Enter at Your Own Rift: How to tell a great story in an MMO

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|11.18.14

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Enter at Your Own Rift: How to tell a great story in an MMO
rift
My character still hasn't (ahem) ascended to Nightmare Tide levels yet, so today's RIFT story will instead be about Storm Legion. I had been working my way through the Eastern Holdings in Brevane when I encountered a quest chain that floored me with brilliant storytelling that showed exactly how MMOs can utilize this platform to tell tales in ways that other mediums cannot. It is audacious, bold, and incredibly dark, especially for RIFT. And I cannot praise it enough, especially in light of long-held claims that RIFT is often weak on story.

I have two caveats before we go through what made this quest chain so great. First, I'm going to spoil it from start to finish, so if you haven't played it and want to remain innocent, just bookmark this column to read later on. Second, there are some truly edgy themes in this recap. Got it? Let's go!

Dreamception

Like many places in Brevane, the Eastern Holdings is dotted with survival bunkers where inhabitants fled when the plant apocalypse hit. When I was sent to check out the bunker near the Arkella Estate, I expected to find another quest hub with a few quietly sobbing NPCs. Instead, I wandered into a cavern where all of the people had been shrouded in eerily glowing cocoons.

A ghost-like NPC told me that these people had been captured and locked into an ongoing dream state, unable to awaken or die. Smashing the cocoons was out of the question, so I gathered up a few reagents, inhaled some OSHA-compliant smoke, and jacked into the dream matrix to see what I could do to help everyone out.

It's here that the devs really brought out their A-game. First of all, the dreamscape version of the Arkella Estate is perfectly done. Everything's a little off; for example, you can jump higher than normal (whee!), and the sky is etched with solar diagrams. Plus, there are nightmare mobs wandering around, apparently feeding off of the trapped survivors' worst dreams.

Instead of merely breaking some vial and doing a Sleeping Beauty kiss to wake everyone up, I watched the setting became a vehicle to perform a little time travel surgery. Through everyone's nightmares, I was invited to see what went wrong in the past and then, through the power of dreams, to correct it for the owner's sanity. It wouldn't change what actually happened, but it would help the dreamer to come to terms with it and to cease being trapped by it.

Meet a sadist

To help these people out, I had to become them since they were incapable of overcoming these dreams on their own power. The quest had me "dreamshifting" to assume the form of various residents of the Arkella Estate to interact as those people. It was, dare I say, a little like roleplaying. In a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game. Crazy, right?

By doing this and talking around, I was introduced to the son of the Arkella lord, Aetleron. I first met him in his youth, during which his instructor had failed to properly guide, and Aetleron began to show interest in torturing and killing small animals and then creatures such as boglings. This failure to cut off a budding sociopath or to report him for all of these puppy killings ended up biting the instructor hard, as Aetleron ramped up his "experiments" by torturing his former mentor.

By helping free the animals in the dream and assisting the instructor to stand up to his student, I thought I had won the day and we could all go home with this unpleasantness behind us.

I was oh so very wrong.

Triumph of evil

As the quest chain progressed and I was invited to jump between dreamers, the depth and horror of what was going on at the Arkella Estate started to sink in. This wasn't some world-dominating, moustache-twirling villain or a 12-story-high giant with three distinct raid phases; this was evil in a far more real form. It was the confluence of two important facts: that Aetleron was dastardly beyond remorse and that he was untouchable as the son of a lord who overlooked his boy's actions.

Edmund Burke famously said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." And that is what this entire quest chain is about. Through dreamshifting and seeing the plights of various Estate residents, I began to understand the full picture of the depraved lordling as he did what he wanted, unchecked.

He murders a woman's husband so that he can (as it's implied) take her by force. In fact, he uses his position to rape and murder a number of people, gloating in his position and fearing no one. His father refuses to stand up to him since it would implicate him in the killings, his mother refuses to see her son as anything but wonderful, and the local sheriff buckles under the pressure to keep it all hush-hush.

I can honestly say that after a handful of these missions, I truly, deeply despised Aetleron and what was going on here. I burned with the desire to fix it and leaped at the quests' opportunity to rewrite history -- even if that revisionism was limited to a dreamer's mind. By having me examine this story from multiple viewpoints and involving me directly in it, the game ensured I couldn't remain an impassioned observer. I sought justice. I wanted Aetleron to pay more than any expansion raid boss.

Judge, jury, and executioner

Not only was the storyline of the Arkella Estate gripping, but the various quest mechanics were interesting. There was a little combat, yes, but also one part where I had to race against the clock to beat a husband home, another where I had to navigate a jumping puzzle, and yet another where I had to navigate a brutal stealth portion. Bringing justice to Aetleron wasn't just throwing my DPS against his health bar but ending these nightmares, one by one.

There were a couple of other elements that helped to elevate this series above the standard missions. Voice acting was extensively used throughout this entire chain, which certainly helped with the immersion factor. And because it was a dream state, the devs could do strange things like show one character grow in physical size to symbolize his domination over the other person.

After breaking everyone out of the nightmares (and as I gathered, allowing their cocooned bodies to finally die), I returned to the real world only to face a surprising twist and gain real closure. The spirit who had been helping me through these missions was a sham -- it was really Aetleron in disguise. He no longer cared about torturing these townspeople; he was now out to capture my mind and make it his own playground.

Can I say that when I was finally allowed to beat him into the ground that it was one of the most satisfying events in my gaming career? I had weighed the evidence, I had pronounced him guilty, and I carried out the sentence.

The Arkella Estate chain needs to be recognized for how it could use the MMO platform to tell one heck of a story and not fall back on the "oh, kill those 10 rats already" mission objectives. It's not that it was sickening in its topic; it's that it handled the whole subject with maturity and creativity. I felt like an actor invited to be a part of a movie, with the devs taking on the roles as the unseen directors and the NPCs as my fellow cast.

This is what we need to see more of, not just in RIFT but in all MMOs. Give us quests with well thought-out stories that are free from distraction, filled with ingenuity, and memorable long after they are complete. I truly hope to see more of this as I progress in the game.

Whether he's keeping the vigil or defying the gods, Justin Olivetti saves Telara on a biweekly basis. Covering all aspects of life in RIFT from solo play to guild raids, this column is dedicated to backhanding multidimensional tears so hard that they go crying to their mommas. Email Justin for questions, comments, and adulation.
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