Quest Text: RIP?October 23, 2008
It’s always there. It lurks behind every green circle, a giant “Click Me For A Chore” icon floating above the heads of sinister NPCs. It’s been present in computer RPGs since the olden days of Zork, Wasteland, and Ultima. Without it, we feel clueless and lost for purpose; with it, we sigh and shrug and dutifully fulfill its requirements. It is the quest box, a sinister creation of RPG makers dating back to Dungeons & Dragons:
“Hey, there’s a dragon,” the GM helpfully supplies. “It’s in a dungeon. Go kill it.”
“Uh, why?” the player responds. “I mean, it’s a big honkin’ beast that shoots fire from its nasal passages and I’m a level 2 bard with spells like ‘Athlete’s Foot’ and ‘Tooting Horn’. Why should I care?”
The GM rustles through a few pages and then wings it. “The dragon killed your mom, kid. And your dad. And your dog Sparky. It needs to be on the end of some sharp vengeance, and you’re the guy for the job.”
“Hm.” The player mulls this over. Revenge IS a good motivator, but even bigger is greed. “So what’s in it for me?”
“A giant sword of magical doom. +5,” the GM plucks out of thin air. “And your pick of vestal virgins for a companion. And this Hot Pocket.”
“Deal!” And thus, a bard tromps off on a merry quest.
All quest text gives us those three motivating factors: (1) What’s the story behind this quest, (2) why should my character bother, and (3) what’s in it for me? MMOs are not populated by charity organizations that receive generous donations of time with only goodwill in return; players need a carrot — XP, money, items — to prompt them to do the job. Without quests, your character is aimless and falls back on the imagination (gasp) of the player to provide a made-up motivation.
Yet here we are in the great Year of Our Lord 2008, and we’re still reading quest text boxes. Still. It’s not just a staple, it’s a cliché. It’s not just a cliché, it’s passé. In a time where we have full-motion video and animated cut scenes and illustrations and voice-overs and scripted events, the bulk of the MMO quests come from those dull, tired text boxes. As Stylish Corpse pointed out in his excellent article, it’s an uphill battle to care about quest text anymore.
I mean, I *want* to care. If I sit on my hands and force myself to read the quest text in WAR, it’s usually pretty good and full of flavor and all that. The problem is that we not only see through the system that no matter how they dress up these quests in different coats of verbal paint, it’s the same 5-8 quest types, but that MMOs have trained us to scroll to the bottom, see our objectives, and click “accept” about as fast as we can. I remember the early days of World of Warcraft when the quest text would actually scroll gradually to reveal the quest before you could click “accept”. People HATED that. People invented mods to bypass the scroll, and eventually Blizzard scapped it entirely.
Here we are in WAR, and if you take time to analyze the quest boxes, they’re actually visually designed to keep you from reading much — if any — of the quest text. Don’t believe me? Take a look next time in game. The “flavor text”, the actual backstory and motivational factors behind the quest, are in a much lighter font than the solid-black objectives font. My eye doesn’t want to stay up top, because the “meat” of the quest is down at the bottom: what I have to do and what’s in it for me. It’s actually changed quite a bit from the earlier days of beta, from this:
Now, obviously the current quest text UI is more attractive and cleaner. But due to the lighter font vs. darker font, my eyes are drawn away from the flavor text and right to the bare-bones objectives. That shouldn’t be. The flavor text is pretty amusing and it’s trying to give me purpose beyond just the rewards.
I imagine that this dilemma is the bane of all quest text writers. I mean, it’s a LOT of work, obviously. If I was plucked from obscurity today to work on a MMO, I’d probably be put into a room to write quest texts. So I can appreciate how difficult it must be to write up hundreds and hundreds of short-short stories that are not only in tone and in lore with the Warhammer IP, but cover up bland quest mechanics with increasingly-convoluted reasons why I should kill ten foozles or loot six foozlites or escort Chief Foozle from his Foozle Fortress on top of Mt. Foozle to the Foozle Convention in Foozledam.
*slaps myself in the face*
Yet it’s pretty much a fact: most players don’t read the quest text. And when the game subtly acknowledges this by designing the quest UI in a way to help you NOT read it, then I don’t know where we go from there. Everquest 2 went the route of voice-overs for each of the quest givers, and Age of Conan at least attempted to give players choices (at least of dialogue) while interacting with quest-givers. Guild Wars and LOTRO used cutscenes for the major quests to give a sense of purpose. Heck, I’d settle for a couple still screenshots with a quick amusing voiceover as part of my mission briefing.
It’s just a shame, really. It seems that the more visual games get, the harder it is to slow yourself down and read in them. I doubt our kids will have that issue when they grow up in the gaming scene — quest text will eventually be a product of an era long since past.