The Daily Grind: Are MMORPGs better off without stories?

    
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Last week, Massively OP community veteran BalsBigBrother pointed out — rightly! — that while Trove is amusing, it’s very much lacking in prepared story or even lore, which could be a turn-off to gamers seeking that from their online games.

The topic dovetails nicely with one of the key mainstream gaming conversations from last week on whether video games are even a good medium for storytelling to begin with. “The best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films,” The Atlantic declared last week, setting off gamers everwhere. “To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, but it’s also an unambitious one.”

“To dream of the Holodeck is just to dream a complicated dream of the novel. If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.”

Yeah. So. I can think of terrible examples of storytelling in games as well as excellent examples. I’m sure you can too. But I have yet to watch a movie that provided me a sandbox to tell my own stories, so there’s that. What do you think? Should video games stop shooting for narrative elegance? Are MMORPGs better off without stories?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!
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Oleg Chebeneev

Good MMORPG is living breathing world. And if there is no story behind it, whats the point of exploring it? MMO without story is a dead MMO. Another question is how you tell that story. Doesnt necessary has to be quests.

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Brian

So this individual is trying to rationalize how MMOs don’t need to have stories to be compelling by comparing it to another medium of creative writing that’s been in existence for more than 100 times as long, and likely encompasses more than 100 times the literary body of work (being very conservative). And he/she says that there are better stories written in books? Brilliant deduction…someone promote Captain Obvious here to Major Duh.

The whole purpose of playing an rpg whether alone or mmo is for the player to assume a role in the world and participate/interact with it in whatever way they find meaningful. Good writing is the vehicle by which players can achieve this by giving them a frame of reference (context) for what they are experiencing and doing. It doesn’t have to be award winning material to be effective. Sometimes simplicity can go a long way. The exact degree to which a narrative should direct the player is subjective, but is usually dependent on developer intent, theme of the rpg, pace of progression (player and world), overall complexity of the activities one would be involved in, and the expectations of the individual.

Because of the subjectivity involved I’m not going to comment on how much story-centric direction is too much or not enough. I will say, beyond the shadow of a doubt, all of the memorable experiences I have playing rpgs, both single and mmo, all had good writing (both in quality and implementation). And I will never, EVER become involved in an mmo devoid of at least some rudimentary narrative. If an mmo company seriously wants my money, they had better be ready to offer far more than a glorified chat room full of 3d avatars kicking virtual chickens.

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John Kiser

I’d say this varies heavily by game and the like. Some games can get away with a light story or no story depending on overall design elements and the like while others require a deeper story-line. There is also different methods of delivery for a story-line/lore as well. So I think a narrative can do well depending what the game developer is trying to get across. Are you the hero in a deep narrative with some foretold prophecy and certain events are suddenly coming into light as you go on or are you simply just someone thrown into a world in turmoil and need to try and lead your life and protect your world the best you can with the tools you have.

I think the overall problem is thinking of MMOPRPGs as just sort of one “genre” as a whole when it is really sort of the preface to quite a few sub-genres of its own and that is realistically where things are. It boils down to we could use more things in specific sub genres. Narrative heavy has been the norm for awhile and there is more to do than that, but the genre and sub genres as a whole would not be better off if it were entirely gotten rid of.

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Schmidt.Capela

IMHO that assertion by The Atlantic is hogwash. Games can be as effective a way of telling a story as any other media, though just as with every other media it has its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to conveying a narrative. Games, in particular, tend to be far better at presenting the setting than just about any other media can be, because they allow the player to explore that setting in ways non-interactive media simply can’t.

If you restrict that to MMOs, though, things get trickier. The way great numbers of players are playing together impose too many restrictions on MMOs; too many narrative devices simply can’t work with them, particularly when it relies on changing how fast time is perceived. I’m not sure MMOs are a good fit for fixed stories, like those we see in themepark games, nor for pre-built branching stories like we see in many single-player RPG games, and we are still in the early stages of learning how to guide and nurture player-created stories with large groups of players.

Then there is the question itself: do MMOs (or games) even need a story, beyond what is needed to establish the setting? Many of my favorite games and MMOs had a very thin story; Glitch, Trove, all Mario games not in the Paper Mario or Mario RPG franchises, Minecraft, SimCity, Tabletop Simulator, and many more.

