This is an article/essay I wrote a couple of years ago for a website that has since shut down. The conversation has come up again in context of The Elder Scrolls Online, which seems to be using a lot of the same problematic story telling techniques we’ve seen in MMOs before. The latest developer video talks extensively about “the player” and how central and special they are to the story, which is typical of an Elder Scrolls game, but jarrs terribly with an MMO setting. I’m interested to see how Bethesda makes this work, cos frankly as it stands, I think they’ve painted themselves into a bit of corner. Anyhow, here’s my 2011 article “Telling Tall Tales”.
A shout rings out amongst the court, and the King rises from his throne. “All hail the Champion who has slain the dragon that plagued our lands. Let all the people rejoice!”. The celebrations last about thirty seconds, before the king returns to his throne. You approach, seeking a task from your liege : “Ah young knight, a terrible dragon plagues our lands and your king requires you defeat it.”
We’ve all experienced this in some form or other. Whether queueing up waiting for quest-related mobs to respawn, or watching a procession of players blithely turn in the same quest all in a row, the concept of narrative and story telling within MMOs has become stuck in something of a rut. If you don’t believe me, let me ask this : how many times do you find yourself looking for the same lost equipment as other players. Today a zeppelin lies crashed in the marshes, and it will still be there 6 months from now. A whole group of games rely more on your suspension of disbelief than they do on designing a narrative process that makes sense in the context of thousands of players.
Recently, I played through the Rift beta. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great game, but when the the storyline hinges on the premise that you are the first Ascended being to be reanimated (Defiant tutorial), and you can look around and see hundreds of others, maybe we need to address the way the storyline plays out. A few levels later, an NPC faints at the sight of a mighty Ascended being. That girl does little else but constantly fall over!
MMO games in general are very bad for this. It seems to be a question that as yet doesn’t have an answer : how do you go about telling an engaging story which acknowledges the player is one of potentially thousands of equals. Escapism is an oft-cited reason for people to play games, so building a story that plays into the concept of the player being a very small, potentially insignificant cog in a large machine probably isn’t going to go anywhere – people can get an awful lot of that in the real world for free. But at the same time, the model perpetuated by Rift, WoW and others is the telling of an epic story in stages. Being destined for greatness is one thing, and it works well as a mechanic in a single player game. When everyone around you is also destined for greatness, suddenly there seems to be a lot less value to it.
Eve Online bypasses the problem altogether. With no player-centric story, and a gradually evolving universe, CCP have created an ultimate sandbox. A player’s actions are as significant as they choose them to be, with options for cog-in-a-machine play or convoluted plots and schemes with the player becoming the protagonist in stories of their creation. Eve is a harsh and unforgiving game, but it is also the venue for some of my most memorable gaming experiences.
City of Heroes and Champions Online take another approach to the problem. Instead of allowing you to watch as “unique” events occur for others, these games make heavy use of instances to remove as much of the storyline and individual moments into their own areas. The underlying concept is fairly solid, the thing that breaks the narrative process most isn’t that players experience the same events, it’s that our noses are rubbed in it while it is happening. By, as far as possible, making it happen in separate zones the problem isn’t removed but the effect is. City of Heroes went a step further by having many missions occur in instances that took place inside random buildings, further meaning that the player didn’t experience the immersion breaking scene of watching a group entering a building, following them and ending up in a separate instance. The idea is that by distributing the starting locations, immersion is maintained.
With the introduction of the Cataclysm expansion, WoW makes substantially greater use of a technique known as phasing to in some respects combat this issue. Phasing could be thought of as layered instances – instead of inhabiting a completely different space, players occupy the same “physical” space, but what they can see in this space depends on their phase. This allows for much greater immersion in the world – instead of having to decide if an environment will be rendered in it’s original form, or with the ground scorched from a dragon attack, phasing allows both to be “present” in the world at the same time. Which one you see depends entirely on whether you are in the phase that represents the time before the attack or the time after the attack. It’s a neat trick that gives the player a much slicker experience, but it doesn’t fundamentally solve the problem, and the complexity of maintaining phases limits their utility and their likely uptake.
The core problem is that the player is receiving an “experience”. The best analogy I can come up with is that we are currently being treated to an amusement park ride. With a fixed not-quite-on-rails progression, the story of the world is told to us as we are moved inevitably through it, but if we can hear what is happening to the car in front and occasionally see the animatronic characters resetting ready to “surprise” us, then we are fully aware of the man behind the curtain. These rides are entertaining sure, but they aren’t good devices for telling stories – if they were there would be no need to turn one into a very good Johnny Depp vehicle. At the same time though, movies are not a good model either for two reasons – they are external to the audience and the audience experiences the story simultaneously. What we need is a new method of telling our stories in the context of MMOs, that allows the audience to experience it at their own pace whilst not interfering with each other’s experience, and without necessarily leading them by the nose from set piece to set piece.
This may be one of the reasons that hopes are running very high for “Star Wars: The Old Republic”, a forthcoming title from Bioware (with the other reasons being in order “OMG Star Wars”, “OMG Bioware” and “OMG lightsabers”). With an established track record of narrative driven games spanning 15 years, and a proven ability to innovate new and interesting approaches to story telling, if anyone can crack this problem, my money is on them. Even their recent releases have shown a startling ability to focus on the thing they do best and make it better. Mass Effect built on earlier dialogue tree systems to provide a detailed and immersive set of possible responses to situations for the player to choose from. Dragon Age : Origins used this same approach and added a novel approach to character generation and tutorial by providing each combination of race and class with a unique initial story arc, with this then being referenced throughout the common storyline – in essence creating a phased approach to narrative. Most recently, Mass Effect 2 developed this idea even further, allowing characters to be imported from the original game to continue their saga. Details of choices taken within the plot were then used to create the starting point for ME2, and other, seemingly minor, choices from the first game were occasionally mentioned, with characters making reference to the outcomes of decisions taken in a completely separate game by a character I hadn’t played for a year.
Bioware has continually pushed the narrative envelope, so there’s no reason to think this will stop now. They’ve demonstrated an ability to take a branching plot line and not only maintain it, but reference back to it, but of course all their achievements so far have been exclusively in the context of single player experiences. It remains to be seen whether they can make the leap that will be required of them to create the kind of interactive story telling that will redefine the MMO genre as a legitimate interactive experience, rather than the current crude and fumbling efforts to retro-fit a narrative over a planned set of game mechanics.