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Old 03-27-2016, 12:47 AM
sd.schpmn sd.schpmn is offline
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Default A Struggling Story

***This content was originally posted to my blog, threesecondrush.blogspot.com , as part 2 of a 2 part review. Check it out to read more commentary on games and geek culture.***

Whenever a story is told in an episodic fashion, it is important to ensure that each individual portion is it's own complete adventure while still contributing to the overall narrative arc. In this way the storyteller can continue building up momentum for the extended plot while continuing to give the audience a feeling of satisfaction. When it simply isn't possible to give a complete story to each installment, due to time constraints or what have you, it is important to always end with a sufficiently powerful emotional cliffhanger to keep the audience interested.

As much as I loath to compare everything to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect example of how to pull this off properly. It is a complete movie in itself. You don't need to have seen A New Hope to fully enjoy it, nor do you feel dissatisfied at the end even though you know it's only part of a longer series. The individual story arc of Luke Skywalker being trained as a Jedi so that he can avenge his father's death, only to discover that the one blames for his father's death is, in fact, his father is emotionally compelling. It's partner story arc of Princess Leia and company running from the Empire only to get captured and be used as bait for Luke, is also interesting and provides a romantic plot line that we would never be able to get from Luke himself. When the movie ends, we know that there is more to come: we wonder what Luke will do with his new found knowledge and we wonder how or if the companions will track down and rescue Han Solo, but none of this detracts from the satisfaction of knowing that our heroes have escaped and that the Empire's plans have been foiled, even if they are the films clear victor.

If The Empire Strikes Back is an example of how to do installment story telling properly then Grim Dawn is The Matrix Reloaded. It is incomplete, it is unsatisfying, and it fails to convince me that I want to see more. This is all the more tragic for the fact that the Crate team has created a world that begs to have stories told about it. It's further painful because the skeleton of a story that they do have could actually be quite good if given a little more effort. I don't know if the problem is a lack of story telling skills or their part, a decision to sacrifice story for game play, or if they simply didn't care, but the fact of the matter is that the cult status of Titan Quest is only going to get Grim Dawn so far. Sure, you've got a lot of TQ veterans coming to play your new title, but you're only going to attract new gamers by selling an exciting adventure. New players come for the story, they stay for the excellent ARPG mechanics and loot grinding.

Here are my biggest gripes about the story so far and my suggestions for how to fix them:

1. I don't know who I am.
The player character has, essentially, zero characterization beyond what class build I chose to use for them. Sure, it is established that I was previously "taken" by an aetherial and that I have amnesia, a convenient way to avoid giving a back story, but that's about all we get. We aren't even provided with a decent reason why our character should be motivated to go on our quest, after all John Bourbon flat out tells us that we're expendable to him, why should be risking our lives for the people who just tried to kill us? Occasionally we are given opportunities to make dialog choices or make minor moral decisions about saving or killing various NPCs, but at no point does it seem like these decisions actually effect the story in a meaningful way. Some of the readable lore notes may or may not provide breadcrumbs as to the players back story, but they are far too indistinct for there to be an certainty

How to fix it:
Make my choices matter. If you don't want the player character to have definitive back story and you plan on sticking with the amnesia story, fine, but if you're going to give me choices then they damn well better make a difference beyond what loot I get or how much experience I receive. If I save someone, just having them say "thank you" when I get back to town isn't really enough to make me feel like it mattered. Have them start a quest chain, or provide me with valuable information, or open up a new area of the map. Have them join the town guard and help fight off attackers. Have them do anything that makes it seem like my choice made a difference.

If it's not your intention to stick with the amnesia story and you do have a definite story for my character, then make the breadcrumbs more than breadcrumbs. Make it clear that the information I'm digging up has something to do with me, my past, and my unique circumstances. Also, start introducing those breadcrumbs early. I need to know that my unique story is, in fact, part of the overall narrative and that I'm not just conveniently placed to save the world just because. Giving the player character the personal quest of rediscovering their own identity would also fix the issue of lacking motivation. If John Bourbon enlisted me by saying "Look, we know the zombies are coming from Burial Hill and you also came from that direction, maybe by killing them you can learn something about your past?" I would be far more motivated to help him.

