The Daily Grind: Should MMOs do more to provide a backstory for your character?

    
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Maybe I’m in the vast minority here, but it’s always bugged me that MMORPGs just plop your fully grown, fully proficient adult character into a game world with no explanation whatsoever of who you are or where you’ve come from. Very few games (Guild Wars 2 and Villagers and Heroes being among those) make an effort to outline your character’s history and personality before you’re off to kill 10 rats, which seems to get rid of one of the great parts of pen-and-paper RPG.

I’ve always thought that there’s a missed opportunity here for us players to connect with our characters during the creation process. And sure, we can make up whatever we want in our minds, but having the game provide cues and perhaps even give us option for our heritage, significant past events that shaped us, and the motivation behind our striking out for fame and fortune.

What do you think? Should MMOs do more than give you a blank “biography” panel and actually help you craft a backstory for your character? Could such a feature even be worked into the gameplay itself?

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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Vaeris
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Vaeris

MMOs need to work more on giving players in-game tools to craft story. If I want to be told my story then I’d play a single player game. Part of the spark (at least initially) of MMORPGs was that players could live out their own existence in these worlds. If the developers are telling you your existence it steals that spark.

Now, if a healthy list of background options were given for players to choose from at the start that had some actual effect in game that would be nice. Think character creation from the table-top game Traveller. But yeah, overall developers need to in my view work harder on incorporating systems that allow players to create their character’s story. It’s easier just to tell them they are awesome, I get it, but it’s also not as fulfilling from a player standpoint.

Andrew Ross
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Andrew Ross

Late to the party, but yes, in the sense that I feel world building is sorely lacking. Asheron’s Call 1 and 2 plus Horizons were the only games I can think of that I played (maybe Wizardry too? Matrix Online probably tackled it) that talked about what it would be like to live in a world where death wasn’t so common. Who cares if Mankrik’s wife is dead if she’s just taking her sweet time spirit walking back to her corpse?

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Tee Parsley

Writing in games, as in much of the entertainment industry, is far down the totem pole. Lore, story, dialogue, narration, etc, it all gets shoehorned in. Often written by folks who think they are good writers….

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Zero_1_Zerum

I’ve been partial to choose your own backstory character building.

Like, was your mom a cartographer, a warrior, or a milk maid? And each choice gives you stat boosts and a bit of back story, with all your choices leading up to the present day events of the game.

Maybe an expanded version of that, with many more options to give players flexibility, could be good.

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Castagere Shaikura

In ESO I main a Redgurd stamina Warden and always do the quest in Alik’r Desert for role play. And dang Redguard women are so beautiful in ESO.

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Brazen Bondar

I like the idea of having a backstory but I would not want a developer to craft mine. As others have said below, it would be too limited to stock type of personalities. And forget experiences of people of color….LOL…that would be non-existent or totally messed up. I do wish though, that developers would figure out a way for us to develop a back story that could be meaningful.

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Witches

Won’t that just limit your options?

You’ll have the default x number of options and that’s it, that only works if you want to give your random mook more of a backstory, but if someone already has a backstory for their characters that would just be a random restriction.

That said if there was an option for choose from this list backstory or create your own, then i guess it would be fine for everyone.

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Hikari Kenzaki

A good story is fun, but it needs to be a story that allows your character to live in it.

I prefer a story that is happening around my character, not because of my character. It generally makes for better roleplaying and allows me to play with my concept more.

One of the best things The Secret World RP community landed on a long time ago was that we knew the events of the story, but they didn’t dictate our RP, just informed our RP.

I’ve seen this go very badly in the opposite direction with SWTOR where literally everyone would pop into Fleet with their brand new shiny level 50 claiming to have personally killed the Emperor.

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Brazen Bondar

I loved the way back story could be handled in TSW particularly, since all of us came to the bees from different walks of life. Do I remember this right, but at one point we had that…um…Chronicle or something that allowed us to post our story for any one to check?

