Shintar has a post over at Going Commando about non-player characters (NPCs). I was reminded of this topic while playing WoW with my husband yesterday. We were doing Broken Shore world quests for the daily reputation boost hand-in. Repeating the same quests I had the already habitual ‘eye roll’ reaction to Khadgar’s obligatory sarcastic/humorous response to our completing a task – always some mix of “oh so that didn’t get you killed?” or “oh so the plan worked, how unexpected?” in so many words. Honestly I’m getting seriously bored with Khadgar now, he has been given so much prominence as a NPC in Legion’s storytelling that his once witty dialogue seems stale and rather out of place given the dire circumstances.
As discussed in the post linked above, forced companion choices in the Knights of the Eternal Empire expansion of SWTOR also presented me with a similar sense of being tired of certain NPCs. It seemed that Lana or Theron were so often our companion because of story reasons. In a game where choosing between companions and developing reputation with them is a mechanic, being forced to use one or another on a regular basis is not only annoying, but it actually interferes with your characters progression to a certain degree (you can’t concentrate on any other companion to raise their influence rating and therefore their effectiveness in combat). I know it was for me as I’d chosen to use Koth as much as possible in KOTFE and then barely got to use him at all in KOTET as, at least it seemed, I was often forced to use one or another companion by the needs of the plot.
This highlights a broader point Shintar makes in her post between storytelling that is overt and directed and an earlier form (the example given is early WoW), where story was found and pieced together more with less emphasis placed on strong leading NPCs. I wonder if this is part of why I find newer MMORPG content, in WoW and elsewhere, less appealing to repeat? I really struggle at the thought of replaying Draenor‘s content and I’m not overjoyed to be replaying the Broken Islands content for the 7th time on my Deathknight.
A large part of the problem is the linear and highly evocative storytelling, it’s so memorable that it irks my personal dislike or repeating content all the more. But I hadn’t previously contemplated the amount that leading, even overbearing, NPCs might contribute to this problem. Being hounded by NPCs, constantly told what to do and where, may be functionally the same as following quests around a zone – but it does feel more overt when NPCs are forcing their way into our gaming sessions on a regular basis. Having just played the Deathknight Class Hall intro quests I could have happily dumped one temporary companion (Baron Sliver) into the nearest pit of Legion fire; I’m just glad that it’s not as regular an occurence in WoW!
NPCs have an important role to play in storytelling in MMORPGs, but they are also increasingly used as companions to our hero. In that regard I think it is important we retain some agency to choose who joins us in our journeys, at least for the majority of them.