Wildstar: First Impressions, It’s Bipolar

Cartoon spaceships. WoW. In space.

Yep, it’s WoW in space.

How can it NOT be, when this is the very first thing that hits you in the face when you open the Options with Esc?
How can it NOT be, when this is the very first thing that hits you in the face when you open the Options with Esc? Add-ons. Oi vey.

Perhaps more interestingly, it’s not JUST WoW in space.

It seems to actually blend quite a number of MMOs, having borrowed bits and pieces from each. (See how many other MMOs I name later in this post, fer instance.)

I actually quite enjoyed both the Exile and Dominion tutorial areas, for a start.

To understand this perspective, as opposed to the myriad number of whining compaints over the zone channel about how sucky the tutorial was (thank goodness the channel text is so small by default, hell is other people and they’re much easier to ignore when their words aren’t in your face,) you need to realize that I came into the Wildstar Open Beta completely unexposed to much of the prior hype beyond scanning the official website regarding classes and paths.

That is, I start like a total newbie would, and see how far the tutorial takes me.

And it took me right into the world and setting of Wildstar with fairly understated storytelling. No large walls of text, no extreme infodumps, but a lot of small things combined – visual theme, music, cutscenes, eavesdropped NPC speech, clickable signages, traditional quests, etc.

I played the Exiles tutorial first, which was probably wise, as it set the tone right away for what to expect. A space western that didn’t take itself very seriously. Full of explosions, excitement and rebel sound and fury. Pioneers and frontiersmen to this new planet of Nexus.

(Yes, I'm running on low res textures. Deal. I'm already impressed my seven year old toaster can run this at a -playable- level, as opposed to say... Landmark level.
(Yes, I’m running on low res textures. Deal. I’m already fairly pleased that my seven year old toaster can run this at a -playable- level, as opposed to say… Landmark level.)

Playing the Dominion tutorial was an interesting contrast, for sure.

The Star Wars echoes hit me there and then, and I grokked it, just like that.

Exiles are the free-spirited Rebels and Dominion are the Ebil Empire.

Long live ebil empires!
Long live all ebil empires! Hail the Emperor / Empress / Dark Lord of Indeterminate Gender!

Weirdly enough, though I belong to the rare nerd subset who aren’t at all taken with the Star Wars universe, I was quite willing to play along with Wildstar’s take on things.

(I think the difference is that Star Wars wants to be taken seriously, to be all angsty and drama-ridden, and it ends up reading like Twilight vampires – a saccharine adolescent fantasy – while Wildstar is plainly on a ‘Let’s be f–king outrageous for laughs’ roll.)

I picked up little dribbles of lore via the tutorial’s fairly good design, which you can see sneakily forces you to interact with NPC members of each species so that each race can be explained to you in game. The Temple and Imperial Musuem on the Dominion side also did a decent job sneaking in more bits of lore so you get an idea of where everything stands, so to speak.

The music of Wildstar is a giant plus in its favor.

It really sets the mood for each zone and map you wander into.

Obviously, all of the above is a matter of personal taste. If you think a game that isn’t grim-n-gritty realistic, and that unabashedly -enjoys- splashing around in bright comic colors and reveling in its comic+western+space themes is -awful-, you’re going to hate Wildstar with a vengeance.

If you’re okay with, or even laugh at being ordered around by a tiny furry space gremlin with a comic sadistic streak a mile wide and who talks a bit like Yoda but FOR MAD SCIENCE! to press buttons and accidentally incinerate, innervate and transform innocent NPCs into Creatures of Chaos in the name of bringing them back to the loving fold of the Ebil Empire, you can probably get along with Wildstar’s setting just fine.

(Oh yes, there’s themes of Warhammer 40k too, blending in right along there. You’ll know it when you get to the end of the Dominion tutorial.)

Personally, I rather liked it.

Hope that doesn't reveal too much
Hope that doesn’t reveal too much about me. Hissssss….

Out of the tutorial zone and into the more open world (insofar as that word stretches), it’s WoW all over again.

We all know the schtick by now, I’m sure. Even me that didn’t play WoW for long.

Zones are divided up by appropriate level quest hubs where you pick up a bunch of exclamation marks standing conveniently near the village/town (Wildstar addition: Settler buff stations) and then go to the nearby areas to kill and pick up and click on things as appropriate.

