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Goblins, We are an Individual!

In the recent turmoil of posts regarding gender and sexism in WoW, I made the pleasant discovery of the ‘mental shaman.  She has a really thought provoking post on the goblin starting area in the beta, and in particular, a quest that exists there in which you kill your cheating ex and their new flame. While Pewter looks at the quest from a social aspect, examining the question of heteronormativity (woot, big words used correctly!) and its implications both for the players and developers of WoW, I’d like to look at the same quest line in a little different light.  At least, that’s where this whole idea started. It’s since wandered off into the realms of what characters are in different parts of the RPG genre, and what that means for immersion and roleplay.

Beware, this is going to be LONG.

Two Kinds of Story

In WoW, there two different levels on which stories exist. There are developer stories, which are explicitly put forward in the game, and are available for anyone to interact with. These can be large or small, something as big and game changing as the rise and fall of Arthas, or something as tiny as Mankrik’s wife or the illness of Relara Whitemoon in Ashenvale. Then there are player stories, which we make with our characters whether we RP or not.

Rhii’s story, at its most basic, is something like this: she is a blood elf, she calls Silvermoon City her hometown, she journeyed through many regions, but spent lots of time particularly in Ashenvale and Stranglethorn Vale, and she did many things to prove her worthiness, including service at the Wrathgate. Now she is fighting in Icecrown Citadel as part of the Ashen Verdict forces (albeit very sporadically, but that’s not my point). There is no place in game that you’ll find reference to the mage, Rhii, or her various acts of good or evil in the world. It’s a player story only, it exists outside of the physical medium of the game. If I was to RP with Rhii, she’d have a larger story. Before the fall of Silvermoon, when the blood elves still were high elves and were affiliated with the Alliance, Rhii’s father worked with the Kirin Tor in Dalaran. She was born there, and thought of Dalaran as her home until she reached adulthood. She is very isolated now. She finds it difficult to trust her Horde comrades, because all her childhood friends were humans, but she also feels deeply betrayed by humans and so can’t find anyone she’s entirely comfortable with – even other blood elves. This story can’t even be found in the record of Rhii’s quests completed… but it’s concrete in my mind, the essence of who that character is.

Two (or maybe three) Kinds of Characters

There are also essentially two sets of characters: player characters and canon characters. NPCs who aren’t really defined in the game might provide a flexible third class, where they exist in canon, but any story they have is non-canon and invested by players. For an example of this, I remember reading someone’s description of their own character, where they mentioned they had a personal rivalry with Bimble Longberry the Ironforge fruit vendor. This isn’t a canon relationship, by any means, since nowhere in game will you find reference to Bimble Longberry competing for her job with a player character (I wish I could recall whose character it was), but yet the relationship exists on a player level, for that character and others who associate with her. And even, to a certain extent, to me, even though I play Horde on a different server, I think of Bimble Longberry as a job stealer.

Lore characters do their thing. They will always do their thing the same way. They have a predefined role in the story, and a predetermined birth, life, and death.

Player characters do not. They don’t have a preinvested personality. They don’t have a predetermined number, or storyline. Player characters proliferate. Some drop out of the story at level 10 (a staggering number, if numbers are to be believed). Others go on to become mighty heroes. Some battle the other faction, some battle the Lich King, some become industrialists – miners and crafters. Some just inhabit the world.

Two Kinds of Canon

There are several ways that RPGs handle the player character. Single player games generally place the character in a definite spot in the canon. For example, there are games (many JRPGs use this model) where your character is totally predefined for you. You might get to name them (Final Fantasy X, Persona 3), but beyond that, the character’s appearance, personality, and destiny are largely outside your control. There are others that give you large amounts of control over your character (Bioware games, Elder Scrolls Games), but your character has a defined position in the canon of the game world.  My current Shepard might be very different from Tamarind’s Shepard (beware minor dragon age spoilers) or  Tom Hatfield’s Shepard, but she is still THE Shepard in my game world. When I’m playing MY Shepard, Tamarind’s Shepard doesn’t exist in that world. There is only one Shepard. In fact, there is a defined canon Shepard, of which ours are just derivatives. So in a way, my Shepard is less real than THE John Shepard, who is the concrete embodiment of Shepardness. Or alternately THE Darth Revan or THE Jedi Exile or THE Grey Warden (I know I’m picking on Bioware extensively, but their games are the best expression of this concept, and the most well known). Even in games that lack that defined canon persona, your character is still the only one of their kind. In Oblivion, for example, you are the only one who can close the gates of Oblivion. Even if you choose to play like Nondrick P. Cairk’tir, you’re still THE ONE who can save the world. Nobody else can.

