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Beyond the MMORPG: Story - Smackdown vs. Raw

In this Christmas Eve edition of Beyond the MMORPG, Managing Editor Jon Wood uses Smackdown vs. Raw 2008 to discuss storytelling in MMORPGs.

Story - Smackdown vs. Raw

As a pre-Christmas present to myself this year, I went out and picked up the 2008 addition to the Smackdown vs. Raw franchise. This wasn’t a new and impulsive decision; I’ve played every game in this series, and quite enjoyed it. The thing is, and the reason that I am writing about that particular game today is because I think it highlights some important issues that are present in video games in general and in MMOs in particular.

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The reason that this particular title may cause a few heads to turn in confusion is that, in case the name isn’t familiar to you, Smackdown vs. Raw is a game based on professional wrestling. World Wrestling Entertainment if we’re going to get specific. So, what is it exactly that MMORPGs can learn from a game based on a fake and scripted sport?

Wrestling, you see, has often been referred to as “a soap opera for guys” and when you think about it, that’s not far from the mark. Now, I want to remind everyone that I am speaking in generalities here, and I am in no way implying that only men can like wrestling or that all women watch soap operas.

Wrestling, boiled down to its essential nuts and bolts, is about telling a story. That story is told either directly: through interviews, promos, locker room stuff and any other means of characters talking, listening and reacting, or, the story is told through the action in the ring. Believe it or not, the whole “wrestling’s fake” thing actually allows the wrestlers to tell a story and contribute to the overall story through their in-ring actions. As a result, as with any other story, here is a beginning, a middle and an end to each arc that is presented on the show. The reason that it’s like a soap-opera is because both use storytelling conventions to create over-the-top storylines that hold the viewer’s attention over an extended period of time.

The problem with Smackdown vs. Raw 2008 is that it doesn’t do either thing well. The aspect of the game where players compete in matches isn’t telling a story and isn’t scripted. The results of the matches in the game are just as valid as any other contest in any other sports game. I want to focus, however, on the out-of-ring storytelling in the game, which is truly disappointing, and shares some similarities with storytelling in many MMOs.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is wrestling, so I don’t think that anyone was expecting really deep storytelling. In fact, what the stories are about in this latest edition of the game, is heads and shoulders above previous years. The problem is in the way that the story is told.

As you progress your wrestler, you move through different storylines. These storylines are supposed to be greatly effected by a number of factors, including your character’s win-loss record. The problem is though that the player behind the controls is often left wondering whether or not anything that they do, beyond the really obvious option A or option B direct choices, will have an effect on the game.

Playing the game myself, I found that most of the time, player actions had little to no consequence to the overarching story. If you are told that you are fighting toward something, chances are that you will be fighting for it shortly regardless of your actions in the lead-up times. No matter how many times the NPCs tell you that “you really need to impress us with some wins”, the truth of the matter is that the outcome is not in your hands.

Here is an example: Early in the game, you are approached because WWE is making another big movie and they are looking for a leading man. You are told that they think you would be great, but that you really need to shine and that everyone loves a winner. You go out and you win your matches, but there’s a last-minute twist to the story that leaves you competing in a four-man ladder match to see who ultimately gets the contract. In the end, it really didn’t have anything to do with win-losses at all, but rather the results of that one match, without any care to the matches leading up to it.

This kind of “quest” in games is frustrating and, for me, really gets in the way of what could have been an entertaining story experience. It takes control that the players assumed was theirs out of their hands.

That’s where the parallels with MMOs hit me. Often, as we play our way through our favorite MMO (or the one we happen to be playing at the time), the actions that we take don’t really have an effect on the world around us. In fact, the only real consequence of completing or not completing a quest in many MMOs is the difference between getting that loot and XP or not. Sure, it might sound like your actions will make an impact, but that’s rarely the case.

Here is an example: You are given a quest to go and find a missing farmer’s daughter who has been kidnapped by goblins. Through the game’s text, you assure the NPC that you will take care of it and you set off. Between the NPC and the cave where the girl is being held, you go ahead and finish off some other quests, you log off for a few days, do a few more quests and then go to the cave to save the girl “in the nick of time”. Either your timing is amazing (good thing you took that extra-short shower today), or there’s something fishy going on here (quick guys, I hear him coming, pretend to do something bad to me).

In all seriousness though, both the issue with the wrestling game and the above example from MMOs represent a problem in video game storytelling. While many game writers are dedicated to telling a story and doing it well, other writers and development studios find themselves spending more time giving the illusion that they are telling an interactive story than they spend actually telling it.

A story, like many of the ones that have appeared in Smackdown vs. Raw games for years, that railroads players from story point to story point with no regard to the actual actions of the players fails in its job and often, taken as a whole, doesn’t make any sense.

I am not proposing something as sweeping as a completely interactive story where players can do anything that they like with an unlimited number of results. That’s just currently unrealistic. What I am proposing is that a story arc within a game, whether it be a wrestling game or the most complex MMO, should rely on the actions of the players within the game between story points (the NPC giving you the quest and the NPC redeeming it, for example), not what the story designers decided would be the ideal outcome.

The idea of video games as a storytelling medium is still something that the industry is working to improve and perfect. Along the way, there will be some successes and some failures. I can tell you this though, the MMO that makes me feel as though my actions within their stories matter at least a little bit to the story being told, will have my subscription dollars.