Desert Nomad: Immersion, atmosphere, and roleplaying in Black Desert

Hello friends, and welcome back to Desert Nomad, your more or less biweekly source of ramblings that are almost guaranteed to be at least tangentially related to Black Desert. As is custom around these parts, since I spent last week’s column pretty much roundly criticizing the game, I’d like to swing the emotional pendulum back in the other direction this week by discussing something that is near and dear to my heart: roleplaying.

Specifically, I’d like to talk about roleplaying in Black Desert – surprise, right? I know that I spend a lot of time, both in this column and in other pieces I’ve written, talking about the finer details of the games I cover – mechanics, game systems, and the like. While those underlying nuts and bolts have a lot to do with whether or not I find a game fun from the start, once I’ve hit max level, geared up, seen the sights and so on, there has to be a reason for me to keep logging in every day. For me, that reason isn’t the daily quests, the raids, or the PvP — it’s the roleplay.

Immersion across the worlds

As some of you are bound to have noticed, I’ve done my fair share of game-hopping throughout my MMO career. I’m sure many of you have done the same. I’ve had countless affairs with almost every game in the genre that’s hit the market in the past 15 years or so, and most of them have been brief, ephemeral flings. But every so often, a game has actually managed to sink its hooks into my fickle, fleeting heart.

These special games have been varied and often rather disparate from one another. I’ve been enraptured by Age of Conan’s Hyboria with its brutal low-fantasy vibe; I’ve been ensorcelled by the madcap sci-fantasy galaxy of WildStar; and of course I’ve been enthralled by the epic-fantasy hijinks in World of Warcraft’s Azeroth. And then there’s Black Desert, which goes without saying. My point is, no matter how different these games have been thematically or mechanically, the one tie that binds them is the simple fact that each one immersed me in its world and provided me the tools (and of course, the community) to create characters and weave stories that kept me logging in long after I hit the level cap.

Many MMOs, including the aforementioned WildStar and World of Warcraft, don’t tend to include much in the way of built-in roleplaying features, often relying instead on player-created addons to provide them. Black Desert, however, doesn’t support addons, and so roleplayers have to work with the tools that Pearl Abyss/Daum has seen fit to grant them, which admittedly aren’t always ideal. But even though Black Desert may not have all the shiny, quality-of-life bells and whistles to which roleplayers in addon-enhanced (or notably robust and polished) games may be accustomed, it does offer a smorgasbord of intricate details that I feel impart Black Desert with a degree of immersion that most of today’s MMOs simply do not provide.

Intros, chatting, and sitting in chairs

There’s one feature that has become a standard requirement for roleplaying communities across almost all modern MMOs: The ability to identify other roleplayers and, ideally, to describe and introduce your character to others – I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers spending hours trying to write the perfect FlagRSP profile, am I? While Black Desert doesn’t provide a feature dedicated solely to RP flags and descriptions, it does provide one that passably serves the purpose, as long as you know where to look for it.

If you open your character window and look near the top of the panel, you’ll see a little button that says “Introduce.” You’ve probably seen it, in fact, even if you don’t realize it, because the game highlights it with a little red, pulsating border to draw it to your attention. If you click it, it’ll open up a little text entry window where you can, well, introduce yourself. Admittedly, you don’t get a whole lot of space to type – certainly not enough for the novellas of character descriptions, backstories, and (shudder) theme songs prevalent with more spacious RP addons – but it at least gives you enough room to proclaim your status as a roleplayer, and if you’re particularly economical with your words, provide a short description of your character.

Yeah, I know, it’s not ideal. Neither, for that matter, is the game’s provided roleplaying channel, which is a global channel that consumes one energy per message sent. But I can’t really count that against Daum, since it’s honestly somewhat surprising that the devs were mindful enough of the roleplaying community to add it to begin with. And besides, I know that many roleplayers, included me, prefer to do their RP face-to-face in local chat. Still, I can’t help but wish for the ability to create custom chat channels for those times when you want to open a line of in-character communication between players who don’t belong to the same guilds.

But despite the fact that Black Desert may not particularly cater to roleplayers in regard to providing the quality-of-life features like those that have made it so easy to identify kindred spirits in the wild (and to read 40-page histories of their lineages, accomplishments, heartbreaks, and favorite lunch meats), I think that the real beauty of roleplaying in Black Desert shines in the minute details of the game, details that serve to breathe life into what would otherwise be just another stagnant virtual fantasy world.