There will be the odd exclamation mark away from the quest hub and a little out of the way so that you can feel like you’ve found a side quest or two by somewhat wandering off the beaten track, and a bunch of clickable lore collectables that are reminiscent of Rift or EQ2.

There is some new innovation mixed in with the old in that you can contact certain quest NPCs with a communicator and call in your quests that way without having to go back to the NPC, which is the more modern and convenient take on things.

Confusing the issue though are some quest NPCs that -don’t- allow the option, so you’ll STILL have to jog your way back to those. (I wish Wildstar would make up its mind.)

Adding on to the new-and-improved WoW feeling is the addition of extra stuff to do.

Kill certain mobs or reach a certain area and a Challenge will pop up – asking you to accomplish something within a certain time limit. If you manage it, you get a random roll for some bonus loot.

Which I found rather fun, up until the point where I found the area denuded of mobs and unable to progress any further while my clock was running down, because there were five other players in the same area as me trying to do the same thing.

(Cue HEAD SLAM and heartfelt CURSE TO THE GODS for the stupid traditional MMO model of competitive nodes and competitive quest completion.)

Sometimes, it’s like Wildstar doesn’t quite know where it wants to be, having blended both old and new.

I make no apologies for running up to someone and ‘helping’ to take down their mob. Sorry, but I’m from a GW2 culture, it’s what we do.

I’ve had other people do the same to me and I’ve had mixed feelings about it.

See, the thing is, there’s no hard tagging as in older MMOs where the first to tag gets all the loot and xp. Hard tagging gives a second player no reason to help because they don’t get anything. So they run off and leave you to it.

XP appears to be automatically shared. Unfortunately, no, it’s not like GW2 where both parties get the full credit. I killed a Wildstar mob by myself for 45xp. I kill the same mob with someone else and get 20-30xp. The benefit though, is that the mob dies pretty durned quick with two people firing on it.

Then again, I’ve encountered the situation where some crazy level 15 player has decided to wander around in level 7 mob territory and singlehandedly shoots up everything from range, not letting anyone else get a hit in, effectively tagging everything by virtue of killing it dead.

Leading to a lot of foot-tapping while waiting for mobs to respawn and for this stupidly outleveled player to finish whatever he came to do and leave.

Yet, there are Public Events, and Soldier-started quests, and even the odd veteran or elite mob (at least, judging by their increase in hitpoint reservoir) or meant-for-group mob that seems to encourage just jumping into the action and helping each other attack. Because you do still kinda share quest credit completion if you manage to get tags in.

Wildstar is freaking bipolar, man.

It’ll be interesting to see what mob ettiquette winds up becoming once the player culture is more established… seems like it could go either way.

Speaking of extra stuff and Paths, I gave the Soldier, Explorer and Scientist ones a spin.

Explorer was pretty overwhelming when I got into the first zone and everything started opening up on my quest log. If you like jumping puzzles and wandering off the beaten path via following directional prompts in a quest log and climbing to high places, it’s not bad. It’s more like for Achiever-Explorers though.

(I didn’t mind the directional prompts for quests, by the by. The maps are so huge in that barren WoW fashion – ie, a cunning excuse to make the place feel big and take up more of your subscription time jogging across it – that it’s hard to determine which direction to go without it – and there’s nothing worth your while in most of the adjoining space as it’s all non-interactable background scenery or mobs.)

450 freaking meters. Of barren rock. At times like this, an on-call arrow by clicking the quest on the quest log is definitely welcome so that I'm not wasting my time wandering in circles.
400 freaking meters. Of barren rock and some random mobs. To jog ever so slowly to. Sprint notwithstanding. At times like this, an on-call arrow by clicking the quest on the quest log is definitely welcome so that I’m not wasting more of my time wandering in circles.

Scientist felt a lot more suited to the Bartle Explorer as there’s less obvious signposting. You get a little scanbot summon and keep your eyes peeled for the Scientist icon appearing on things, which you then scan to complete quests and trigger group buffs. The most fun thing I encountered playing the Scientist path was wandering into a large green teleporter-like object hoping it went someplace… and it did…

ws_eldanlab

Turns out it was a sekrit Eldan lab of some sort, with interactables that were triggerable with my scanbot, and a bit of a logic puzzle at the end (which I mostly solved via clicking very persistently until the right combination was reached, than through any real understanding.)

