Story, for me and many other gamers like me, it’s been the holy grail of video games as many of us have searched for games that really and truly encapsulate the interactive storytelling ideal that we keep being promised.
Having played a fairly wide variety of games in my time, I can honestly say that in the games industry overall, there’s actually been a huge and noticeable improvement. Games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect 2 and Heavy Rain, as examples, all do a great job of telling an interesting story that players interact with on a meaningful level.
The problem is, and to be honest this just occurred to me this morning, the storytelling ideal that developers across the video game industry have been shooting for, especially in RPGs, just doesn’t hold water in MMOs, even if they’re done well.
You see, the focus for story in games has always been to put the player in the role of protagonist. The story is about them, and its events unfold as though they are the single most important thing in the universe. This is a great technique for single player games, and even to a lesser extent for small scale multiplayer games like Left 4 Dead. Unfortunately, it’s poison for MMORPGs.
Let me try to explain:
By trying to make every single person in an MMORPG feel like the game’s hero, which has been the predominant mode of thinking in recent years, developers are ensuring that almost every player has the exact same story experience from level one to the cap and while that works really well in single player games the idea that “I’m a hero, just like everyone else who’s doing exactly the same thing as me” strips away the feeling that I’m a part of a large virtual world, and replaces it with the feeling that I’m playing those same single player games along side a bunch of other people.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that story should be stripped out of our MMORPGs. What I am saying, however, is that the approach to the story needs to be dramatically changed to reflect the uniqueness of the genre. Where single player games are about the story of the individual, MMORPGs should be about the story of the world, or the universe. Where single player games make players into the protagonists of the world’s story, MMORPGs should concentrate on allowing players to become the protagonists of their own stories within the larger story of the game’s world.
Now, it’s all fine and good for me to sit here and philosophise, knowing that I’m not going to be the one who has to come up with a cost and time effective way to develop stories this way, but in the end, it’s going to have to be done or else MMORPGs are going to pale in comparison to large scale single player or small group multiplayer games, and people are going to begin to wonder what it is they’re paying a monthly fee for. Heck, it’s already happening. I just hope that someone steps up and changes the way that stories are approached in MMOs.