Play, Don’t Tell

posted by on 28th May 2021, at 2:15am

It’s been a while since I last wrote an Informer article about a RuneScape update. The monthly update cadence combined with the setback from the lockout haven’t helped. So I was more than excited when this month’s launch happened to line up with my schedule!

Until I actually played the update that is, because how do I write an entire article about a quick five minute sequence? As a reminder – spoilers going forward, but only for the first week as well as Azzanadra’s Quest – after our misadventure with Trindine and Azzanadra, Zaros has put his crosshairs on the Monolith in the Archaeology guild. For not particularly well explained reasons, this is bad, so the World Guardian must stop them. By commanding Helwyr, Commander Zilyana, and Thaerisk Cemphier to help you defend, you must stop corrupted Temple Knights and Abyssal Prowlers.

The defence itself isn’t so bad. You get to control the three commanders, and get to join the fight yourself to finish up any remaining NPCs, though I don’t think it’s really necessary to win. Involving these other characters feels much more interesting than having the player kill enemies fast enough, and is much more forgiving for people who struggle with PvM. Sadly, I found the abilities of your allies quite generic, and little strategy seems to be needed to win. Perhaps that will change in the coming weeks, though.

This isn’t the first “bottle update” that Jagex has released. A bottle update, because it seems that this fight merely reuses existing graphics and systems. Bottle updates aren’t a bad thing in themselves. Games can be a great narrative tool. Just as we have “show don’t tell” in traditional narrative media, for games I think the mantra should be “play don’t show”. Let the player be active participant in the story, and you add a new dimension to storytelling. Bottle quests and bottle updates are more than enough to add that dimension. Therefore, the player being part of the Battle of the Monolith is a sensible choice from a narrative perspective. The player will have the feeling that they directly helped influence the outcome. Compare this to a cutscene that just tells you what happened: not particularly interesting, is it?

So why does this update fall flat for so many people? I think it is primarily because of how underwhelming the whole thing feels right now. There was a big hype build-up, with a trailer and all, just for a few minutes of standing in one place smashing some Temple Knights. This doesn’t feel like the battlefield we were all expecting. In a game where World Event 1 (the Battle of Lumbridge, sounds familiar?) is almost 8 years old by now, a clash between gods being reduces to a small minigame feels very underwhelming indeed. One could argue that perhaps we should not judge this update by its first week. Yet, before any other weeks can have an impact, Jagex seems to try and spruce up a relatively bland piece of content by telling us what is happening, out of our sight sadly… This stark contrast between what we experience in the game, and what is actually going on according to the lore, is probably leaving a lot of people disappointed. I, myself, am included in that group.

To me, the update doesn’t capture the sense of scope that “The Battle of the Monolith” with all its trailers and hype invokes. Sure, I have some concerns about the content itself, such as the lack of context with which the battle is happening, the fact that you can do this quest without doing Azzanadra’s Quest (completely ruining the Temple Knights reveal), and the complete absence of a believable explanation as to why a supporter of Zaros might want to join this defence. Yet I don’t think the content is the main thing at fault here. Rather, it’s the framing of this content. This update, in itself, could be used as a lead up to a bigger event in a few weeks. If people’s reactions to what is to come are to be trusted, we are in for some big reveals down the line. So what we are seeing here is perhaps a playable trailer, a “play don’t show” tactic for hype itself. Ramping up the intensity of the fights in the game, week by week, would be a great staging ground for a big update a month from now, but that is not what we were promised. Instead, the update is presented as “this is what you’re getting this month, enjoy”.

The decision to release content that doesn’t have immediate payoff as soon as you login brings back memories to the Menaphos release. Players don’t respond well to being promised something awesome, but on release day that awesome stuff is gated behind time (whether that is a reputation grind, or literally a time gate), and so the choice to do so in this case is surprising. It is unlikely whether we will find out what Jagex’s reasoning was; whether they thought it would improve the storytelling impact, they were starved for having more content drops over the next few weeks, or they wanted to experiment with an engagement model that could work better for a mobile market. We can safely conclude that this particular choice didn’t land well with players. As for me, I truly hope that Jagex can turn it around with what is to come in the next few weeks, but seeing that there is a need to augment this update with written news posts to progress the story, I am not very confident. I will forever doubt as to whether this release schedule was the best way to tell this chapter of the Elder God Wars narrative.

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