2. Key plot points aren't clear enough.
When something of major significance to the extended narrative of Grim Dawn happens, there is very little to indicate it. As far as I can tell, the entire first act only serves as a means to have the player accidentally bump into Ulgrim. Sure, there's the element of stopping the Aetherial attacks on Devil's Crossing, but the game could really jump right into act two without much suffering. There are some rare few bits of lore to be found that could later become relevant, but the problem is that the only way to get them is by carefully reading the notes that can be found in the world. Again, the issue is that of breadcrumbs or of needles in haystacks. It's hard to discern what information is really important and what can be harmlessly skipped.

How to fix it:
Key plot points could be highlighted with the addition of a few more short cinematics. The game into cinematic has a very distinct and charming artistic style and isn't so long that it's painful to watch. Additional videos of similar style and length at key points in the plot would really make them stand out and help players build an outline of events that really matter in their head. Being able to go back to those cinematic for review later would also enable people to sort out aspects of the story that they might have gotten confused on earlier.

These cinematics could either be done from a first person perspective, with the characters speaking to the camera, or they could fully involve the player character. The later would be better, but would require the Crate team to make versions for both the male and female character. As an animator myself, I understand that this could lead to a significant increase in work but I really do think it would be the most effective option. Sure, they could simply decide that one or the other was the intended character and leave it at that, but as I said earlier and in my post about Grim Dawn character design: If you give the player a choice, make that choice matter.

Highlighting the breadcrumbs of information in the world could be done my giving lore notes that are actually important to the plot voice over readings. I know, I know many people hate, or at least profess to hate, audio diary type devices in games. The fact of the matter is that they keep being used as a means of providing background to complex stories because they are effective. Hearing a voice over kick in the moment I click on one of the notes would give me a reason to pause and pay attention to what is going on. Any notes that don't contain super significant information would be there for the benefit of the hardcore lore hounds that just have to know everything and could go without the voice overs.

3. I don't care about the right characters.
Ulgrim and Creed are apparently two of the most important NPCs in the game when it comes to the story. I would have never guessed it though because they spend most of the game being little more than talking heads. At the end of the game, something happens to one of them and the dialog boxes seem to suggest that I'm supposed to care, but I don't because I've never had any reason to develop a rapport with either of them. Two characters I do care about, because the intro shows them to me as more than just quest hubs, are Captain John Bourbon and Sahdina; they apparently don't matter at all after act one.

How to fix it: ***Spoilers Ahead***
More cinematics would go a long way toward fixing this. Giving the player interactions with them that go beyond being quest hubs would be another. At this point, both Ulgrim and Creed just kind of stand around and talk at me. A few of the things they say are kind of relevant to the plot but the dialog suffers from the same problem as the lore notes, which is that there isn't much to separate the stuff that matters from the stuff that doesn't. Furthermore, as evidenced by my expectation that Bourbon and Sahdina would actually be major characters, just putting a character in a cinematic makes them instantly more human to the audience than if they are just man shaped blobs that give us our objectives.

For Ulgrim, making his introduction stand out from the other random NPCs you meet in the wilderness would go along way to making a difference. I personally think that he would have much more impact if he were a prisoner in Warden Krieg's chamber, rather than a random wilderness encounter. He could still come at us with the same story about being a nobody who just happened to get captured, but it would at least plant the seed that he's someone important. After his true nature is revealed, it would help to develop him as a character if there were sections of the game where he accompanies the player in accomplishing tasks. Random interactions and witty commentary would develop him into a more complete person and could even result in our having a reason to like him. That way when he disappears, we'll actually have a reason to miss him. On the topic of his disappearance, that would sell much better if it happened in a post boss fight cinematic rather than in the middle of the fight. As it is, I barely even noticed he was gone.