Got some speshul achievements out of it and a bit more story lore as to what was going on with the zone – like how a certain NPC faction we were fighting came to be. Which was neat, and did trigger all the right chords in lil ol’ Explorer me.

The Soldier path I found pretty fun too. As it opened up more combat opportunities.

(Yes, it did really explode into giant chunks of meat. Whether you laugh or groan at this will determine if you like Wildstar or not.)
(Yes, it did really explode into giant chunks of meat. Whether you laugh or groan at this will give you a good inkling if you like Wildstar’s atmosphere or not.)

Ah, combat.

To me, this makes or breaks whether I can stand to play certain MMOs.

If the combat isn’t enjoyable, I simply can not stay with it for long, since that tends to be the most common activity on repeat loop.

Wildstar combat reminded me of City of Heroes and Guild Wars 2, with a side helping of Rift or TSW AoE indicators and talent trees.

Which, if you know my MMO history, reflects fairly well on it.

I got City of Heroes vibes from the three classes I tried up to level 6-10 or so. The Warrior was like a tanker in pace. Heavy stately (some might even say, slow) attacks. Each blow ought to be placed for maximum effect, because you’ll be wasting a lot of animation time otherwise.

Oh, yeah. Surround me with mobs, I can take it!
Oh, yeah. Surround me with mobs, I can take it! Cleavecleavecleave. Cackle gleefully. (The joys of Soldier holdout quests.)

The Stalker brought with it echoes of both CoH’s stalker and scrapper class. Melee deeps, baby. With stealth! If you like fast melee animations and spamming buttons up in melee range, this is the class for you. It attacks at a much faster pace than the Warrior, but generally hits for a little less each blow (stealth backstabs excepted).

The Spellslinger reminded me of a CoH blaster. It had a ‘snipe’-alike that required some setup time and could wipe off a lot of hp from enemies, and then you cleaned up with some mobile pewpew.

Balance-wise, I dunno, it’s going to take some time for things to shake or settle on that front, I feel.

And it might go in a number of directions, from traditional specialized holy trinity to hybrid combinations, depending on what the true numbers turn out to be.

I kept seeing Medics plow through fields of mobs at a pace that my warrior could only dream of, ranged dps/heals has always been a fairly potent tank-mage combination. (Groups of defenders and corruptors in CoH were always very popular and successful, and easily kept apace with or were even better than specialized tanker/blaster/heal0r combinations.)

The Engineer looked to have some interesting robot pets and can apparently be a ranged tank (shades of City of Villain’s mastermind, anyone?)

Movement and positioning-wise, experience with GW2 stands you in very good stead in Wildstar.

I watched a fellow Warrior stand toe to toe with a couple of even-level mobs and get knocked around to half hp or less, and he had to use a consumable heal to recover and defeat them.

Then I waited for the same mobs to respawn and danced around their telegraphed AoE cleaves, interspersed a knockdown at the correct timing, and slaughtered them with barely a dent in my shields.

Oh, I -love- the interrupts in Wildstar. Watching the heavy telegraphing disappear with one well-timed interrupt (knockdown, stun, etc.) on a group of mobs, and following up with a synergy attack that does extra damage to knocked down mobs, is such a great feeling. It makes it really obvious that your cc just prevented a world of hurt and the tables have just turned. Making crowd control feel good has been always pretty hard to do in MMOs.

It does lack some of the elegance of GW2, in that there’s less of a focus on watching mob animations and tells (crucial in GW2) and more on watching colored indicators of crazy shapes and sizes on the ground. So you’re more always looking at the -floor- rather than at the mobs per se. (Granted, it’s not like you can see certain mobs in GW2 either once they get covered in particle effects.)

There’s still a bit of a bipolar feel to Wildstar combat-wise.

I keep wanting to know if it is possible for good movement and positioning to reward a skilled player with being able to solo content meant for groups. (I really would like such a possibility to be an option, with speed of group clears being the bonus encouragement for grouping.)

