This post for has been classified as Spoiler Free for Mass Effect 3 by the British Board of Blog Certification, but may include light spoiling of Mass Effect 1 or 2, early Star Wars: The Old Republic flashpoints, Dragon Age: Origins and the film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (spoiler: he eats his shoe).
As widely observed by, to pluck some random examples, Kieron Gillen, Penny Arcade, Melmoth of this parish and Vic Sandman in the comments, the narrative personalisation of the Mass Effect series is rather impressive. The decisions of each player affect their own observable universe, and each instance of the game forms a separate strand of a Mass Effect multiverse in which other characters may be alive or dead, friend or foe, comrade or lover. Every time Shepard dies you take a peek down a different leg of the trousers of time where you fail to save the galaxy before quickloading back onto the right track.
It’s something I posted about before in Dragon Age: Origins, the way that a fundamental story can be the same for everyone at a very broad level (go to planet/village A, planet/village B, defeat The Big Evil, save the galaxy/world), and yet completely different in details. It’s something Bioware do rather well in their single players games, especially the way Mass Effect choices continue to ripple through the sequels, but it slightly unravels when transferred to a massively multiplayer setting in Star Wars: The Old Republic.
During the first Imperial flashpoint in SWTOR, Black Talon, the Captain of the titular ship refuses an order, and your party can either give him a stern talking to (“Now look here, Captain old thing, I’m awfully sorry but we’re really going to have to insist”) or, if taking a more Sith-like approach, kill him (“The penalty for disobeying an order is DEATH! The penalty for the rest of the crew for not killing the captain for disobeying an order is DEATH! The penalty for not bringing me a nice cup of tea is also DEATH! Now I come to think of it, the official Sith ‘Book of Penalties’ is just one page with ‘DEATH’ written on it…”) In a single player game this might crop up again later; perhaps you’d bump in the Captain on another planet and he’d be grateful that you spared him, while down the other leg of the trousers of time another player would meet the First Officer who’d taken over after his Captain had been demoted in a mysterious lightsabre-based industrial accident. In the shared universe of a MMOG both things happened, Schrödinger’s Captain is both alive and dead depending on who you talk to. Chat with someone who’s done the flashpoint a few times and it’s even more confusing:
“Oh, you’ve done the Black Talon, did you spare the Captain or kill him?”
“The first time, we spared him. Second time, we killed him. Third time I wanted to spare him, but got outvoted. Fourth and fifth times we were after the loot from the Republic group that spawns in if you spare him, then sixth through ninth was speed runs for social points so we killed him.”
Much of the narrative is experienced through the class-specific story missions, and these at least aren’t repeatable so make events more definitive per player, but you’re still sharing the world with other players who may have made different choices. I don’t think any of your SWTOR companions can die; if they could, the emotional impact would be lessened by seeing other versions of them accompanying other players around the world. Things are even more confusing across factions, as Spinks mentioned, due to visiting planets at different points in their timelines (or possibly alternate versions of them), rendering it all a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.
The class stories of SWTOR do work, but it doesn’t feel like they naturally mesh with the multiplayer elements of the game, the flashpoints and warzones and operations. It’s almost like playing two different characters, in the same way that you don’t take your Shepard into the multiplayer component of Mass Effect 3. I wrapped up my Imperial Agent’s story and it was interesting enough, albeit with a slightly anticlimactic final confrontation with my nemesis (perhaps it was unfair to have been kitted out with gear from a few operations and quite a bit of end game PvP), but it never felt as personal as Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Like I mentioned I actually got into a bit of raiding in SWTOR, something I’ve hardly done before, and that had less than nothing to do with story; there’s probably some deep backstory about how The Infernal One ended up in The Eternity Vault and why he’s a Bad Person, but the Imperial briefing might as well be “There are dudes. They have loot. GO!” It’s probably best not to try and construct a narrative imperative to explain why this needs to happen twice a week and again at the weekend, the attraction is the prospect of loot, and the cameraderie of the guild who are a great bunch. I’d been meaning to keep dabbling in both SWTOR and ME3 but I’ve hardly logged in to the former since the latter arrived; it doesn’t feel like I’ve completely lost touch with the SWTOR guild, though, with forums, Twitter and blogs, so hopefully they won’t be too put out if I return at some point.
So as Gillen also tweeted “The silver lining to the ME3 ending debate: it shows the “who plays games for story?” position to be complete bullshit.”, but I don’t think a developer-driven story will be a vital pillar of MMOGs until they’re running on quantum servers.