MMOs aren’t like that, they can’t be like that. Every player character starts out on equal footing. Some may choose to fart around Dalaran (Rivendell, Jita, what have you) all day while others pursue the Argent Tournament dailies (skirmishes, ratting, insert activity of choice here), but every character is equally real. There’s no sense that you and I are playing just different incarnations of the same character. Rhii is not Gnomeageddon is not Larisa is not Vidyala is not Aurdon is not Tamarind is not Rades.  Player characters all exist together, at the same time, in the same way. At least within a server environment. Rhii doesn’t literally exist in the same game as, say Larisa, because I’m on a US server and she’s on an EU server. But we inhabit the same game world. The existence of Larisa doesn’t invalidate the existence of Rhii, like having two Shepards in the same copy of Mass Effect would do.

The Individual Goblin Problem

Previously, in WoW,  Blizzard has been fairly careful to preserve that individuality of character creation. You’re not somebody particular when you come into the WoW universe. You’re just any old person. Someone in a crowd. Maybe the NPC that greets you knows you and is glad to see you, but you’re not the first they’ve seen, nor will you be the last. You don’t necessarily have the same exact characteristics as the last person who came through here. You’re not THE ONE. And the current starting areas emphasize this. Any undead could snap out of Scourge control and awaken at Deathknell, any blood elf could snap out of their mana jonesing and start seeking other ways to master themself, any draenei might have survived the exodar crash and come out of a coma at a particular time, any dwarf might be recruited and report for military training at Coldridge Valley.  Your personal story of awakening is left blank, for you to envision if you will.

The death knight starting area was slightly less impersonal, there were a few mentions of a previous history, but what a “hero of the alliance/horde” might mean is pretty open to interpretation. Even during the infamous quest in which your loyalty to Arthas is finally strained to breaking, most of the friends that new-rolled death knights were ordered to execute are ones that should be pretty common among the race in question. Every undead would likely have had people they considered comrades in arms, for example.

If you’re a night elf, the story pretty much tells you your mother was a priestess at that point, but there are many many night elven priestesses, so that’s not saying you’re the exact same person as every other night elf dk (although it is vaguely problematic that every single night elf DK is the child of a priestess, some statistical abnormality that is!).

But the goblin starting area is different, it seems. I’m not in the beta, so I’ve only read about the goblin quests, and that sparingly because I don’t want to spoil it for myself, but this idea caught my attention strongly enough that I’ve poked into the quests as thoroughly as someone not in beta can. What happens is this, every new goblin character starts the game with a significant other of the opposite gender (although I’ll leave the analysis on that point to Pewter, who does it very well). If you’re a male goblin, you’ll be dating Candy, if you’re a lady goblin, it’s Chip. Over the course of the disasters in goblin starting land, your companion deserts you, and later on you find out that they’re working for a rival trade prince and dating someone else. Incensed, you go, kill the new flame and then take gory revenge on your ex by tearing out their still beating heart.

Yeah it’s gross. But it’s also a fairly detailed, developer mandated, in game description of your character’s personal life. Something we’ve never had in game before. And it’s not just your character… it’s all goblins’ personal lives. It’s like there’s only one goblin… in the world. The one who had a previous relationship with Chip/Candy, and was betrayed by them. In a world where your character is supposed to be a particular person amongst other particular persons who exist at the same time, in the same way, all goblins are clones of each other, inheritors of a pre-existing canon backstory. Almost like there’s a prototypical goblin (we’ll call him Shepard, for funsies) and all other goblins are somehow a derivative from the ideal standard of goblinness.