As for Inquisitor Creed, giving him a more dramatic introduction would also help. After reading all of his journals, a well done cinematic intro could have given him more of a heroic status in the view of the player. Creed should feel like a person we look up to and seek for guidance, a Grim Dawn version of Deckard Cain, if you will. Instead he's just kind of an awkward extra wheel. Having him become a companion during the push to Fort Ikon would be an awesome additional way to develop him. As it is, he sends me to clear a path to the fort, but is already there when I arrive, as if he got there by some form of teleportation. Additionally, where previously the developers only give us bread crumbs about things, they seem to be giving us bread slices in trying to convince us that Creed isn't really to be trusted. They are so heavy handed in their approach to making him to be suspicious that their efforts are almost suspicious. Either they are making it so obvious that it can't be missed, or they are trying to distract us from the real threat. In either case, the effect is rather off putting; patronizing in the least, and condescending at worst. It's all the more annoying because if his betrayal should indeed prove to be both sudden and inevitable, I would care, because they've given me no reason to trust or like him in the first place.

4. My actions don't matter.
I totally get that a major aspect of ARPGs is that the world mostly resets for each play session, otherwise how would we grind for loot? This doesn't mean that when I do something that is supposedly significant to the plot that it should make a permanent difference. I think that the perfect example of this is when Captain Bourbon sends me to secure the Burrwitch Village Portal. Ostensibly, my reason for doing so is that it will enable Devil's Crossing to retake the village, but when I succeed, no effort is made to follow up on that.

How to fix it:
If you send me to secure a portal so that you can clear a village, you better damn well send troops through to clear the village. As it is, the entire first act comes across as if everything you're doing for Bourbon is just a minor convenience that he doesn't really care about. "Oh, you actually managed to secure the portal? To be honest I was kinda hoping you'd just get killed and be one less mouth to feed!" Sending a few Devil's Crossing militia through the secure the area around the portal would help to alleviate this problem. When a player goes to great lengths to accomplish a task, make sure that there is a clear result of the task being accomplished.

5. There is a lack of escalation.
While the enemy mobs do indeed gradually become tougher, there isn't a real sense of rising action to a climactic end. There was no feeling that something intense was about to happen leading up to each of the story boss fights. I never realized I was in their chamber until I was already into the encounter. I didn't even realize that Loghorrean was the final boss until the game told me I had unlocked ultimate difficulty. I knew that he was bad, for sure, but I didn't know he was the end. It didn't help that the mini-boss right before him was actually a much harder fight.

How to fix it:
It's all about ambiance. For the most part, the areas leading up to the encounters with the story bosses don't look any different than the rest of the zones they are in. This samey-sameness takes away from the feeling that anything important is happening. That kind of casual level design works great for a game where you have to unlock the boss room, because the act of bringing the key to the door to unlock it has it's own sort of intensity. It doesn't work for a game where you can just stroll in. The environment should reflect the fact that something wicked this way comes, and at this point it really doesn't. Loghorrean is an exception to this rule, as his zone is full of eldritch tentacles, but because none of the other bosses had intense build ups, it kind of went by unnoticed. When all else fails, nothing works better than an intense upswing in enemy numbers and difficulty, and anyone who has ever played a final fantasy game can tell you the benefit of having awesome boss music.

In conclusion:
The Crate Entertainment team have done an amazing job of creating an immersive world for us to play in. The skeleton of a story they have laid out could be phenomenal if they would have just bothered to keep it more in focus. If you aren't a person who cares much about story, then I suppose you would be non-plussed, but I think it's a shame that such a rich world isn't getting the sort of narrative outing it deserves.

All of that aside, Grim Dawn is a delightfully solid ARPG experience. More well known reviewers than I, are right to call it the first true successor to Diablo II. It is that good. Any minor complaints I could have about loot balance and the difficulty curve, are things that all ARPGs take time to work out. Afterall, even Diablo II is still getting patched after all of these years. I think that Crate Entertainment is to be commended on an excellent first outing. I only hope that Grim Dawns inevitable expansion content will continue to be excellent where they already are, and will improve where they are not.
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Old 03-27-2016, 01:12 AM
mhlg mhlg is offline
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sd.schpmn

You do know that only a few of us will actually read your post? Many of your points are valid! Yes the story could use more depth and character development, but for now it's finished. I would like to see some puzzles that develop across all the acts. Puzzles that when solved provide item rewards, or a skill reward. In future builds all of that might come to fruition, but the current game was built with a limited developer staff and the outcome for it's accomplishments, is quite impressive.
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Old 03-27-2016, 01:42 AM
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Link to original article: http://threesecondrush.blogspot.com/...truggling.html

**************

Great writeup! Thanks for taking the time to plot and write it out!

