Why Storytelling in MMORPGs is overrated

I am so tired of all the MMORPG lore I’m supposed to know about. Or care.
Why can’t I be the one writing history? (Syl)

I know there are players who would fiercely disagree with above sentiment; lovers of MMO lore for one thing and all those of you who feel that the player should not be the hero of the world. I’ve disagreed with that before – and I still do.

As great as the story of Arthas was in World of Warcraft and it’s one of the few I ever really cared for, it also made me a by-stander. I was allowed to accompany him through the Culling of Stratholme and assist Jaina several times over but I had neither power nor say in any of these matters. A load of good all the leveling up, gearing up and gaining reputation have done me. Worse though, what the story arch of Arthas really did for Warcraft was ending something; the central theme, the big ambivalent villain figure ended in Wrath of the Lich King. And on a personal level it’s where the game ended for me, too.

No matter what efforts have gone into writing the next expansion or attempting to introduce Deathwing as “that new threat” (another boring force-of-nature dragon in a fantasy game), everything after WotLK is basically “post Arthas” and we know it. That is the nature of storytelling: it ends. To tell a story, recounting events, is to acknowledge the flow of time. All good stories, the ones that engage and touch us, must end lest they not be literally point-less.

Who may be allowed to linger who is fulfilled by purpose? (C. Morgenstern)

tmd
Art by E. Foster

Is it really such a good thing to emphasize storytelling in a genre that wants its virtual worlds to exist forever? There’s a reason why the internal narrative of LOTRO, now in its fourth expansion, has only just reached the chapter of Rohan. It took the fellowship five and a half years (!) to get to that part of Middle-Earth and for a good reason. For what will happen if they ever reach their final destination? What will Turbine do after the One Ring was cast into the fiery chasm from whence it came? As long as their game goes strong it must never happen.

More Lore Bore

Narrative is an important part of the RPG genre; it adds depth to the fictional worlds we play in and the characters we meet, as far as we like to make NPCs an important part of the experience anyway. Traditionally, it can make us connect with individuals, identify more with quests we are given and add purpose to our stride. Yet, if my personal MMORPG experiences are any indication, lore and storytelling do not actually make for much player immersion. There is a disconnect between myself and a world I have “so much to learn about” (like a tourist purchasing a guide book), trying to follow the narrative’s red line and let’s face it: read lots and lots of text! Or alternatively listen to it.

I have all but switched off to my personal storyline in Guild Wars 2, those cut-scene screens cannot come off fast enough. Trehearne is the hero of the day and for all the forked story-choices I get to make, all roads inevitably lead to Zhaitan – yes, yet another faceless, boring fantasy game dragon. Never has a more formidable creature from our favorite genre’s bestiary known more “narrative mistreatment”. I am so detached from what is supposed to be my personal story(?), it feels like ArenaNet should have re-named the whole thing to “world campaign”. Only, the entire narrative doesn’t just feel disconnected from the player on a personal level, it is also not very well integrated in the rest of Tyria.

gw440

However, Guild Wars 2 storytelling failings are far from the exception. And I honestly think the constant demand for increased “story telling” in MMORPGs is mislead. The so-called fourth pillar of game design is overrated for this genre in particular, for should not the player drive the narrative rather than being driven by it? And it would be a good thing to remember how great stories are really created and why more and more story-driven quests and events in MMOs are in fact counter-productive to the immersive experience. Worlds are immersive when they engage us and make us partake – not listen to.

Don’t “tell me” the story

Great writing is the art of not saying things. It’s the skill of knowing which things to write and which to leave out. The greatest of authors understand that it won’t do to spell out all the details, secrets and twists about a story; this is not how interesting characters or plot are created. I believe typically most writers spend the first half of their journey learning to flesh out, formulate and construct interesting, complex plot-lines. After that, they spend the other half of the time removing information and un-saying too many words. I can confirm this for my own writing journey, that it’s a struggle of learning what not to say, rather than what to say and mustering that “courage for silence” which tangentially, is also a central theme in the education of teachers (which happens to be my professional background). Didactics 101 will teach you that for greatest learning effect, impact and longevity, your audience needs to make as many steps of the journey on their own as possible. They must try unearth and unravel the story (or learning subject) by themselves. The teacher should only ever be the prompter, the one asking questions and if required the fallback plan.

