Friday, April 12, 2013

The Misplaced Narrative of Tyler Freeborn

Since getting into a screaming match with my LoTRO guild (not sure why they haven't kicked me out yet, i'll likely have to give them the satisfaction and quit) i've been looking more and more into other games, including another look at TSW.

I made mention before of TSW's central identity crisis. More than WoW-clones which are a bastardized, castrated, idiotically oversimplified version of the MMO concept, it is clear that TSW's creators never set out to make an MMO at all, regardless of whether they realize this themselves. Their brains just don't seem to run on that track. They're storytellers not game-masters. Now, WoW-clones are bad games. TSW however has a great deal of quality material in it, and you don't even need to squint very hard to find it. It's right there in the aesthetics, narrative depth and mission design. It just never coalesces into a coherent multiplayer game.

At the end of my last post i also mentioned that the developers seem at least somewhat aware of their strong points and are now focusing on single-player content. I've played one of the new mission packs in the past few days, The Vanishing of Tyler Freeborn and i am again amazed at the discrepancy between the high standard of interactive storytelling and the stumbling, awkward implementation of gameplay mechanics. Most of the usual highs and lows apply. The mission pack is divided into four stages with the last being the cinematic pay-off for your efforts. Visual artwork, audio, writing, that fourth mission has it all. It was beautiful. The rest...

I guess i should start my complaints with the hand-holding. As a game, TSW's best feature is puzzle-solving. Overall, it makes scarce use of the gigantic glowing waypoints telling players where to go which have become such an unwelcome standard in most games. You're expected to be able to find a location on the map now and then based on verbal description, or figure out which overly-ornate key fits into which slot to open a secret door. The Freeborn arc, however, lacks any intellectual demands whatsoever. It's a nonstop "go there, kill that" routine for the first two missions.

Speaking of those first two missions, they felt disturbingly like sheer unadulterated, tasteless filler. They remind me of myself trying to put together a mission arc about a mad scientist in City of Heroes but prefacing the actual story with a largely meaningless warehouse heist and sewer hunt. They amounted to the same kind of linear, predictable, running back and forth timesink which plagues other would-be MMOs.

It's the third mission which really takes the cake though, and this requires two short pieces of explanation.

One: There is an NPC compound which the player must access for several non-combat missions. It tends to be rather aggravating in itself because coming into aggro range of any NPC in it immediately bounces the player outside, only to have to hop over the fence again, etc. As a one-shot affair it had its place in the game, a nuisance but also a welcome change of pace from other gameplay mechanics. However, the developers decided to re-use it for the third Freeborn mission, while giving the player no logical way to go about the objectives other than trial and error, with the assurance of getting bounced outside several times because of randomly encountering some NPC.

Two: TSW has you pick up a lot of objects from the environment, in traditional adventure-game fashion. Normally, getting within a step or two of an interactable object causes it to light up. Not too hard to spot, not too easy. One of the first "improvements" made after release was the addition of an environment interaction tooltip. From several steps away, you can have the UI bring up a gigantic text marker telling you to "PRESS BUTTON XYZ TO USE THIS".

Now, in the third Freeborn mission, you have to pick up three objects inside that compound with the invincible patrolling NPC bouncers. You're not told in which of the four tents they're to be found. It turns out they're minuscule microscope slides. They're too small to be noticeable, unless of course you use the "i'm too lazy to look around" text marker feature. In other words, you're not supposed to figure anything out. Timesink. No reward for intelligence. It's all trial and error and repetition and having things randomly being pointed out to you in floating UI text. This is not a strong point in a puzzle-solving game.

Tyler Freeborn had a good story to tell. The various artists and writers did a solid job with the videos and the last mission in the arc, the pay-off. Even the music, the subtle background thrumming matching the earlier Draugar siren song used in other parts of the game, was thoroughly enjoyable. The awkward, ham-handed way in which the necessary player interaction was handled though largely detracts from the experience.
People, keep in mind you're supposed to be making a game. Keep it coherent. You can't just separate it into grind and pay-off.

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