I don't agree with much of it at all!

Quote:
We aren't even provided with a decent reason why our character should be motivated to go on our quest, after all John Bourbon flat out tells us that we're expendable to him, why should be risking our lives for the people who just tried to kill us?
But...you are provided with a reason for going on quests. The first quest is to get you access to the inner part of Devil's Crossing, as John Bourbon does not yet know whether or not you can be trusted. Why doesn't he know this? Because you were just possessed by the arch-enemies of mankind, that's why. So, initially, you work to build up trust with the Survivors. Beyond that, you work to secure the continued existence of the Survivors - why? Because you're a Survivor now, too; sit idly by and surely Warden Krieg's forces would overwhelm Devil's Crossing before long.

After that, you ensure survival against the bandits of Cronley. Sure, you could have left that bridge unrepaired forever, but you also need food, and there's an army of Cronley's goons between Devil's Crossing and the farmlands of Homestead. Cutting off the head of that snake - Cronley - should help disintegrate the power of that army. And so the story continues on and on...

Quote:
Some of the readable lore notes may or may not provide bread crumbs as to the players back story, but they are far too indistinct for there to be an certainty
As far as I know, not a single lore note contains any info about the player's backstory. The player character is not the story of the game, nor should it be. We're but one small piece of a grander stage.

Quote:
Make my choices matter. If you don't want the player character to have definitive back story and you plan on sticking with the amnesia story, fine, but if you're going to give me choices then they damn well better make a difference beyond what loot I get or how much experience I receive. If I save someone, just having them say "thank you" when I get back to town isn't really enough to make me feel like it mattered.[1] Have them start a quest chain, or provide me with valuable information, or open up a new area of the map. Have them join the town guard and help fight off attackers. Have them do anything that makes it seem like my choice made a difference.[2]
[1] Why not? Saving people's lives would certainly matter to those you saved. If you prevent someone from getting run over by a car, does it only matter to you if they reward you in return? Seems pretty selfish.

[2] In Grim Dawn, you live in the very embodiment of a post-apocalyptic world. If everyone you saved had the full resources and potential to reward you in exceptionally powerful ways, that wouldn't seem very realistic. Why should some random schmuck off the road have leagues of military intelligence and battlefield experience to set you up in fighting against the Aetherials/Chthonians/Cronley's Men?

And have you replayed the game to see what happens when you don't save someone? If you do, you'll realize the consequences of your actions.

Quote:
When something of major significance to the extended narrative of Grim Dawn happens, there is very little to indicate it. As far as I can tell, the entire first act only serves as a means to have the player accidentally bump into Ulgrim.
It seems your view of what a story needs is vastly different from that of those of us in favor of GD's story. Correct me if I am wrong, but it appears that you expected to play through Grim Dawn and be given a story as would be seen from a book - that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and all of it is written for the reader. That is not the case here. Grim Dawn's story is not directed toward players, that's the beauty of it. The story exists, but if you want it, you need to go looking for it. In that regard, no, there is no 'point' to Act 1, save for that which I've mentioned above (in protecting Devil's Crossing). You are not told a story throughout the game, you create one instead. Welcome to RPGs.

Quote:
Sure, there's the element of stopping the Aetherial attacks on Devil's Crossing, but the game could really jump right into act two without much suffering.
Well, yeah. You can, in fact, skip the entirety of Act 1 if you wish. I do on most of my new characters nowadays. Grim Dawn is somewhat of an open-world game.

