What is the right way to tell a story in an MMO? That is a silly question, like asking what the right way is to tell a story in a film. There are lots of potential answers, and all of them depend on a number of factors, like the kind of world the developers want to build, the kind of players they want to attract, and how many characters you can afford to have Jennifer Hale’s voice. But even if we can’t point out the single best option, we can evaluate what the options are.
Let’s start with what could rightly be called the “classic” option, wherein the game’s story is entirely player-driven. There is no real narrative beyond “players do stuff and that creates the story.” Obviously there are varying degrees to this – some games have a loose narrative framework but then player actions dictate how that framework develops, others have none beyond the launch – but the basic idea is that the world is responding to what players do. So what makes this approach work, and what are its downsides?
The obvious benefit to this approach from a budget perspective is that you no longer have to employ anyone to write a story. But that’s boring, so we’re not going to count that. Instead, we’re going to look at the first major benefit as simply being a matter of agency.
For some people, nothing is as intoxicating as knowing that the experience about to unfold belongs uniquely to that player. Oh, sure, every time you start a new save file in The Sims 4, the neighborhoods all start from the same place. But it’s entirely up to the player how things play out from there. You could woo someone away from his spouse in one playthrough and never even meet them in another; the game doesn’t care.
Tying this to an MMO is even more of a heady mixture because everything that’s about to happen isn’t just unique to your choices while playing but your overall goals. You’re not going to have the same experience even as someone starting a couple days later because different people will be there looking for different things. Everything is ever-changing and ever-evolving in an organic way, and players will forever be the major randomizer.
Plus, it also means that any of the big events that happened in the game are, well, things that happened in the game. If you want to talk to a veteran of the last big war in EVE Online, you don’t have to start a quest where you seek one of them out. There are players out there who took part in those wars. They’re real people.
Maybe you don’t like those people. Maybe one of them has in some way made your play experience worse. But where that story goes is, again, up to you. It’s not determined by the game; it’s in your hand. You shape what happens next, and if that’s what floats your boat, it has a distinct feel to it unlike anything else. No one tells you how this story is going.
Last but certainly not least, there’s the simple reality that the game can never run out of story. If the game is built to facilitate player-created events, you will always have new things to explore so long as there are players. The story ends only when you’re no longer willing to tell it, even if the game has lain fallow for a while. Heck, even updates only are there to give context to the story players are experiencing.
Just as there are three major positives, there are three major negatives. And here’s the first one: Remember that awful customer you had to deal with at one retail job, the one who came in all the time? Remember what a smarmy piece of work that guy was? Remember how he finally stopped coming in when you dressed him down so perfectly that he ran off crying and your attractive co-worker agreed to go out with you?
Oh, wait, I’m sorry, I made that last part up because real life is not actually obligated to make a remotely satisfying story. If you find a huge guild of awful people in Albion Online and you decide to form your own guild to fight back against them and take them down full of new players sick of how they behave, the odds are good that your guild will end up… mowed down by those awful people because it turns out that an established group of people are pretty invested and supported.
You can not, in fact, replace actual tactical acumen with élan. Sorry. We’ve checked.
This kind of ties into the agency issue. While it is theoretically possible for anyone to have a major influence on the story, there’s no actual way of being certain you will have an impact on the story. Oh, you’ll get to determine what your story is, and if the story you want to have is a small person staying small in the face of larger forces you navigate around, you’ll probably be fine. If the story you want is rising from humble beginnings, though… there’s no assurance that you’ll actually make it. Remember, in any story of two dozen people competing with one humble beginner emerging as the champion, there are by definition 23 losers in that match.
And yeah, it can be really fun to stumble into a much larger story that isn’t scripted and you didn’t plan for. But that stumbling might not actually be pleasant. We may not all want to be The Hero, but a lot of people do want to be the protagonist, and these sorts of stories do not let you alone determine what sort of protagonist you want to be.
Last but not least is the problem that comes from all the important things having happened with actual players. Sure, there’s something cool about knowing that all these figures of in-game historical import are actual people. But… at the same time, it also reminds you that you are not a figure of historical import. You aren’t a figure of any import. You are joining after all of that.
“New stories will happen as long as there are players” presupposes that there will always be players. And that ties right back into the fact that life doesn’t need to provide you with a satisfying narrative arc. There’s a reason that the Matter of Britain doesn’t involve Arthur forming the Round Table, fighting to stabilize the region, and then getting kind of bored and really more into PvE gameplay in other games and eventually unsubscribing without even giving Mordred the time of day.
So does that mean these kinds of stories are bad? Not at all. It just means that you have to know what you’re getting into when you start playing a game like this, and next time, we’ll take a look at the other most common form of narrative being woven by MMOs. Which, wouldn’t you know it, also has pros and cons. Everything’s relative.
And if you want to chime in saying that the cons here don’t really bother you? Sit tight. We’re getting to you.