Quests and Narrative Progression in “Borderlands 3” and Other Looter-Shooters

Finished some longrunning content this week – took down Borderlands 3 and Luigi’s Mansion 3. I have my gripes about both games, but will confine my remarks here to the former.

Borderlands, as a series, is far more story-driven than I’d realized going in, a tendency which feels at odds with the gameplay structure. As I was streaming one of the missions late in the game, on the Eridian homeworld, the game urged me of a sudden back to Sanctuary to hear the Greek chorus of NPCs blather on before sending me back to Pandora, for the game’s final mission. Stiff models of the main characters, which I as a (quasi-)series newbie had neither familiarity with nor great affection for, delivered lines about the galactic goings-on just ahead of us, fully on display, while my avatar (hollow as that word is), Amara, stood, her weapon held up in front of her, obstructing my view.

This description is given to point out an instance of what I believe to be a ludonarrative dissonance emergent in the structure of Borderlands 3, which others among its genre – what I’ll generally call looter-shooters, though varying amounts of looting and shooting obtain among them – sidestep, tacitly or otherwise. In Destiny or in Diablo, quest-givers and story-critical characters are rather quicker in saying what they need to and getting out of the player-character’s way. This decision privileges the continuation of the all-important gameplay loop: the deployment of new skills and weapons on the world-objects, the flash of ever more spectacular particle effects on-screen, the recoupment of yet newer skills and abilities, and lastly the shift in environmental location, that the loop might recur with a new skin grafted atop it. This loop has long been held as the defining feature of the looter-shooter (in other parlance some writers speak of Skinner box game design).

If embedded in that loop of a gameplay structure we recognize two principal skeins, by which I mean the components the developers create and manipulate to achieve their artistic goals, we can best identify those as the mechanical skein and the setting skein. Skeins themselves are comprised of formal elements, like story, narrative, characterization, gamefeel, progression, empowerment, environment (in all its forms), etc., but all formal elements belong to one skein or the other, and not to both.

In that language, we can see that the approach taken by Destiny and Diablo is to jettison story as a formal element of setting and install mechanical player-character progression as the primary formal element within the gameplay structure.

We know moreover that there is magic in the overlapping interaction of the two skeins, and it may in fact be the case that looter-shooters, constitutionally, fail to apprehend any of that magic. For the loop, which drives progression, is massively sensitive to interruption – this is why a common lament of looter-shooters involves menu design and inventory management, for these are necessary parts of the game which are also necessarily outside of the loop (this is moreover why the console port of Diablo 3 received such high plaudits – it solved, or came close enough anyway to solving, a previously intractable problem).

Decades of advance in game development have yielded little fruit in another area which has tended to exist outside of the loop – the tools of story presentation have long been stagnant, and each implementation today is little more than a variation on another. Schematically, the structure of looter-shooter stories goes as follows: To advance the story, players undertake quests comprised of objectives, upon whose conclusion players must return to quest-givers and receive quest updates, a step without which progression – and the loop – cannot be restarted, as exploration is halted. These quest-givers then deliver the story update via speech, either in monologue or dialogue, whose result is the assignment of new quest-objectives.

Precisely here is where the rub lies. Quest updates in Borderlands 3 are given by actors behind a proscenium arch, an effect created by both the persistent 1st-person perspective and the silence of the player character. These updates have a very wooden feel – within the arena-environment, the part of the game world where the mechanics are acted out, technological limits severely constrain the possibilities for artful character blocking, interaction, or drama. Borderlands, as a series, has always sought to alleviate this uncanniness and forestall player disengagement with witty writing, as a radio program or talk show might. These efforts, it should be said, are often successful, especially when paired with dense, creative environmental design; but it is also the case that not all attempts of this breed can be successful, and more likely that at least a plurality of attempts will fail to rouse a laugh in the player, precisely because so much of the wit relies on timing, and updates are entered into with no precise rhythm, only on the whim of the player-character.

Waiting for Ma to provide the update in the quest “The Homestead,” late in the course of Borderlands 3.

As some of the wit must fall flat, there is now a guarantee baked into the game design that the player will be bored during updates and that as a consequence, the loop will be interrupted and progression will suffer. Borderlands is and has been a successful game not because of the interaction between its two skeins but rather in spite of it, as the highs of the mechanical experience are sufficiently lofty to compensate for the doldrums of the story-setting.

What’s most peculiar about this outcome is that the tools chosen for story delivery in Borderlands are easily seen to be, a priori, the least intrusive means of interrupting the gameplay loop. In particular, the persistent en vivo perspective within the arena-environment requires no shift in player identification or user interface to complete the necessary agenda of the story update. The player-character may still take advantage of all the facets of mechanics available to them – the verbs of running, jumping, shooting, weapon switching, crouching, ability casting – even if that advantage earns less profit, owing to the local geography in which the story update takes place usually being denuded of arena-objects (take this term to mean, basically, enemies or interactable environmental components).

A player might even, according to their tastes, turn away from the quest-giver mid-update and walk away, or go and begin another quest-update. What again emerges as a problem is the precise timing of the quest-update: although player freedom within the arena-environment persists during the quest-update, that freedom is, all of a sudden, shockingly undirected. The player must wait for the end of the quest-update, when objectives are refreshed, quests are given anew, and the game world is ready to acknowledge the next player action.

Were the quest update handled slightly differently, such that the world-readiness was triggered merely at the outset of the quest update; or were it the case that quest updates involved the cashing-in of many chained objectives and the projection of many long-ranging objectives-to-be-done, this problem would be so scarcely felt that it may never have risen to attention at all. While those analog tweaks are unobservable from where we sit today we may by comparison with alternative implementations of the quest update system derive some further understanding as to the optimal arrangement of things in this our genre.

