When I started working on Aion, we were staring at about two-million words…and a looming deadline. The two-million words were coherently translated into English, but they still needed significant help if they were to resonate with a Western audience. From the very first story meeting—heck, from the car ride to the very first meeting—we realized that we were doing something that hadn’t been done before. We were taking a full-fledged MMO, stripping it down to its narrative essence, then rebuilding it so that Aion’s story showed as much polish as its art and gameplay.
As I write this, those two-million words are done—“done” being a euphemism for “mostly done but still subject to tweaks, bug fixes, and all the last-minute changes you expect right up to launch.” Here are some things that what we jokingly called the “Aion Westernization Army” learned along the way.
The Player Characters Have the Privileged Viewpoint
When you think about the story of a fantasy world, it’s easy to get caught up in the big-picture stuff: the world-creation story, the rivalries and alliances among the gods, and the sorts of stories you’d find in your world’s equivalent to Bullfinch’s Mythology. But the player who made that 1st-level warrior doesn’t care how Aion came into being. How could the player care, when we haven’t had the chance to provide any context other than a short prologue video?
At times, I felt like tattooing “You care about what the player cares about, stupid” onto the insides of my eyelids. One of the first things we did was figure out when the players would be likely to care about a particular aspect of the game, then time the “reveals” in our narrative so they matched that timing.
For example, an Aion character can visit the Abyss, the game’s central PvPvE zone, starting at level 25. And the Abyss War is central to the narrative—it’s the all-consuming focus of both Asmodian and Elyos societies. We timed the narrative so that players learn only scant details about the Abyss at first—it’s a mysterious place where many of the faction’s best soldiers are, and that’s why the “home front” needs your help. As your character approaches level 25, though, we provide the context that brings all those scant details into focus. When you go to the Abyss for the first time, you have a sense of the gravity of the moment.
Show the Wreckage Left in the Story’s Wake
The blessing and curse of storytelling in an MMO is that unless a game rigidly forces you to follow a particular narrative line (and Aion doesn’t), we writers have to tell our stories without knowing what order you’ll undertake all those quests and meet those Non-Player Characters (NPCs)…if indeed you interact with them at all. We can’t mandate the order, and we can’t make you pay attention.
But that’s the trap: We writers don’t really have “our” stories. The players are the motivating force for the storytelling--the story is theirs. In Aion, we get across the overall narrative obliquely. A war-weary general may make an offhand comment about the ruins of Roah, and a historian might talk about the city of Roah as it was long ago, but it’s up to the players to put those pieces together. NPCs who say, “Let me tell you a story…” are my worst enemy. Instead, Aion has a lot of NPCs who show you what the narrative left behind on its way to the players. But once the narrative reaches the players, it’s all prologue for their experience in the game.
Respond to the “Why Don’t You Do It Yourself?” Question
When we were staring at a list of more than 2,500 quests, making them as diverse as possible was crucial. And as we read through the quests, one key East/West difference stood out. Given a typical “NPC offers you a quest” situation, Western players tend to be a lot more interested in an explicit answer to the “How come you need me to do this, Mr. NPC?” question.
In the last few months, I’ve seen our writers come up with more answers to that fundamental question than I’d thought possible. Any MMO player can come up with an approximation of our list--the Player Character (PC) is more powerful…it’s a test…the NPC has other duties--you get the idea. The presence of the answer matters more than the exact nature of the answer. Put another way, the quest writer doesn’t get to blow off that question.
Even “Extraneous” Language Tells a Story
In Aion, new players are thrust into a society at war—a society where the wolves are at the proverbial doorstep. And Player Characters are expected to jump in and contribute right away. I’ve always been fond of in media res storytelling (where the narrative begins in the middle of the story), but that meant that our new Elyos and Asmodian PCs have to learn about life in Elysea and Asmodae while they’re busy fighting, traveling, and doing all the core gameplay stuff.
Player attention is a precious currency, so we resolved early on to make every word you read count. If you play an Asmodian character, you don’t click the “Accept” button or “OK” button when you’re talking to Morheim’s brigade general. Depending on the situation, that button says something like “Blood for blood!” or “The task is mine.”
“Blood for blood!” is the Asmodian version of a military hoo-ah; it can mean almost anything in context. But its overt meaning reinforces two core Asmodian principles: an eye-for-an-eye attitude toward perceived wrongs, and the notion that all Asmodians are one big clan—all of the same blood. And “the task is mine” reinforces how seriously Asmodians take their duties. They don’t just undertake a task…they own it.
It’s just a little thing, sure, but those buttons subtly reinforce the Asmodian mindset. And it sure beats “OK.”
Write Through the Game Elements, Not Around Them
One of the things that drives me crazy about MMOs is that despite the fact that they take place in made-up worlds, the narrative tries to pretend that some of the game elements don’t exist. Character death is a good example. Many MMOs are inhabited by NPCs who somehow don’t notice that the Player Characters die, but then a couple minutes later, those same PCs are just fine.
One of the delights of Aion lore is that it cops to the game elements by making them central to the fictional world. Aion PCs can’t die under ordinary circumstances because they’re Daevas. When they take enough damage to be “killed,” they’re yanked back to the Obelisk that their soul was bound to in the first place. And everyone in the world knows that Obelisks work that way. In fact, that’s a key answer to the “Why don’t you do it yourself?” question we talked about above. The NPC answers, “Because I might die, but you’re immortal.”
Rather than asking the narrative to ignore frequent PC death/resurrection, Aion asks the narrative to highlight it. And when I’m running around Theobomos and my Templar gets killed, that makes all the difference in the world. My “death” isn’t an interruptation of my personal narrative. It’s a continuation of that narrative.
Where the Story Goes From Here
We’ll be applying the five lessons—and probably fifty other lessons my colleagues will remind me about—with each Aion expansion released worldwide. Despite the bumps along the way (some file-naming puzzles and a massive XML file we nicknamed “Cthulhu” come to mind), we know that job of reworking Aion’s narrative isn’t easy, but it’s fundamentally repeatable.
But weirdly, it’s not the story told in the next Aion expansion that I’m looking forward to. It’s mid-September, when countless players start exploring Aion for themselves. Watching those stories play themselves out one level, one battle, and one quest at a time is the sweetest reward a storyteller could ask for.