And it’s my understanding that you can’t even escape that predetermined background by skipping the quest. It seems to be a required part of the goblin starter storyline.  Sad day for roleplayers everywhere. I’m not a WoW roleplayer, myself, but I am a roleplayer in other environments, and I haven’t been able to help myself from adding some elements of RP into my own playstyle. And I think from the reactions to different NPCs, torture quests, and plotlines I’m not alone in having an idea, independent of anything much that Blizzard defined, of who my characters are and what they value. And I doubt they want a big, not so delicate, finger in their pie from Blizzard dictating what they would and would not do.

And that’s to say nothing of the community of active roleplayers, who I’m sure will think hard about what to make of that story before creating a goblin. I think I might even want to reconsider making a goblin, and I only roleplay in my head. But if I want my character involved in a romantic relationship (or even just to be someone’s arm candy), I want that to be at my discretion… even concerning the (thoughtless? reckless? bloodthirsty?) indiscretions of her youth.

I told my boyfriend I’d been thinking along these lines, and he thought I was declaring the end of the world or the death of roleplay or something like it. I don’t mean to give that impression at all. That would be an overreaction. But I do think that changing from allowing a more or less totally open backstory (gradually transitioning through DKs who had some specified elements) to your character having more of a delineated personal history is a noteworthy shift in the way player characters are viewed by Blizzard. It does have (maybe not major but some) implications on the way you play the game, and the way you view your character. And since attachment to the characters is one of the factors that Blizzard banks on to keep you playing, they probably should make sure they tread lightly in areas that affect your perception of and attachment to your character.

Either way, it’s an interesting development, and one I’m not 100% on board with. What do you guys think? Will it matter to you that your goblin already has a history, or do you not care if you can build them from the ground up? Or would you prefer having a character that had a more defined personality in exchange for a more directed storyline, similar to what single player games offer? Or have I gone totally off the deep end with this one?

{ 15 comments… add one }

  • Redbeard August 21, 2010, 4:42 pm

    Interesting points, Rhii.

    There's a similar quest in Hellfire for the Horde where a Blood Elf worries about her husband who was late in returning from an expedition. Some investigation reveals that her husband was off having a fling with another Blood Elf, and you end up assisting the Arcanist in her revenge against the pair.

    Similar, but different. It's optional. You can skip it in Hellfire, unless you want Loremaster. The goblin questline is absolutely required for the starting zone, and that changes everything. Perhaps Blizz will fix that later in the beta, but you never know. The nature of the quest makes me wonder if Blizz was trying to make that a metaphor for the Goblins' entire relationship with the two factions, but until I get my grubby hands on the released version, I guess I'll never know.

    My recent post A Short Observation

    • Rhii August 21, 2010, 5:28 pm

      I know the quest you're talking about, but I guess the difference is that the blood elf in question isn't you. I don't really care if they mess with the personal backstories of NPCs, but I'm a little miffed if they mess with my personal backstory.

      Honestly, if I was just avenging some goblin pal of mine by killing HIS cheating girlfriend, I'd be less concerned about losing control of my own character's personality. I'm already a violent contract killer in-game anyway. XD

  • Vrykerion August 22, 2010, 3:36 am

    I'm not a person who extensively RPs, but I do eventually shape an idea of what and who my characters are. That being said, I actually like this idea quite a bit. It's less open, yes, but it's a solid event that may not ever even come up in RP but it immediately sets a precedent for what your character is like. You've been betrayed, and in a fury of emotional rage taken a life. The reaction to it is up to you. Do you run to the comfort of another woman/man? Do you regret it and sets a tone for using caution in your life? Did you like it?

    I tend to not look at it as a restriction but as a clear decision tree point that would help shape that characters personality. Much like the first time I did the DK start zone with a blood elf and I picture a cold grin emerging on his face as he slit his former friends throat, but the second time imagined the orc death knight I was playing hesistating for a moment, gripping the blade tightly as he pondered his action and then struck down his friend, quickly and cleanly, hoping in the back of his mind that the blackness would come quick for the fallen orc.

    Same event, two very different actions, and not really set into stone before the quest. In my head, that's how I thought each character would react. I had no prepared backstory to inform the decision, no anticipation with where this character was headed (other than free from the Lich King). I just thought about the moment and how the character would react. This goblin thing seems a very much a similar concept for me. Yes, it's a set in stone factor, but it's the reaction to the event, not the event itself that should define it for people.