Accomplished (fiction) writing follows very much the same principles. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as grabbing the eraser and cutting extra holes into a story; we need to set up the things we aren’t telling and often that takes a lot more doing than just spilling the beans. Writers must balance that tiny margin between frustrating readers with gaps and inconsistencies versus treating them like children. Both shortcomings are equally bad.

Half of the world building in MMOs relies on us completing the picture with our own mental imagery. It’s when the real magic happens – the alchemy. (source – Syl)

I would re-phrase my above statement in this context to the following: “Half of the story building in MMOs relies on us connecting the dots by means of our own imagination. It’s when the real magic happens – the alchemy.”

Where does narrative happen? And impact? Not inside the game surely. They happen inside our minds and most exquisitely so when we connected the dots ourselves. When we have a sudden moment of understanding, of surprise, suspicion or that big game-altering epiphany: “Oh my god, a-ha!”

MMO players aren’t a lazy audience, they’re in fact experts when it comes to finding secrets, puzzling together bits and pieces of information scattered seemingly at random across the world. Yet, less and less are they being challenged to do this in MMORPGs. I’d like to play sherlock in the games I play in and unwind themes and stories in my own time. And I want to be part of them rather than just a reader plowing his way through chunks of narrative thrown at me ever so often by writers. Most of all: I want less story-telling and spelling it all out for me. Heck, less is a lot more here! Leave something to my imagination? It tends to be bigger than anything anyone could write.

Winding back the clock

I’ve been playing through several retro RPG hommages this last weekend, such as Half-Minute Hero or Evoland. While they’re parodies of oldschool console RPG tropes and mechanics, they made me think back on how much simpler stories used to be in this genre and how well I remember them in spite of this. Characters weren’t nearly as well written or complex, either. Yet that “blankness” or lack of certain pieces of information allowed me to make them “my own” a lot more than newer games do. It allowed me to project some of my own wishes and speculations into them and to keep looking for clues around the world to back me up. To this day, I still wonder about Crono, that mute “protagonist” from one of the greatest games in existence. And I still speculate over pieces of the puzzle that is the story in Xenogears. I like not getting answers to everything. It means I can find my own answers.

Interestingly enough, I came across two links in this context after starting to write this article. One is a Gamasutra analyzis on “Chrono Trigger’s Design Secrets“, a piece that focuses almost exclusively on the balance between delivering narrative versus emergent gameplay and freedom in the SNES classic. This big design challenge applies to MMORPGs too, maybe even a lot more so.

Thanks to modular narrative sections, carefully designed battles, and the use of levels to guide progression, players are given a sense of freedom while actually playing a relatively linear game and experiencing a set overall narrative — but Chrono Trigger‘s narrative freedom goes much deeper than that.

My second link is Total Biscuit’s critical Bioshock Infinite review on youtube. Most players agree that there’s not much in terms of open world in this shooter RPG and it doesn’t need to be – BI is a linear and heavily story-driven, visually stunning journey (with guns). The players is and always will remain a spectator. Yet, at one point through the video (39:40) TB comments on general exploration in Bioshock games:

Generally speaking the world itself tells a story way, way better than anything else would. Like, if you would’ve just said: Oh, I’m gonna tell a story through a bunch of exposition with dialogue – that’s not as strong as the way Bioshock has traditionally told its stories, because Bioshock shows you things. And it also leaves a lot to the imagination and a lot of conclusions which you yourself have to actually make. Which is in itself pretty fantastic.[...] And I would say that if you wanna design your game really well and you wanna do a reasonably open-world game which encourages exploration, you have got to do that stuff. You’ve got to have the world tell various stories.

While I’m not so sure this necessarily applies to BI in particular, I agree with it as a principle.

