Vitae Aeternum: Analyzing New World’s storytelling

    
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I’ve been wanting to write this column for a while, but it’s been a struggle to find the words. I’m never sure of how to talk about New World‘s storytelling. I don’t want to oversell it… but I also don’t want to undersell it.

New World‘s story has gotten a lot of criticism, and I agree with virtually all specific criticisms leveled against it, at least to a point. But when people start saying that the story is totally without merit, or just plain bad, I balk at that. It definitely isn’t one of the best examples of storytelling in the MMO genre — at least not yet — but there’s good stuff there, lurking in the mists of Aeternum.

Let’s start by looking at quests, which are generally the main vehicle of story in an MMO. New World‘s quests are pretty poorly regarded, and I’m not going to claim they’re super special, but even here I think the quality is higher than some have claimed.

For example, pretty much every quest NPC does have a clearly defined personality and “voice” (in the literary sense, as well as the voice-over sense). It’s nowhere near the level of character depth you’d see in something like The Secret World or Star Wars: The Old Republic, of course, but it’s more than I’ve seen in many other MMOs.

It feels like genuine thought and care was put into crafting each NPC. Even if the quests are generally not deep enough to fully flesh them out, it’s usually enough to make them feel like real people, as opposed to glorified quest dispensers. It helps the world feel populated and alive.

Then there’s the main storyline, and yeah, it’s nothing special. At least not what I’ve seen; I’m not finished yet. But it serves its purpose. It gives you a sense of direction and purpose as you move through the game, while helping flesh out the backstory of the setting.

All that said, if you’re judging the quality of the story based only on the quests, you’re getting only about half the picture.

Much of the game’s best storytelling comes in the form of the random notes you find scattered around the game world. Some are forgettable filler, but some contain gripping standalone horror stories or essential lore revelations. Want to know why this game doesn’t have mounts? That’s in the notes (the in-world justification, anyway).

To really understand what’s going on in the land of Aeternum, you need to put together the pieces left by the notes, the side quests, and the main storyline. And maybe that’s why so many people are so down on the story; this is not a story the game just hands to you. It’s something you need to assemble for yourself. If you’re not actively looking for it, you won’t find it.

It’s not something that I’d want to see in every game, and even here I wouldn’t call it an unambiguous win, but it does kind of make sense for this setting. You’re not someone who grew up in this world. You’re a lost sailor washed up on the shore of the island, and you’re struggling to cope with your new reality. Having to fill in the blanks yourself fits with the game’s themes of exploration and self-sufficiency. Aeternum is a puzzle to be solved.

And once you start putting the pieces together, you realize there’s a pretty fascinating story here. Or at least fascinating lore. As in Grim Dawn, I’d draw a distinction between plot and lore. While the gulf isn’t as extreme as in Grim Dawn, New World does definitely have better lore than plot.

I don’t want to get too far into specifics for fear of spoilers, but the picture that’s coming into focus for me is that New World‘s story is an in-depth meditation on the psychological consequences of immortality. And that’s a really cool direction for a video game to go.

Something else that I appreciate about New World‘s setting is the way it can combine elements of real world culture and mythology from all across recorded history. Although not nearly as deep, it does call to mind the eclectic mixes of source material we saw in The Secret World. I had a moment a few weeks ago when I realized my 17th century explorer character was having a conversation with a millennia-old deserter from the Roman legion, and I just thought, “Wow, this is really cool.”

The current version of the game is pretty heavy on colonial-era European influences, but I expect as it evolves we’ll see a lot more representation from other times and regions. We’re already seeing some of this with Ebonscale Reach and the datamined Brimstone Sands zone (already foreshadowed in-game by the above-mentioned character), which combines ancient Egyptian and Roman themes.

It does help that my preferences when it comes to story lean more towards rich settings and high concept world-building, which is also where New World seems to be focusing its efforts. I do appreciate good character-development and engaging plotting — areas where New World is doing more poorly — but I’m more willing to settle for less in those areas if the setting and its underlying concepts grab me.

The feeling I’m left with is that story was not a priority for the New World team as a whole but that those who were put in charge of the story really threw themselves into it. If there’s one complaint about this game’s story I disagree with, it’s the idea that the developers didn’t care. Whoever wrote the lore behind this game clearly cared a lot.

It’s unlikely that New World will ever prioritize story itself to the extent of games like SWTOR or Final Fantasy XIV, but I do hope the studio puts more emphasis on it than it has so far. There is tremendous potential here, and even what’s already there — while deeply flawed — is a lot better than the community at large has given it credit for.

