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Stories

Editorial By Tim Dale on July 28, 2005

Lord of the Rings Online
Lord of the Rings Online
Baldur's Gate
Baldur's Gate
EverQuest
EverQuest
Guest Writer Examines Stories in MMORPG (Page 1 of 2)

'There is only one way: to find the Cracks of Doom in the depths of Orodruin, the Fire-mountain, and cast the Ring in there, if you really wish to destroy it, to put it beyond the grasp of the Enemy for ever.'

'I do really wish to destroy it!' cried Frodo. 'Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?'

The Fellowship of the Ring - J.R.R.Tolkien.

The quest; the force that drives all great sagas, the opening problem that cries out for resolution. All great stories in the grand fantasy tradition revolve around the heroic deed, the overcoming of great obstacles and threats to the happy world and life of the hero - indeed, often it is the quest against the great enemy that creates and defines the hero of the piece, which in turn defines and invigorates the story - without a challenge, or a conflict against adversity, there is very little left to call a story at all.

The Lord of The Rings, above, is a classic example of the traditional high fantasy epic - an overpowering enemy stands poised to take over the world, and only an unlikely hero undertaking a perilous journey can stop it. Reading the book, and others in the genre, we can tag along for the ride, share in the perils of Frodo and companions, and watch as they are finally triumphant.

Computer games allow us to take one step further, to be the hero; an attractive proposition in this day and age where there are no great sagas left, no corners of the Earth left unexplored, and no monsters to fight, and in any case, are difficult to fit into a busy life of school or work.

Examples of these interactive epics are many and varied, and include the entire ‘RPG’ genre; role-playing games – where the role of hero is given to the player, and a series of challenges or task are presented, which only the hero can overcome. The nature of the heroic journey changes from game to game – but often involves defeating some overpowering external adversary who stand poised to destroy the fragile status quo. Rescuing captives from the enemy is another popular motive for heroism.

Baldur’s Gate is a classic example of the interactive saga in action. The player starts from almost nothing, and over the course of several ‘chapters’, goes on a journey of self discovery, and uncovers a sinister external threat to the peace and stability of his world. The game then culminates in an epic showdown with Sarevok, the villain of the piece. Although a fair amount of sidetracking is provided for, and even significant plot choices offered, the game essentially plays out like a high fantasy novel; with an identifiable sequence; a beginning, middle and end, and if the player’s actions were chronicled, the result would not look out of place on the sci-fi and fantasy shelves in any bookshop.

Baldur’s Gate also provides a good example of the Party. While all great epics have a hero, many also have a cast of supporting characters, to provide dialogue and banter, and to aid the hero in his tasks. Baldur’s Gate offered the opportunity for other players to take on these roles, via Internet or networked PCs. Indeed, since Baldur’s Gate itself was based on pen and paper role-play gaming, Dungeons and Dragons, it only seem natural that a team of friends might want to play.

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Enter the MMORPG – a living breathing world of adventure and peril, open to all-comers. Thousands of players enter this world and take on the role of the hero, all at once. Parties form, monsters are slain, and treasure amassed. Mostly in the high fantasy genre, there are science fiction worlds as well, which operate on the same principles – enemies to face and rewards to be won. However the ‘massive’ nature of these worlds presents serious problems for the story, in the conventional sense.

Since the actions of the hero in a traditional epic cause often massive change; the end of an overpowering threat, a change in governments, kingdoms, liberation of slaves, and so on, the effect of several thousand heroes all questing at once, would be a world in total and constant upheaval. More importantly, the actions of even one traditional hero would cause the game to be ‘won’, and ended. Evil is defeated – there is no more need for heroes, and no more stories.

Most MMORPGs work on two essential principles; all paying customers should have an equal opportunity to do well, to be a hero, and the game itself should not end. These two rules make sound economic sense, but can conflict with each other, and play havoc with the ‘story’. To preserve them, the concept of the beginning-middle-end story, by necessity, has to be abandoned. Instead, the thousands-strong population of questing heroes is presented with infinitely respawning monsters, whose death changes nothing, and a multitude of small, relatively unimportant tasks that need repeating over and over gain, but which do nothing to advance any specific cause.

This leaves a world that exists in a vague but non-specific general peril, which players are unable to do anything noticeable about – a status quo which cannot even recognize player’s efforts in any concrete way, in case the crucial balance is permanently tipped. Since a hero that can’t affect his world is a hero without purpose, other, more abstract purposes have to be found; namely levelling – an endless regimen of training, practice and self-improvement, in preparation for…well, ultimately nothing. Level 500 will arrive, in time, and still the player is unable to be a hero in the grand story sense. Instead, they will look back on several years of generally unremarkable pest extermination. While the actual combat and gameplay itself might have been extremely enjoyable from moment to moment, in the grand scheme of things, that player has really left no mark at all.

Everquest launched with no real ‘story’ as such. Certainly it had quests, but none of these altered Norrath in any significant way. The game did provide a great deal of lore; back-stories about the pantheon of gods, the various races and cities, but once out of character creation, the player was generally left to find their own purpose and direction. In theory there were good and evil races, but this only had practical application on PvP servers, and even then, players could never truly win; the evil cities would not be razed after a certain number of victories from the goodly crusaders. There was no general over-threat, in the ‘Sauron’ sense – only thousands of orcs who simply stood about waiting to be picked off, and then speedily replaced.

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