In conclusion: 3 maxims of storytelling in MMORPGs

I’ve touched on several issues of storytelling in RPGs and MMORPGs in this post, all of which intersect heavily but are also questions of their own. First and foremost whether MMORPGs should feature pre-written stories and if so, how much is too much? And how should ongoing narrative be driven and delivered in online games in order to engage the player and remove him from the spectator’s bench? I haven’t reached any final conclusions on this myself. However, in summary and based on insights from past games, I would state the following three “maxims” of storytelling in MMORPGs:

  • MMORPGs should avoid that one central and finite story arch. Instead, the world should feature various stories to be discovered by the player and followed in his own time.
  • There should be less story-telling and explaining going on. Instead, offer the player more engaging hunts for truth and connecting dots. Dare to leave gaps and not explain everything or everyone.
  • Narrative should be driven by the player as much as the other way around (at the very least).

 
These could possibly be refined or worded better. I think it’s safe to say that many MMO players do enjoy good stories but it’s a question of how they are initiated, how they engage and include us in the worlds we play in – whether they remain tales or become experiences.

Every minute spent on reading or listening to educational text blocks in MMOs is a minute in which I am a passive recipient rather than the player / hero. And with every such minute my world inevitably becomes a little bit smaller – more explained rather than explored, more narrated rather than experienced. What an unspeakable loss.

42 comments

  1. João Carlos

    “Why can’t I be the one writing history?” (Syl)

    The answer is simple. The game is a Massivelly Multi Player. If each one can wrote the own story, you end with a million of diferent stories and there is no common story, each one will be diferent with diferent themes and no common story. Something like a one-player game, not a MMO.

    Someday we will have the thecnology for create virtual worlds were we can live in and, be warned, that each one will create a particular “paradise” for live in it, “alone” from any other human. That will end mankind…

    I feel a sense of irony when I see all critics to Trahearn, while at other MMO have a dubious hero as Frodo (be real, /spoiler he fail at the end! /end spoiler). Sincerelly, he is a scholar made general, and he will ever play “role” as a scholar. And most critics to the character is basically that it roleplay very well a scholar…

    • Syl

      I get that argument, it’s a popular one after all. but I didn’t actually refer to this type of literal, individual heroism there. when I say “write my own history” in context of this article, I am not talking about big, world-altering deeds committed by every player. I’m in fact against anything resembling that.
      much rather, it’s about agency and how players can drive narrative (even small stories) rather than the other way around. and how we get to hear about things – by choosing our own steps and ‘writing’ (as in piercing together and adding to) the story bit by bit, or it being dumped on us in huge chunks of narrated lore by NPCs. there’s nothing less immersive than being doused in history to me.

      ….and that is absolutely something MMOs can do better. actually GW2 is a good example – they way the Living Story differs in presentation and inter-action compared to the personal story. that’s the general direction for me.

  2. Overpower3d

    Completely agree. I’ve played about a dozen MMOs to level cap and I couldn’t tell you what any of them were about in terms of story with the exception of SWTOR. Story and content should be player driven as far as I’m concerned.

    • Syl

      I hear SWTOR praised for this all the time (I did not get as far myself) but I’d actually be interested in a detailed review of the story-telling there specifically in regard to immersion. because as much as some players talk about good story or storytelling sometimes, I find myself missing that aspect in their rating. for me it’s crucial – or else I can just go read a great book of which I’m not a part of either. let me know if you happen to have a link ready :)

      • Sullas

        Thought-provoking post, thank you.

        This is not the detailed review you were looking for… but my attempt to comment on TOR’s support for immersion nonetheless got a bit overlong, so it’s now a blog post. :)

        Essentially, I think SW:TOR’s strength lies in how well its choice system helps, and indeed forces you to get to know your character.

  3. Lisa

    In some ways, I think the Onxyia storyline in warcraft filled those three criteria, as you were uncovering a mystery and it wasn’t really a ‘central’ story arch as such. However, because the quest was needed to unlock a raid boss, many people would just mindlessly go through it. Perhaps there should be more ‘detective work’ type quests, the outcome of which matters for nothing other than story – but I’d then wonder how many people would actually do those quests so it might be development effort wasted.