    But maybe I'm just speaking for me. /shrug I do tend to have a pretty strange outlook on the game after all (waves his "I <3 Garrosh" flag)

    • Rhii August 23, 2010, 10:48 am

      Ack, I didn't know there was anyone on earth who <3-ed Garrosh!

      And as you point out, I do think there are lots of interesting ways that someone could react, in character to that kind of questline. And I suppose it translates equally well to something in the public storylines like whether you helped the apothecaries test their Wrathgate plague, and how your character felt about the revelation (Chas from Righteous Orbs did an AWESOME job with that story), but I really do feel like there's a line between something that's shared like the Wrathgate, or other similar quests, and something that's just in my character's backstory.

      If nothing else, doesn't it freak you out a little that no matter how many goblins you meet, they're all going to have this same "unique" event in their personal life as well? It weirds me out.

      I'm weird too, I guess? :P

      • Vrykerion August 24, 2010, 5:35 pm

        If everyone had the same "unique" event in their past, wouldn't it be more apt to say that that's just how goblins roll? lol :P
        My recent post The Ultimate Showdown- Thrall vs Sylvanas

  • Chastity August 23, 2010, 7:46 am

    Blizzard's whole new obsession with making "you" part of the story really bugs me because it seems to deny the validity of the second type of "story" you outline in your post. It's like they think that our characters need to be part of *their* canon to matter.

    I thought it worked quite well with the DKs because I liked the fact that Death Knights very much *didn't* have individualised backstories – you start off as part of the Faceless Scourge and it's only when the zone ends that you're really your own person.

    The whole Goblin starting area looks like it will really annoy me. I play single player RPGs, I play them offline when I'm *not* playing WoW. I *don't* want a single-player RPG narrative in Warcraft.

    • Rhii August 23, 2010, 10:53 am

      I feel like the DK stuff was sort of in a middle ground between what, say, a troll priest would have for pre-existing storyline, and what it looks like a similar goblin priest will have. But I also thought because of the death knight class and their rather unique position in the lore of the expansion, and their direct tie to WOTLK (as opposed to past or future installments) that the backstory they were given worked. I don't see a gameplay/overarching story/expansion theme reason to do this to goblins though.

      And I definitely agree with you about single player RPGs, when I was trying to write about why it bothered me, I kept trying to discuss the concepts from within the MMO genre, and I couldn't. I kept having to reference single player games over and over… and I just don't think having a single-player style character in an MMO will work. No matter how they try to do it.

  • Tam August 23, 2010, 8:16 am

    This is a fascinating post, Rhii – thanks for writing it.

    I remember how outraged I was when Blizzard gave my character a line of dialogue – something completely generic about returning a kodo (I think it happened in Desolace?) but the point was it wasn't something I could ever have imagined Tamarind saying. And here Blizzard were forcing it upon me.

    To be honest, I think Blizzard trying to close the story-gap between multi-player and single player games – I mean the feeling is always that the stories attached to MMOs is less … I don't know … artistic/satisfying/well-written (whatever) than in single player games and I've noticed the increased emphasis on story in WotLK. But as you say, that's not what I'm looking for because *I'm* the story in an MMO.
    My recent post not all those who wander are lost

    • Rhii August 23, 2010, 10:58 am

      Thanks for reading it. I looked at the length when I went to post it and was certain nobody would stick with me! :P

      I really don't like it when they put words in my characters' mouths either. I'm such an altoholic, I need to use my inner RP-er to differentiate the experience of the quests from one character to another or I get bored. It's hard to do that when they're all saying the same thing. It's one matter when I'm saying something that's scripted *anyway* like when Thrall sends your character to pose as a Burning Blade lieutenant and trick Neeru Fireblade, but it's totally different when it's something like turning in a Kodo.

      Also, I love the thought that *I'm* the story! It perfectly fits the way I want my MMO to play. Apparently though, since we can assume that Blizzard caters to what sells, we are in the minority on that point?

