Defiance is an MMO. It’s also a Syfy television show. After the initial oddity of it all, it does make its own strange sort of sense. After all, who hasn’t wanted to hang out with their favorite TV show characters at some point or another — and, oh yeah, not have it all declared a pointless, irrelevant side story of decidedly non-epic proportions just a rung or two above fan fiction? By and large, though, Trion and Syfy have been pretty tight-lipped about how this “transmedia” monster will actually work. So I jetted out to Defiance’s elaborate reproduction of St Louis (located in Toronto for some reason) to find out, well, pretty much everything. Here’s how the two halves will Voltron up.
The Show: “How much can I really affect the show?” That’s been the biggest question surrounding Defiance since day one, and now we’ve finally got a straight answer. Unfortunately, it more or less amounts to “not much” — at least, initially. “The TV show is not choose-your-own-adventure or like the movie Clue,” said Syfy President of Original Content Mark Stern. “We know what we’re doing in the TV show, and this is about great, satisfying drama. We’re not letting people in the videogame decide which of our characters will get a broken leg, or if they succeed or fail. But we will create a sense that — if you’re into the game and the show — you’re enjoying these experiences holistically. They create a larger, more immersive experience.”
There will, however, be at least one character who crosses over from the show to the game, and then returns to the show to relay her experiences from her time on the sunny, shooty shores of a dystopian San Francisco. Meanwhile, the script contains a few select slots for references to exemplary players — well, assuming they’re from an alternate dimension where people don’t make up supremely silly names on the Internet, anyway. “They don’t get to be part of it [if their name is objectionable],” Senior Producer Rob Hill stated flatly. “We will let them know beforehand that they’d better pick their name appropriately, or they won’t be able to participate.”
And then there’s the coup de grace: Co-creator and Showrunner Kevin Murphy told me that the plan is to end season one by kicking off a contest to have a player’s character portrayed by a real, flesh-and-gooey-alien-blood actor on the show in season two. Finally, a shot at fame and glory — just like you always dreamed. Or maybe not at all like you always dreamed, unless you frequently dream that you’re a towering ape-beast or a DNA-devouring snake alien.
The Game: So the game won’t initially alter the show in any truly tangible way, but many events on both will occur in tandem. For instance, over the course of season one players will help stave off a plague born of human contact with Irathient aliens, experience major climate changes, and see an election from the show’s St Louis somehow spill over into the game’s San Francisco.
Syfy and Trion’s plans in the long run, however, are far more elaborate. Senior Producer Rob Hill explained: “During the off-season, we’ll tell stories that lead into the pilot of the second [season] and really allow us to have a huge impact on what happens in the second [season] based on what happens in the game. We’ll have a lot more lead time and know what players are doing. Right now, the game’s not launched. Once the season ends, we’ll be able to alter the show based on how players play the game, which will have a much bigger impact.”
The Show: Drama, drama, drama. Drama-rama. Drama llamas. Dramas in pajamas. To hear Defiance’s creators and actors tell it, the sci-fi-Western-meets-a-million-ETs backdrop is mainly in place to serve as a vehicle for character-driven tales of derring-do. In that respect, it reminds me a bit of Joss Whedon’s lost but definitely not forgotten Firefly, though I wasn’t shown enough footage to ascertain whether or not Defiance is aiming for a similarly wit-laden vibe.
That said, the characters and their problems will very much be products of the show’s unique setting, and Syfy’s sparing no expense (well, by Syfy standards, anyway) to make sure that comes across. For instance, it’s brought on David J. Peterson, who created Game of Thrones’ Dothraki language, to dream up impressively detailed cultures and histories for each of the Votan Collective’s seven individual races. Two species, Irathient and Castithan, have fully developed languages, which Peterson has even evolved to reflect changes between aliens who grew up on their home planets and those who’ve spent their entire lives on Earth. That fact alone, he told me, will lead to some big culture clashes — as will interplay between main characters like Chief Lawkeeper Jeb Nolan and his deputy, an Irathient girl named Irisa.
The Game: “Lights, camera, action!” Says Defiance: The TV show. Defiance: The MMO doesn’t much care for those first two parts. When it finally came time to actually play the game, I was stricken by just how far removed I felt from the show’s intimate, meticulously constructed universe. I mean, don’t get me wrong: there was decent (if not exactly amazing) fun to be had soaring through the air on ATVs and killing bandits with guns that mutated their body parts into self-destructing headcrab aliens. (Note: This weapon, The Infector, also worked on chickens. I probably should’ve felt bad about turning livestock into living grenades, but it was a shockingly effective tactic when I was pinned down.)
That said, I did encounter a couple fully voiced story mission cut-scenes, and — with the exception of some absolutely horrific voice acting on TV show main character Jeb’s part — they were easily a cut above standard MMO fare. Meanwhile, senior producer Rob Hill promised a focus on character development that’ll have fans of the show feeling right at home. “Basically, we do send the player through a primary narrative,” he explained. “They meet several characters early on, and they then progress with those characters over time. It’s these characters that are giving you missions over time, and you’re building relationships with them. We really couldn’t demonstrate that in a demo in an hour.”
On top of that, the world will be littered with BioShock-style data recorders, which apparently serve to put some pretty serious meat on even the most emaciated storylines’ bones. “We have one [instance] where there’s this psychotic guy at the end, but he put loudspeakers throughout the entire instance,” Hill enthused. “So as you go through, he’s screaming at you, and you find out that he is, in fact, psychotic. You don’t really know that when you start, but by the time you get to him, you’re like ‘I’ve gotta kill this guy. He’s nuts.’ And then the data recorders are telling the story of how he got as crazy as he is.”