    • Syl

      Well, people do horrible dailies all the time in wow, so as long as there’s something in ‘detective work’ for everyone, I am not too worried. I think you’re right that the Onyxia chain and also a few other attunements in fact, fulfilled the criteria to some extent. WoW certainly had lots of smaller chains in general but unfortunately they were all very fetch&delivery and very quest text heavy, too. that’s why I’ve always been ‘so-so’ about WoW’s quests, although some of them later on were quite awesome. Fedex and backtracking really need to go though, but these are technical aspects. :)

  4. Redbeard

    Considering the number of people who only care about endgame in MMOs, I sometimes wonder if that’s why the storytelling in some of the MMOs (WoW, for example) feels so half baked and derivative at times. As I mentioned in a post this week (ironically enough), Blizz’s best storytelling is done without using real world material as a crutch. Whether it be myths or customs or pop culture, using the real world to prop up your story leaves the story cheapened in some way. Kind of like falling back to hackneyed dialog (“I have a bad feeling about this”) in Star Wars.

    • Syl

      One of my gripes with WoW was that it didn’t take itself seriously enough, especially after vanilla. easter-eggs are fine and all but Blizzard did a lot to disturb setting and overall immersion, which makes WoW strangely loveable but goofy and hyper-fantastic.
      GW2 on the other hand, if we can ignore the damn store (/eyeroll) is very srs about the high fantasy theme and magical world. I don’t even think story was an afterthought in this game, after all there is no endgame – but the cutscenes and heavy narration take you out of the world rather than including you in it.

  5. bhagpuss

    When I started reading I thought I was going to be one of the people who would “fiercely disagree” with what you had to say. I’d count myself as a “lover of MMO Lore”, if a somewhat fickle and inattentive one and I feel very strongly indeed that “the player should not be the hero of the world”. Despite being exactly the audience you anticipated would be the least receptive to your argument, however, I fully agree with nearly everything you wrote.

    The key point, I would say, is that Lore is neither Story nor Story’s cooler brother, Narrative. Stories with beginnings, middles and ends have little if any place in MMOs. They are directive, didactic and inflexible. Even if they are well-written, which they seldom are, once read they lie around forever just getting in the way.

    Lore, on the other hand, is the spirit, soul and heart of an MMO. It underpins everything, from the fade embroidery on the worn leather boots you start out with to the graffitti on the walls of the sewers where you battle undead to the names of the feast days you celebrate. Without deep, rich, layered lore an MMO world is nothing but a video game.

    That Lore, however, needs to be discovered by players not doled out to them in pre-chewed gobbets. I love Everquest and I especially love the way lore is handled there, which is barely at all. The entire world of Norrath is soaked in lore, it drips with it. Everywhere you go you can see and hear the evidence of millennia of history and virtually none of it is explained.

    One of the things that sticks most vividly in my mind, something I discussed with many people over my years in EQ, was the face that appears repeatedly, carved into the walls of canyon beside the mile-long ramp from East Karana to Highpass. The same image appears in other places – Everfrost for one. Who was he? Who carved his likeness? I never found out but I can see the face in my mind still.

    Then there were the Iksar statues of Kunark. Broken, shattered reminders of the once-great Iksar nation. Seeing them made me think of Ozymandias. This is the Lore we need, and we need huge quantities. An MMO should have far, far more lore written and created for it than is ever going to be explained or even used. There’s no need to write stories – we’ll write our own but we must have the language and the words and the lore gives us that.

    And may I say, it is that deep lore that makes it so very clear to me that none of my characters will ever be the Hero of any of these stories. A hero, perhaps. Someone who acts heroically, certainly? But the Hero of the Story? No, the hero of the story is the world.

    • Syl

      I knew when writing this that terminology was gonna present some pitfalls for me :) indeed, lore and story and storytelling are 3 different things and I haven’t given definitions in the post. that said, I do agree with you too. story isn’t lore – my post isn’t in fact ‘against’ lore as much as it is against plump story-telling, the way it’s done in many MMOs. as you say, lore is the fabric of the world we play in and I am absolutely for the world having a past with the player ‘feeling’ it all around him (or as TB says in the video, the world shows you). unfortunately, lore is often communicated via story-telling and it’s badly done – which is where my general lore fatigue stems from. how can I possibly care about that much lore all at once?