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Hikari Kenzaki

Chronicle mostly showed your build, badge progress, pvp stats, etc.

There was/is an RP mod that allows you to create a bio and such for your character.

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Rolan Storm

YES! And another YES! To both.

I do not know why this feature abandoned in all but a few (as you pointed out) MMORPGs. Single-player games do a great job by immersing player with choices of character’s pre-game story.

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EmberStar

Really? Which single player games? Because I only remember like… four games where the characters have a preset story. I also remember that I never finished at least two of those games, because I’m not particularly *interested* in the preset story or the pregenerated character. (Yes, everyone says Witcher 3 is great. I never got past the first chapter, because I find Geralt to be an unlikable person and generally unpleasant to be around.)

I’m not a fan of the “you have amnesia” trope. But I’m also not a necessarily a fan of playing pre-generated characters. I only got as far as the prologue in Jedi: Fallen Order because I simply don’t *care* about Cal Cestus (or whatever his name was.) On the other hand, I had over a hundred characters in City of Heroes.

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Rolan Storm

Really. Truly. There are at least two I remember right off the bat, one of them was forming character through telling his story. May I inquire if this is a genuine interest or you just want to prove me wrong? :)

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Jim Bergevin Jr

I would like to know what they are. I too don’t remember any of the RPGs I played giving your characters backstories except for the character specific ones like Witcher and Lara Croft.

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Rolan Storm

Okay, give me some time – a bit busy right now. I have at least five positions on my mind. I asked because I did not want to write a lengthy answer to someone who would not really interested to know.

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Rolan Storm

Here goes… From least to most.

V. Baldur’s Gate III
Level of influence: Unknown

While Baldur’s Gate merely makes a bio depending on your class choice the third game (very much Divinity in game mechanics) shown some pre-game class/race choices which are certainly backstory. How much this will influence gameplay remains to be seen. Also we can safely put here games like Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity.

IV. Vampire The Masquerade – Bloodlines + Unofficial Patch
Level of influence: Variable

What a tremendous, meticulous work this patch it. Hats off to those people. Said patch gives player an option to choose – beside clan – a bloodline your vampire originates from. Some choices will influence your game very little, others will change gameplay significantly.

III. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Level of influence: Moderate

You can choose optional backstory that will influence your stats. Also your race might make a huge impact on gameplay since game world has racial problems.

II. TES Daggerfall
Level of influence: Significant to none

You have three options to choose from at the start of the game: create you own class, choose one from a list or complete a test which will designate class to your character depending on you choices. While test is pretty simple and you can see which choice leads to what influence if you choose this option you will be stuck with chosen class for the rest of the game. Also you will get biography that will be in concord with your choices in said test.

I. Conqueror 1086 A.D.
Level of influence: Total

At the start of this game as character creation you get a roleplaying game which offers you choices that will influence characters stats, piety and background. You cannot skip this and you will be given certain paths depending on results of the game while others will be lost for you. Some choices lead to obvious benefits, others might surprise you. While choices are finite they shuffle and you do not get same character creation.

This is my list. I would love to read yours if you have one. :)

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Jim Bergevin Jr

I remember that test in daggerfall. I don’t have a list as I can’t remember very many games that gave suitable backstory options. The closest, iirc, is Neverwinter where you chose elements like homeland, diety, etc. but don’t think it had much influence on gameplay at all.

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EmberStar

If you mean the current Neverwinter Online game, then the choices of race, deity and homeland have zero impact an gameplay. It’s mad-libs stats that you are required to pick, and even your choice of which fantasy *species* to play has basically no effect.

Of that list, the only one I’d consider playing is possible Baldur’s Gate 3. And only *because* it’s apparently possible to skip the pre-gen options and just create your own character. And the starting scenario shown in the trailer means that *anyone* would be a viable fit for the story, because the Ilithid piloting the ship is literally grabbing people at random to try to produce new mind flayers.

