So we’ve had some fun with talking about MMO stories that are player-driven and MMO stories that are pre-scripted. Both of them have advantages and drawbacks. But there is also very specifically something I did not mention as a benefit or drawback of either, and today I want to talk about that a bit more. It’s going to take us a while to get there, so let’s put the question up front and then head off into the weeds.
When is a story real?
I don’t mean that in a purely pedantic sense of “when is a story based off of a true story vs. a purely fictional one,” although that is also something we’re going to be talking about. But as I said, we have to start by wandering pretty deep into the weeds, but I promise we’re going to stop shy of figuring out how meaning is constructed. So… when is a story real?
First and foremost, a story being based upon a true story does not make it “real.” You probably are aware of this. Some of my favorite films are based upon true stories to some extent, but usually the writers alter a variety of details to make the film more narratively satisfying. Heck, sometimes it’s just plain full of lies because it turns out P. T. Barnum actually just succeeded and then kept succeeding and didn’t really have an arc.
Although, to be fair, a biopic about Barnum being full of entertaining lies is about as on-brand as a story about Barnum could be.
We generally kind of use the terms “true” and “real” interchangeably in these cases, but they are not actually synonyms. “True” means “generally a more-or-less accurate recounting of events,” but “real” means… something else. And it’s the latter that I want to really dig into. Because real means that this is what happened, this was an authentic experience that genuinely affected you. That it mattered.
That’s a little abstract too, though. How does a story matter? It can’t matter in the sense that you don’t know how things end; if you’re recounting the events, you know what happened. No, a story matters when it gets into the marrow. When it says something that you consider important. Maybe important to who you are as a person, or maybe it’s important to what you think the world should be like, but no matter what, it’s important.
I’ve told a lot of stories about my life over the course of the time I’ve been here. All of them were stories that actually happened to me, and all of them were important to me. But I’ve also talked about a lot of movies I’ve seen, shows I’ve watched, books I’ve read, dreams I’ve had about cats… you get the idea. Lots of stories, some of them based on true experiences… most of them honestly not. The vast majority of these stories have no basis in reality, even excepting the fact that a number of them centered around gigantic robots.
But they also do have a basis in reality, don’t they?
You know what’s an amazing film? Spider-Man 2. It’s just a straight-up good movie. It is, of course, not a real story. There was not actually a guy named Peter Parker who could swing around on webs who fought a scientist with mechanical arms to avoid blowing up part of New York City. It’s safe to say that’s not a real story.
But those are just the surface elements. Those are plot. What the story is about is struggling against expectations, about recognizing that even when you take your first steps into adulthood and responsibility, you still have a lot more to understand. It’s about the way in which we have to struggle to meet our responsibilities and be the better version of ourselves that we see in our minds.
And that’s where it starts to become something real. Sure, the odds are good that you’ve never had to stop a speeding elevated train with your body, your webs, and a desperate plan, but you’ve probably been trying desperately to fix a problem that you feel is out of control but requires all of your effort. You’ve never been late to work because you were out being Spider-Man, but you’ve probably been trying to juggle a lot of things that all felt equally important and all too big to manage at the same time.
The thing about stories being real is that it’s not actually about the veracity or lack thereof. It’s about whether the story resonates with you. It’s about how every story you remember becomes a portion of your identity. And telling those stories is more than simply recollection; as you filter the story through your memory and understanding, you become the storyteller, even if the only thing you ever do as a storyteller is relive it in your memory.
Some people get really annoyed by this. There are people who get deeply weird about the idea that stories not only can but should be seen as important when they are metaphorically true, regardless of their literal truth. It tends to involve a certain odd sort of elitism, as if there’s something too simplified or juvenile about having stories more focused on the abstract, the emotionally satisfying. And you definitely should not make your entire diet of stories nothing more than aesthetic satiation and lightweight entertainment, just like you shouldn’t eat just meat or just vegetables or just starches.
So when is a story real? Honestly, it’s real when it has a meaningful impact on you. Which is why the whole debate about whether pre-scripted or player-generated stories is kind of missing the forest for the trees, because you don’t need one or the other. You need both. You need to have stories that are about the things you and your friends did and you need to have stories that invest you in the world and the setting, and both of them should be equally real to you.
“Oh, are you saying it’s simple?” Well, yes, because just as “true” and “real” aren’t necessarily synonyms, “easy” and “simple” aren’t necessarily synonyms. What I’m describing here isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. Some stories wind up veering so hard into being purely player-driven that there’s not much to hook a player in beyond novelty. Some stories are so scripted that you can’t really deviate and do anything that’s just your own. And no matter where you strike the balance, there are going to be people who want it tilted more in another direction.
But I think it’s important to understand this as a core principle: that ultimately it’s not a question of the right way to do stories but an understanding of the good and bad of both. Too often people treat design tools as if there’s always a good way and bad way to do things, and while there are definitely some design elements where the negatives far outweigh the positives, the positives are still there.
And in this case, there’s space for both kinds of storytelling. Things both modes do well and both modes do badly. But real? They both do that quite well.