      So yeah, it’s about the ‘how’ and for me also about ‘how much’. if there are stories, ongoing or not, there should be connections to the present and impact on my character. there should be ways to interact for me, engage with them and discover them in my time. it’s an interesting notion about quantity by the way – Skyrim always left me with the feeling that there was so much more to find out there.
      indeed, we write our own stories which is how my opening quote was meant, too. stories happen inside our minds. and then there’s content creation tools à la NW but that’s a specific topic I excluded in this article. ;)

  6. SKapusniak

    I’m in the camp that thinks that video games (whether MMOs or not) are a brilliant storytelling medium, but an absolutely awful narrative one, so I pretty much agree

    Of course that logic means I end up with Crusader Kings II or Dwarf Fortress blowing any RPG out the water story-wise, and any given Bethesda RPG (very good at world-building, at which video games excel) having much stronger storytelling than any given Bioware RPG (very good at narrative, at which video games suck)…

    …which is indeed absolutely true, but mostly just proves to everyone I’m a crazy man, and explains the mystery of TSW not at all :)

    • Syl

      Videogames can be a lot of things but whether MMOs are the go-to place for storytelling is highly debatable. they’re still social games first and foremost and the player needs to have a more active part in the world than in other genres where he’s pretty much recipient. which is why classic RPGs and MMORPGs still differ as much as they also share some aspects – for me, anyway. :)

  7. Tesh

    Speaking as an artist with delusions of authorship competence, I wholly agree. The principle of leaving things up to the viewer applies in art, too. One of the most important elements in animation (my college specialty) is the silhouette of a character. In fact, if that silhouette doesn’t read correctly, animation fails. It’s possible to read animation entirely from the silhouette most of the time, even, except for subtle facial emotions, and even there, body language should be pretty clearly supporting it.

    It’s not only possible to offload a lot of the subconscious visual processing onto the viewer, it’s almost necessary. This is the theoretical space that the Uncanny Valley exists in, where the artists are trying to do too much and the viewer balks at it. It’s purely instinctive and subconscious, but it’s a profound effect. I think there’s an analogue in storytelling, though I haven’t really formulated anything so well defined as the Uncanny Valley theory. Perhaps someone else has, but I haven’t had time to really chase it down.

    For one game example of the silhouette being crucial, take a look at the XBox Live game LIMBO. It’s not purely silhouette, since there are other glowy bits to help define things, but good artists can get a ton of mileage out of some very simple visuals. Good writers can get a ton of mileage out of very simple text.

    http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/LIMBO/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d802584109d1

      • Syl

        I LOVE that LIMBO riff, that’s amazing (and highly disturbing!). case in point! :D

        Fascinating commentary on animation – can’t say I’m surprised. it feels these universal ‘laws’ apply to all creative art forms, as art itself always needs to try touch and connect with the viewer/reader/listener in very much the same ways or rather, by appealing to and provoking the same ‘place’ inside of us (for emotional response). means and technology may be different but it’s always drawing on the same mechanics.
        I found it interesting how teaching also shares many similar aspects to writing; but then both teachers and writers are essentially “puppet masters” in the sense that they already have all the information while it’s their job to guide an audience through it.

  8. John

    off topic: may I ask which game is this photo from in the upper right corner of your blog? http://mmogypsy.com/wp-content/plugins/random-image-gallery-with-pretty-photo-zoom/random-gallery/Syl040305232121a.jpg

    and on-topic now, story is not overrated in MMOs. You said it, after the death of Arthas you stopped playing..and maybe you wouldn’t play it at all if was not about its great lore. One of the strong wow selling points was its lore and is one of Rifts weaknesses

    • Syl

      That’s a screenshot of my bard in FFXI. a long time ago :)

      Also on topic: I think you’ve read that part of my post a bit too selectively. what I’m saying is that ‘storytelling’ is overrated in MMOs, not story in itself. story is what we do ourselves or should be able to do. as for Arthas, his story arch was so prominent for WoW that while I remember him well, it also had a highly negative impact on me: I stopped playing. that’s not a good thing for an MMO and it’s why I personally think such central narratives need to be avoided. if stories must end by definition, make a world have lots and lots of them. also, let me be a driving force rather than a by-stander. don’t get me wrong, Arthas was a cool character and appealed to me due to Elric de Melniboné imagery; but it was still a movie or good read that I wasn’t part of and that left me standing when it ended.