I tried it with a group quest marked for 2+ players. Some random named mob, Direclaw or some such. I ran in with my warrior and CIRCLE STRAFED the sh-t out of it. This actually -almost- defeated the AI, and I was getting the 6.8k hp down 100-120hp at a time, though I did catch some damage from unavoidable blows and some unexpected AoE and was frightened enough for my hp bar to pop a health consumable.

Unfortunately, I think I chose to pop the health consumable a little too early, when I was at half health and ended up wasting some extra hp I could have really used. I ended up dying with it having a -sliver- of hp left.

(Of course, after that, an extra player showed up while I was ghosting around dead and sulking. I watched him attempt to tank the mob solo with his bots and he didn’t seem like he was getting very far on that front, so I chose to splurge and spend half my accumulated currency to respawn right there and then to jump in and help. Then a third player showed up and the group mob got pwned.)

I suspect there will be a hard limit later on just how far this is possible, given how traditionally WoW Wildstar seems to be trying to cling on to. (Wouldn’t do for all the co-dependent players to start crying, y’know, that their precious specialized roles feel unwanted…) Which is sad, in my book.

On paper, there does seem to be room for hybrid roles. The APM tree, or whatever it’s called, is some kind of point buy system which separates out the Wildstar trinity into Assault, Support and Utility, and allows for hybrids between the three. But I suspect the theorycrafters will get to it sooner than later and develop their cookie cutters for best dps, best tanking, and best healing, and all that middle flexibility will be lost in the search for optimization. I mean, it’s really too much work otherwise for many other players to figure out, so the easiest path of least resistance will be to copy someone else’s builds, down the road.

The skill and build selection portion is interesting, in that it has shades of GW2 and TSW. Your skill loadout at any time is limited, and you’ve got more than enough skills to fill the bar. So pick and choose the ones that fit together best for the purposes you’re trying to achieve. You could go full assault, or full support, or some mix of the two, choose skills with interrupts, skills that build threat or those that don’t, skills that keep you mobile, etc.

ws_actionset

I had little to no issues pressing 1 repeatedly due to both CoH and GW2 prior training, where sometimes you don’t just want to rely on the preset autoattack and want to queue up your basic attack at a better interval. Mileage of folks more used to a less active system may vary.

And here’s where it gets bipolar yet again. It seems like a great combat system that brings in a lot of the innovations of the newer MMOs, that is going to be put to a very old and traditional use.

My admittedly limited take on the Wildstar endgame is that it is going to be PvP like WoW battlegrounds, 5-man dungeons and *wince* 20 and 40-man raids.

This in an age where even World of Warcraft is going flex in their raiding.

Are players going to innovate in their builds if you set them up with exponentially increasing gear and stats and scenarios that are likely going to challenge a very specialized holy trinity?

Or are they simply going to go back to what is familiar to them.

Truth is, I know I have no long-term future in Wildstar if they’re going to stick to a traditional MMO endgame.

I wouldn’t mind playing along with the leveling game to experience some of the stories and content, enjoy some of the combat along the way, but I’ll be damned if I have to put my fate in the hands of a tank or healer that I -hope- is competent enough, or have to wait for ages for a tank/healer duo to deign to pick up some disposable and interchangeable dps, or alarm clock raid for weeks on end because I’ll be letting down 19 or 39 other players if I don’t meet a schedule in order to progress, ever again.

Nor am I going to pay $15 like clockwork every month for a game that tries to take up as much of my time as possible around every turn.

Why should I, if I can play comparable games like Rift or TSW or LOTRO or whatever for free?

Sure, they say, if you’re hardcore enough and can earn enough gold, you can buy a month’s sub in game coin from other players willing to drop the cash for you. Which is all very well if you want to be hardcore enough, but I’d really rather not go the traditional WoW hardcore route, thanks. (I’d already be playing WoW for that, right? Cos being hardcore means keeping up with all those prior commitments and investments of time.)

So as a filthy casual, it’s unlikely I’ll can earn enough for a sub in-game just to feed a leveling urge.

If I ever found a month that I can devote tons of time to Wildstar, I might put down $15 for that month to just go on a leveling/story/combat spree for a while.

But I wouldn’t want sub time ticking down on me otherwise, feeling guilty that I can only play it irregularly or for limited periods a week (which in a sub game designed by nature to waste your time, may not be sufficient to get anywhere at a reasonable clip.)

