The Division and Kicking the Narrative Can

There are spoilers for The Division in this post. 

the division

I recently completed the story missions for The DivisionI had enjoyed the game for what it was, ripped from libertarian pages of a 1990s Tom Clancy thriller, and despite an immense amount of eye-rolling about the worldview, I was in for the long haul.

I’m unhappy with the project post-completion, though, and it’s because the game insists on always kicking the can of narrative down the road. Look, I get how this goes: how do you make a coherent, engaging narrative in an eternally-playable almost-MMO frame of a game? How do you square the end of a narrative with a distinct desire for a game to never end?

The end of a story is a really beautiful and difficult moment. People interacting with that narrative often want it to go on forever, and the infinite extension of intellectual property often helps alleviate that difficulty on the corporate side while fan fiction and general story thinking on forums can alleviate it on the fan side (a friend who also really enjoyed Until Dawn has told me that a lot of that game’s fan fiction has to do with what happens afterward).

The Division is, to be blunt, light on story, but I really enjoyed the tightness of what is given to us. The security, engineering, and medical branches of the base the player is located out of all have specific issues that they need help with, and fixing those issues (while defeating each of those branches’ antagonists) provides a really nice structure for some explicit “go here, do this, learn that” narrative experience. It’s clean and explicit, and there’s very little grey area for interpretation–it’s a wonderful translation of Clancy to my living room.

The end of the game puts the player in a final mission to defeat the leader of The Last Man Battalion, a private military corporation that has betrayed the “true values” of American soldiering to become a dominating opposing force in plague-destroyed Manhattan. That last mission involves assaulting and retaking the United Nations, and the final fight of the mission against a helicopter is the most unique and complicated fight in the entire game so far. From the perspective of what I need to do mechanically in the game, it’s an amazing culmination that took all of me and my teammate’s mental energy and competence.

When it was over, we both wandered around the arena. One of us intoned a “that’s it?” We wandered around looking for a cursory cutscene trigger or literally anything that would help us make sense of what the hell we were supposed to be doing now.

The answer was nothing. There’s a “mysterious signal” to investigate where we found an echo (a kind of 3D memory) that told us the obvious DLC plans of a First Wave Division member who explained that he was going to make even more viruses to attack New York with. We were also given a prerendered cutscene that explained the ecoterrorist desires of the original plaguemaker (Tom Clancy’s universe always seems distinctly 1990s).

I was left wondering what the point was. It’s clear that there’s no payoff in a narrative sense in the game, and it didn’t seem like that was an issue. Putting twenty hours into a game to “complete” seemed to clearly be a minor form of investment for the team, and the final echo scene felt more like a “tune in next time” strategy of midcentury television.

I’m not writing this to be critical of The Division or to trash talk what is there (like I said, it’s a really gratifying bundle of stuff), but I do wonder if we need better language and conceptual design to deal with extensive worlds. It seems like the solutions that we’re presented with in games like World of Warcraft or Destiny is to present the player with a clear arc, but even that feels absent here. This is a clear structure of nodes and their relationship to one another, but it doesn’t feel as engaging as those previous games, and I would love to figure out why.

If you have any design-centered stuff on narrative design for MMOs I would love to read it.

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