  9. Electrolux

    So I did reinstall GW2 yesterday. The personal story makes me want to eat my own eyes. Last year I deleted my first toon at lvl 40 because he was an intolerable pathetic sap and I had reached the limit of my patience with him.

    I’m ignoring it all this time. The story, the hearts, the events, and this fancy new unliving story. All of it.

    Not out of spite or anything, it’s just none of my business. I had an epiphany playing Vanilla WoW over Christmas. I decided to ignore everything and just grind un-guilded. I have never felt such liberty in any game, be it MMO, SP or even PnP. Met so many cool folks and helped them with their business; there was nowhere else I needed to be and I cared for nothing more than the kill XP and some friendly chitchat. The narrative was the one that was happening to me, because of me and for me every single day with all these excellent people.

    Fun times, never going back to the ‘proper’ way. Maybe this was what the glory days of MMOs that I read about were like (but had missed joining up in WoW TBC as I did). Ironically I’m not sure this would have worked so well if we had all been doing it.

    We’ll see how GW2 stacks up with the GrindMethod; I expect to be unilaterally ignored as no-one will need me for anything and I won’t need them either. I’ll give it a week or two though, fair’s fair.

    • Syl

      Hehe, sounds like you’re having wonderful times then. ;)

      I dunno…I eye old days nostalgia with much skepticism. MMOs used to be, as you say too, mostly a grind without much player direction or pre-conceived content, long storylines being imposed on you etc. the effect of that was essentially that whenever you discovered something small, it was ‘awesome’ for all its rarity. if there were smaller events every now and then, it was such a change from the routine that it was great. but the truth remains you were grinding most of the time and many MMO players would never want to go back to those days.
      today we have the other extreme – there’s so much going on, we can’t keep up. we never feel left alone. it’s an overkill and it’s badly done in places, so maybe what we really need is balance.

  10. Stubborn

    Syl,
    Great post, and as much as I love narrative, I tend to agree. For every benefit narrative provides, it does so by confining a space. If it’s a steampunk story, there are certain genre-specific expectations. If it contains an arch-nemesis, there must be a confrontation that then ends the story arc. I love narrative, but I’m also aware it has its place.

    I also love Rades’s posts on lore minutia and the stories he comes up with based on odd situations (like the buddy-film about the two flight masters on the island in Vash’jir from November 2011), but that’s outside the game, not a part that’s being delivered. Often, the story in the game is either boringly cliche or requires an esoteric understanding of the lore that’s beyond my interests. Rades’s analysis of the characters may interest me as an English professor, but actually learning about them in the first place only takes away from my game time.

    That said, there is a place for story in many games; consider The Walking Dead. That game was almost all story and no game at all. Then there’s games where the story is, as you point out, written by the player, like Nethack or FTL.

    But in MMOs, the often heavy-handed delivery doesn’t do much for me. I loved the Wrathgate cutscene, but was often bored by the Uldum ones. There was a beautiful surprise at Wrathgate, an unexpected reward for finishing the quest line. In Uldum it became commonplace, overused, and disruptive to the play.

    Incidentally, have you seen this Extra Credits video: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/more-than-exposition
    I think you’d really like it.

    Sincerely,
    Stubborn

    • Syl

      Thanks! I think overuse and balance are a big issue overall. MMOs have gone from one extreme to the other, from grindy worlds without much lore to an overkill of questchains and heavy pre-written narrative. there’s much to say about how we perceive the same event or even piece of storytelling depending on how often it happens. and I’m with you – I switch off to complex lore in games, I am not looking to learn another Tolkien-esque universe. I love the simplicity of being a traveler who helps random people on the way with daily errands or gets rid of a band of thieves. a bigger goal every now and then but nothing too world-altering.

      And now that you mention it, I actually did watch that PA video before! it’s great and indeed a nice addition to this topic. I had forgotten about it, cheers!

  11. jim

    While all you are saying is true i have a small objection.
    The world has evolved.

