Smaller quests, bigger stakes

posted by on 19th February 2021, at 4:21pm

Many games are built to fulfil a fantasy of their players. Whether that be being a pilot, the designer of a theme park, or a slayer of demons. Being the hero of a story is a recurring theme in games, and so games are built around that experience. So too in RuneScape: everything is built to make you feel like the hero of the story. No evil is big enough to beat you!

That entire fantasy would shatter if you realised that not just your story is fabricated, but the entire world has been built around you, to give you that experience. Of course, when we think about it, we know this to be true at all times. To really immerse ourselves in the experience, we need something called suspension of disbelief. This is the act of actively suppressing our critical or logical thinking to immerse ourselves in the content, and enjoy it more. The closer a game (or any world building, whether it be a book, a movie, or even a D&D campaign) is to our expectations of reality, the easier it for us to suspend or disbelief.

If we are to design an immersive experience for our users/players, we want to avoid things that pull them out of the experience. If we give players of our game indication that the world is paper thin, and that the player’s experience is the only thing that really exists, it is likely the player will find it hard to believe in the world, and as such they cannot fulfil their fantasies. What’s the point in being the hero of the story, if you know it’s just a story to make you feel like a hero? You haven’t earned it, you haven’t worked for it, it’s thrown in your lap.

We can make the game hard enough to make the player feel like they earned it, or make a game character driven in such a way that it’s not a story about us, but that we are sucked into the story from an outside perspective (like books and films do). Coming back to RuneScape though, RuneScape is an RPG, a role-playing game. It is a big open world in which we get to fill in the blanks of our character. We make a difference in the world, and we choose in what way. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of quests in which our character was at the forefront of large – sometimes almost apocalyptic – changes. Our actions mattered… or did they?

If the world of Gielinor was bland and empty, filled with NPCs who give you some fetch quests, and nothing more, then you would never feel emotionally attached to it, and the choices you make would feel empty. We come back to the original problem: the world turns into a world created just for you, to play your part and nothing more.

Whenever I run a D&D campaign, I make sure that I think about what happens outside of the world. In one campaign, a war was raging while the players left to a monastery in search of knowledge. When they returned months later, a successful winter campaign had caused a large shift in the balance of power in the war. The refugees the players met before, happy to have fled the war, had gotten caught up right in the middle of it once more. This one group of refugees the players talked with conveyed the story of so many more. While it’s unlikely the players could’ve done anything, they now had a real stake in this conflict through talking to a few unimportant individuals.

While in D&D, I can make any person a player decides to talk to come alive with a made up on the spot backstory, that’s much harder in games, where everything needs to be scripted. This is why I like small quests in RuneScape so much. They add a much needed depth to the world. They help making it easier for us to suspend our disbelief, and immerse ourselves into a world that maybe isn’t built just for us. A world in which every NPC has their own life, as rich is our own; we just don’t know about it.

Finally, small quests allow us to just do our thing. It is much closer to reality that we help people with small tasks around than literally stopping the gods from destroying the world. Again, small quests provide the necessary framework for us to transport ourselves into the world in Gielinor. To willingly forget it’s just a game with a made up story, and the have emotions about what happens to the characters in the world.

Done right, games are a powerful and unique storytelling tool, but there are also many mistakes to be made that can pull you out of the narrative immersion. A while ago, I wrote about ludonarrative dissonance in Desperate Times, and in this article I explained how a world without depth can break our suspension of disbelief, and remove any weight our decisions may have. With the new direction of smaller quests and lore dotted around the game, I think RuneScape is moving in a very positive direction. Gielinor is an interesting, large complex world that is becoming more and more alive, one small quest at a time.

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