Last time, I spoke about how culture in RIFT, an MMO from Trion, is constructed (or not constructed) across the various character races and how this impacts player experience through their avatar. I want to look at the same kind of idea today, but through the lens of narrative and story instead of primarily visual representations of culture.
I recently heard a player say that since real life has no story, why should s/he care about story in a game? I was struck by how odd it was to think that real life has no story. Our daily lives are conceptualized in narrative – think of how you describe them to your partner at the end of the day. Our histories are stories we tell to friends and children. Our heritage is a story that is told to us, whether from family, media, or the visual landscape of our daily lives.
Games communicate the past through story as well. Not just the past of the world, but the past of the individual, of the character. Aside from the visual aspects that communicate the present as I talked about last time, there is often another layer of story that communicates the past, the formation of the present, and the conceptual framework for the identity of the player’s character. RIFT is an especially interesting study in this regard I think because there are not only two perspectives on the world (two factions), but there are actually two chronological points of entry into that story depending on faction, allowing for a vast amount of difference in worldview and identity between factions.
The two factions are Guardian and Defiant. You can only experience the game for the first time from one of those sides and thus your understanding of the world of RIFT, the world of Telara, is forever colored by your initial choice. I’ve chosen to tell the Defiant story first, but if you like skip down two paragraphs and read the Guardian story first.
For Defiants, you enter the game as a resurrected soul in a steampunk kind of laboratory surrounded by machines and holograms. For a player truly new to the game, much of what is in the room with them is a mystery. They do not yet have the RIFT-literacy to understand the scenes playing out in areas of the room, nor do they recognize the names of the NPC’s around them or the true import of their own second birth. Instead, they are ushered through the lab out into a world on the brink of demise. Everything is covered in death rifts and creatures from the plane of death. A few last surviving Defiants defend the last stronghold against swarms of monsters. In the first few levels, you proceed to cut your way through nearly overrun holdings to a time machine that is set to send you back to its anchor in time. You barely escape and only with the knowledge that behind you, in that timeline, the people who are relying on you were slaughtered as you ran through the time portal. You arrive back at the time anchor to a world much more normal looking though still very troubled and are being set upon by the opposite faction.
At this point, as a Defiant, you’ve seen the world and all its terrible evils at their most powerful. You’ve heard of the failure of the Guardians, but foremost in your mind is Regulos. When you arrive back in time and are being set upon by Guardians, it is hard to see the point of their concern. Don’t they see rifts spreading across the world? Don’t they understand where the world is headed? How can they be so childish as to fight over something so useless as faith in gods who clearly don’t care?
For Guardians, you enter the game as a resurrected soul, but in a kind of church, greeted by an angelic being. Some of the first enemies you fight are Defiants. Traitors. You chase them down in the forest, kill them, and then destroy their evil machines. There are creatures of death, to be sure, because your King has been corrupted and brought havoc to the world. He only did this though with the help of a Defiant and that Defiant’s machine. It’s their fault that the world is in so much trouble. It’s their fault your country is in shambles. They are in your way. You have been chosen by the gods to save the world and these pitiful Defiants play with their machines, plotting to gain power. Do they not see the destruction their hubris is causing? They must be eliminated so that the world may be saved.
After winning a great battle against the forces of death, you then fast forward 20 years and find yourself on a shore in front of a city overflowing with death rifts. You are told that a shaky peace with the Defiants lasted until, yet again, a machine was used to betray the city. The Defiants and their fascination with technology is again to blame. Your first task in the present you will come to inhabit is to rescue the dying soldiers, those drowning in the water in front of you, caught by Defiant attacks.
These broad narratives of the past serve to cement the avatar in not just a personal identity, but in a reason for existence. Their past (or future past/past future) is one experienced, but not without bias and spin. These stories are told in such a way as to construct a particular worldview for these faction members, one that can potentially shift when countered by the experience of the Other. At first, a player learns that being Defiant means more than making machines – it means fighting Regulos at all costs. Being Guardian means more than being loyal to the gods – it means having two battles to fight, one against the evil unleashed by hubristic technology, and one against that technology and its handlers. Defiants enter the world with the weight of the future on their shoulders. Guardians enter the world attacked from all sides, betrayed by King and allies. They are the only possible saviors the world could have. Defiants enter knowing the Guardians failed. Guardians enter knowing failure isn’t an option.
On a second experience however, these different worldviews can drastically change. If one’s first entry into Telara is through the lens of a Guardian, and this player then decides to experience the Defiant storyline, it may be rather problematic to see that Guardian identity that was so carefully constructed suddenly crushed in the knowledge of their inevitable future failure. A player going from Guardian to Defiant realizes that their success in the present world is only due to something a Defiant’s machine was able to allow, only due to the fact Defiants could avert the Guardians’ failure. A player going from Defiants to Guardians suddenly realizes that they aren’t blameless averters of disaster and that their machines don’t come without a price. They see a group of wo/men bound by country and faith compared to their own tenuous bonds forged by necessity and circumstance. One not shadowed by knowledge of the end of the world. People fighting for a purpose alien yet enviable – the right to live as they always have with kin and countrymen in familiar cities and groves. You are just fighting for basic survival.
Even more striking is the player who begins Defiant and replays Defiant, now able to understand the scenes in the opening room. They see captured Guardians who are then encaged in a machine and have their body forcibly separated from their soul. As they cry out and beg for mercy, the soul is then forced into a Defiant body. On success, two more Guardians are brought over to the machine. The player is now able to understand that they are only possible because Guardians have been tortured and destroyed in order to make powerful resurrected Defiants. Only on second playthroughs and narrative experiences does the true depth of the world’s story come out. Only then can a player have a full perspective of the identity they ignorantly claim as their own.
The narrative construction of faction heritage and identity is something that I think RIFT does particularly well. The pre-launch of SWTOR today marks an entry into the genre that claims to rely heavily on narrative. RIFT has more freedom in the construction of their identities than a game using any pre-existing IP, but I look forward to seeing how a true “narrative game” will handle character past compared to a game that relies more heavily on dynamic worlds and living environments to create a valuable play experience.