    You can no longer release a game with quest-storyline-gaps because you will now have fan sites with all the available possible info there is to know about every quest every step of the way. And even if you think that it is up to anyone to use it or not, it is in our NATURE to always seek out the most efficient way. Plus the developer will not receive the appropriate credit for even trying because 99% of the playerbase won’t even notice. The games your refer to belong to pre-Internet era. The is also the infant internet era that also was non-existent. Nowadays information is always there in the tip of your finger, and whether that is a good thing or not it definitely is not up to me to decide :P

    • Syl

      Whether there are more guides or not doesn’t really tie into the discussion of ‘how’ storytelling should happen in MMOs, imo. sure, you can optimize and those who want to always will. but just like you can have different types of questing systems in MMOs, you can have different types of narrative delivery. which we already have, by the way: there’s a big difference between WoW’s, LOTRO’s or GW2′s storytelling for example. and when you look at RPGs such as Skyrim, you get an idea too of how lore can be presented, spread and left to the player to discover or not. you can have more or less lore in a game, you can present it in huge junks and long dialogue or not.
      I’m not really talking about ‘speed’ here or player efficiency.

  12. Imakulata

    I think your article is well written, Syl, thank you but I think there is a point you haven’t talked about much and (to my surprise) the commenters who did seem to disagree with me. I remembered the good stories from my MMO play and I realized they had one thing in common. Well, maybe two, there has been a lot of talk about emergent gameplay recently, but I wonder how much can (as an example) succeeding or failing at a raid boss in an unusual way be considered emergent. The one thing I mentioned was I had been a protagonist in all of them. That’s not something I felt during levelling in WoW or later chapters of GW2′s personal story; in them I simply helped the heroes to save their land or world. I wonder whether it’s something that would help player feel more interested in quest chains such as personal story; would we be more interested in getting homunculi for our alchemists, legendary weapons for our warriors and attuning our mages to elements or would we sneer at that in contempt and look for a game that lets us save the world (temporarily, until next person gets to the same stage of the story) as some commenters seem to suggest?

    • Syl

      I think there’s a big division among players over whether or how much they should be the ‘hero’ of the online world. personally, I think it’s hard to realize this in social, online games. it works for a game like Skyrim, but in an MMO there would be all sorts of issues – both technical and social. and phasing too much content in order to achieve ‘individual heroism’ isn’t something I personally enjoy, either.

      My idea of being the hero is slightly different; I definitely want to play characters with special powers, who commit heroic deeds and matter to the world – as a group. MMOs are about community to me. I think the current games could be a bit bolder about impact and I don’t agree that every single person in the game always needs to be able to see or achieve everything. but even if you allowed a certain part of the player base to impact more actively on the world, it would need to be balanced.

      • Imakulata

        I’m sorry, written text doesn’t carry subtle tones well so I don’t know whether I failed to explain clearly or whether you found the idea so bad you decided I must have not meant it seriously (after all, there is probably a reason why it is so unpopular)?

        As for having only a certain part of playerbase affect the world, I am afraid you would run into Pareto principle – just with bigger difference than 80:20. I believe most players would experience their characters as anonymous cogs in the machine, who may try, but in the end world changes around them without them have any say in it at all. Sadly, that is probably less than in the real world.

  13. rowan

    I’m with bhagpuss on this one. I was all set to disagree, but nope you’re right on this one, Syl. It’s a matter of semantics. There’s a difference between story, narrative, and lore. An MMO should be steeped in lore, and scant on overarching story. And I agree with Lisa that Vanilla WoW felt “perfect” in that what was going on at endgame wasn’t necessarily world shattering or saving. Sure there was some palace intrigue, but then you went off to kill the dragon in her lair, and that was that. Blizzard painted themselves into a corner with all the epicness of WotLK and beyond, and I haven’t enjoyed since it just before Cataclysm. (Stopped playing long ago.)

    I would much prefer a game where I am simply an adventurer that may help out the locals with a gang problem or a nasty ogre. You can be a hero without needing to be The Hero. GW2 does an OK job of this outside the personal story (though the first act is pretty good).

    I think TSW does this, too, though YMMV. :) As you may know, most of the missions start out with cutscenes. Most of these though, simply offer a little background by way of conversation with an NPC without directly saying, “I need you to go kill 10 rats and bring back their tails.” My favorite set-ups have been those where my character eavesdrops on a conversation and then acts to counter the intentions of the bad guys.

