Wednesday, December 23, 2015

When It Lacks Visuals



This is not going to be a post about Witcher 3.  Just relax.

It is a post about storytelling in the role-playing world, specifically how the average DM playing a game around the kitchen table wants so bad to tell a story like this one here, from Witcher 3.

In effect, you've been punked.  Games like the above are going to tell a better story, they're going to be more personal for the player, there are going to be weeping and attractive women, buff men, a visceral feeling of pushing peasants out of the way and leaping from high cliffs onto the backs of birds before slaughtering them mercilessly.  The visuals are going to be so dramatic, so overpowering, that where it comes to telling a story for your players (making them use their imaginations, sheesh), there is just no way you can compete.

But that's okay, because your players aren't coming 'round to your campaign for this shit.  Just read through the storyline I've linked, particularly things like this:

"Unfortunately, the Wild Hunt reaches the spy before Geralt, torturing him to death.  Geralt manages to recover the spy's notes, which indicates that Ciri sought refuge in Crow's Perch, the castle of Velen's self-appointed ruler known as the Bloody Baron.  The Baron refuses to help Geralt find Ciri until the witcher locates and returns the Baron's own missing wife and daughter."

Okay, that's enough.  I don't mind that we're guaranteeing the spy will die before Geralt finds him, that's just good drama - I do that sort of thing all the time myself.  It's this ridiculous compendium of quests upon quests: Geralt wants to find Yennefer, who wants him to help Emhyr, to find Ciri, who can't be found without first finding the wife and daughter, but to do that he has to find Keira, who tells him to find the Crones who . . . oh fuck, I just don't care anymore.

One of the horrible things about quest stories - and this applies to episodic television as well - is this never-ending process of being dragged into subplots that have shit to do with the character's motivation.  We're not looking for blah-blah-blah because it will make our lives' better, it's because my wife's sister's employer's cousin's nephew's wife's friend is in trouble.  At some point I find myself watching this shit thinking, "Well, if this person dies, why do I even care?  None of these people are critical to the story, to the character's inner conflict or remotely has my sympathy.  In fact, if the quest-target gets ripped apart by a wyvern right now, we can all get back to shit we care about."

Video games work because the visuals sustain the endless, meaningless episodic relationship of scene to scene - and people keep playing them because the visceral quality of watching people die by a weapon used by the user gives a nice dopamine/endorphin hit from time to time.  They don't work because the story is great, because the story is just an endless meandering mess full of conflicts that are cheap, derivative and ultimately disposable.

This is even worse without the visuals.

When your world is full of side-quests, where the players themselves have no freedom to pursue strictly their own interests, regardless of who might die and who might live, then that's you putting a knife into your own campaign and slowly turning the blade.  If you find your players having trouble keeping the story character's straight, so that they have to ask more than once who such-and-such is, that is a sign that they no longer care.  You'd do better at this point to announce that a flood has killed everyone but the player characters and oh look, there's a nine-foot sludge monster rising out of the flood waters to kill them.

This will not seem less meaningful than the 'story' that's been created and is endlessly going nowhere.

Don't feel bad.  Storytelling of the "We have to think of a quest that justifies this quest" form has been around since serials in the 1930s, when the only thing that mattered was that the hero survived, the heroine was in danger and the bad guy lived to be bad later.  Because all those tropes are now vomitous, it's been replaced with the hero is unhappy, the heroine is unhappy, the bad guy is unhappy and no one, ever, is allowed to find their way out of this trap for more than a few minutes without something completely implausible happening.  Pretty much the plot line of Jessica Jones' first season.

When, as a DM, we try to sustain a story plot over a period of several sessions (or a season, as WOTC has lately tried to do), we wind up creating this same dynamic over and over: the characters have to find someone; the characters have to bring something back; the characters have to go back to the beginning and find something they missed; the characters kill someone but it turns out they're not really dead . . . and so on.

It is boring.  And ten times more boring when there's no imagery.

Stories aren't bad because sandboxes are better.  Stories are just bad.

1 comment:

Preston Selby said...

I haven't played any of the Witcher games. Hear they are good.
But I love the books. They are a fun cross between pulp fantasy and pulp detective novel that comes across as some sort of fantasy-noir.

And it just so happens that the books are nicely episodic and free of this sort of quest-chaining.