Games don’t need a story. Neither do MMOs. While the presence or absence of a story needs to be decided early on, with the rest of the game built around that choice, games can be perfectly fine, and enjoyable, without stories; in fact, trying to add an story can be actually detrimental to a game that was never intended to have one.

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Jack Kerras

See: Metroid: Other M, among a host of others.

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Jeff

No

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Emperor Caligula

No. BUT: I want to BE IN the story, not some dude merely telling me. I remember vividly playing LOTRO the first time, escaping the Dwarf start area and I was totally in awe! I was actually inside of the story, that happend around me with me involved, and not HOURS of stupid NPCs telling me a story a la SWTOR.

Stories are great, if you experience them. If you just hear some NPC endlessly talk, then no.

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Jack Kerras

I need to post again, because I’m awful. Sorry. This is gonna be a big one:

I’m not sure that video games are ever going to be as good at delivering a cool story into my brain as books will.

That being said, I’m a voracious reader and fairly imaginative in general; I find that a lot of interpretations of books I see reduce rather than improve the experience, and books in and of themselves are a fairly pure way to do things. Even if the narrative doesn’t change from reading to reading, you have a lot of power for things to look, sound, feel, etc. the way that is best for you! It’s your brain filtering the thing, so you get a lot of good out of that.

But, I mean… no crazy train shootout in a novel is ever going to match the one I played through in Uncharted 2. And I sorta cared about the characters, even! There are a lot of things that video games do better than books do.

The thing I feel like video games -need- is to understand what they are and how to work within their own medium. You can’t have a Chosen One plotline in a game where you can look around and see seventeen other Chosen Ones speaking to the same NPC all the time; it’s disingenuous. Phasing has started to help with -some- things (IE this town is burned or not burned depending on how your quest went), which means feeling and seeing some real impact in the world thanks to your actions.

Also, I tend to find bleaker stories more compelling in general; nothing quite like that Bloody Baron questline. There isn’t a ‘happy’ ending. There’s the thing you did, and that’s what you -could- do, but… in no case are you just gonna pat yourself on the back. It’s an intense, rough, interesting, and engaging story. No MMORPG story has ever been so interesting.

And, I mean, the narrative bullshit that happens in Diablo 3 isn’t nearly as compelling to me as the whole overarching -thing- about Sanctuary: when you look at Evil, Evil looks at you. The Warrior from D1 staggered East and Diablo literally erupted out of him. The Rogue was running a band of marauders and thieves in Diablo 2. The Sorcerer went mad in his little pocket universe; a LOT of the major players in D2’s plot are the result of D1’s heroes eventually being driven mad by the things they’d seen. Corruption claims all who fight it… but it’s still fighting the good fight. You have to do it. It’s what heroes -do-, right? This time will be different, right?!

That’s not -a story-. You don’t pick up a quest and go from place to place, killing monsters and gathering magic crystals, at which point they tell you ‘Oh, also, the Sorc from he last game went nuts and here’s the key to his crazy Escher house.’ They invite interpretation and reward interest and engagement, but they don’t cram a narrative down your throat. It’s there. It’s intentional. But it’s not a questline you’re frog-walked down between ‘kill Andariel’ and ‘kill Duriel’.

Fuck, even Destiny’s best stories aren’t stories in-game at all. Jaren Ward and the fall of Dregden Yor, the corruption of the Rose, the Books of Sorrow and the origins of the Hive… which, until that chunk of lore was released, was literally the dumbest stupid-space-zombie race in the history of games, by the way. The Sword Logic REALLY pulled their shit out of the ‘lol I’m a boring evil thing’ fire, and they’re now one of my favorite things about Destiny thanks -purely- to their backstory.

AND all of the above story points – some of which occur countless millennia before the start of the game – imbue its races and the items you find and the things that you do with a richness that few MMOs have managed. Punjabi’s comments on the Black Garden cast real doubt as to whether the Traveler is a good or an evil thing, and the advent of the Sword Logic, although clearly a ‘bad guy thing’ when reading it, comes from a very understandable and logical place. Everyone wants more life. Everyone wants the world to be free of evil. No one wants to live in a web of lies. What if we’re wrong? What if we’re wrong?

