Working on a Chain Gang in Elder Scrolls Online
Being an MMO veteran, I’ve completed far more quests in game than I can remember. In fact, I’m kind of amazed at how few I do remember. There’s one in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes that had me kidnap NPCs for a mage’s experiments, only to find myself disposing of the bodies over the edge of a bridge. I remember that because it actually disturbed me. A lot of times, quests I do remember have more to do with the fact that I did them with other people than they do with the fact that the quest was memorable.
I blame the lack of creativity in how quests are offered. We’re still fed the line that in any MMO, the “game doesn’t start until the end-game”, which still annoys me. Not only does it belittle the work that developers and designers do on The Game That Precedes The End Game, but it’s basically telling you that all of the time you spend prior to the end game — basically, all that questin’ — is just busy work.
Now, this is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: Do we know that questing is busy work because we’re told in veiled terms that none of it really matters, or do we decide that questing doesn’t matter because, well, it’s so poorly done? I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who was totally gung-ho to receive yet another quest to “kill X number of Y” and bring the NPC quest giver “Z number of widgets”. These fetch quests seem to make up the bread and butter of a lot of MMOs to the point where the trope of “kill ten rats” is practically canon. We do these quests because they give us cash and loot and XP, and in theme park games, these quests are the people-mover that pushes us through the game world. We tolerate questing because, well, we don’t really have much of a choice, do we? We need to level up to reach the Promised Land of endgame content, and the easiest way to do this is to speed through quests.
It’s sad that the genre which offers the largest mass of gameplay opportunity relies on these one-off tasks given to us on behalf of lazy-ass NPCs. I think one of the reasons why I am so involved with The Elder Scrolls Online is because it tends to mask its presentation of boring quest tropes by stringing them together in epic quest chains. I’ve noticed that accepting one quest from an NPC on the side of the road can lead to infiltrating an occupied fortress, seeking a set of documents that outline the invader’s plans, retrieving an artifact that turns out to be the enemy leader’s weakness, and the confronting the enemy leader for the final showdown. Written like this, I’m sure there’s a lot of examples of how other games offer similar arcs, but ESO presents these steps in an almost unbroken chain. There’s not a lot of running back to a stationary NPC to get the next step, as ESO‘s technology allows for updating NPC position and even zone composition (i.e. enemies are removed from a besieged village after you run them out of town) at certain stages of the arc.
The result, then, is that ESO presents more of a story over time than most MMOs because the story tends to follow the player rather than force the player to return to anchor points over and over. You can not only see the results of your actions in the world (and are sometimes called out by voiced NPCs who recognize you for your deeds), but the quests tend to fall in line one after another until the arc is complete. Many other games simply send you out with a clutch full of jobs, leading players to min-max their time and energy to get as many of them done as possible before revisiting their quest-givers to turn them in.
I am very much enjoying the ESO method of questing, although I’m a little irked that there’s no native way to ensure that I’ve completed everything a zone has to offer. Even though the quest steps fall into place, I still need to make sure I pick up the starter mission. Considering that a lot of ESO‘s quests are given by NPCs who are scattered all over the landscape, it’s difficult to know if everything has been discovered.