The Narrative of the Player Character: From the Many to the Few
WoW has come a long way since its release in 2005. There are any number of angles to take in examining the ways it’s evolved and developed, but, this being my series on player characters vs. narrative, what I want to explore is how the role of the player character has changed over the course of the last six and a half years. In looking back, what strikes me the most is the declining emphasis on collective efforts as necessary for in-game accomplishment, and by extension, experiencing the game’s story. Perculia commented in this post how Cataclysm strongly focuses on the player-as-hero, and while that framing has always been somewhat true in World of Warcraft, in this latest expansion it seems to have grown even further in importance. What’s changed? What’s the path that has led us here?
I believe this shift is one of the interesting cases where mechanical game design ultimately affects how the story is perceived and experienced. A medium shapes the way a story is told, and every medium has its own limitations. In World of Warcraft’s case, the primary limitation at work here is accessibility for the single player.
Blizzard developers have commented in interviews that much of the early drive to create World of Warcraft came from their experiences playing Everquest. Everquest is somewhat infamous for requiring enormous groups of people for much of the end-game content and this influence is strongly reflected in WoW’s early builds. 40-person raid teams were the norm, and group quests were extremely common. With no random dungeon finder tool dungeon groups had to be acquired the old-fashioned way if your guild wasn’t into it—by shouting into the “looking for group” chat channel and hanging out by a meeting stone until you had enough players to summon. For story-based, PvE content, your server was your ultimate community. This collective player effort reached its pinnacle in the events of patch 1.9, which added the Ahn’Qiraj raids—but only if you could unlock them. Opening the gates of Ahn’Qiraj required a server-wide effort on behalf of both factions, plus at least one guild progressed and dedicated enough to complete the old Scepter of the Shifting Sands quest line. That guild was responsible for piecing together the item that would allow the gates to be opened, but the rest of the server needed to collect various resources in sufficient amounts before the Scepter holder could hit the gong and open the gates. At this time in the game, your character was truly a cog in a grand machine—nobody could enter those raids until all those goals had been achieved. The server depended on whichever guild could complete the Scepter quest, but that guild depended on the server to gather all the necessary supplies.
An echo of this kind of collective effort also existed in The Burning Crusade expansion on the Isle of Quel’Danas. The Isle had been seized by a corrupted Kael’thas Sunstrider and the players were tasked with helping the Shattered Sun Offensive to reclaim it. The reclamation proceeded in stages and required certain quests to be completed a number of times before the next stage would unlock. Again, the effort of the community was necessary to advance the story.
Nothing like either of those events appeared in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, though several zones—particularly Icecrown—heavily featured group quests. In Cataclysm, even those are mostly gone. The only real Cataclysm group quests are the dungeon quests, and the “Crucible of Carnage” set.
Another common feature of the original WoW release and its first expansion were the “attunement” quests necessary for entering many raids. Entry into Upper Blackrock Spire, Blackwing Lair, Molten Core, Onyxia’s Lair, Karazan, Serpentshrine Cavern, Tempest Keep, Mount Hyjal, and the Black Temple all at one time required the player to complete a series of quests, most of which were not solo-able at their intended levels. However, in patch 2.4 Blizzard removed all necessary attunements for the existing raids of TBC, and at the end of The Burning Crusade expansion, they announced that there would be no more attunement quests for raids in the future.* I believe the original post about this decision has been lost since the new WoW forums were implemented, but if my memory serves, the changes were made at least partially because the developers were disappointed at how few players were actually able to see end-game content. Black Temple is a stunning raid, with beautiful design and haunting music, yet the attunement requirements to be able to enter it were prohibitively difficult for all but dedicated raiding guilds. With the release of Wrath of the Lich King Blizzard also permanently reduced the minimum number of players needed for most raids from 25 to 10. Both of these choices dramatically increased the accessibility of raids for players with limited playtime—after all, it’s easier to organize a group of 10 than one of 25, and both are simpler than the original 40. The addition of the random dungeon finder eased up on the required effort necessary to complete five-mans as well, making the entire battlegroup available for potential dungeon runs and giving players the ability to queue from anywhere in the world, rather than waiting at a meeting stone.
These choices all de-emphasize the collective in game mechanics and as a result also lead to a de-emphasis of the collective in the game’s story. The key here is the fact that in World of Warcraft the PvE content and the story line are synonymous. WoW’s story is primarily driven through quests and major arcs are concluded through dungeons and raids. The fewer people it takes to complete those objectives, the more important any one individual becomes to the advancement of the story.
What consequences does this have for the way players interact with the narrative? Well, it’s hard to put my finger on, but the game simply feels different, especially in the lack of group quests. It really does give the impression that my character is a unique hero, standing alone alongside NPCs. In earlier expansions I felt more like I was one of many–somewhat special, perhaps, but still not alone. I know this has affected the way I perceive my own character, especially with regard to the server community, and that in turn effects how I perceive the story. As fellow players become less necessary to complete lore-based quests and raids, and dungeons can be chain-run from anywhere with people from other servers, the game starts to feel more individual, and more like a single-player endeavor. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this. I personally have no gripe about making the game easier to play for people with limited playtime, and I certainly understand how developers want as many people as possible to be able to experience the content they work so hard to create. But I do find myself shying away somewhat from the implication of my character as an extremely notable heroine. She, like me, is far more comfortable as one of the crowd!
What about all of you? For those of you who roleplay, how has this shift affected the way you perceive your character in the World of Warcraft, or has it affected you at all?
Speaking of RPers, the next, and final, post in this series is specifically focused on roleplay, and its own stories within stories. Woo hoo!
*Malygos is somewhat of an exception, as a Sapphiron kill is required to begin his raid.