Telling Stories: Catching up mechanically
When Final Fantasy XIV releases Ninja, it’ll be a nice day for me, particularly singe I’ve been playing one for the past four years. No, not through an unholy amalgam of abilities put on my bar in service to a rather strange overall cause, but in-character. My character should, by all rights, be dual-wielding and hacking things apart, then slipping back into the shadows. That’s her entire deal. This is not a bold new direction for her, it’s more like an acknowledgement of where she’s already been.
Of course, I’m also lucky insofar as this is a game where it’s very easy – encouraged, even – to swap between classes on a regular basis. The only setback this will pose is that I’ll have to put a bit of extra effort into assembling her weapon and armor sets, something I can probably start doing with the next major patch anyway. But it still raises the question of why she hasn’t been doing this on a regular basis before now. How do you handle it when the game finally catches up mechanically to the place you’ve already been?
As a game goes on for a longer time, it’s more and more likely that it’s going to add new classes, new skill lines, and new places. The core expands ever outward. Regions that existed only in legend become real, you can start visiting them, eventually you can even get bored with them and find them distressingly routine. You go from having nine available classes to nearly a dozen, the various specializations get far better defined, you gain a new set of weapons open to players that let you clarify what you’ve always really seen your character doing, and so forth. What happens at launch is not the same as what you’ll always be able to do.
In Star Trek Online I can’t play an actual Cardassian, so I’ve put together a character who looks like one. My character in WildStar isn’t a pure paladin in mechanical terms. I had to find a skill line that fit in The Secret World despite the fact that they were all kind of compromises. You get the idea.
When mechanics catch up, the first thing you do is ask if you can, in fact, catch up to the mechanics. Odds are that my Cardassian character can’t undergo a species shift even if Cardassians do become a playable race. I can’t shift classes in WildStar. By contrast, if I were still playing The Secret World, adopting a new skill line would just mean leveling something new, not remaking my whole character.
If you can’t move along with the mechanics, you don’t need to feel guilty – it’s just a matter of explaining the difference. Part of this comes down to the difference between mechanics and setting or lore. Sure, paladin is a mechanical identity, but it’s also a role in society. I’m a Cardassian, but I’m not the average Cardassian to begin with. My combat style is still a bit different, etc. It doesn’t need to be an in-depth explanation, just something that you can live with to contextualize that split. Or, of course, you could burn everything to the ground and start over.
Of course, assuming you can move along with the mechanics, you have a different problem. FFXIV shows this clearly. If my character has been dual-wielding for years, why is she starting at level 1 just like everyone else? (Assuming, for the moment, that I didn’t plan to set up my entire day around that leveling process to burn through levels like a fiend ASAP for the days after the patch release.)
The first option, obviously, is to just accept this as a natural case of mechanics not working nicely with story. But I think there are other options as well, starting with the idea that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you’ve been keeping up with practice. Especially if what you would have been practicing hadn’t even been available up until recently. In FFXIV, sure, she should have been practicing, but when it’s a pain to even get the weapons that are balanced properly and so forth, would you be keeping up with your practice?
Why does your character look a little different? Well, she was injured and needed a bit of reconstructive surgery. You get the idea.
Sometimes, though, it’s a little more severe. You might not have even known that a region existed before a certain point, but as soon as it does exist it seems like the obvious place to have been from. Imagine playing Guild Wars prior to Nightfall only to see the inclusion of Elona and realize that this is the perfect spot for your character’s origin. Admittedly, in Guild Wars it’s not exactly hard to make a new character, but how can you deal with this shift?
Sometimes you just can’t. Sometimes you realize that this would be perfect for your character but you can’t simply bake it in. And that’s all right, too. Maybe rather than this being a part of your character’s past it’s a part of their present. Elona is a perfect place for your character but he wasn’t born there, didn’t even have ancestors there? Maybe he just really likes it there. Maybe he gets involved with the politics, sets down roots, all of the above.
You can’t remake your character into a Jedi Facepuncher despite playing a longstanding fan of being a Jedi and punching faces? Well, you can still be associated with the organization. Your character can’t possibly join a new faction, but he can work closely with them, learn about them, and so forth. You could even incorporate that frustration of not being quite there into character development, a persistent anxiety or feeling of not being quite there.
So what do you do when mechanics catch up? A lot of things.
Feedback, like always, is welcome however you’d like to offer it, from the comment section to the Twitters to the whatever. Next week, I want to discuss the boundary between being rude as hell and just inserting yourself into a scene; the week after that, let’s talk about religion as an in-character tool.
About expostninjaI've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.
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