We -see- what happens to the folks who go the way of the Hive, who -agree- that the Universe must end but that we can force it to become a perfect shape, a fire that feeds itself forever… we know what happens to them. How they look to us, the terrible things they do. Monsters, all.

…but they could be right. And they wonder, ‘what if we’re wrong?’ also.

THAT shit is way more interesting than the good-conquers-evil Chosen One Saves The World story-questline any day of the week. Destiny’s story itself, the narrative you participated in, was honestly kind of a fucking chore. Its lore and the crazy shit that happens in its world are astonishing when you choose to engage with it. You look at it and you -feel doubt-. You fear the Traveler will fail and that the Deep will prevail, because you are of the Traveler, and without that there are no Guardians. …but with investigation, there’s an equal fear that you -are- a dead thing, cast from a dead mold, that embodies and spreads and IS nothing but death…

ojimaru
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ojimaru

The “Chosen One” trope is a tough one avoid, as I’ve noticed with Guild Wars 2’s original story. The gist of it is that the player characters were commanders of an army, while the “Chosen One” was an NPC known as Trahearne. The two main problems I noticed with this format are the disconnects, i.e.

1. The power disconnect between player characters and Trahearne. While Trahearne goes through the standard heroes journey, players participate as the supposed supporting cast, much like how the Fellowship of the Ring was formed to assist Frodo. Just like the Fellowship, the player characters end up doing most of the dirty work, while the “hero” waved his magical maguffin around ineffectively. When your character is mowing down hordes of monsters in the time it takes for the “hero” to kill one, you wonder why the NPC is taking all the credit.

2. The disconnect of prior knowledge and expectations. This one is far trickier. Nearly all narrative games features the player character as the hero, the Chosen One. Be it in single player games, or multiplayer messes, the player character(s) is the center of the spotlight. When the spotlight was directed solely on an NPC, however, players’ expectations were seriously challenged.

Both these disconnects resulted in general dissatisfaction with the story structure of the original story arc in Guild Wars 2. ArenaNet shifted tactics in Living World Season 1 by writing the player characters as significant contributors (still Commanders) to the story, but did not highlight any one entity as the main hero. This, I think, worked well because of the massive open world boss fights that required participation for many players. Unfortunately, since Living World Season 2, ArenaNet has stepped back into the “Chosen One” trope for all players. I am simply tickled that a random NPC soldier is directing over forty “Commanders” to escort Dolyaks or drop bombs on stuff.

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Jack Kerras

Yeah, being second-fiddle to the NPC Zap Brannigan analogue would only be good if it were pitched as some humorous thing instead of a SUPER SRS STORY.

I really don’t think that it’s a great way to go, though; mythical heroes fighting alongside you has never really interested me a lot. There’re very rarely -actual stories- focused on the things that are happening on the ground, the characters affected by these massive clash-of-the-titans happening far overhead, and that’s the interesting part to my mind.

‘Awesome hero saves the world again!’ is just… boring. It’s -been- boring for years. And trying to engage people with it is just… dull. There’s nothing left in it. Well’s dry. Pump elsewhere.

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Leontes

I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed reading a “wall of text” quite as much. Thanks for the good read – mayhaps I’ll take a closer look at destiny’s lore…

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Jack Kerras

Glad you liked it. I’m a bit self-conscious about my post length, lots of TL;DRs, nice to hear it actually worked for someone.

Legend: The Black Garden

The whole Shin Malphur/Dregden Yor series (Thorn cards, The Last Word cards)

The Book of Sorrows (every single Calcified Fragment in the Dreadnought)

Best reads of the bunch. There are lots of other good ones, but the Book of Sorrows was just immense re: what it did for the Hive in my brain.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

I remember running the Forsaken Road instance several times hoping Candaith would somehow evade death. Then, of course, there’s the moving burial ceremony in Evendim for the fallen Rangers.

I enjoy a good story well told.

Then there’s WoW, whose story cannot be followed by a person with only a passing interest in it. Only the lore mavens have a clue as to what is going on.

As to the whole assumption that MMOs shouldn’t try because they often fail and books are way better . . . well, books are way better than movies as well. Does that mean movies shouldn’t bother with storytelling?

hurbster
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hurbster

No.