and also a few in Guldan's questline.