Attention To Detail
The Show: It was a cold, damp morning when we arrived on Defiance’s film set — and the wind was doing its damndest to even the score by splattering my scalding-hot coffee all over my face — but I almost immediately lost myself in the world Syfy was trying to build. Sure, some of it looked a bit fake when I got really close, but the amount of detail packed into every inch of the built-from-scratch ramshackle town had me pretty well sold on the place. The doctor’s office, for instance, was stocked with veterinary supplies, since its clientele is largely made up of aliens.
I also didn’t encounter a single blank piece of paper or carelessly cast aside chunk of debris. Forms and notices were fully written, election propaganda adorned walls, filthy laundry hung from closelines, records advertised their selections of classic Earth music, and bars were adorned with bottled-up concoctions not of this world. The set was clearly designed to evoke feelings of an actual place even when large portions of it aren’t in use. I was hopeful, then, that the MMO would take a page from, say, The Secret World’s book and use similarly hyper-detailed environments to its advantage.
The Game: Unfortunately, I found very little of that once I started playing. Admittedly, the area Trion plopped me into for demo purposes was wide-open, hilly, and clearly designed to maximize the “wheeeeeeeeeeee” potential of our ATVs. But scattered quest hubs didn’t feature much in the way of character or characters. Amongst the barren slices of civilization, I found haphazardly strewn junk, repeating textures and structures, and a disheartening dearth of environmental storytelling. Bandit camps, meanwhile, were a bit better, but I didn’t really come across anything that left a lasting impression.
That said, Trion is apparently aiming to design environments that are more than just glorified playgrounds for power-mad MMO players. The goal is to make those moments count. “Oh, totally. Completely,” Hill replied when I asked if other areas would be more like those of the show. “We pick and choose where we want to do that. If you do it everywhere, it can be not only overwhelming for our artists, but also for players themselves. And we want those moments to be really special when we do present them.”
“[Dense detail] depends on the area you’re in. We definitely have areas that are more detailed than the area you saw today. And then we have some that are even more spread out depending on the environments and stories we want to tell. It also allows us to expand within the environments themselves. We’re an MMO, so we’re going to be constantly adding and plugging things in as we go forward.”
Who’s It For?
The Show: Anyone and everyone, according to Defiance’s creators. If you despise videogames, you won’t be left out in the cold. Murphy told me that the goal is for neither side to reign supreme. While the game might sometimes feed into the show and vice versa, it’s a matter of increasing the significance of certain moments, not filling in gaping, utterly essential blanks.
For example, the game actually kicks off two weeks before the show. During that time, the main story will see you paling around with Jeb and Irisa in pursuit of a special crystal. You end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting, so according to the terms of your arrangement, the crystal’s yours for the taking. Well, until Jeb snatches it right out of a heavily armored lockbox using whatever sort of dark magic one naturally produces by way of having too much rogue-ish charm, anyway.
Now, if you play the game, you’ll get some added mileage out of the crystal’s significance on the show. But if not, it’ll hardly be a deal-breaker.
The Game: This is where things get messy. On the upside, the show/game divide doesn’t seem like it will be much of an issue here, but the game itself might be casting its net a bit too wide. On one hand, it feels like a shooter from a control standpoint, but once I got into the swing of things, I realized I was marching off to battle atop my trusty, tried-and-tired MMO level treadmill. Go here, kill this thing, collect this thing, etc, etc, etc. Open-world PVP and random, Rift-esque events like Ark Falls spiced things up a bit, but even then, I kept stubbing my toes on the surprisingly thick line between MMO and shooter. I’m sorry, but headshotting some random thug four times before he finally calls it a life just doesn’t feel gratifying.
And that random thug? Dumb as dirt. Enemies hedged their bets on numbers — not smarts. Hill, however, assured me that they’ll have a few more tricks up their sleeves when Defiance launches next spring. “We’re actually working a lot on that,” he noted. “A lot of our focus has been on getting the moment-to-moment to feel awesome, and now we’re adding those layers on top of it.”
Not only is Defiance targeting both shooter and MMO players, it’s also hoping to do so in a console-friendly fashion. As such, I could only map one special ability — for instance, sprint or decoy — to my number keys. On the cramped confines of a gamepad, that makes perfect sense, but I had a keyboard’s rolling sea of plasticine might at my fingertips, so instead it felt incredibly limiting. If nothing else, however, that might change over time.
“We wanted it to be very shooter-friendly,” said Hill. “Not all these keys up here that I have to be constantly interacting with. But that doesn’t mean over time we’re not going to be adding the ability to have more than one [ability mapped at once]. We’re just gonna start by training the player in a bunch of other things. We’re expecting to get a bunch of shooter players who’ve never tried an MMO. So we want to bring them along slowly — give them their shooter stuff first — and then introduce all the social things and community things. After that, we increase the base shooter over time.”
There is no winner between the show and the game. Or at least, Trion and Syfy are hoping there won’t be – not in a bad way, mind you. Rather, they want both to be separate, fully functional parts of a greater whole. And while there’s potential for some extremely cool storytelling tricks here, it’s very difficult — at least, at this stage — to gauge whether or not all the puzzle pieces will fit together. Encouragingly, there’s clearly a lot of thought and passion being poured into this project, and whether or not it ends up being a success, it will definitely be an experiment worth observing as either an example of how to build a transmedia experience… or how not to.
It’s surprising that Trion’s yet to confirm or deny whether Defiance will be free to play. Considering the dire fate of the last two subscription-based MMOs (SWTOR and The Secret World), according to my calculations they’d have to be nuts to go that route, or do something like Guild Wars 2. Which do you prefer?
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