  • @celticlibrarian August 23, 2010, 1:29 pm

    I have to say, I don't like this idea that much. When I create characters in WoW, even though I don't RP them, I have specific personalities and quirks in mind for them. Mek wanted to be just like Thrall. Kytara wanted to be liked by everyone! And Tipsi, who'll become my goblin rogue just wants to open her own bar, she doesn't have time for silly things like love interests, she's gotta get the money for her bar and earn a rep that'd bring people from all over Azeroth to her door step. What's a character like that gonna do with Chip the douche and his new arm candy? Hopefully they'll adjust the quest text and do like you said, make it about your good friend and helping him/her get revenge instead.

  • Meemmalu - Azuremyst August 31, 2010, 1:22 pm

    As for killing Chip/Candy, this isn't uncommon in WoW. How many of us have killed [insert boss here]? How many of us have escorted [insert annoying escort quest NPC here] out of trouble? All of these quests are written as though they're for us individually, but they're the same for everyone else. If we slayed/saved/escorted/picked up, etc whatever it is we were asked to, then why is that quest still there?

    The individuality is based on what YOU make of it. Blizzard still leaves a big fat blank spot at the beginning of a Goblin's life, and there's still just enough vagueness (is that a word?) to allow future players to do the quest.

    ******SPOILER!!!*********

    And, you have the choice to spare your significant other or kill him/her. So some may chose save, some may chose kill, and you have yet another individual choice. There's still some freedom there.

    I could be wrong, but I don't think this is as "cookie cutter" as it may seem.

  • Meemmalu - Azuremyst August 31, 2010, 1:23 pm

    Hmmm. I think I might be the only one who's ok with this =P

    Here's my theory on the whole situation. So you're currently dating someone when you start up the game. That doesn't mean Blizzard has written your history. When you start a Dwarf, you chosen to join up, start a Blood Elf and you've already moved on from the mana hunger, start a DK and you've already been killed once, and risen by the Lich King. All of these are predetermined events. As a goblin, your predetermined event (one of them) is that you chose to date Candy/Chip. No biggie.

    As for individuality, just cause you're dating Chip/Candy now, doesn't mean you're the only person he/she ever dated, nor does he/she have to be your first and only significant other in your history. I don't know about the rest of the WoW world, but I've had a fair share of SOs (and I'm no Rico Suave), and all of my SOs have had their share of SOs, who have probably had their share of SOs and so on and so on and so on…

  • Meemmalu - Azuremyst August 31, 2010, 1:23 pm

    As for killing Chip/Candy, this isn't uncommon in WoW. How many of us have killed [insert boss here]? How many of us have escorted [insert annoying escort quest NPC here] out of trouble? All of these quests are written as though they're for us individually, but they're the same for everyone else. If we slayed/saved/escorted/picked up, etc whatever it is we were asked to, then why is that quest still there?

    The individuality is based on what YOU make of it. Blizzard still leaves a big fat blank spot at the beginning of a Goblin's life, and there's still just enough vagueness (is that a word?) to allow future players to do the quest.

    ******SPOILER!!!*********

    And, you have the choice to spare your significant other or kill him/her. So some may chose save, some may chose kill, and you have yet another individual choice. There's still some freedom there.

    I could be wrong, but I don't think this is as "cookie cutter" as it may seem.

    Read more: http://www.isheepthings.com/blog/goblins-we-are-a

    • Rhii August 31, 2010, 5:57 pm

      I really think it's different. You're welcome to disagree if you want to of course, but I think it's a little absurd to think that every survivor of the goblin starting area is the ex of either Chip or Candy. Man, those two get around. Sure we all kill bosses, but we don't all date them, and I think it's different in a a character identity sense.

  • Meemmalu - Azuremyst September 1, 2010, 10:26 am

    I think that's kind of the point though. The majority of the questing arena is geared toward solo questing, and a lot of those quests involve one time events that are supposed to change the character's life or the world around them, yet every character in a given faction has a chance to do those quests.

    Basically I'm just saying that this is no different than what Blizzard has always done. A sense of "you're the hero!" when it comes to actually questing, even though everyone is doing the exact same stuff. (Seriously, how many times do we need to find Mankrik's wife? Did the dude suffer a blow to the head and contract some sort of amnesia?)

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