Storytelling is important to me. We, the players, often focus on the content of stories in our discussions, but of what use is a good story if the narrator is lulling you to sleep? The methods matter as well.
Immersion is my #1 priority in every MMO I play, and how the developers choose to tell their tales is an influential factor of course. Videogames in particular offer a wide range of tools, evident by the different styles of storytelling in LOTRO, SWTOR, ESO or GW2, to name a couple of MMOs I’m familiar with. I started musing about this topic after I played through TESO’s Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood DLCs, both of which have been a great experience.
SWTOR is somewhat unique, what with its focus on cinematic cutscenes complete with a dialogue wheel and extensive voice acting. These cutscenes are BioWare’s the go-to tool; they are visually stunning and incorporate lots of „natural“ aspects of a conversation, like gestures, postures and facial expressions which help create nuanced interactions. The dialogue wheel gives you some control over your character and even directly affects it via Light Side and Dark Side choices. The lightly cartoonish art style also deserves a mention here since it helps prevent uncanny-valley effects.
Unfortunately, almost all actions that drive the story forward are confined to these cutscenes, creating an artifical and somewhat awkward divide between the dynamic cinematics and the all too static rest of the world. BioWare makes little use of environmental changes, individual NPC models, animations, pathing, or idle dialogue (with other NPCs as well as with the PC), leaving quest areas and social hubs unable to match their one-of-a-kind cutscenes.
TESO is pretty much the opposite of that. The conversations are quite simple in the sense that they utilize a rather narrow range of animations and facial expressions and only ever involve a single NPC. Your own character never gets the chance to develop so much as a rudimentary personality since this simply seems to be no concern of ZOS‘ type of storytelling.
But TESO still manages to be a greatly immersive experience due to one thing: utilization of the whole environment. The Dark Brotherhood is a good example of that; to catch every detail of the implications of each step in the questline you have to pay very close attention and take your time exploring the sanctuary. This satisfies both people who just want to level without paying attention because it saves them time and players who like to explore and value a finely crafted piece of art. At the same time, the world comes to live.
The environment changes to reflect what happens over the course of the story, sometimes in the subtlest of ways. The NPCs involved are in different places and have different things to say depending on the situation, and interact with each other accordingly. Even the extent of environmental detail depending on where you are in the world is astounding. Every quest location sports unique art that was tailored to this specific step. You could say that even gameplay elements like the Blade of Woe contribute. And to top it all off, the characters are excellently written. This approach makes Tamriel an organic and cohesive world instead of just a backdrop for twenty minutes of cinematic flashiness.
Is one approach better than the other? Not necessarily. Everything still heavily depends on the vision of the developers, the game in general and the quality of the execution. But, personally speaking, I do prefer ESO over SWTOR at this point. Maybe I’m just jaded because my characters have been forcibly assimilated and relegated to the position of a bystander in KOTFE, though.