I played Vampire: Bloodlines launch version. I don’t consider fan patches to count, because even if they are “reviving” unused code they’re still mods. It wasn’t in the game when I played it, and I have no interest in playing the modded version that includes it.

Of the list of games that I mentioned, the two that are really relevant are the original Mass Effect trilogy and the original Knights of the Old Republic.

In the first Mass Effect game you can select an origin for “your” version of Shepard. It amounts to two different “pick one of three” selections, and the only gameplay effect is that each choice has a single, optional mission tied to it. You can also choose Shepard’s gender, which doesn’t have much gameplay effect at all beyond changing the voice actor – it has a minimal effect on the romance options available in the first game, and none at all by the third (where every romance option is Shepard-sexual regardless.)

Knights of the Old Republic allows you to create a character, and then does the whole amnesia trope. The twist is that you’re playing someone who already has a specific backstory, but presented in a way where the revelation of *who* is the important part. And then how you choose to interact with that revelation does have gameplay effects. (Do you live up to your previous reputation, or defy it?)

The other game is Prey, but beyond choosing which gender of Morgan Yu to play it doesn’t pretend to let you choose a backstory. It’s revealed almost immediately that everything around you is a carefully crafted lie.

When I think of games with preset main characters, it breaks down mostly into games that don’t even pretend to give you a choice, and games where any choices are basically irrelevant.

Games like Witcher 3, Jedi: Fallen Order, the Batman: Arkham series, Shadow of Mordor or Tomb Raider don’t pretend that you get a choice. Either you are interested in the presented protagonist and their story, or you aren’t.

Most games that pretend you get a choice end up being the second version. The devs don’t have the time or resources to make entire mission paths that only exist for a fraction of the players. In Mass Effect, choosing if Shepard a man or a woman doesn’t ultimately make any difference to the gameplay or story beyond swapping out the voice actor and character model.

It ultimately doesn’t matter at all if you choose to play Ned or Nora in Fallout 4. They both have slightly different backstories, but the game basically ignores them beyond the initial interactive cinematic / tutorial section. They are, at best, an excuse for why your character is familiar enough with guns to know which end the bullets come out. The most novel feature there is that the devs took the time to record a huge selection of names that Codsworth might recognize and actually have voice lines for. Undercut slightly by how many of them are “naughty words” or memes instead of actual names. “Heh heh heh heh. He called me ‘Ms Cocks.” Heh. Heh heh heh.”

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Rolan Storm

Yes! I should have included KotOR2 in my list for that neat trick with Revan’s identity. While by canon Revan is Male Jedi you in conversation with Atton could choose otherwise. Loved that.

I cannot argue that making new unique branches of story or reactions make development much more tricky and adds a lot of work – but that’s creme de la creme for me. For example I always played Inquisitor in SWTOR with human characters, but on Belsavis game glitched and my character got an answer he can say to HQ as if he was non-human character. It was great, they implemented a whole line of interactions for non-humans throughout whole game.

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EmberStar

The thing about SWTOR is that it mostly *doesn’t* try to lock you into preset backstory options. The story more or less starts with the tutorial mission, and the assumption that your character “did the thing” that it took to reach that moment in time. For the Sith Inquisitor, the point where the story begins is your character, enslaved by the Empire, being dumped on Korriban and told “succeed or die. We don’t care which.”

Were you born a slave? Captured from the Republic? Unjustly imprisoned? That’s up to you. There’s a few points where you can pick dialogue that can shape that, but the game doesn’t even try to hold you to it. I’m pretty sure you can even pick contradicting options, and then just throw Force Lightning at anyone who dares to call you out as a liar.

Once the story starts moving, they did include different dialogue for some of the species options in a few places. I know the two Sith paths have characters who will throw it in your face constantly if you choose to play as anything but Human or Sith. There *might* be something similar on the Republic side if you play as a Sith or Chiss Jedi, but think there the optional dialogue is more for NPCs to call you out on being overly Dark Side.