As for buying the box at full price… well…

Let’s put it this way. If I wanted to commit fully to Wildstar and be that hardcore raider and PvPer and house owner and what-not, yeah, I think Wildstar is worth the box price AND the sub every month.

For just wanting to casually sample some stories while leveling and play with the combat system, I’m thinking more in the 50% off range, and hoping that the included 30 days is enough. Maybe a month or two more if one gets hooked, and less if it gets boring.

If it goes free to play at any point, hell yeah, I think it’ll be really worth it then.

Your guess is as good as mine as to how many of each player type there are and how many Wildstar is hoping to capture from each group.

I suspect Wildstar should gain a decent enough following akin to Rift or TSW to keep it going, more or less.

That there’ll be a LOT of three monthers falling off the title.

And that there’ll be quite a number of players like me who don’t think the game is that bad, but are unwilling to spend the time or money at present, and will sit on the sidelines waiting for the situation to get more attractive before considering jumping in.

In the meantime, the week-long Open Beta is a great opportunity to play free and make your own decision whether you’re ready for that MMO marriage to Wildstar.

I know -I’ll- be playing it for all its worth while it’s still free.

I mean, any MMO where you get to play one of these little critters
I mean, any MMO where you get to play one of these delightful little critters is worth spending some one-night-stands on, right? (The Chua and Draken race animations are pretty neat, by the by. I could double jump all day as a Chua and grin at the resulting tucked-into-a-ball roll on the ground. ALL FREAKIN’ DAY.)
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GW2: Tree Falls in Forest, No One Around To Hear?

The biggest damn tree of them all...

If constant, gradual change happens and no one can even remember how it was before, is it still a Living Story?

One man zerg of a now-ignored dynamic event.
One man zerg of a now-ignored dynamic event.

I’ve been taking advantage of the very subtle living story prompt to wander Kessex Hills on my necro alt.

The secondary purpose is very leisurely map exploration (since the checkpoints are there) and seeing if I get any lucky colored key drops, but primarily, I’m doing it because I like trundling along in the open world with a minion zerg going glompglompglomp, killing anything I see and denuding the place of any gathering nodes.

Given that the number of people I see doing something similar can be counted on one hand, on Tarnished Coast – reputed home of PvE crowds, I can only conclude that this activity is about as popular as street-sweeping was in City of Heroes.

Oh, the crowds are on the map, all right.

[Viathan Waypoint] [Gap Waypoint] goes my mapchat every so often.

They’re running in a little triangle between the wurm queen, the alchemist and the two possible spider queen locations. Chasing champion bags, keys and Living Story achievements.

It’s so crowded that getting the wurm queen shockwave jumping achievement is tricky because she only gets off maybe a few shockwaves before falling over dead. The best advice I got was to go guest to a less crowded server to do them.

(I went to Fergusson’s Crossing during offpeak, and was amazed to find only 3-5 souls having the run of the map and the champions. We get zergs of 15-30+ bumrushing every Nightmare is Over event – if you aren’t already waiting there, there’s not much hope of getting to it before it dies. T’was much easier to do the achievements when you have a chance of actually getting damage credit.)

But I digress.

The point is that I haven’t seen much comment on the more subtle changes to Kessex Hills that address the fallen tower’s aftermath.

Quaggan refugees are all over the various havens and outposts. This batch is the cutest, the calves rearing on their hind legs and staring agawk at the big village and the magic snow.
Quaggan refugees are all over the various havens and outposts. This batch is the cutest, the calves rearing on their hind legs and staring in amazement at the big village and the magic snow.
The Moogooloo village waypoint was staved in by collapsing debris. Overheard conversation: Quaggans planning to relocate.
The Moogooloo village waypoint was staved in by collapsing debris. Overheard conversation: Quaggans getting a relocation effort underway. The lake can no longer supply sufficient security, non-toxic food and clean drinking water.
Spillage from the collapsed tower appears to have made all the fish in the southeast outflow toxic. (Ok, so my necromancer probably isn't helping either.)
Spillage from the collapsed tower appears to have made all the fish in the southeast outflow toxic. (Ok, so the stuff spewing from my necromancer probably isn’t helping either.)
And what of Triskell Quay, where fishermen make their living? Many villagers have been sickened, in a new revision of the heart, which was originally to rescue them from kidnapping krait, iirc.
And what of Triskell Quay, where fishermen make their living? Many villagers have been sickened by toxin, in a new revision of the heart, which was originally to rescue them from kidnapping krait, iirc.
In Kessex Haven, a fisherman valiantly tries to offload his *hem* perfectly edible catch.
In Kessex Haven, a fisherman tries valiantly to offload his *hem* perfectly edible catch.
Much to a sharp-nosed charr's frustrations...
Much to a sharp-nosed charr’s frustrations…