New World’s Aeternum is a land of many secrets. In MassivelyOP’s Vitae Aeternum, our writers delve those secrets to provide you with in-depth coverage of all things New World through launch and beyond.
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Bruno Brito

The story’s foundation for New World is actually really decent. Books scattered all around, a place of power, you don’t die, etc etc. It’s not really bad.

The problem, and this is a theme with the game itself, is conveyance. The game conveys everything in terrible ways. The systems are bad, the quests are awful, and no ammount of decent lore makes bad systems bearable. WoW has been proving this for a while now ( and WoW lore also gets worse by the minute, which…eh ).

A lot of New World gets lost in mechanical limbo, and the entire world-building takes a backseat. Specially considering how incredibly uninspired the towns are. It feels like they had a good concept going on, but the entire construction of the game was cutting corners.

Reader
H S

Storytelling in New World is just some last second addon, sure, it has a few highlights here and there but overall its just two voiced lines of dialogue that sends you on yet another kill/loot chest quest. The fact that I’m hard-pressed to recall any of the stories told in New World while at the drop of a hat can tell you all about a story in Age of Conan back in 2008 is quite damning.

Reader
Tremayne

Personally, I find this “there’s a story out there for you to go and discover if you’d like, if not you can just kill all the things” approach preferable to “and now you WILL sit through Yet Another Bloody Cutscene”.

For those who who like their cutscenes interspersed with occasional short bursts of gameplay, there are other MMOs :)

Reader
Chris Johnson

Fascinating!

As the game continues to leak players in droves every week, we have articles such as this one attempting to hard sell the game on…the strength of it’s storytelling??

What??

If you have to “look for the story,” this means you’ve failed to deliver it in a compelling way. A great story is supposed to capture a person’s attention on it’s own merits, then hold it, giving them a reason to care. There are numerous examples of great story telling in mmorpg’s. New World doesn’t hold a candle, even a flicker to any of those games. Not. Even. Close!

Trying to sell THIS game on story is quite the stretch, and making excuses at this stage isn’t going to stop the bleeding that so many who have played the game predicted would happen. What the game needs is A Realm Reborn style overhaul, but the devs at AGS clearly don’t have the level of experience to bring such a feat about.

Deep pockets alone do not make a great game!

Reader
Koshelkin

Yes, how daring of the author to like something that you do not. I hope he feels properly chastised by your thoughtful rebuke for his trivial arguments.

Reader
Chris Johnson

Your point is completely irrelevant. Not a single word in my statement personally attacks, criticizes, or chastises the author of the piece or their tastes in mmo storytelling. It’s entirely about the game itself.

So, what is your point?

Reader
Koshelkin

“Your point is completely irrelevant.” And by the power of your imagination you made it thus. Thanks for the thoughtful invitation to a friendly discussion!

Reader
Chris Johnson

I understand.

You have no point to make, you’re just interested in engaging anyone who doesn’t see things the same way as you do, which is hypocritical considering your original statement.

Your imagination is really the point here. You’ve imagined that somehow, I have personally attacked the author and by that same token, anyone who enjoyed New World for it’s….storytelling.

Feel free to imagine whatever you choose.

Enjoy!

Reader
Koshelkin

I never argued nor ever would that you personally attacked anyone here. Stop making things up.

Reader
Chris Johnson

“I hope he feels properly chastised by your thoughtful rebuke for his trivial arguments.”

Okay….

Reader
Bruno Brito

I’m just reporting all this crap you spouted.

Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

Er, yeah you did – you accused the writer of trying to “hard sell” the story and “making excuses” for the game. Tyler is literally a professional TTRPG author, and this is our dedicated column on the game where we generally discuss granular topics like this one. It’s fine to disagree, but you’re jumping around talking about playerbase bleeding and deep pockets, which doesn’t really have any bearing on whether the story is good.

Reader
Chris Johnson

Since when is the idea of hard selling a game or stating that someone is making excuses the same thing as a personal attack? A personal attack is when you attack THE PERSON, which is not the same as criticizing what they wrote about.

Seems to me the REAL issue here is you and others don’t like it when people criticize New World.

Too bad!

You will have your work cut out for you as I am hardly the only person with this opinion, which is WHY the game is bleeding players in droves!

End of statement.

Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

Yeah no.

Reader
Bruno Brito

What the fuck are you talking about?

Reader
wjowski

Whoops, wrong article

Reader
Jun Waddington

Wow, @Chris Johnson. I don’t always agree with the authors of this site, but your original comment here certainly read as an attack on the author to me. You seem dead set on making sure all comments and press about the game are negative, because anything else doesn’t validate your personal views.

