MMORPG developer Raph Koster recently tweeted that he’d had a “debate with some devs who asserted that videogames require the player to be the hero.” You know we just have to talk about that.
I don’t know whether the devs in question were MMORPG devs too, but let’s assume for the sake of argument in Massively Overthinking that we’re talking about MMOs here and not single-player games. Do you need to be the hero in MMOs? Do you like to be the hero in MMOs? And do you think you align with the majority of other gamers on this question?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Big ol’ NOPE from me! I know I’ve said it a million times, but in games in general, I don’t need to be the chosen hero. Been there, done that. We need more “grey” area stuff. I won’t go into details, but I’ve tried playing the “hero” IRL a few times, and it does bite you in the butt sometimes, from bad cops picking on you to getting stabbed or worse. The games that actually tackle those things are often the ones that also let you do “bad” things.
In all honesty, I still feel like any strong narrative in MMOs is a step in the wrong direction. Again, that doesn’t mean devs should just make a world, turn on PvP, and leave, but a more dungeon-master approach is appealing. We talk about Uncle Owens a lot: When the game narrative is about saving the world, and Uncle Owen is suddenly told he has to pick up a gun and stop working on his crops on Tatooine and fly over to Mustafar to fight a droid army, that may not be his thing.
If instead there’s a threat on Mustafar, and people ignore it, and it starts spreading around the galaxy, it’s more engaging. If Uncle Owen sees people are gathering on Mustafar and are in dire need of moisture farmers, he might want to start up a farm there and hire some mercenaries to protect him. There’s a fuller, more complex story going on now, rather than just “Kill the Bad Guy.” You’ve got economics in play, citizens being affected in real-time rather than just in lore. While I know I talk about Asheron’s Call having done this quite well, I’d argue World of Warcraft’s done it quite a few times with its plagues as well. And while there are people who get turned off by this, I’d argue that those are players who are more interested in video games than virtual worlds, and for me, MMOs have always leaned more towards the latter.
You can have a pure, non-combat experience and still be the “good guy.” Bad guys might raise taxes or shut down shops. Being able to skim some money off the top by joining them would be a neat feature. But then maybe players can create a black/grey market in-game. Those are the stories I think that matter. Game designer-made linear narratives are OK, but people talk more about EVE wars and WoW plagues than that one boss that threatened that one game world we had to beat for loot… or not, because the game was going to get updated and move on no matter what the player base actually did.
Andy McAdams: I think I want to make a distinction here: do I need to be The Hero, The Chosen One in a game? Categorically no. In fact, a lot of ruins the imurshion for me because it comes across as so contrived and so willfully ignorant of what I actually did in-game. When I do things that don’t feel particularly epic or feel disproportionality epic to where/who I am in the story, the whole chosen one makes me give the game side-eye when it seems like its pandering to my ego as the Chosen One.
Now being a hero in a game? I think that’s necessary. I want to run around and do extraordinary things and complete feats of strength and just generally be more than what I can be in meatspace — but I don’t necessarily want to be The Chosen Hero Spoken of in Prophecy. Clear out a dungeon of baddies that’s been harassing a nearby village? All over it. Killing a boar and being declared King of a nation because that boar was actually the big bad? Nah, get out of here.
Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I sometimes prefer not to be the grand hero of a story. For the sake of realism, simply making a contribution towards the greater goal is my preferred method to experience the story. After all, side characters are still important and can sometimes have a drastically different and more interesting viewpoints of larger events.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): The way I see it, everyone’s playing MMORPGs for different reasons. Some people are playing because they want to be a hero, or the hero. And some people are playing because they just want to be somebody, anybody different, to try out something or someone they can’t or be or don’t do in real life. I mean, look around: Some of the people you’re gaming with every day actually are heroes in real life and just want some escape, while others are living vicariously through fantasy and sci-fi worlds, or just dabbling in country life from the confines of their city apartment, or flying a spaceship even though their real-life body would never let them be a pilot, or whatever. (My favorite MMO character of all time was a pirate queen, with stories that belonged entirely to me and my guildies, the kind you can really be proud of rather than the kind literally everyone around you is led through in a prefab hero plot. She was definitely no hero – not a hero, not the hero, not in any sense of the word.)
So I’ll never poop on someone for wanting to be the hero in an online world. And I’ll never mock someone for wanting to be Uncle Owen. Or anyone in between, or anyone who wants meander back and forth and be both, which includes me.
What I’ll sharply criticize is the idea that MMOs should be made only for the first group and not the second. No, of course video games and MMOs do not and should not require players to be the hero. Insisting otherwise says more about the devs than about games. I honestly cannot believe we have to have this debate in 2021. Do you even virtual world, bro.
Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): In terms of the lore, no. I prefer to be one of many. Because we’re playing an MMORPG and cooperation should play a central role in the game’s plot. I like my characters to have a weakness that others can compensate. And it’s even more important to see the efforts that helped me acknowledged.
I’ve got some pretty strong feelings about Final Fantasy XIV’s plot and how it’s so dependent on your god-moded character to move the plot along. I don’t mind it so much in a single-player video game, but in an MMORPG, it feels a little more of a stretch, especially since major fights with primals and endbosses were a group effort. It doesn’t rub me the right way that my character is getting all the credit, when in reality it should be him, the healers, and the damage dealers that gets the credit.
Rather than be the hero, I’d like to just be one of many, something Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft do so well. Let’s look at WoW first. My fellow adventurers are considered champions of the realms, and it took a concerted group effort between us to make changes in the world – like how the Lich King was taken down. The same goes for Guild Wars 2. I’m a commander, but I depend on Rytlock just as much as he depends on me. And more importantly, I depend on the other commanders as much as they depend on me. And it’s acknowledged too. While we were there to deal the killing blow to Mordremoth’s mind, the other Pact commanders were out there destroying the body. As lukewarm an expansion Heart of Thorns was, the story itself is very appropriate for an MMO filled with players!
Looking forward, I certainly hope FFXIV 6.1 (the story arc that started in 1.0 will come to an end with Endwalker) will find a way to fit my fellow heroes along.
Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Being the hero? Not really. Being a hero or among an elite group of skilled or magically endowed others? Sure, why not. The Secret World did a pretty good job of this, as I recall.
That’s not to disparage every MMO narrative where I play the chosen one — Final Fantasy XIV’s story is easily one of the best in the genre even if it does fall into this trap — but considering I tend to roleplay just a well-trained or somewhat gifted normal person, I’m pretty much over being the big shiny hero in MMOs.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Usually I don’t think of myself as a hero, save for perhaps in Lord of the Rings Online, which seems to make it part of its mission statement to teach us what heroes are. In my head, my characters are “adventurers” who may or may not make good choices, may or may not be at the center of the large world narrative, and may or may not be a fashion guru. A hero seems like it’s loaded with responsibility, like it’s a day job. An adventurer gets to sate his or her wanderlust, go where the road leads, and make decisions on the fly.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): No, I have no need of being THE CHOSEN ONE in the games I play. It actually ruins the vibe of an MMO for me, and completely destroys the story. I like being a background character that is just one of many in a deep world, having my own impact on the world but not the impact. I think one game that did this exceptionally well was Lord of the Rings Online. You already know who the real heroes are, and trying to make you out to be them would have been catastrophic in my opinion. Instead, you are an adventurer whose actions are helping along the main heroes from the background. So you get to be a part of an epic story without being the sole hero. And yes, any time quests and dialogue talk about you being the one and true savior of all… right before and after saying the same thing to everyone else is just droll with a side of eye-roll. There is no worthwhile engagement in the story when you know it’s all hogwash.
If you go back to the question from a long time ago in a decade far, far away – does anyone want to be Lars, the moisture farmer? Why yes, yes I do! Or — more accurately there — a crime lord boss dancer. My own story was epic without having to be contrived.
Do I think I fall into place with the majority of other gamers? No. But when do I fall into the majority of anything?
Mind you, “hero” doesn’t have to mean the one and only chosen one upon whom the entire fate of the universe rests. There are a lot of other ways to be a hero. I’d argue the player armorer mentioned in that tweet is playing a hero — anything that helps your fellow humans can be heroic. Even those who are into crafting and other “humbler” aspects of gameplay want to be at least a little exceptional, I’d wager. I don’t think a lot of people truly want to be completely ordinary, but there is a lot of middle ground between that and being the ultimate chosen one.
That said, I’ll also be upfront that I’m quite happy to be the bright shiny hero of the realm. Sometimes cliches are cliches for a reason. It feels good to be the star. It can strain immersion in MMOs when everyone is the chosen one, but honestly that’s far from the most immersion-breaking thing you run into in your average MMO session. You just gotta suspend your disbelief. Or you can find a happy medium. TSW/SWL does a good job of making the player an important character, but not the important character. The NPCs acknowledge your power and significance, but it’s also clearly established that you’re not the only immortal running around.
What I really don’t like is when games make us do heroic things, but don’t treat us as heroes. People complain about how the role of the player has changed in World of Warcraft over the years, but we were always slaying dragons and saving the world. We were always important, epic heroes. The only thing that changed is the game’s narrative and NPCs started acknowledging that, rather than treating us like we were still random adventurers. There’s something especially demoralizing about playing a character who’s saved the kingdom three times this week, only to be still be treated as Joe Schmuck the Quest Monkey.