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Player Perspectives (Archived): MMOs and Storytelling

Column By Jaime Skelton on July 23, 2010

Once upon a time, there was this little orphan child who grew up in the care of the village priests. When he came of age, the abbey handed him a sword, a shield, and pointed him about to the various tasks at hand: rescuing the abbey's prized vineyards from brigands, saving their flocks from starved wolves, and clearing out a rat infestation in the cellar. Before long, the little orphan child found himself killing dragons instead of rats, and soon forgot the abbey he had left behind. . .

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Story-telling in a massively scaled game like an MMO is an amazingly difficult task, and for the games that continue building on their storyline well into the future, the task must be akin to being the Robert Jordan of the gaming world. Every plot must be carefully built to keep a player's interest; each side-story given or planned closure; each thread checked against the others to make sure there's no conflicting information. New endings must be constantly created. On top of all that, game writers must carefully check in with the development team to make sure that yes, it's completely in their capabilities to make a twenty-foot tall dragon that can breathe double-rainbows.

As a writer, and a reader who once devoured several books a week, I'm a sucker for story in MMOs, to a point where I can almost forgive terrible game mechanics if the story impresses me. On a personal level, there are several games I have, or still do, play solely for their story. As a result, I find the immersion of a game through its story and quest system paramount to an MMO's success. Many games are stellar at this work, but the gaming genre itself still leaves something lacking in its methods.

The main problem with story-telling in the MMORPG format is its naturally heavy focus in dialogue, with very little supporting action. The story-telling occurs through a script-like format. The script is a little less compelling, however, when you think of it this way: enacting the same script on a stage would result in several people standing around on stage, and one person moving from one to another, talking to them while the rest merely act as statues. Indeed, NPCs serve as quest-dispensing ATM machines better than they do as convincing actors in an epic story in which the player is the central figure.

While many game writers have mastered the art of script writing, and help make NPCs tell convincing stories, the very fundamental of “show don't tell” in writing is violated by the very nature in which stories are told in MMOs. How can the town be harassed by gnolls if they never appear in town and no evidence shows the contrary? Why should I believe Jed wishes to deeply profess his love to Faye if they never even cross paths, or when they do, he doesn't even blush, sigh wistfully, or try to get up the nerve to walk over and say hello? It isn't that games need to go to the other extreme, and create constant cut-scenes to pull the player into the story. It's that the story rarely takes place around the player, and much of the story-telling takes place in a special little box.

I'm referring to the quest dialogue box, and this is the secondary problem in MMO story-telling. The story of a game is heavily tied into its quests, and quests are now heavily tied into a progression reward system. The quest system encourages players to simply know: “Go to Point A, Kill 10 Enemy Bs, and return to NPC C.” The story is an auxiliary to what the player actually needs to know to progress in the game, and there is no reward, except personal satisfaction, for paying attention to the why. Over the years, quest systems have been increasingly hand-it-to-you, introducing quest indicators, map markers, and a glut of database-clogged fan sites to let the player metagame.

Compare this to the classic RPGs found on consoles and the PC. It behooved you to speak with every NPC, sometimes twice, to find out all the little hints and clues and story that would guide you on your next quest. Quests themselves were objective based, and while FAQs and strategy guides were available to nudge you along, the native mechanic of story-telling encouraged the player to listen to clues, explore their environment, and immerse themselves in the story. While quests sometimes dispensed loot, experience, coin, and gear upgrades were made in the journey, not in turning in a quest after completing its objective. The epic sword of smiting was discovered while saving the mayor's daughter, not because the mayor handed it to you afterward.

This is not a problem with the writers; it's a problem with the medium, and a strange one at that. Video games have been story-tellers for decades now. The MMO medium, however, suffers from the compelling need to keep players advancing, a need that overall trumps that of telling a story well. Game designers, if they want to reach the epic proportions of an RPG in terms of story-telling, must come up with new innovations in the way MMOs are played.

One game looking to change that is Guild Wars 2, with its dynamic event system and personal story system. The dynamic event system essentially lets the story of the game play out before a character's eyes, by creating events that respond to the interactions of players. That is to say, if a town is being invaded by an army of ugly looking half-orcs, those half-orcs will have camps, go on the march, and even take over the town if players don't push them back. That – combined with a collective reward system that rewards all players for participating in a battle without the need for groups or 'tapping' the mobs – means more immersion and more immediate action for players. It also means that a story should, hopefully, be shown and adapted around the player, rather than popped up in a quest dialogue box.

Guild Wars 2's personal story system, on the other hand, has players build their character's personality and backstory in character creation. That, combined with a character's interactions with the world around them, will result in a personal story unfolding, not only from the way NPCs interact with them, but in granting the player personal story quests and their own evolving home area that reflects their character's story progression. It's a dream for role-players and story-lovers combined, and we can only hope that the game “gets it right” in the final product.

While it might be a blow for writers of the quests to not have people pay attention to their work, it's ultimately a fault of the medium versus the writing itself. By getting players more involved in the overarching storyline, even the Point-A-to-Point-B style of play can have a rich, rewarding experience. After all, a game can be just as engrossing as any book when well told.

Jaime Skelton / For fourteen years - since the days of Ultima Online - I've been playing MMORPGs with a passion, from paid subscriptions to free imports. Online gaming has become one of my most passionate hobbies, as the games internally and externally evolve over time, providing an ever-changing gaming experience. I write for several websites about MMOs, including MMOSite, Examiner, and BrightHub.

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Player Perspectives (Archived)
Jaime Skelton has been playing MMORPGs religiously since Ultima Online and brings the unique voice of an experienced player to her weekly MMORPG.com column. Based out of Utah, more of her content can be found over at The Examiner.

Her column looks at the industry from the eyes of a gamer and appears every Friday.
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