How do we interpret this lack of reaction?

Is it that the changes are so small and atmospheric that no one thinks they’re worth commenting about?

Is that the changes are so small that they’re hard to notice?

Is it simply because no one is even around to notice them because they have no reason to walk around all of the Kessex Hills again?

Or is it the vagaries of memory putting a damper on the idea that we can have constant gradual change in an MMO that will be appreciated by players?

To be honest, even I don’t remember how it was before.

Overheard: Lionguard clarifying their stance with centaurs, and distinguishing themselves from Divinity's Reach. Was this conversation always there?
Overheard: Lionguard clarifying their stance with centaurs, and distinguishing themselves from Divinity’s Reach. Was this conversation always there?
I feel like there's more ruins exposed on this bandit hideout... but I suspect they've always been like that?
I feel like there’s more ruins exposed on this bandit hideout… but I suspect they’ve always been like that?

I can only highlight places where I think there was nothing before, but now have something.

Well, besides the honking obvious changes...
Well, besides the honking obvious changes…
...the Consortium is busy hassling quaggan refugees while the Lionguard are wondering where to put them all...
…the Consortium is busy hassling quaggan refugees while the Lionguard are wondering where on Tyria is safe to put them all… (while the idea of quaggans in tropical Southsun paradise sound great on paper, one can’t help but think we may as well grind them up and put ’em in a can labeled karka chum)
Other atmospheric conversations abound. I suppose this is why asura invented baby bottles and golem nannies very quickly, rather than suckle their young for long.
Other atmospheric conversations abound. I suppose this is why asura invented baby bottles and golem nannies very quickly, rather than suckle their young for long.

And the big question is, should the bulk of players care?

On one hand, no matter how the scenery changes, as a player, I still have a Kessex Hills to run around in. Metagame-wise, there’s always going to be mobs in my face to kill. Maybe a new dynamic event replaced an old one, or maybe the old one is still around as well. NPCs changing around me? Not part of my story, not on my attention radar.

What’s in it for me? The champions drop loot, the green names just spew endless text of one kind or another.

Inflict consequence, you say? Have players lose something for good? Something important that would hurt in its absence? Ah, then the crying starts. Wut? I never got to exploit this while the going was good! Unfair! The older players had an advantage I didn’t have!

Then again, if it wasn’t important, if it didn’t hurt, if there was something else in lieu of the other thing that went away, won’t we just run into the scenario of a big ol’ player shrug?

I frankly don’t know which way I’d want it.

Story and consequence-wise, one makes sense. Gameplay and convenience-wise, the other is a lot more attractive (and spares my bank from hoarding all kinds of stuff on the offchance it may disappear one day.)

Everyone's camping the shit up there.
Pretty much everyone but me camping the shit up there.

Obviously, a minority cares about the tiny details. I’m running around taking screenshots and forgoing goodness knows how many champion chest drops in an hour.

Then I hear for the umpteen time on mapchat, “Where is the tri-color chest?” and I have to wonder about the many players who can’t even bothered to look for a chest icon on their map and just demand their instant answers from the populace instead.

It’s enough to make a lore writer cry.

GW2/IF: Back on the Narrative Hunt – Emily Short and Fractured Fairy Tales

One of the things I started missing while enjoying Guild Wars 2 was narrative. Huh? Doesn’t GW2 have narrative?

Well, yes, and while I don’t mind the later personal story as much as some, and I appreciate the branching choices involved in creating that personal story, one of the things I did feel about it was that it was very… fractured. You’re not meant to go on it non-stop, you’re encouraged to take time out for hearts and DEs and what-have-you.

