Massively Overthinking: The stories inside MMORPGs

    
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This week’s topic comes to us from one of our dear Patrons, Roger.

“I love stories, and some games tell great stories. MMOs have trouble because they want to tell the story of You when that story is better told by you yourself.

“However, I love coming across little gems. The Peacock Club timeline in EverQuest II tells of a powerful item that grants immortality, so you set out to find it. Along the quest, you discover it’s an item being kept secret, and anyone who looks for it goes missing. You come across a vampire and discover it belongs to his family and was given to the god-king in exchange for protection, and worse, the “immortality” the item provides is undeath, turning the civilization into mummies, ghosts, and zombies. You instead destroy the relic.

“It’s fun when the stories are about the world and not about you, but some stories that involve you are fun too. So my question is, are you a fan of stories, or would you rather MMOs focus their time on other things?”

Stories in MMORPGs — prefab, self-made, or both? What’s the best story you’ve ever seen inside an MMORPG of both varieties? I posed these questions to the Massively Overthinkers!

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Why not both? When developers give players the right mechanics and setting, things click, especially when they act like a dungeon master and take control of lore characters and allow players to interact with them. The last part may be harder to do these days, as MMOs are getting bigger, but the Shard of Herald event in Asheron’s Call still stands out: GMs made a multi-phase narrative that allowed for deep player involvement. It did, perhaps, also show that you need certain mechanics to make these ideas work (like mobs that can level and building separate PvP areas to contain the event, though perhaps they needed to be designed a bit better).

Even without direct influence, look at EVE’s most recent war. Seeing a mass movement against a controversial player group is always interesting. Developer-made stories are often more of a miss to me though. The last one I remember caring about was Darth Malgus’ arc at the start of SWTOR because it sounded like a perfect way to bring in a third faction, but… well, we can all see how well that panned out!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I know it’s cool to hate on story in MMOs, but I don’t think the problem is “story” — I think the problem is one story, the story where you are the savior of the world just like everyone else. Pushing past that story, I say there are so many great opportunities for stories in MMOs, and I like games where I can have both the benefit of professional stories to play around with and the tools to create my own.

I had issues with some of the stories in SWTOR, but for the most part, I think it is a great delivery system – I’ll say it’s the current champ for developer storytelling. Classic Guild Wars and City of Heroes told great stories too. And I still tear up over Jaina and Arthas. The best stories overall, though? I’m forever a fan of the player-written Penny and the Clockwork King tale from City of Heroes (long lost… hopefully someone saved the forums somewhere). And some of the roleplaying plots I saw in Star Wars Galaxies and even EverQuest have yet to be topped. Nothing beats a story you’re in, especially if you’re a smuggler acting in a play-within-a-play with your two beaus, one of whom actually murders the other onstage during the play and sends the audience into chaos. Wheeee!

Let me just quote myself and stop my rambling: “I always remind myself of these gems when people are arguing Sturgeon’s law as a reason for why games shouldn’t allow player creativity. It might be true, but that’s how you get the 10% that makes you cry over how good it is.”

gw91

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Stories are a great part of MMOs, in all varieties. The trick is in what each individual sort of story does well. I’m still in the middle of a roleplaying arc for my main character in Final Fantasy XIV that has lasted since the game first launched… and it also ties in with roleplaying from back in Final Fantasy XI. I’m also a huge fan of how those two games handle stories in general, because they provide an excellent approach that far too many western games miss. Designer-built stories in MMOs are great… as a metaplot.

A good MMORPG story usually posits that the player character is one-of-a-kind, a la Star Wars: The Old Republic. This is nice if the story is written well, but it falls into the trap wherein players can’t really share that experience with others from a roleplaying standpoint. You can’t all be the one Jedi Knight who [DID THE STUFF THE JEDI KNIGHT DOES, SPOILERS]. There are some MMOs that do a really good job of telling linear stories in which you are one of a kind, but far too often it creates a disconnect between you and the rest of the world. By contrast, the online Final Fantasy games (as well as other titles; The Secret World is good at this) tell stories in which you are one character among many, where the story serves to give you the shape of the world more than anything. You are not the only mover and shaker, even if you are a mover and shaker; the biggest thing you get from the story is a sense of what the world is like, what’s going on therein, what exists beyond your character’s possibly less pivotal life.

In short, they’re stories that give you space and a framework to build your character, rather than a straight progression undercut by the huge number of other players out there.