    • Syl

      “You can be a hero without needing to be The Hero”

      exactly. personal heroism (or epeen?) has never interested me nearly as much as discovering small gems in games or committing heroic deeds with a group of people.

  14. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    HERETIC! Except you’re right, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good name-calling, shall we?

    I’ve been making a point of pointing out that there’s the developer’s story (like the Zhaitan stoyrline in GW2) and the player’s story. A metaphor I think explains it well is tabletop RPG modules. Reading a module might be kinda entertaining, but it will never be as fun as when you play through the game. The GM will add flavor and will adjust things based on what the party has done before. It’s this personal version that makes the story better.

    Games need to give players more opportunities and more tools to tell their own stories. I don’t necessarily mean user created content, but just opportunities in the world to get into interesting situations.

    • Syl

      You know, I read ‘heretic’ and the first thing I am thinking is “awesome class in Allods” ;)

      And I agree. I deliberately left out player created content in this post, but there’s still much to say about how stories ‘happen’ in games through interaction with preconceived content.

  15. Jeromai

    I’m just going to talk about developer-created narratives here, as I quite agree that there needs to be more room for player-created narratives in MMOs to make it personally meaningful – how you do that is entirely different from developer-produced narratives though and can take reams of blog posts to cover.

    I actually felt that the story in GW1 hung together a lot more. Why? The missions were the core game, and the cutscenes flowed together that way with not a lot of interruptions in between. It was easier to keep track of the storyline.

    In GW2, it feels to me like all the story and narrative got diluted because there’s THREE things going on at the same time and it gets hard to keep track of the three narratives.

    There’s all the stuff happening in the world with dynamic events (that go on repeat loop after a while and you start seeing through the story there), there’s the dungeon story (which to me, held the most promise, but it gets so fractured up because one doesn’t do dungeons regularly and also feel obliged to skip cutscenes for the other players after a while) and there’s the personal story, whose flaws have been pointed out by various people for a long time now.

    I actually liked the personal story up to level 50 or so and the first time through, though the storytelling felt forced and heavy handed in parts. I found it very annoying that I had to head out into the world to catch up every few levels in order to get to the next story mission because I’d forget wtf was happening in the story by that point.

    And Trahearne, I didn’t really hate him as much as others do, but well, sighs, I really think a less wooden voice actor might have helped a lot. He just comes across as a rather boring know-it-all speech-making exposition device. A character with a more memorable personality like Tybalt might have gone a long way, or even the three Order heads acting as a triumvirate.

    • Syl

      Trehearne sure isn’t the most approachable character. I took his air and calm as part of the whole Sylvari culture and way of life – somewhat ‘above and beyond’ the happenings of the world. even when in the middle of action, there’s a strange detachment or lack of emotion. I don’t know why this idea sticks to elves or other ‘nature hippie’ characters in MMOs, maybe because we believe that living close to nature is bathing in calm and wisdom. ;)

      I can unfortunately not make GW1 comparisons; but I agree with you that there’s no consistency between the different storylines in GW2. again, less would’ve been more.

  16. Telwyn

    A recent comment from my partner while giving Tera a try has me thinking about narrative/storytelling. His point was that although the combat is good he feels no connection with the story or the world. I’ve been wondering how best to write an post analysing approaches to narrative in MMOs, since the quest text in WoW (at least from his perspective) is used to greater effect than that in Tera (i.e. he feels engaged by WoW’s quests more).

    I too found the personal story very unsatisfactory in Guild Wars 2, although I can’t put my finger on why. I think presenting false choices is a very bad narrative mechanic, in GW2 they very quickly are obviously meaningless. Perhaps that’s the worst part, not that I ever expected to have any real effect on the long-term story, but that when presented with choices it was clear they were all going to lead to the same near-future events?

    • Syl

      I’m not sure I would call them ‘false choices’ but yes, no matter what you choose the story is linear. I understand that they wanted to add some flavor with choices, letting you join different factions and also create replay value with it. but essentially you remain a puppet and the way the story is told leaves you detached. one thing I really disliked were also the cut-scenes and how they take you out of the world. then, you get to listen to your character say a lot of stuff you might not even agree with….erm, yeah. less dialogue is definitely more.

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