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Rolan Storm

Yeah, this is certainly has little to do with backstory – I still find it very much fun. I have long SWTOR love/hate relationship. While I appreciate the game it is still no KotOR3 and some things there is to plain for me.

PvP is fun though and story progressing once in a while does not hurt. :)

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Rolan Storm

Also I respectfully disagree about Bloodlines. I understand you are fully aware of situation and you technically right, but I prefer to see that patch as part of official game since they digging out and adding content that is in fact in resource files. For me mods are things like Sabbat branch and Hunter remake.

Love the game. Waiting for B2 with anticipation. Might even run first one again as a preparation for release. :)

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EmberStar

*Edit* Also for Baldur’s Gate 3, I believe the devs have said that you can choose between playing a number of preset characters or rolling your own. The preset characters have specific backstories, voice lines unique to that, and optional quests related to their history. One of the choices is, if I understand correctly, to play as the lady Gith who also got an eyeball worm in the cinematic trailer. Apparently the others become NPCs that you can meet later on in the story.

The alternative (again if I understand correctly) is that you can create your own character “from scratch.” You lose the preset backstories, but you can fully customize your race, gender, class and whatever else. In this case it still fits the story because the Illithid who sets everything in motion is desperate to find hosts to transform into new Mind Flayers. It’s literally just grabbing people off the streets. So unlike the first two games your character doesn’t even have to be a specific age range.

It also means that the preset histories are (possibly?) still available as part of the story if they choose to make them into companion sidequests. IE, if you play as the lady Gith, perhaps you get a specific mission related to her preset history. If you don’t play as her, then maybe it becomes a quest you can do with her if you choose her as a companion.

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Rolan Storm

Thanks for heads-up. To be honest I LOVE the series, but do not follow new game much except for that gameplay video from PAX.

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EmberStar

Also, when you say “forming a character by telling *his* story,” to me that means a game has already made a pretty significant decision about my character’s backstory right out of the gate. I am curious, but I suspect you will probably decide that I’m simply arguing for the sake of it because I don’t share your point of view.

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Rolan Storm

Can’t see from dialogue tree if you addressing me. :) In case you are I did not mean to be rude. Just did not want to go into length of comment for someone who does not actually care.

I must admit my examples are not the games you might want to play these days, but there were there and that was fun. Conqueror 1086 A.D. – even being very old (I played it as student) – is a great game. :)

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EmberStar

My issue is that an MMO trying to “flesh out” my backstory is, by definition, limited to a few preset paths. It’s bad enough that nearly all of them start with “You are the Chosen One! Now shut up, get in line with the other 20,000 Chosen Ones and kill ten rats.” I actually disliked how Guild Wars handled it – I felt that some of the backstory preset felt pretty arbitrary and stupid and the related quests were somewhere between “annoying” and “really bad,” both in terms of writing and mechanics.

I’d much rather that whether my character has a relevant backstory or not is MY decision, and that said story is mine to create. I get almost no control over the in-game story, so it doesn’t improve my immersion at all when the game starts demanding to tell me what my character’s motivations for jumping onto the rails is.

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Hikari Kenzaki

Yep. This here. I am so tired of the one and only hero trope.

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styopa

It would be nice if there was more of a backstory, but it’s only useful if it MEANS something to the player and character. I mean, if the generation of backstory perhaps buffed one reputation gain, or debuffed another, or in some way meaningfully (to a greater OR lesser degree) impacted how you played your character.

Then again I come from the ancient land where we rolled up characters and played the best we could with what we got, so I may be an outlier today. One thing from that era that apparently surprises people? That the character with the best stats ALMOST NEVER was the most successful in the party.

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Castagere Shaikura

No let me be a free citizen of the game world. I really don’t like the whole main story being the savior stuff in today’s MMOs.

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Robert Mann

Doesn’t remove the possibility to craft a background, in fact I would argue that it enhances the meaning. It would mean you have resources to work with in terms of things like having a home-town and such.

Of course, it isn’t needed to do such things… but I don’t believe that a backstory is tied to being the hero/savoir.