Last week, we looked at the pros and cons for stories in MMOs that were purely player-driven, or at least using player actions and interactions as the primary driving force. This week, we’re doing the inverse and looking at stories that are pre-scripted narratives. Obviously, as I alluded to in the prior column, this is not quite as binary as one might think; even in MMOs that have definite narrative throughlines, there can be active RP scenes building player-run stories and so forth.
There is, to be fair, some grey area in general with certain games that had narratives but often were light on single throughlines; while City of Heroes had storylines from launch, for example, it also didn’t really have one path players ran through. Nevertheless, we’re focusing primarily upon games where there are specific storylines and kind of lump them all together under the same header. (Mostly to keep this portion down to two columns instead of a big muddled third.) So what’s the good and bad here?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but a pre-scripted story is kind of necessary to make sure that you actually have a specific story being told. You cannot have a setup wherein you have pathos, themes, character development, or whatever when you’re placing everything firmly in the hands of the players. Those things can happen, but you need a writer crafting the story to be sure that they’re happening.
When everything is put in the hands of the players, you have no way of ensuring that a new player meets a wizened sage with a snarky sense of humor. It’s entirely possible that your first teacher is a rancid jerk who attacks you for no reason, takes your stuff, and then vanishes. With a scripted story, though? You can make sure that a rancid jerk who attacks you and takes your stuff gets his comeuppance and probably a liberal application of the old-fashioned ultraviolence.
Scripted stories also create an environment wherein a new player isn’t shut out of the story. Someone who has never played Star Wars: The Old Republic can still log in right now, create a character, and see what sold players on the Imperial Agent storyline when the game first came out. The story doesn’t have to be strictly temporal.
You will not walk into a new game and find out that you are coming in on the third reel of an ongoing story without any space to make your own mark. The story is there, it is ready for you to experience it, and it will bring you on a ride no matter what.
Last and certainly not least, having a story creates not only characters but some actual narrative experience and ongoing escalation. You don’t have to just fight Ricky McNecropants because he’s there and he drops weapons. You’ve been dealing with Ricky McNecropants for ages, and he’s been a jerk to you for a long while, and now it’s finally time to face off against Ricky McNecropants.
As a minor aside, if anyone from the AdventureQuest 3D team is reading this, you have my permission to add Ricky McNecropants to the game so long as it is specified that he’s a necromancer only because of his pants.
The result here is that you have a reason to go to new areas, search for new things, and generally follow a narrative throughline. New areas to explore are not just added because we’ve never gone north and it turns out there’s a continent there; you have reasons to go north and deal with whoever is hiding out to the north. While you don’t need to have a narrative for these regions to have lore, a narrative ensures that lore can actually matter. That “mysterious presence” to the north has an explanation and you will, in fact, deal with it. You won’t just find out nobody cares and leave the whole thing to rot.
Here’s the obvious downside, the one so obvious that I almost feel stupid saying it: The fact that having a pre-scripted story is necessary to tell a good story does not actually mean that the people who are writing the story have done a good job.
In fact, most of the time? They don’t. For every Final Fantasy XIV or The Secret World or even Guild Wars, there are at least a dozen games with forgettable, bad, irrelevant stories. Heck, I listed Guild Wars in there, and that story isn’t generally all that great even if it’s memorable. For all the fun that you can have with a story with engaging and memorable characters, it’s not exactly unusual to have everyone come right out of Generic Fantasy Tale Central Casting without so much as a competent voice actor to make you care.
That’s the thing about irrelevant stories. They’re stories where you just know, down to the marrow, that these are not stories told because the designers want to tell a story or explore themes or whatever. They’re stories told because you need a reason for Elf 1 to be hitting Elf 2, and if you make enough story-related honking noises, everyone will follow along.
But there are still weaknesses even beyond the fact that it is possible to do a bad job, and a big one is that no matter how well the story is told, it is always going to remove a certain amount of player agency. Yes, “you can do whatever you want” in a game is always a lie (and that’s a whole different column), but even when a game offers you choices in the story, there are narrow paths to follow. You can do a lot of different things in the Imperial Agent story in SWTOR, but you can’t defect to work for the Hutts or even just sell them information to profiteer. You can’t kill people you know are going to betray you ahead of time. You can’t decide to kill your companions if they know too much. The story has a path and rules to follow.
As in a play, your role here is not autonomous but vicarious. You are not creating things from whole cloth but participating in recreation, and just as an actor portraying Hamlet cannot decide to just stab his uncle early because screw it, you can’t break from the boundaries of the story.
Last but not least, it’s important to note rather than just imply that these stories are bespoke creations. They have end points. Sure, many games that are live regularly provide new content for players… but not all. And there’s no way of being certain that a game’s story is actually going to reach a meaningful or satisfying conclusion, especially when it’s reliant upon further expansion.
I cited The Secret World as an example of a good story, but that story isn’t finished. And it’s never going to be finished, and players don’t actually have the tools to make it finish. It’s like getting to the last third of a book only to find that the remainder of the pages are blank. Sure, it’s possible to use that for artistic purpose… but more often it’s just a failure to launch.
Now… we do have one more installment to this particular series because I do feel that both of these columns have laid out the pros and cons pretty effectively, but there’s one thing I haven’t even mentioned in either column, and it’s for a good reason. And that’s what we’re going to talk about next week.