If there’s one thing that roleplayers tend to do a lot of time doing, it’s sitting. Yeah, I know, not all RP is tavern RP, where players are bunched around a table swapping stories, downing flagons of ale, starting drama (the good kind), and so on, but let’s be realistic: a lot of it is. This can be an unexpected point of frustration for many roleplayers when they discover that there’s no way to actually sit the hell down without it looking like your character has never before encountered a chair and is still trying to figure out how exactly they work.

Black Desert’s solution to this little conundrum is fairly simple: If you back your character up to an empty chair (or any other roughly chair-height surface) and move backwards, he’ll sit on the chair. Pretty easy. Admittedly, this isn’t exactly the most elegant solution to “the chair problem” – that award, as far as I’m concerned, goes to Final Fantasy XIV, which smartly places your character in the nearest empty chair when you use the sit emote – mostly because it’s impossible to get directly in front of many chairs (usually because they’re too close to their accompanying tables), so sometimes you have to settle for sitting side-saddle.

However, Black Desert compensates for that shortcoming (in my opinion) by providing you with some neat options that few other games do: For instance, you can change your sitting posture by pressing the ‘Q’ key while seated, allowing you to adopt poses ranging from “stiff and uptight” to “totally chill, bro” (as illustrated in the screenshot to the left). But maybe your character’s not really much for sitting, or perhaps all the chairs are occupied and you feel awkward just standing at the table. No worries; you can just put your character’s back up against a wall, press the ‘S’ key, and enjoy your character’s newfound aura of nonchalance as he or she leans coolly against it, like the observant and worldly adventurer he or she is.

Customizable emotes and keywords

There’s also, of course, the requisite array of emotes, although some of them have to be unlocked by completing certain tasks in the game. Black Desert’s selection of emotes might not be quite as expansive as in some other games, but there are certainly enough to fit your needs in all but the most bizarre RP scenarios. That is to say, if your character’s a dancing contortionist mime, you’re probably gonna hafta use your imagination.

But one of the most interesting features of Black Desert’s emote system is fairly well hidden, tucked away in a seldom-seen and easy-to-miss menu. If you hit the enter key to open your chat box, then click the little button marked with an ‘S,’ you’ll discover your emote menu, where you can browse all of your available emotes and their respective slash-commands (which, by the way, are customizable).

But the cool bit is just below that, under the section labelled “Keyword Settings.” Beneath that header, you’ll see three text boxes, each containing a single word, which can be changed to any (non-profane) words of your choice. Whenever you use one of these key words in chat, your character will automatically perform the corresponding emote animation. For instance, my “/yawn” emote is set with the keywords “tired,” “sleepy,” and “yawn,” so if I were to type in chat, for instance, “I’m getting a little sleepy,” my character would accompany that bit of speech with a yawn.

I personally love that the developers thought to add this special little touch, but it does come with a couple of caveats. Firstly, the keywords are case-sensitive, meaning that in the above example sentence, the yawn emote would be triggered by the keyword “sleepy,” but not “Sleepy” with a capital ‘s.’ On a similar note, your chat text does not have to exactly match an emote’s keyword, it needs only to include it to trigger the emote. So in the example above, my “/yawn” emote would play if my character were to ask another, “Would you please stop yawning?” That is, it recognizes the keyword “yawn” despite the “-ing” tacked onto it. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what your keywords are, so choose them wisely.

The second caveat is that your keywords will trigger their respective emotes regardless of the channels in which said keywords are detected, which may result in some mildly uncomfortable (and/or hilarious, depending on your perspective) roleplaying situations. Let me set the scene for you: The roleplay event of the evening is a funeral, and your avatar is seated among the throng of mourners who have come to pay their respects to a friend and compatriot, whose death was probably a last-ditch effort to wrap up a story arc that had been drawn out entirely too long. C’est la vie – or c’est la mort, I suppose.

At any rate, you’re at this funeral, and the eulogy’s been going on for so long that you wonder if you might die before it’s over. But the bereaved man at the podium doesn’t seem to have even reached the climax of his meticulously prepared speech – not one word of which will be left unspoken. So of course you’re grateful for the distraction when your friend shoots you an out-of-character whisper, a scathingly witty dig at the droning orator, and without thinking, you send your response: “LOL!”

The somber silence is suddenly torn asunder by the sound of your character – a hulking, thunder-voiced Berserker, natch – letting loose a bellowing, knee-slapping guffaw. If the game had a hotkey that made characters slowly turn their heads and venomously glare at someone, you would be the target of every pair of eyeballs in the room, all because you forgot that you had set the keywords for your “/laugh” emote to “LOL,” “ROFL,” and “LMAO.”

