Everyone who has at least passing familiarity with stories, whether they be in MMOs or elsewhere, roleplayed or canonical, realizes that stories need stakes. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem to really understand what stakes are… and even more unfortunately, that includes not just roleplayers but professional writers working on MMO storylines.
The thing about stakes is that the strictest definition of stakes is, well, pretty simple. The stakes are what’s, well, at stake. If everything goes wrong, then X is going to happen, and the main characters do not want that to happen. Simple, right? No. No, it is not. Because that overlooks all of the things that make stakes work, and it overlooks one of the most basic elements of stakes, which is that we all know a story isn’t real.
I don’t just mean that we all know it’s fictional, although that’s an element in play. I mean that we all know the outcome is decided before the story starts up.
Let’s use an obvious example that most people probably have at least some experience with. Whenever a new James Bond film comes out, the obvious question is whether or not James Bond can defeat a colorful megalomaniac’s henchmen, discover said megalomaniac’s plot, and find a way to foil it while rolling around in bed with incredibly attractive women. Can James Bond achieve this goal?
Yes. Of course he can. That is what you paid to see. You know that’s going to happen. Oh, sure, a well-written installment can surprise you by which people die over the course of the story and how much damage the villain does before the ending rolls around, but realistically you know from the moment the movie starts that it’s a foregone conclusion. While the plot of the film might say those are the stakes… they really aren’t.
That doesn’t stop the better films in the franchise from being fun, though. When done well, the question isn’t will he do all this; you know he’s going to. It’s a question about what interesting setpieces are going to happen, what cool places will there be for gunfights, and what neat gadgets James is going to use over the course of the film. Those are the actual stakes.
When managed well, suspension of disbelief takes over, and we all pretend that we don’t know the actual ending is a foregone conclusion. An entertaining film is still entertaining even when you know how it ends. But the whole point of stakes is that they’re not actually the question of what might happen if the main characters fail; it’s what makes the audience invested in the conflict.
And when the stakes are bad, you’re not invested.
During the main story of Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, there’s an extended sequence at the start of the second act when the seeming big bad has been defeated, but we know that has opened the gateway to something even worse. At this point, however, we enter an extended period in which the characters all faff about trying to fix the moon that is meant to serve as the escape vessel for the people of the world to avoid this calamity.
And it’s here that the stakes fall apart because as mentioned before, we know that’s not going to happen. We already know there is no scenario wherein we need to use the backup plan because, well, the game isn’t actually ending. And it’s here that we see one of the big problems with stakes, which is ironically that so many stories fail because the stakes are too high.
No reality-consuming monster is actually going to break through and destroy reality in World of Warcraft because Stormwind and Orgrimmar need to still exist at the start of the next expansion. The Elder Dragons were never actually going to destroy Tyria in Guild Wars 2 because that’s where players, like… play the game. And your promise to kill another character in The Elder Scrolls Online rings hollow because, like… that’s someone else’s character. No one dies without the player’s say-so.
By making the stakes higher, you expose the lie. It’s like how once you pass the age of eight, you aren’t actually wondering whether Batman is going to escape from a deathtrap. The stakes aren’t “will he figure it out” but “what entertaining way is he going to do so?”
It feels like it’s more intense when the stakes ratchet upward. But there is, in fact, a sweet spot. Once you pass high enough into world-ending stakes, it stops being remotely convincing and you realize that it’s all… well, fake. You know that this isn’t actually going to happen because the game still needs to be playable tomorrow, and so you kind of mentally clock out.
Human stakes, however… those remain very plausible.
Some of this, I’m sure, is a result of age. Once you get to a certain point, you realize that the sort of thing that’s really going to destroy your world has nothing to do with huge spaceships but quietly telling someone to never darken your doorstep again. But it’s also a very real part of stakes. As long as thing still feel personal – as long as the fundamental interaction is about what is going to happen to people you care about – you can get away with a whole heck of a lot more. You may not believe that the world is going to end, but you might believe that your time with people whose company you enjoy is going to end.
At one point I remember seeing someone express confusion at how roleplaying in WoW would even work; after all, you know your characters aren’t going to end a war or defeat cosmic evil. And that’s true. But that’s also not what it was ever about. It was always about people navigating complex seas of emotions, overlapping wants and desires. It was about people who genuinely want to do right by others but couldn’t. It was about seeking meaning in life and a home, and how sometimes you can’t go back there no matter how hard you try.
For me, it was never about trying to resolve wars or conflicts but the ways that wars and conflicts scarred people who otherwise had dreams and hopes. About would-be diplomats forced to become battlefield negotiators. About seeing the people you love die in front of you while you’re powerless to stop it. And about the many ways you try to build a haven in the wake of trauma, and how fragile it can all be.
Sure, occasionally there was someone dangerous who needed beating up. But why should that be the dominant mode of interaction? You know you’re not going to destroy Stormwind. But you might find yourself in a place where setting foot in Stormwind feels like destruction… perhaps even of things you didn’t realize you still held within your heart.
Can we convince writers of MMO stories to maintain a lower-stakes ethos? I’m not sure. But when it comes to roleplaying, that is something to keep in mind. You don’t need to be fighting against something huge and world-ending. Sometimes you can just be struggling to tell someone you want them to stick around.