As a result, I feel a little less story continuity than say, in GW1, where you get to go on a nonstop story mission ride until you get bored, then you go off looking for trouble with side quests and back alley zone exploration and vanquishing. It’s nice enough, for what it is, and I appreciate seeing some of my chosen allies along for the ride in the higher level stuff (though I really miss my first NPC companion Maverick, whom we never see again past level 30.)

Ditto the dungeon stories. I did them completely out of level order and it’s a bit… hard to put them back together in any semblance of plot order. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Destiny’s Edge fights and squabbles a lot in the earlier dungeons, then they kiss (ok, not really) and make up and learn their lessons in the later dungeons, in time for the final big fight.

The world stories are okay, when you talk with the NPCs, it’s pretty entertaining, but there’s not much of a “me” story when wandering the world. Or rather, nothing terribly interesting to relate.

Who wants to hear the story of me following a trail of mithril ores until I got to a cypress tree, slaughtering drakes and wolves and polar bears along the way, until I found an orichalcum ore, yay, then I saw a rich mithril vein and had to figure out how to get to it, and it was guarded by a veteran something or order, and hey, there’s a cave there I never saw, so I went down it and saw stuff, and oooh, a chest, and oh darn, wasn’t I meant to be completing this zone, except by now the vista I was wandering to is somewhere southeast of here instead of northwest so I guess it’s time to head back in that direc…eep, a DE just exploded on me, ok, fightfightfight, and now this escort DE wants me to go that way (looks longingly at the vista)… oh screw it, the vista is always going to be there, trots off after the mass of people following the NPCs…

I guess it’s a narrative, and it’s a player-engendered one, which is sorta kinda sandboxy but not quite, but it’s also the same as what most people are doing, just not in that precise order. It’s a bit more meta-gamey than roleplay-ey, I guess.

There’s perhaps more unique diversity of experience in more sandbox games like Eve, where folks can be isolated in one tiny corner of the universe and have their own special adventures brought on by their self-chosen goals, but for myself, I’ve never really liked the idea of being just a small insignificant cog in some vast machinery understanding only a little part of the overall big puzzle. Fun for a little while, maybe, but I don’t have the patience long term for it.

No, the kind of narrative that will offset the lack of it in GW2 nicely would be short, bite-sized stories where I can take on a role and immerse in a world given to me by the author, and make meaningful choices to drive the story forward, and possibly have it branch out into significantly different endings and consequences based on what I chose to do.

That kind of narrative is best found in interactive fiction (IF) games.

And since GW2 does so wonderfully visually, the perfect yet different complement is literary elegance.

Every year, around this time, I start getting an itch for IF, because of the anticipation of Ifcomp, a yearly competition of interaction fiction (or text-adventure games) where you get to play a bunch of them for two hours and vote on your favorites. I’m about two weeks early, as the voting starts October 1st and authors are just submitting their games in September.

So I decided to check out a bunch of games I haven’t played, and my go-to author for IF is Emily Short, a true master of this medium.

If you haven’t played text-adventure games in a long time, or at all, do give them a try. It’s moved on quite a bit since the stilted unfriendly two word parsers which make trying to solve the game an exercise in authorial mind-reading and walkthrough following. The best of the lot are very well-written, technically clever and conjure up fantastic worlds and characters and dialogue in text.

I first fell in love with Emily Short’s work playing Metamorphoses, which I don’t really recommend to start with for IF newbies, but heartily do for those used to the genre. It’s mysterious, literary, figurative, symbolic, and very very well-coded. The puzzles involve transforming objects into different materials (hence the name of the game) and there are alternative solutions for each puzzle and stuff reacts in a way very consistent with the materials they are made of. It’s very impressive for what it sets out to achieve, and demonstrate what IF can do successfully.

Instead, for newbies, I’d suggest something I just tried a couple days ago and found quite doable. Bronze, part of her Fractured Fairy Tales series, is a story of Beauty and the Beast. It’s notable for having a novice mode, which explicitly helps out those new to the entire genre. It’s anything but a simple story, though, as you explore through the Beast’s castle, you will learn more of the history of its inhabitants and form your own opinions and emotions up to the point of the ending(s) where one can choose to have vengeance on or save certain characters (for whatever reasons or morals or ethics guide your hand.)

