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Thursday, November 27, 2008

WotLK Quests: Evolution and Limitation

My priest reached level 75 this weekend, mostly by questing. In Wrath of the Lich King there are achievements you get when you finish nearly all of the quests in a zone, and I got that achievement for both Howling Fjord and Grizzly Hills. Next step will be Zul'Darak. Thus with over 200 WotLK quests done, I can confidently say that Wrath of the Lich King improved and evolved quests beyond what the original WoW and The Burning Crusade offered. In this post I'd like to discuss the evolution of quests, and one major remaining limitation.

I'm enjoying questing in Wrath of the Lich King even more than in previous versions of World of Warcraft. While there are still plenty of "kill 10 foozles" quests, Blizzard made a huge effort to offer lots of other quest types too. It now pays to actually read the quest texts, because not only has the storytelling improved, but also quite often you need to follow more detailed instructions than just going somewhere and killing something. Another improvement to storytelling is that quest series now often can actually be done one quest after another, without a too steep increase in difficulty forcing you to stop and level up before you can do the end. The quests in one quest hub are also better related to each other, both from a point of weaving a coherent atmosphere, and from the practical point of several quests sending you in the same direction. There are still a lot of quests where you need to go back to the quest giver, only to be sent to the same quest location again for the next step, but the quest givers are usually relatively close in those cases.

Quests in WotLK have also evolved into being better integrated into reputation and crafting. Dungeons aren't related to a specific faction any more, so you don't grind reputation by doing a dungeon repeatedly any more. At level 80 you can gain reputation by dungeon runs, but the faction you are working for will be determined by the tabard you wear, not by which dungeon you visit. For factions that don't have a tabard, quests are the *only* way to increase faction. For tradeskills, specifically for cooking and jewelcrafting (not sure about the others), there are now daily quests which award tokens which you can spend on learning new recipes. Great idea! Much better than having to hope for a 1% drop chance from some boss mob in some dungeon.

So quests in WotLK are better than ever before, in variety, usefulness, and storytelling. But there are still serious limitations to the whole quest system, one of which becomes obvious if you follow the discussion about a "torture quest", which has been discussed on several MMORPG blogs. In that quest you are asked to torture someone, to extract vital information. And some people were shocked by the evilness of that. Now I can agree that this wasn't a clever move on Blizzard's part, as this could easily lead to negative publicity. But to me the quest is more an example of the limitations of the quest system than a moral problem: There are no meaningful moral decisions in World of Warcraft.

The thing is that there is only one possible solution for any given quest. I did a series of morally dubious quests killing trolls for their mojo to summon some troll spirit, who at the end was revealed to be a servant of the Lich King, having duped me into helping the enemy. But the only other option for me would have been not doing the quest series, which would have robbed me not only of the quest rewards, but also of the "do all quests in this zone" achievement. In most cases in WoW you don't have to make any ethical decision at all. And if you have to decide (Aldor vs. Scryer, or D.E.H.T.A. vs. Nesingwary), you probably make that decision on the basis of which side offers the better rewards for your class. Or worse, first work for one side until you have all the rewards, and then work for the other side. In the destiny quest series for starting Death Knights you are even *forced* to switch sides, first doing evil deeds before becoming a good guy.

And evil quests aren't anything new. The first day of playing an undead character you probably killed a bunch of pumpkin farmers. And even supposedly "good" Alliance characters spend a lot of time killing various forms of wildlife, or persecute other humanoids for no other reason than them being a different race. If you made a completely pacifist character, who only accepted quests that didn't involve killing, that plus all the exploration xp possible wouldn't net you more than a handful of levels, and leave you totally stuck long before you could reach the level cap. World of Warcraft is a game about killing, and mass murder isn't an inherently good activity.

In my personal point of view, being evil only matters if you actually had a choice. Many single-player games like KOTOR or Fable or Black & White offer you moral choices, and the chance to develop your character to a saint or ultimate corruption. And even there you can't jump to conclusions and say somebody who made his Fable character evil must be an evil person. Games and virtual worlds give us the chance to experiment with morals, something that isn't advisable in the real world. In real life I wouldn't even kill a rabbit or deer, but I have no problem whatsoever with WoW quests asking me to kill lots of virtual animals or even humans. I'd like to see a MMORPG that involves meaningful moral choices (SWTOR?), but the evil deeds of my WoW characters don't cause me sleepless nights. Real evil usually lies in the suffering of the victims, and virtual rabbits don't suffer.