Massively multiplayer online role-playing games can be transformative. They can define gameplay experiences that stand the test of time, create lasting friendships and unite people across this planet Earth towards a common goal, whether that be taking down Ragnaros or simple paying homage to a lost comrade. The ‘massively muiltiplayer’ aspect of the MMORPG is oftentimes the best part of playing a game like Final Fantasy XIV or World of Warcraft.
However, there are instances where that lauded aspect can get in the way of the story telling a developer is trying to portray, sometimes to the detriment of the player experience.
This happened to me over the weekend while working on my Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood review. And before I go further, I should caveat there will be minor plot spoilers for some of the first early quests in the main storyline of Blackwood.
The Elder Scrolls Online oftentimes feels at odds with its single-player roots and massively multiplayer designs. A game that flourishes both as one you can experience entirely on your own or with a group of friends, quests in ESO aren’t necessarily set up to expect a multitude of players being needed to tackle them, with rare exceptions like main dungeons or the occassional trial.
This extends as well to some of the storytelling and design aspects of the MMO, and is compounded thanks to the nature of public dungeons and delves around Tamriel. Whether you’re playing solo or not, you’re never actually alone.
During a quest chain, I was tasked with discovering the secrets Dagon cultists were hiding in an Argonian area of Blackwood caled Ojel-bak. The quest giver cautioned me to use stealth, as the governor of Gideon warned the Argonian tribe that controls the around the site weren’t all that friendly.
Normally, I would avoid this and just barrel in head on as I’m pretty garbage at stealth, regardless of game. However, having just swapped to a Stamina Necromancer who has all the medium armor and Vampire perks necessary to make stealth a bit easier, I leaned into the challenge.
As I got to Ojel-bak, I started to pick my way through the mini-camp between me and my target, slinking past hostile Argonians. However, as I was sneaking, an Imperial Templar barreled in and started to do what I normally would have done: just charged in a killed everything.
It was a bit demoralizing at first. This was a clear cut example of the multiplayer nature of ESO actually disrupting the gameplay experience I was creating for myself. Now since there was no more need for stealth (since there were no more Argonians), I stood up and jogged to my destination, carrying on the quest.
However, this was one of the few times where I think a player action really dispelled the "role-playing" aspect of my enjoyment. I’ve long maligned the fact that ESO still props you up as the hero who can save the world, yet it’s clear you’re one of many being told the same delusion of grandeur. In the Morrowind expansion, there was a quest where you were given the robes of the Scarlet Judge, taking on the role of what the Scarlet Judge before you calls an "immortal guardian." Being passed the cowl the the Judge is unique and meaningful, putting the vestige in the shoes of many who came before them in helping to protect the people of Vvardenfell.
A moment that was supposed to be a unique occurance – donning the regalia of the Scarlet Judge – was met with a wave of "meh" be me when I looked around and saw many, many other players donning the same robes. This feeling of uniqueness the quest created was lost. This is one of the pitfalls of ESO as it straddles the line of single player and MMO. Oftentimes the "massively multiplayer" gets in the way of the story the RPG is telling.
Fast-forward back to this past weekend and I started to feel the same. I realized too that I had been on the other end of this, oftentimes charging in a ruining someone else’s day. I’m not sure I would have felt this way either had the story not made a point to suggest stealth to get to my destination. Had it just told me that I would have had to deal with hostile Argonians, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it – I simply would have smashed them with my two-handed sword and moved on with my life. However, because the quest made a special point to stealth through the camp towards Ojel-bak, I did. And as such the experience was ruined by an inadvertent player.
In that moment, I was role-playing. I was trying to accomplish a quest in a way the story recommended (and seemingly intended). There was nothing wrong perse with what the other player did, mind you. They were playing ESO their way (and admittedly, how I normally do it). However, it was jarring and immersion breaking. I felt jipped I wasn’t able to complete the quest how I had set out. Even if in the end I ended up fighting the Argonians, at least then it was due to my lack of stealth skills and not due to the actions of an unrelated third party.
This is really nothing new, either. ESO, like many other MMOs nowadays, are leaning into solo play more and more in this world of MMOs. And sometimes I wish, especially in moments like this one, that it truly was a single player experience – or at least an instance where it was just me. Don’t mistake me either – the massively multiplayer aspect of the MMORPG genre is what makes it so compelling. Player stories and experiences, shared memories and the communities these games create truly make this genre one of gaming’s most unique and best.
This, though, was the first time in my twenty-plus years of playing an MMO, though, where I felt as though the "massively multiplayer" aspect hindered the storytelling experience. And it’s something that will help change up a bit how I approach areas, especially main story areas, in the future so as to not rip another player out of their immersion in the name of just slaying as many enemies as I can.
Do you feel sometimes that the nature of an MMO, the multiplayer part, can come at the expense of the role-playing aspect of the game?
Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he’s not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don’t get him started on why Balrogs *don’t* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore