Monday, November 19, 2012

Moral Choices in WoW?

Today I read a WoW Insider post entitled Why are there moral choices in WoW? The post muses over the moral decisions we make in WoW. For instance, in the quest Money Matters we can choose between threatening Halfhill villagers into paying a debt, or paying it for them. Personally? I threaten everyone. All of the time. I think I paid a debt once just to see what would happen...and when I noticed it didn't change anything in the slightest, I resumed my campaign of intimidation. The sad thing is that this quest mirrors most of WoW's "moral dilemmas" in that they just don't matter.

The Choices

First off...WoW doesn't have a whole lot of moral choices. In Anne's article she cites Money Matters as "one of the strongest moral choices we have to make in Mists". So dealing with a debt of a single gold is one of the one strongest moral choices we have to make? Eugh. I'm not saying that assessment is wrong...just that...I wish it was wrong.

At least in Cataclysm there was a quest in which you decided whether an NPC lived or died, but it wasn't exactly a weighty decision. Basically you lure a Harpy into an ambush. A night elf pops out of stealth, puts a dagger to a the harpy's throat, and asks if you want kill her or let her go. Riveting stuff, right? Except I just exterminated ten harpies in the quest right before this one! Not to mention I've been killing them for years without giving it a second thought. So deciding whether one harpy lives or dies? Not really a compelling decision.

There's another moral decision in the Creepy Crate questline that was available during Hallow's End. At the end of a trail of clues you recover the sinister crate, then you have two options: take the crate to the archaeologist so he can destroy it or take it to the crate's "owner" so he can do God knows what with it. What did I do? I went to Wowhead and did some research. I didn't want to make the wrong choice. What if I gave the crate to the archaeologist and he destroyed it, and I missed out on a pet? As it turns out, both options end with you getting the Creepy Crate. The choice is inconsequential.

That's really the problem with all of WoW's "choices"...they end at the same place so do they really matter? I admit when I did the harpy quest for the first time I let her go. I guess I'm a bit of a softie, plus I was hoping that she'd come back later and help me out to repay her life-debt. Did she? No. Then when I quested through Hyjal on my paladin a few months later I tried the other option and killed her. That had no consequences either.

So that's why I threaten everyone. It doesn't matter if I pay or threaten so why not save a few gold? I guess when you think about it the only real difference is the story you're given when you choose the different options. For instance, with the crate quest I got to see two different endings. They got me to the same place, but the journey was slightly different. Too slightly for my tastes, which is something Blizzard could improve.

The Problem

It would be nice if WoW could have a moral decision under every rock and we could feel that we're shaping our characters into a person that has a set morality. Your paladin could be a goodie-two-shoes, or he could be a total bastard, or somewhere in the middle, but the way WoW is set up you'd have to try really, really hard to make your character anything other than a morally ambiguous mercenary.

The problem is WoW is a multiplayer game. In a single player game you don't worry about taking a story path that is sub-optimal, or choosing a spec that is "wrong", or equipping the perfect gear, because you're playing in a bubble. In WoW, however, you need to make all the right decisions so you can compete with other players. That's why when I'm presented with a decision the first thing I do is alt-tab to Wowhead to make sure I'm making the right one.

Also there's a matter of the lore. Meaningful decisions often have dire ramifications for the story, but that doesn't really work for an MMO. For instance, in Skyrim, if you choose to side with the Imperials you eventually kill Ulfric Stormcloak, but if you side with the Stormcloaks he lives. That's fine for Skyrim, but imagine if Varian Wrynn was dead for player A and alive for player B. Then there would be two options: pretend each reality is valid and make separate quests for player A and player B that support each reality, or decide player A's reality is the "true reality" and invalidate the decisions of player B. Neither of those options sound that great.

The Possibilities

I think WoW could make moral choices more meaningful while also sidestepping those pitfalls. For instance, with the harpy quest, if you let her go she could aid you against a boss in a future quest. Nothing unbalancing. Perhaps the boss pins you down and is about to finish you when she swoops down and gouges his eyes out, causing him to release you. Then she could be like "we're even" and fly off never to be seen again. On the other hand if you didn't spare her perhaps the boss doesn't pin you and you just beat him down like any other quest boss.

Or, in the Money Matters quest, maybe if you give an NPC a break and pay their debt they'll send you an item in the mail. Something small and inconsequential so people don't feel forced to make a decision one way or another. For instance, Trader Jambeezi could send you some Grummlecakes, Innkeeper Lei Lan could send you some ale, etc.

See? It wouldn't take much. Just a little something more. Something that extends the impact of your decisions beyond the scope of the quest itself and makes you feel that you've changed the world and/or story. And those are just a couple examples I came up with off the top of my head. Just think what Blizzard could do if they put some earnest effort into decision-based questing.


I feel a bit hobbled trying to write about this topic without having played SW:TOR because, as I understand it, that's an MMO that does give you a moral decision under every rock. Maybe they've solved all the problems inherit in choice-based quests and Blizzard need only copy them to have a perfect system. Regardless, Blizzard is dabbling with moral decisions in questing, but for a game that's eight years old...they haven't made much progress. Hopefully in the future Blizzard can make WoW's moral dilemmas a bit more meaningful and satisfying.

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