I’m troubled by Defiance. Not so much by the numerous glitches, connection issues, and lag, mind you. I certainly expect that Trion Worlds is working night and day to spruce the technical things up, and I’m hoping that soon enough I’ll be playing a sharp, fun, MMO from the comfort of my 360. But from the second my character showed on-screen to when I powered down for the night there was a problem: the silent protagonist.
I love third-person shooters. I think they’re the best way to place a coherent, well-crafted story on a shooter’s framework, but typically they involve playing as someone other than yourself, like Max Payne from the eponymous series, or Marcus Fenix of Gears of War glory. The first-person shooter tries to push the player further into the game character’s role, but too often in a Battlefield or Call of Duty you end up just being a grunt watching the action, maybe choosing a story branch here and there. Those games are primarily about the gunplay; it’s fun, but the story often gets carried by NPCs while the player is an observer. So third-person + shooter = story, while first-person + shooter = player immersion, and that was the dynamic for shooters for a long time.
Mass Effect broke that dynamic.
More than simply choosing branching paths or listening to pre-scripted dialogue, the Mass Effect series let me sculpt my own Shepard: every line, every choice was mine to make. Shepard was Shepard, yes, but Shepard was also me, he was Joshua Shepard: hero of the people. Commander of the Normandy. Friend of Garrus. Lover of Miranda. Enemy of the Reapers. His choices were my choices, his successes my joys, his failures my shame. It might have been Shepard on the screen, but I was the one who made the decisions that saved some crew members lives and cost others theirs. Say what you will about Mass Effect 3, but with the exception of the ending it was one of the most profound, awe-inspiring games I’ve ever played, and I’m pretty sure Joshua Shepard was why.
Though I didn’t share a name with The Walking Dead’s protagonist, Lee, I experienced almost twice the amount of fear, concern, and heartbreak venturing through Lee’s life in Telltale Games’ 5-episode long, soul-wrenching series. If you think that The Walking Dead is about zombies, guess again: it’s about parenthood. And as a man unwilling to venture near the pathways of parenthood, I wasn’t ready for the emotional rollercoaster of guiding the scared, abandoned Clementine through the living nightmare that was life outside of Atlanta after the outbreak. Every choice Lee made, every word Lee said had something to do with me, my choices, my opinions. Clementine isn’t Lee’s daughter, so even by extension Clementine isn’t my daughter, either. That’s certainly not how it felt.
I understand that Defiance doesn’t really fall into the same vein as any of the games I just listed. Being an MMO changes the expectations, for sure. Maybe you’ll say I’m not supposed to gain life lessons or profound experiences from an MMO. But look at The Old Republic, Bioware’s Star Wars-based MMO that didn’t pull the profits they wanted, but still has renown as a quality game. You create your own character and influence the way your character’s dialog and story, even if there’s no voice to accompany your feats. In contrast, Defiance allows you to pick from one of four seemingly cookie-cutter classes, then interjects that character haphazardly into the story as a VaultArkHunter, placing you on the planet to complete random missions while looking for special technology. Your role in the dialog, the decision making? None. It’s all about silence, fetching quest upon quest to gain EXP in pursuit of…well, honestly, I don’t know what yet.
And now that I’m walking down the “Defiance feels vaguely like Borderlands” route, yes, I know Borderlands is pretty much all walking and fetch-questing, too. But Borderlands has STYLE. Every character you meet, every region you explore in Borderlands or Borderlands 2 has personality, charm… even the playable characters have liveliness, quirks, funny sayings…in contrast, Defiance offers a series of grunts, wails, moans, and a few awkwardly-placed greetings you can summon with the chat interface. Vallace, the Veteran gunner I created that’s walking the grounds of Defiance‘s not-Pandora, generically takes orders, runs from quest to quest shooting the things that appear in-between. At one point in time, that used to be alright. That’s not the case for me anymore.
At the end of all this, I try to keep in mind that this is only Defiance‘s first week on the shelves, and I’m not horribly deep into the game, but I don’t know how deep I’m even interested in getting. It was one of my favorite games of E3 2012, and launching alongside a SyFy (I hate that spelling) TV series of the same name could bring a host of characters, events, and drama into the game’s universe. It offers great amounts of sheer gameplay, with giant PvE scenarios that require damn near a platoon’s worth of live players to tackle. Maybe Defiance just feels hollow right now because the show hasn’t actually premiered yet and the Trion team is holding some things back.
I want to love Defiance, I want to be hooked on the show every Monday just to find out how the game world will change on Tuesday. From a gameplay perspective Defiance-the-game could have a ton to offer. But if Defiance-the-franchise is going to really envelop me in its universe of TV plotline and gaming to make me feel involved, either Vallace or I might need to be able to get a word in edgewise.