Monday 16 April 2007

The Bends

With another issue of City of Heroes fast approaching, I was thinking about superhero games. Last year both Marvel and DC Comics announced they were working on MMOs, the former with Cryptic (the studio behind City of Heroes) and Microsoft, the latter with Sony Online Entertainment. I have high hopes for Marvel Universe Online, I'm hoping that Cryptic can build on all the things that made City of Heroes great, with the added clout of Marvel and Microsoft. For a moment, I was slightly worried about the setting; for City of Heroes, Cryptic could come up with their own backstory to explain a proliferation of caped heroes running around a city, whereas Marvel recently had a storyline specifically designed to reduce the number of superpowered characters in its universe; how would that work with an MMO? Then, of course, I realised that a universe in which reboots and retcons are as common as spandex and masks wouldn't have too much trouble coming up with a backstory to support thousands of new heroes arriving on the scene. A favourite comic device is the alternate universe; by setting a game in a universe other than Earth-616, Marvel can basically do what they want without intefering with their main continuity. Digging around the Marvel Multiverse, I came across a line of the MC2 line of comics, set in Earth-982. One of the quotes in that article is "we don’t believe in decompression".

I hadn't come across "decompression" in reference to comics before, and was rather intrigued by the idea. There's bit of a debate over exactly what decompression is; have a read of the various articles linked from Wikipedia to get more of an idea. I particularly like this Comics Should Be Good blog entry, with pages from a "compressed" and "decompressed" comic.

One of the central tenets of decompression is that it shows you something happening, rather than telling you it happened. The page from Ocean on the aforelinked blog post uses three panels to show the character drinking from a coffee cup, then discarding it, and the cup beginning to disintegrate; if the "compressed" Spider Man comic were to convey the same thing, you might get a panel of Peter Parker tossing the cup over his shoulder while commenting "Boy, I can't imagine how bad littering was before these self disintegrating coffee cups came along!".

Comics and games are obviously rather different fields, and I don't think there's a direct equivalent of decompression (in the comic sense) in games, but the idea of showing something happening rather than telling you it happened got me thinking about MMOs, and the way they present story to you. Many of the instances in The Burning Crusade don't seem to have much of a story; Coilfang Reservoir, for example. It's... a Reservoir. With... evil stuff in it. Off you go! According to WoWwiki, "From a band of adventurers, it has been identified that the Naga are currently constructing a new Well of Eternity using the vials that Illidan stole, and the water of Zangarmarsh. The Naga have constructed numerous pumps throughout the Zangarmarsh to suck up the water to support the new well. With a new Well of Eternity, Illidan will have enough power to destroy Kil'Jaeden and the entire Burning Legion." I don't know if that's published on the main WoW website, or whether you pick that up as text from questgivers (I must confess I tend to skim quest descriptions, and mostly home in on the bit that says "kill X beasts" or "take this package to (someone)"), or if it only becomes apparent in Serpentshrine Cavern, but it doesn't really make much difference to the first three wings at any rate. You go in, fight trash, kill boss, repeat until finished, and leave.

In contrast, there's the Caverns of Time. I posted previously about how much I enjoyed helping Thrall escape from Durnholde Keep due to the way you actually got involved in the story; in a way it used decompression, showing you (or involving you in) what was happening rather than clicking someone and getting a bit of a speech about what happened. Hopping onto a gryphon and actually chucking bombs around Hellfire Peninsula is more fun than, say, being told to deliver a box of explosives to the squadron leader and having him say "thanks, now we can go bomb stuff!" Pre-Burning Crusade, there was escorting Marshal Windsor through Stormwind and his confrontation with Lady Prestor, which had a bit more impact than just clicking on some NPC to be told "OH NOES! Turns out Lady Prestor is..." (I'm sure everybody knows by now, you could see the scene play out several times just while queuing for battlegrounds, but I'll leave it as a surprise just in case). For me, Escape from Durnholde Keep is much more memorable than the wings of Hellfire Citadel, Coilfang, Auchindoun etc., which have mostly merged together into acres of trash mobs with the odd boss dotted around the place.

I wouldn't give a universal thumbs up to "involving" scripted game elements, though; the precursor to actually getting into Old Hillsbrad, for example. You're shown the Caverns of Time by someone wandering around them, rather than merely being told about them via some NPC text, so it could be thought of as decompressed. And it's incredibly dull. Extra scripting can also cause technical headaches, as demonstrated by both Escape from Durnholde Keep and Windsor's Great Masquerade quest needing to be fixed in patches to remove somewhat frustrating bugs.

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