Reader
Chris Johnson

I do not need anyone to validate my personal views or opinions. How I feel about a subject is validation enough. Also, your suggestion that I am “dead set on making sure all comments and press about the game are negative” is beyond ridiculous!

I made a singular statement disagreeing with the author of the piece, then responded to others who questioned what I stated. How is that equal to what you are suggesting? I have no trouble being disagreed with, it doesn’t change the way I see things.

Apparently, that’s a problem for others.

I think the game is a soulless, corporate, alpha build masquerading as AAA game. Nothing more! The initial success of the game was more than likely the result of the overwhelming marketing push. The rest speaks for itself!

Reader
Bruno Brito

I have no trouble being disagreed with, it doesn’t change the way I see things.

Apparently, that’s a problem for others.

Yeah, dude. The entire world must be wrong, not you. Keep that attitude up.

Reader
Chris Johnson

It’s hilarious how every statement I make here is taken out of context, twisted, and mischaracterized to mean something completely different.

That’s fine.

Reader
Jiminy Smegit

This game had a story? I mean, the broad strokes of the setting were perfect to tell a grand tale of colonial exploration, pirates, undead, lost treasures and so on but they utterly failed with that potential.

Those pages lying about are just an incredibly lazy method of story telling that should have been put into cut scenes or woven into long questlines. I generally read all the quest text in MMO’s but in this one, I spaced out of it pretty early once I realised how shallow and meaningless it all felt. I mean really, can you honestly remember any npc by name or the story that they told specifically? Every town was guy in inn wants macguffins, survivalist says go deal with threats while I sit here and town leader has a short quest chain to give you some zone cardio.

If they really wanted to do the story right, there would have been cutscenes, recurring characters with interesting plot hooks and actual quest rewards that were at least appropriate to you in some way. The dialogue was actually well written for the most part but that is irrelevant if it all felt like chapters from completely different books.

Reader
Hurbster

Now, about those copypasta towns…

Reader
kody

I absolutely love Ebonscale Reach. It and Brightwood are some of the best world design I’ve seen in an MMO.

Reader
Bereman99

Even taking the “this is a story that you need to put together yourself” it feels very much like a retread of similar stories and similar locales and similar ideas. To be fair, they wouldn’t be the first to retread, though, so for me it’s only part of the issue.

The bigger issue that I have with this approach is that it doesn’t really seem to use the other side of the “found notes/letters/journal” stuff, and that is using the environment around the item to help tell the story.

Text to read without something to connect it to in the game world visually might as well be codex entries on a website.

Part of the ability to do this is actually hampered by the lore they’ve chosen — skeletons and bodies left behind aren’t really a thing…least not ones that aren’t ambulatory…and that’s a common way to tell a quick environmental story in a setting like this.

Which is a shame, as the environment design is one area that is top notch in New World. Add in using the environment itself to tell the story and not just text entries from found documents, and you’d have something special.

As is, it’s just a okay implementation of the “piece part of the story together yourself” approach, and one that feels more like it was tacked on later rather than truly built into the world.

EmberStar
Reader
EmberStar

One thing I will give Fallout 4 credit for is the environmental storytelling. It’s not obvious or in your face (and given that the War happened over 200 years ago is honestly a little silly if you think about it to hard. At least out in the world where weather and scavengers would have destroyed the evidence decades ago.) But if you start looking, there’s lots of little scenes being played out by just the skeletons lying around.

A ruined house, with two of them embracing in a bed, and in what’s left of the kitchen are a handful of empty cans and nothing else. A ruined bank with a trio of skeletons laying next to duffel bags full of old world money, and another skeleton inside leaning out through the hole in the wall. Another ruined house, with only a single skeleton lying in the tub with a toaster between its feet.

Tiny little stories, some obvious, some not. Sometimes there’s a note connected to it, or some random piece of debris with a name that seems to connect. But a lot of it is just… there. You can find it if you want to look. Piece it together, wonder about it. Most of it is never pointed out, or explained. Who were the bank robbers? Did they die in the act when the bombs fell, or get in a fight with each other, or were they looters afterwards who were shot by whatever was left of the army or police?

Reader
Dug From The Earth

Heh… was so hoping this article would have just been,

“You shipwreck on an island with some weird stuff going on”

And thats it.

Or, it could have gone this route:

“New World has you investing the source of the corruption by sending you out to investigate the ruins and enemies themselves. Then, New World has you investing the source of the corruption by sending you out to investigate the ruins and enemies themselves. After which New World has you investing the source of the corruption by sending you out to investigate the ruins and enemies themselves. In order to wrap up the story and lead into future expansions it has you investing the source of the corruption by sending you out to investigate the ruins and enemies themselves.”