But the question was about the best, and right now I have to give the nod to the Heavensward story thus far for studio-made story. It’s full of pathos, sorrow, and a sense of inevitability – there are few real villains but many antagonists, and most of your enemies are just people who have a hurt lying so deep that it can’t be changed. In some ways it’s the inverse of a hero-fixes-everything story, where you see over and over that certain confrontations and events are inevitable, no matter how hard everyone works to stop them. And yet it never feels hopeless or futile, just intensely difficult.

As for the best player-driven roleplaying story… at the risk of being self-indulgent, I still have the softest spot for the storyline that my wife and I ran from the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic until a little bit after the first expansion launched, in which her Imperial main went from a reluctant Sith acolyte to a Darth in his own right, crushing his opposition and his former master, leaving him poised to grasp even more power while more heroic characters licked their wounds and prepared to counter him. It was steady, organic, and in-depth, and it’d make a great story if written down. I’m not doing it justice here, but it was pretty great.

Heavensward

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): As a roleplayer and long-time RPG player, I know that story in general is important to me. And as a storyteller myself, I find all types of storytelling devices interesting. We are all well familiar with the cinematic storytelling of BioWare in its single-player games and in Star Wars: The Old Republic, for example. I love how the animation of the characters, the voice acting, sound effects, and music, and camera all work together to create an immersing experience.

Then you have other games like Elder Scrolls Online and DC Universe Online that don’t inundated you with cutscenes, but rather they place you in the middle of the action and let the scene happen around you. DCUO does this more often than Elder Scrolls Online. But the best example comes from ESO on the Aldemeri Dominion, and it’s strangely similar to Roger’s example: There is a medallion hanging on a corpse, and eventually the medallion starts talking to you and your investigation into its origin begins.

The is another kind of storytelling that I mentioned in the comments of my last column, and that is puzzles. The Secret World lives for this kind of storytelling. And I have to admit that I’ve not seen an MMO match it. In TSW, the story is mostly happening around you, and your job is to figure out what’s going on. The actual narrative is pieced together by the clues you are giving.

I can’t really say that I enjoy one over the others, but I do think that we need more of all of them. For me an MMORPG is about surrounding yourself in an immersing world… or more importantly, the story of an immersing world however it’s presented.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Story? Yes, please! I love being told a good story as much as I love telling stories, so I don’t think I have a preference between the two. Note, however, that I did say be told a good story! In games with lackluster stories, I would much prefer to make my own as I travel about and just use the world’s story as background information. How does this fact tie together with my narrative?

I honestly could not come close to figuring out what my favorite story told to me was. There have been many years, and many games filled with many stories. What comes to mind most readily is The Secret World. The vanishing of Tyler Freeborn was pretty amazing as an arc, but even the little stories woven throughout the game in other missions are fun to discover.

As for my own story, I would pretty much have to say the totality if my dancer’s life in Star Wars Galaxies. And then there are stories run by other players…. I am sorry, my brain just melted from the overload of trying to sift through all those amazing experiences and just try to pick one. It. Cannot. Be. Done.

ESO

Patron Archebius: I do not like being The One. When I write a story, my protagonists may happen across a life-changing event, but it’s never because they bear some legendary mark or there was a rhyming couplet written about them a millennia ago or the stars wrote out “This Baby, Dude” when they were born. To me, nothing is less immersive than when I watch a cutscene where I summon the Sword of Successful Eugenics, then find myself standing inside the bodies of the next dozen chosen when I leave it.

For that reason, I much prefer when quests are about the world itself, and how it’s developing. The worst for me, personally, is Star Wars: The Old Republic. Every major event and person in the game was about me. And somehow, that felt intensely impersonal.

Guild Wars, on the other hand, I enjoyed. Maybe that was because it was my first MMO. Maybe it was because every major event you did as a group, which made me feel more like part of a band of heroes than a lone wolf. That’s the kind of questing that gets me into a game – protecting caravans, escorting refugees through mountain passes, defending a fort against a rising tide of undead, working with other heroes to help make things better.

And not just other heroes – other players. Playing with people has always been important to me, creating new stories around and inside the game. Most of my great gaming moments weren’t content, player-created or otherwise, but just moments spent enjoying the company of my fellow gamers. You have to give your players a reason to interact and tools to do so, otherwise all that’s left is static content.

Stories are like many other MMO mechanics. Often they’re put into a game because it’s an industry standard, and not necessarily because it fits or works. Done well, they make the world feel more alive, a brighter and more vibrant place to live, and sometimes, they even help you find your place in it. I’d love to see developers take it more seriously. We’re experimenting with servers and funding methods and communities and mechanics – maybe we should play around with storytelling, too.

Your turn!