It’s hard to write about something you barely know about. I’ll be the first to admit that. But I have a lot of experience with Bioware games, RPGs, and forming emotional attachments to fictional characters that extends far beyond what many would consider normal, and given that range of experience and what little we do know about Bioware’s upcoming game, Anthem, I have some thoughts and feelings I think need to get out there so I can at least get em’ off my chest, even if they’re ultimately invalidated by the final product. And don’t get me wrong: being proven wrong on any of the following would be an excellent, excellent thing. So if I have to turn around and write a part 2 talking about all the ways I was off on these predictions I’ll be smiling the whole time.
But to summarize: I do not see how “Our world, my story” can possibly work.
Let me qualify a few things.
For one: I understand perfectly that people are able to get invested in a story and a world without having any real control over it. That’s how books and TV shows and movies work, mediums that have fostered fan-bases so rabid it would make the Undertale fandom blush. And games have been doing it for ages: player agency basically doesn’t exist in MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft, where you can raid and PvP till the sun burns out of the sky and make no tangible change in the game’s universe, and people are still invested in the unending war between the Horde and the Alliance. Hero shooters like Overwatch (although that might be an extreme example) have a giant base of people who fanatically worship the characters and their world even though the game itself doesn’t really have either.
But again, that’s Blizzard, and people are weird about Blizzard.
Second of all, I don’t want to underestimate Bioware. I’d never go so far as to say any of their characters or worlds have ever been my favorite (speaking as one of the aforementioned Undertale fans), but it’s clear that they put a lot of effort into making things right, both by themselves and their audience. Their characters tend to have a lot of layers that you can explore, their cultures have a lot of dynamic that give them a unique flavor apart from “standard medieval society” and “sci-fi future world”. And the amount of flavor text that litters each game is kind of legendary: you’d be hard-pressed to find the kind of completionist bibliophile who could actually read every word they had slipped into their games. Plus, when the chips are down and they’re really trying, they know how to pull a scene together: shooting cans with Garus in the Citadel and your first night as Iron Bull’s proper lover… these moments don’t make up nearly as much of each game as they should, but they can be the parts you carry with you well beyond the ending credits.
Now, with all that said – and the final reminder that I still don’t know any more about Our World, My Story than you do – here’s why I think it’s a bad idea:
It’s an ill-advised compromise.
There is a lot I don’t like about Destiny, but I’ll give it credit where it’s due, it knew from the very beginning that the story would be a rough beast to tackle, because despite their claims it wasn’t an MMO, it functioned like one. So instead of fight it, they simply embraced the MMO model of storytelling: there’s a problem, “the players” fix it, and the world moves on. It doesn’t matter if you actively contributed to solving the problem and faced down the final boss or if you just went on patrols for eight hours while picking your nose, the players – Guardians – were lumped into one entity who did all the heavy lifting. “The guardians stopped ‘so and so’.” Is a cheap but reliable storytelling trick to ensure the players felt like they are contributing to the world and its progress even if they’re not. By lumping them all into the same organization, the NPC’s can give you a cheer and a pat on the back: “Hey, you’re one of those jerks who saved the day”, they can say 100% honestly because while you may not have been the jerk, you are A jerk. An adjacent jerk.
That’s typically why there’ll be some high-ranking NPC in your “organization” who will show up in cut scenes as the player surrogate to deal the final blow or deliver some exposition. Something Guild Wars 2 and, of course, World of Warcraft does it all the time. They allow the story to move forward in a way that’s consistent for everyone’s story, but still allow you to share in that glory.
Our World, My Story, meanwhile, looks as if it plans to take a more complicated route. “Our World” is the shared universe that players will inhabit as they fly around and shoot stuff. It will persist independently of “My Story”, the player’s base Fort Tarsis, where they’ll hang out with friendly quest-givers, their pit crew, and other people who inhabit the world. You’ll have some limited dialogue options to either improve or hurt your relationships with these people, but it’ll have absolutely no impact on the quests you get, the rewards you receive, or anything in the “Our World” side of the game, because that has to remain uniform and consistent regardless of who you’re playing with.
So while Destiny makes no effort to hide the fact you’re just a single cog in a giant organization who’s just sort of along for the ride, Anthem has all the dressings of a solo hero arch, but absolutely none of the payoff or growth. Part of the charm of the characters in Dragon Age and Mass Effect was the fact that kind of like a real person, you had to get to know them for them to unfold in front of you and reveal their multiple layers. That could still happen at Fort Tarsis, of course, lore and role-playing content is just about the only reward a player can “get” for interacting with these characters, but with only two dialogue options at your disposal at any given point, and with the stated goal being to strip the “complexity” of the role-playing aspect, it means that you’re missing out on some much-needed character complexity.
While it was true, deciding what to say at any given point with a character could be an agonizing choice: that’s part of what made the game feel alive. Being afraid of saying the wrong thing because it might piss them off? That’s a very human experience. And I’ve felt paralyzed in Bioware games before, trying to think of the exact right thing to say to either get them to stick around, learn some new lore bits, or get into their pants. They’ve said they don’t want to have “right” and “wrong” dialogue options in Anthem, but there are very much “right” and “wrong” dialogue options in real life. And losing that, while knowing I won’t ever miss out on anything that really makes up the game, is a big, big problem.
Furthermore: having an expansive world that exists just outside “my story” will leave both parts of the game feeling rather unresponsive. The great thing about Dragon Age and Mass Effect and stories like it was that what you did at your home base had an impact on the outside world, and vice versa. For example, some of the best moments of Dragon Age: Inquisition came when you were judging people from the Inquisitor’s throne, and seeing the after-effects of your deeds in-game… which, of course, would then impact the rest of the world as it reacted to your choice.
A game where the two worlds are so dramatically split, and they shall never cross, means you’re not so much living in one giant, interconnected world: but rather you’re dipping your toes in two shallow ones that just happen to use the same proper nouns. That makes both worlds worse as a direct result: and it’s far better, as we’ve seen, to make a world that doesn’t care about you feel big and deep, because even if your actions are inconsequential, you still feel like you’re a part of something bigger. And in the realm of MMORPG’s, that’s absolutely true.
But again, I’m speculating on what little we do know. Maybe there’s some cross-over that we’ll see when we finally get our hands on the game. Or they’ll change things. Or they manage to make the characters so engaging and well-written that people will care about them anyway. I’m hoping any of these are true, because like I said, it’s no hyperbole to assume that the company’s entire fate hinges on this product. And while I by no means suggest you should buy the game just to make sure Bioware stays afloat… it’d be nice if they did anyway.
Damn you, EA.