While some players like to rebel against the notion that MMORPGs are storytelling experiencies, that narrative is exactly why I show up to these games in the first place. The social atmosphere and persistent worlds are nice, but if I’m going to be spending hundreds of hours in a virtual world, I want to be told some great stories!
And certainly there are plenty of tales — both good, bad, and forgettable — that are present in our online games. I’m always keeping an eye out for the different narrative tools that MMORPG writers and designers use to tell stories in this medium, and for today’s list, I am going to go over some of the most frequent tricks and techniques that pepper in tales into our adventures.
The quest box
We’ll start with the blindingly obvious, the quest box. A staple in pretty much every MMORPG, the quest box is the fastest and cheapest way to dump exposition on players, usually at the start of a quest. Sometimes these boxes are walls of text, sometimes they’re short-and-sweet setups, and sometimes they even offer interactive options. While these are easy to put into the game, quest boxes fail in keeping most players’ attention and delivering story beats during a quest.
MMORPGs certainly aren’t the only types of video games where you’ll see cutscenes — they’re pretty much a gaming mainstay almost anywhere you go. The advantages to these are numerous: They give a cinematic experience, they can focus the camera right on the important action, and they can be really exciting. But if you overdo them or have them drag on for too long, you end up trying players’ patience. Plus, some MMO players don’t like being yanked out of the pilot seat of their character to watch a movie.
For MMOs with bigger budgets that want to really punch up an important moment in the game’s story arc, there’s always the option to throw in a gorgeous-looking CGI cutscene instead of doing it with in-game art assets. Obviously, the plus here is for the “wow” factor of impressing players, but it’s too expensive to be using for much more than opening movies.
One of my favorite story elements is when MMOs use scripting to tell the game within the game world using NPCs that move around. Elder Scrolls Online is excellent in doing this, often having characters run up to players, jump out of windows at them, and otherwise bring the storytelling within the quest rather than at the start and end of it. This does a great deal to help immersion and is what I’d like to see become the standard method of storytelling in MMOs.
Sometimes telling a story is all in the details around you. I love it when the world designers can tell a wordless tale using set-pieces arranged just so. For the attentive player, it puts them in the role of a detective figuring out what has already happened in this locale and what that says about what is to come.
Action is all well and good, but nothing beats a good conversation at times for moving a story along. When MMOs include the player in the dialogue, it adds a great interactive and roleplay element that furthers the cause of immersion while allowing players to explore the story in their own way.
This is an interesting tool that I’ve only sporadically witnessed. It’s when the game continues to pump narration or vocal quest bestowals at you while you’re questing or traveling. The plus here is that it can be used in little spurts to inform the player about story developments and fill in the dull travel time. Audiobooks for MMOs?
Documents and books
Not every MMO player is a voracious reader, but I wager that there are more than you think that really love to devour scraps and chunks of in-game text that can be found in books and documents sprinkled about the game. These may not be pertinent to the main plot but often add some details and deeper understanding about the world, certain situations, and particular people.
I love it when a game world feels alive around me, and one great trick that MMO devs can do to pull this off AND deliver some natural-sounding exposition is to have NPCs chatter among themselves. If I come upon enemies that are talking and haven’t aggro’d yet, I’ll more often than not halt just to hear what they have to say.
One big problem of epic MMO stories is that they’re so sprawling and encountered over a large stretch of time that the player may forget a lot of what’s already happened. Therefore, it’s often very helpful for the devs to include an in-game feature — such as in a player journal or on loading screens — that summarize the story to date.