For the ultimate in super-short entertainment, A Day for Fresh Sushi is what is known in IF as a “one-room” puzzle, apparently solvable in three moves. As far as I understand it, this was a speed IF, coded in two hours, so it’s not as comprehensively parser foolproof as most of Emily Short’s other works but it’s amusing five minute entertainment to read the snark of the titular evil talking fish character while you’re trying to feed him. Low investment entertainment, worth trying, just don’t expect anything resembling perfection, but pretty funny.

Eg.

>x fish

Even if you had had no prior experience with him, you would be able to see at a glance that this is an evil fish. From his sharkish nose to his razor fins, every inch of his compact body exudes hatred and danger.

The fish notices your gaze; makes a pathetic mime of trying to find little flakes of remaining food amongst the gravel.

Best of Three is a very interesting simulation of a conversation, as a girl meeting someone you once had a crush on in high school, realistic to the point of awkwardness. It’s amazing how differently you can choose to react. I spent one game just gabbering on about anything under the sun, barely shutting up once. And another where I was silent through most of it, leaving the old flame doing most of the awkward filling in of the gaps until he eventually gives up and takes his leave. And I don’t think I’ve seen all the possible endings yet.

Bee is also realistically interesting. It’s different from the others in that it’s not in Inform format, but in a web form called Varytales. You play a girl who sets out to win the National Spelling Bee, but will lose, someday, somehow. But the reasons and motivations for the above are what is really important here. (It’s got a lot of resonance with my previous post on thinking about why we game. And what we consider winning and success.) There are some major major themes running through this story, about home-schooling, about parents, about work and play – friends, homework, school and siblings. How you define success, and how you define learning. Oh, science and religion. Big themes. Very worth a read. Or two.

(And it’s in web format, so you just click, rather than typing, if you’re scared of the IF parser.)

For those not impressed by overly flowery words, I’d recommend something not-Emily Short, but hilariously funny. Lost Pig, in which you play an orc, who has lost a pig and must find it. If you get through this one without laughing or liking it, you are beyond saving.

Eg.

Pig lost! Boss say that it Grunk fault. Say Grunk forget about closing gate. Maybe boss right. Grunk not remember forgetting, but maybe Grunk just forget. Boss say Grunk go find pig, bring it back. Him say, if Grunk not bring back pig, not bring back Grunk either. Grunk like working at pig farm, so now Grunk need find pig.

The whole thing is written from Grunk’s POV. It’s crazy fun.

There are a lot more good ones that Emily Short (and others, not mentioned here) have written, Galatea, Flashpoint, Savor-Faire, City of Secrets, etc. that I’ve played ages past before, but I mainly wanted to cover the four less-known ones I just played, Bronze, Sushi, Bee and Bestof3, in this post. The other two are classics that have etched themselves into my brain and must recommend.

And how do you play IF, you may ask?

Well, in all the games I just linked, in the top right hand corner, there is a little button that reads, “Play Online” which you can just click and the game will start and you don’t have to do any more worrying than that.

If you’re more of a hardcore fanatic and develop a taste for this sort of thing, there are interpreters and clients that you can download (click on “Show Me How”), and the game files from that archive, and then you can play the things offline. Z-Code and Inform games run off something called Frotz, there’s a bunch of variants.

And there’s an app in the iStore called Frotz which works for iPad and iPhone, more or less. This is my preference these days, as it’s more portable than sitting in front of a desktop (which dangles Steam and other MMOs oh so temptingly.) It has a bit of a tendency to crash or stall in mysterious fashion with bigger, more sophisticated games on my ancient iPad 1, at which point, I just switch to online play versions, but works all right for 75% of the games I’ve tried.

The basic conventions for IF are as follows:

EXAMINE everything. Just type ‘x’ followed by a noun. Eg. ‘x cat’ ‘x cupboard’ ‘x drawer’ etc.

Moving is usually via compass directions. North, south, etc, and shortened to N, E, S, W, NE, SW, NW, SE, etc. and there ‘s occasionally up and down, in and out.

To see what you’re carrying, INVENTORY or ‘i’

From there, just try anything and everything. Push, pull, touch, feel, hit, kill, whatever verbs shake your boat. And you can always try HELP or HINTS if the game provides for it.