Every Saturday, Richard Cobbett digs into the world of story and writing in games - some old, some new.
The word 'hero' gets thrown around a lot, but it's a rare game that manages to actually convey the sentiment. To many games, it's simply another word for 'protagonist', in the sense that the character is the hero of his own story. A very few make it something more, either in terms of making you earn the title in the first place, or properly conveying its importance once you've got it. In the classic Quest For Glory adventure series for instance, it's a multilevelled thing. To beat up a few brigands and save a kidnapped baron's daughter is enough to have people call you a hero, but you don't truly earn your title until the fourth game, Shadows of Darkness, where it's genuine compassion and an innate belief that the world can be a better place that lets you truly make it so.
The advantage of so many games being bad at it though that those that even make a token effort can be incredibly effective at it. I was reminded of this while playing the excellent World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor this past week or so. Amongst its many cool changes and additions, one of the simplest yet most effective is having the characters regularly acknowledge that at this point, you're an official hero of Azeroth in your own right... as are about ten million of your closest friends, but that's fine, it's easy enough to suspend disbelief. You're probably not a mage either. Or whatever flavour of fantasy you prefer, up to and including being Alliance scum.
In previous expansion packs this tended (not exclusively, but often) to be ignored or hand-waved by the characters so that some random person in a nothing outpost could still pile you up with crapwork even when you had Illidan Stormrage's blood on your sword or were toting around the Lich King's own gear. This time though, Blizzard goes entirely the other way. Both in your Garrison and in the open world, characters respond to you with a new level of respect. In the Horde capital of Warspear for instance, you'll hear lines like "There goes Seneschal! They say she's the greatest mage who ever lived!" Approaching an Outpost, the guards will bitch each other out for not saluting you, declare a proud "Lok'tar ogar!" In missions, while functionally you're doing the same thing as the last few expansions, there's just enough power in being told that you're being sent somewhere primarily to boost their morale to, just for a moment, ignore the artifice of it and enjoy the sentiment.
This is a trick that usually only a long-running franchise can pull off - one that requires both investment in the world and story, and in the main character's career. Wing Commander for instance told a multi-year tale of a rookie pilot becoming the Hero of the Confederation, with the growing respect and friendships and rivalries becoming more meaningful than they maybe deserved. With a little flair though, it can be done in a single game too, and none have ever done it better than City of Heroes.
It's easy to forget just how ambitious that game was, especially now that it's gone. The travel powers alone were a breath of fresh air, allowing for super-speed, flight and all kinds of other things while the competitors were still clunking around at ground level, to say nothing of the combat powers that turned the whole screen into a pyrotechnic display. By far my favourite part of it though was the civilian population. They served a couple of really important purposes - the first being to reinforce that not everyone is a spandex-wearing crimefighter and the majority of the city really does have something to fear from even the most basic muggers, and to reflect your success in a visible, engaging, yet still easy to tune out form.
This worked in a couple of ways. The first and simplest is what Warlords of Draenor does on a slightly more controlled level. Occasionally a random passerby would shout out something like "Rhetoric is the coolest!", where Rhetoric would be a hero currently in the zone. Far more effective though were the barks that would pick up on a previous mission that you'd done, and get more specific. "Did you hear Rhetoric beat up the Freakshow yesterday?" "Rhetoric saved my little sister at that party!" Just for a moment, that randomly generated mission had just a spark more life to it. So did some of the big moments inside them, when the criminals would be happily going about their business until- oh shit, not you! What more could a hero want?
It sounds simple. It totally is. But the sense that a world is paying attention is a powerful one, even knowing that it doesn't really care. The Walking Dead for instance managed to encapsulate just about every possible mix of fear, pride, victory and defeat in this into just four iconic words: "Clementine will remember that." More recently, Dreamfall Chapters ended its first part by not simply displaying choices at the end of the game, but hinting at both how soon and how severely they were going to pay off. That's relatively easy to do when it's the aftermath of getting right into a local gangster's face in front of his men. Red Thread's artistry however is the ability to do the same thing about your choice of what to buy your boyfriend for lunch.
Cheese soup or sausages? Dum-dum-duuuuuuum...
In the right context, anything can be effective.
It is however possible to go too far with this. Guild Wars 2 in particular stands out to me as an attempt that tried and failed to make the player feel like the hero. On the global scale, as anyone who played the campaign knows, your role as saviour starts out pretty strong and then is unceremoniously taken by a boring tree man called Trehearne, and you spend the rest of the campaign simply being his number two. More specific to what we're looking at this week though was its attempt to do smaller moments of gratitude like City of Heroes barks and Warlords of Draenor's saluting, with its approach taking the form of letters from grateful quest-givers after you'd done the thing. In theory, great idea. In practice, not so much.
There's a couple of reasons why it didn't work. The first was that they were constant, and immediate. You'd do a couple of things and immediately, ping, a thank you letter appeared. Every time. Every. Single. Time. That quickly changed them from being a genuine mark of appreciation on behalf of a grateful NPC into simply A Thing That Guild Wars 2 Does - a pain in the arse for the quest-writers no doubt, and a pain to deal with, even if it was just getting rid of them and collecting the change on the end. It became boring, not least because it was so damn fake. Who writes a letter to a wandering hero to thank them for picking apples or whatever? The gratitude grated, wearing away the suspension of disbelief with every insincere claim.
World of Warcraft meanwhile keeps its letters from NPCs to a bare minimum, so that when they come in, they're something of... calling them an event is too much, but certainly an occasion. A letter from Draka at the end of the Horde Draenor campaign for instance, or from Archmage Khadgar laying out the next steps that have to be taken, or in older campaigns, being pointed towards the fact that it's finally time to get your flying mount. It's also more careful than it might initially seem about the ego-boosting barks from guards and so on; characters showing respect, but not constantly kissing your ass. It's done where relevant, like when you go into a camp from outside - guards posted outside or by the flight point being in charge of the "Throm-ka, commander," greetings and the people inside typically silent unless there's a plot point. Likewise, the story tries to justify your involvement where possible with specifics. Having helped the orcs of Frostfire Ridge for instance, it makes absolute sense that people needing their help would invite you along to make the introductions - especially as they won't trust humans. Except the undead kind, of course.
The result is a system that, like much of World of Warcraft, is designed to let you take it as you will. If you find it a suitable reward for 90 levels of questing and fighting and taking on the greatest threats that Azeroth has ever faced, then that's great. If not, it's easily ignored and won't get in your way. It's also only part of how the expansion seeks to build your sense of importance, putting its mechanics where its mouth is with the Garrisons, giving you Followers who can be both assigned quests and bodyguard duty, and offering an active benefit of your station by giving you access to weapons like artillery strikes and tanks that you can take out into the field - all of which conveys that while you may not be on the level of a Thrall (and as long as Chris Metzen draws breath, never will be), you're now really only one tier down.
It'll be interesting to see how Blizzard evolves this in the next expansion, when respect is no longer something that stands out, but the quests still need to be completed. Somehow though, I suspect they have a few ideas.