Quote:
Key plot points could be highlighted with the addition of a few more short cinematics.
Quote:
More cinematics would go a long way toward fixing this.
Ugh, goodness, please no. What's more immersion-breaking than a pre-rendered cinematic that spontaneously appears in the middle of your gameplay before letting you get back to things?

Again, Grim Dawn does not force its story upon players. If people want to go looking for a story, they'll find one. For everyone else - those that are here for the loot and combat and character progression - very little is made to get in their way. You get out of Grim Dawn what you put into it.

Quote:
There was no feeling that something intense was about to happen leading up to each of the story boss fights. I never realized I was in their chamber until I was already into the encounter.
I...can't help but disagree completely. I almost have to ask if you'd been paying attention through you playthrough?

One of my fondest moments of Grim Dawn was going through Cronley's Hideout for the first time. Trudging along, slaying bad dudes left and right, and then suddenly I spot some Aetherial-green at the edge of my screen. What?!? I get a little closer and see the crystals embedded into Cronley's men, and see that they're labeled as 'Ascended' and 'Chosen'. A great OHSHIT feeling passes over me as I come to understand that Cronley had made a deal with the Aetherials, that he was another engine of war in the grand stage of the game. When I first played the game, there weren't many Aether Crystals outside Cronley's arena, but there are now. Look below that bridge you cross and you'll see a vast pit filled with Aether Corruption. If that's not ominous and foreboding of what's ahead of you, I don't know what is.

Warden Krieg had significant buildup, too, mostly due to the tremendous size and enemy-density of the Warden's Cellar/Underground Transit/Warden's Laboratory. Karroz, Sigil of Chthon had some great buildup too; corpses lined up on the walls with a flow of blood into the greater room. Oh, that blood line was really something to find for the first time too. It was not just that it was there for all to see, but you had to follow it, finding Karroz for yourself.

And you have an entire act of buildup for the Loghorrean.
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Old 03-27-2016, 01:43 AM
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Leninator Leninator is offline
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I don't understand why people are looking for THE big story in an arpg/H'n'S...

You talk a lot about "more cinematic", look at Diablo 3, gorgeous cinematic and a very very bad story ! I played a lot of D3, vanilla mostly, when you have seen cinematic one time you just push "escape" the next time. Why Crate should spend a lot of ressources in that kind of stuff ? It's useless and even annoying because we will all restart other characters and press "escape" a lot more. Even with only 1 character you'll see the story 3 times !
If you want a good story, better play true rpg, like BG-like games, Elder Scrolls, Fallout, etc... There is a lot of rpg with "good"stories.

Those who play H'n'S are not here for the story, that's not what we are waiting for. The core of the game is the character optimization via skills and items.
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Old 03-27-2016, 02:14 AM
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I disagree with most of this. Your main problem seems to be that if there is no movie, in your mind it did not happen. I cannot think of anything less important for a game.

I have never had an in-game movie that I considered important to have. At best it did not annoy me the first time around (they always will the second time around if I cannot skip them). While some had good visuals, I never felt they added enough to justify their existence, let alone their cost.

Last edited by mamba; 03-27-2016 at 02:24 AM.
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Old 03-27-2016, 02:32 AM
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I disagree that the game is flawed in the ways OP described. However I also disagree with those that say story doesn't matter at all. Sometimes I feel like these people would be equally happy just building their character and fighting in an arena all day long. I like quests, lore, characters, story, and world exploration, and I like the suggestion to add more cinematics, at key points (between acts). However I just don't think the game "needs" them as badly as OP would seem to think.
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Old 03-27-2016, 06:03 AM
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I have to agree with Leninator. Diablo 3 has most, if not all of what you are talking about OP, and it ruined the actual quest part of the game. The story is not very good anyway, and was clearly developed by WOW people that could give a shit less about Diablo Lore.

I also agree that most of the time, the cinematics are usually skipped. I always watched them in D2, but there was only one between each act and they were awesome. What if, for example, the Crate team decided to make some cinematics instead of the faction or devotion system? The game is fucking awesome as is, and I hope like hell they stay on the same course.
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