We take as our objects of analysis the other aforementioned looter-shooters, namely Destiny and Diablo, and will assess the necessary interruptions in their loops in turn. The Diablo quest system is aided by relatively larger environments in which the first part of progress is always exploration – note the expanding of the lit areas of the map, the expulsion of the fog of war which has been so long a mainstay of that game’s play. This means that individual objectives may be sustained over many loop cycles, with returns to quest-givers only needed after a long period. This, as conjectured above, would probably serve to ameliorate the thorny annoyance of the radio program model we took a look at in Borderlands, had that been the model taken up by Diablo‘s creators.

New Tristram, early in Diablo 3, serves as the major area where players interact with quest-givers.

It was, however, not, and instead they implemented a design for quest updates which I analogize to the reading of a book. What’s notable about Diablo is that despite its position as the genre-progenitor – recall the first entry appeared in 1997 – relatively little about its design has changed to today. Tool invention, the basis of the implementation of formal elements, then was tightly bound by the technological frontier – the fog of war effect alleviated the burdens placed on already taxed GPUs, while text-box based character interaction was merely paradigmatic. They stumbled, happily, on a winning formula amid those strictures, and have needed not to change it since.

Indeed by Diablo‘s reckoning, the proper relationship of story to setting (and, transitorily, of the story to the mechanics) is akin to an iceberg. A certain sum floats above the water and must obligatorily impressed upon the player. Otherwise, the game runs the risk of substituting for the long-term purposive fuel of narrative the chained short-term highs of the mechanical loop (this is a problem not unfamiliar to bank executives and financial regulators). This obligatory story content, however, need not come exclusively through the quest-giver’s diegetic speech-updates, and keen developers will be quick to realize this.

To that end, then, Diablo puts the whole of the story in its quest updates, but also lets the player set his own pace in dismissing the update and continuing with the loop. A critical tool here is the way the quest update alters the player perspective: it pulls focus, halting the verb-expression of the player and opening a new, segregated mode of the game world. Instead of allowing the natural rhythm of the loop to die its own death while the quest-giver delivers an update, the use of the segregated mode severs the player’s connection to the loop and to the arena-environment in which it takes place. One can dismiss the segregated mode nearly as quickly as it appears and rejoin the arena-environment; but in this way, and through thoughtful, punchy writing, Diablo can shake the player loose of his mechanical loop-delirium, deliver the modicum of story needed, and spit the player out once more to fulfill the story’s next objectives.

To its credit, Destiny, too, makes use of the segregated mode, albeit with changes sufficiently large to obtain different effects upon the play-experience. Destiny‘s implementation I analogize to a ticket-counter at an arcade. Bungie, the series’ developer, has chosen to elevate the quest-giver from being merely a tool of story into a hybrid form, setting into motion the formal elements of both the mechanical and setting skeins. By this I refer to the cashing-in of both quest-objectives and incidental bounties, where loot generation – critical within the loop mechanism – is handled also in large part by the quest-giver. The length of time needed for this cashing-in is non-negligible, an important component of the feedback system which makes Destiny such a tactile experience.

An example of a ticket counter interaction in Destiny 2, this one featuring the quest-giver Ana Bray.

To account for this, the quest updates are not text-skippable as in the book model but instead closer to Borderlands‘ voiced-diegetic implementation. The saving grace, then, comes in the freedom of the player to exit the segregated mode, halt the speech of the quest-giver, and continue on anyway with the new quest’s objectives.

What this choice brings about is a relocation of the story-delivery from the stationary, active quest-giver to a moving, passive accrual within the arena-environment in the course of the quest. This is the motivation behind the Ghost character as well – in a system where more story is to be delivered on foot (as it were), the presence of a character capable of providing story everywhere the player goes is needed. Think instead of how much sillier the presentation might seem with quest-givers and other NPCs not actually present with the player reacting to the movements and deeds of the player, environment, and arena-objects.

Because the quest-givers’ role is more as mechanical figure than story-deliverer, the focus pull upon player interaction does not, as in Diablo, succeed in impressing upon the player the critical story. It is then the case that the “distant delivery” is the only way players obtain narrative justification for their actions. Because these distant deliveries take place as the player is navigating the arena-environment, the guarantee of any one component of story being impressed upon the player is never achieved. This is an uncanny balance, which does not resolve neatly, and may provide for the player an incomplete experience.

I hold the quest-update as the most interesting and critical locus of looter-shooters as a genre, as it’s only here that the long-proven model of the loop is forced to stop. How a developer chooses to implement narrative progress amid the player-driven mechanical progress is key towards putting together a consistent, engaging experience. Diablo, in its earliest incarnation, may have hit precisely upon that magic I described earlier as occurring in the intersection of the two skeins of formal tools, the mechanical and the setting, as can frequently happen when the right idea, the best people, and just enough technological limitations come together. Destiny forgoes really nailing the quest update system in favor of a loftier environmental experience, and I think this focus serves the game well. Verticality, which Destiny knows how to do, is often the mot juste for transcending the mechanical-setting divide. And there’s something transcendent as well about the dogged fervor of Borderlands‘ loop, the ribald creativity and range of the mechanical experience, the vivid characterization of player and arena-objects, bordering on caricaturization. The radio show, the book, the ticket counter – all three in their own way avenues to stand athwart the looping player and yell, “Stop!”

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