It’s been said that because the traditional design of MMOs are based on social community that the story often just runs in the background and is missed by a lot of players. But so many of us can speak to the opposite, and discuss how MMOs combine changeable story and player influence to provide pivotal interactive storytelling. Back in 2002, my first impression of an MMO story came from Final Fantasy XI. Immediately, I was hooked, captivated by the characters, and I couldn’t wait to see the next cut scene.
I remember desperately wanting to see where the story would go. Of course, interactive storytelling may not always be perfect. Developers constantly need to create compelling new stories that provide some sort of autonomy, expressive, dynamic NPC responses, and new and interesting AI design. But nowadays designing often begins and ends around the foundation of a good story.
What is it about certain stories that “hook” us? I’ve been using a nickname for great narrative: Caffeinated writing. These are the stories that affect us, submerge into our subconscious, and blanket us with their mood. These are the stories that seem to stimulate our central nervous system, make us alert, and give us a sense of purpose and adrenaline. They make us feel addicted, and rabid to get to the end. Without caffeinated writing, a video game can get shelved and start collecting dust like a long forgotten book.
There are dozens of key elements that make a great story, but the first two that immediately come to mind are characters and pacing:
We want to be drawn in by rich characters—characters that astonish. Complicated characters that can break our heart in one moment and then inspire us in the next. It is never ignorable when a character’s soul bleeds. We’ll notice if characters feel half empty. They will appear in-game, but nothing about what defines them will be there. Without including the grit that makes a character passionate or apathetic, a character will be forgotten and the story will not impact us. It is in the character’s flaws, their honesty, and their choices that make us swoon, make us shiver, cry, laugh and cringe. Writers must not forget to give every character individual attention. They should be in every way alive. Characters should be forced to face anguish, love, betrayal, and denial. It is then that we (the players) will connect and fain with them. Because we have felt the same, we will latch on to these characters and in that moment the game becomes more than a game and the story feels real. It becomes a secret window where we can glimpse another version of ourselves, another version of what our lives have been or could become.
A Gasping Pace:
It’s pretty terrible when a story slows down to the point where we’re thinking: I don’t care about this. Get on with it. Every single word has to matter. There is a limited amount of time to draw the player into the world and show the characters that will take our breath away or tear our guts out. Not every part of every game needs to have non-stop action, comedic relief or serendipitous harmony are welcome interruptions, but those in-between-action moments should still move the plot, characters, goals, or conflict forward.
Stories in MMOs aim to keep us in our seats, much like in movies. But when we are sitting in a movie theater, whether we’re watching the latest blockbuster or a poignant drama, we as an audience assume a passive role. The plot is presented to us in a linear, non-negotiable sequence of events. We are not consulted on where the story goes or what happens to the characters we grow attached to. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this style of storytelling, but gaming offers a distinct alternative, one that separates it from almost every other medium.
As a gamer, you’re not the viewer, you’re the actor! We find ourselves quickly invested in the characters because we’re not just watching them; we’re interacting with them. No other form of media can do this. Gaming places you in the story. This opportunity is so unique and so vast that I go on to talk more about it here:
One of the coolest aspects of being a part of today’s video game industry is how game stories are evolving into complex art forms. Interactive storytelling is becoming more and more important in all types of games. Good story is a way for games to stand out and rank on top. As graphics and technology become better and better, we rely on the story to be the defining point between “that fun game we played once” and the games we’ll never forget.
More and more storytellers from other media are joining the video game industry, and education is incorporating classes and workshops around the world to create new ways to craft better and more advanced video game stories. In just a few days, on May 10th, at the Computer History Museum, UC Santa Cruz will host panels on interactive storytelling during their symposium: Inventing the Future of Games 2013. Their focus will be on how the future of interactive storytelling is being invented now, and show a first-time public demonstration of an unannounced interactive storytelling technology.
How can interactive storytelling evolve to push the boundaries and conceive new possibilities? What MMOs do you think are doing this the best today?
With the next generation of games waiting just around the corner, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. As game developers continue to imagine new worlds, the potential for immersive, interactive storytelling is limited only by human imagination. Games and their stories are continuing to evolve and diversify. The possibilities are endless and the future is bright.
Every week, Holder’s Dominion author Genese Davis opines about MMO gaming, the issues the genre faces, and the power of shaping online worlds.