Lore Almighty: Lore and Storytelling in MMOGs
Editorial by Aaron Roxby
Hmmm... Some of that information seems a bit, well, off. I seem to remember something about flying, the Daily Planet, heat vision, Jimmy Olsen, Brainiac, Lex Luthor, Smallville, the Phantom Zone... But sitting here now, beside a roaring fire with a chilled glass of Pinot Grigio, casually thumbing through the first decade or so of Superman's comic book run, I don't see reference to any of that. In fact, Superman doesn't gain the ability to fly until the 1940s. Jimmy Olsen, Perry White and the Daily Planet were not even created in the comics. They showed up as a result of the Superman radio dramas. Lex Luthor also showed up in the 40s, however his history has been changed multiple times and, in fact, he was not given his "canonical" origin until 2004.
Over the last year or so, a few developments in the world of MMOs (specifically, World of Warcraft) got me thinking about storytelling and lore in this very young medium. A little less than a year ago, amid much speculation and debate, Blizzard announced that the new Alliance race would be the Draenei. Yes, the little mummy turtle people who live in the Swamp of Sorrows and the Blasted Lands. But, these Draenei looked nothing like that. In fact, they looked quite a bit like the Eredar, a race of pan-galactic demon creatures, featured primarily in Warcraft III. Blizzard gave a long explanation for this, clarifying that the Draenei you currently see in the game are mutated versions of the real Draenei, who are actually Eredar who never joined the Burning Legion, plus a bunch of other stuff I won't get into here. Oh, and they crashed in a spaceship that really isn't a spaceship, but a pan-dimensional craft of some kind, plus the Blood Elves were involved, but really, I won't get into any more of the story in this editorial, I promise. The point is, people freaked. The message boards lit up with people absolutely indignant at this "Ret-Conning" of the game's Lore.
This brings us (finally) to the central questions. What is the purpose of storytelling in an MMO featuring an original intellectual property? Is the function to tell a great story, or is it simply giving a backdrop to the player experience? Do these things have to be exclusive? And how important are things like continuity to this equation?
When you read a novel, the story is there, written in stone (or ink, if you prefer less cumbersome books). There is no going back and changing it and (unless you are reading a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' novel) there is really no way for one to influence the story as it is occurring. Video games and MMOs in particular are so far removed from this set of terms that I really think the two cannot be compared. I realize that there are supplementary novels to a lot of games, but I am not considering those here, the same way that you can't really bring the Star Wars novels into the matter when discussing the films. So, I think that the first step is to stop comparing anything you know about traditional storytelling to games. Same goes for movies.
Comics and other serials are probably a better place to start comparisons. MMOs, at least in their current incarnation, are set up very much like comic books, with updates, patches and expansions functioning very much like new issues. Hell, City of Heroes actually calls its updates "Issues". Continuity is a tricky thing in comic books, as illustrated by the first two paragraphs of this very editorial. It is simply not possible to keep a story, a character, or a concept going for years and years, without shaking things up from time to time. Of course, not all changes in comic books are as great as Lex Luthor or Kryptonite. If you ever read any comics featuring Cyborg Superman Eradicator, and Superman with Billy Ray Cyrus hair, you know what I'm talking about. As time goes on, these missteps are (usually) corrected, the continuity kind of forgets about it, and eventually everything seems normal again.