So yeah, I guess you could say that your mileage may vary on that one. But if you put some consideration into your keyword choices, you may find that they add a nice dash of flavor to the walls of text that typically comprise most roleplaying sessions. Alternatively, if you’d rather not risk the above scenario of mortuary mortification (sorry), you can always just eradicate the keywords altogether, thus ensuring that your character only laughs out loud when you bloody well tell him to.

Climbing, armor wear-and-tear, and weather

I actually have a pretty substantial list of other, smaller features and details that I’ve found to combine to lend Black Desert a layer of immersion that few other games, if any at all, can parallel. You can climb things! No more awkwardly interrupting a relaxing in-character stroll just to get a running start so you can hurdle that waist-high fence; just climb over it like a normal person! And no more having to pretend that your character – a mountain-climbing acrobat by day and a legendary jewel-thief by night – didn’t just walk around the side of that building when the scene dictated that she make a dashing escape to the rooftops.

Armor actually shows physical wear-and-tear as its durability drops, which is great for when you need a look that just screams, “I was recently mauled by a ruthless posse of rabid jerboas!” I also think it’s pretty neat that crouching/going prone renders your character’s nameplate invisible (to non-guild and -party members, at least), allowing you to sneakily tail other players as you try to overhear their super-secret conversations without being forced send them OOC whispers to ask if they’d kindly pretend they don’t see you. Also, did you know that a lot of the NPCs you see wandering the roads are actually other players’ workers, going about their assigned duties? I thought that was pretty spiffy, anyway.

I’d also like to give a mention to the many environmental effects that I think really give a sense of reality to the game world and anchor our characters in it: When you decide to take a swim in the river, your character is visibly wet even after he’s back on dry land. When your character’s been running around for hours in the blazing sun, he sweats. When your character cuts down a swarm of naga, the blood covers his armor. And his face, and the floor, and the walls — You get the idea.

And last but not least, the weather and time of day actually matter! This is, admittedly, more of a mechanical feature that just happens to lend to the RP experience, but still, I think it’s pretty neat that you can only dry fish when the sun’s out. I think it’s neat that it requires more stamina to run and fight in a thunderstorm, reflecting the additional exertion necessary to maintain a foothold on slippery terrain. And yes, I think it’s neat that it’s borderline impossible to see at night without the aid of a lantern to stave off the encroaching dark and the lurking monsters that are empowered by it.

No addons necessary

Black Desert’s roleplaying features may not boast the same degree of polish and convenience that players who are accustomed to tailor-made RP addons might have come to expect, but if you’re the kind of player who appreciates the little things, the simple joys of minor details that may not have been designed with roleplayers in mind but which nevertheless enhance the atmosphere of immersion on which good RP so heavily relies, I think there’s plenty to appreciate here.

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it; next time you’ve got some time to kill, just take a stroll through the streets of the nearest major city – I’m particularly fond of Calpheon, but any will do. I promise you that, at least on the Orwen server (and the Calpheon 02 channel, especially), you won’t be able to make it more than a few blocks before some kind of RP starts creeping into your chat window. I’m serious; in Calpheon city during primetime, you can’t spit without hitting a roleplayer in the face.

In fact, chances are good that I’m one of them (don’t spit on me, please; that’s why I bought an alpaca). At least as of this writing, the Black Desert roleplaying community seems to be thriving, and as I’ve spent the last few thousand words trying to articulate, I think that the game offers a uniquely pleasant RP experience for those with an appreciation for the minutiae of immersion.

To close this column out once and for all, I’d like to add two final things: First off, I wanna give an obligatory plug for Black Desert Roleplayers, which should be the first stop for anyone who wants to explore everything the Black Desert RP community has to offer. Secondly, whether you’re a veteran roleplayer who’s been at it since you were old enough to roll a d20 or you’re a fresh-faced first-timer who just wants to see what the deal with this whole roleplaying thing is, I implore you to take the opportunity to join the fun in Black Desert. Anyway, that’s all for now. As always, thanks for joining me, and I’ll see you next time, Nomads.

Every other week, join Desert-Nomad-In-Residence Matt Daniel as he wanders the sprawling expanse of Black Desert to discover what secrets lurk beneath its enigmatic sands. Gather ’round the oasis as he figures out how to survive and flourish (or fail spectacularly) on his adventures.
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