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Storytelling in MMOs -- Bastard Children of the Tabletop

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>Storytelling in video games has always been a toss-up. On one hand, it is easy to forget story in such a visually interactive medium that immerses the player with gameplay and contest. However, if the game’s writing ranges from painfully forced to literally nonexistent, the company has only taken the player half way. As I spent many years of my life growing up hearing wonderful stories be told through this medium, and learned much about life through video games such as the Final Fantasy series, it destroys me to see more and more video game companies forgetting that they are storytellers, as responsible for writing as playwrights, authors, and poets. Video games have grown into a visceral and powerful art form, capable of reaching many audiences and conveying a whole spectrum of life.

One specific genre that has thrown writing to the backseat, surprisingly, is the MMORPG. This is ironic; these games originate from pure role-playing games that are essentially storytelling with no graphics whatsoever. Dungeons and Dragons may force players to role dice and move about a dungeon board, but without a dungeon master with an aptitude for storytelling, this game would never exist. People play Dungeons and Dragons to build a character, not only in leveling up stats and gear, but with a burning desire to tell their character’s story. In a sense, D&D makes everyone a writer, a storyteller, and collaborator in the larger world story being told. Why now instead do players in an MMO labor away at grind quests that have as much backstory as “Oh, I need to make a pelt for my son. Please go kill 5 wolves”? The answer lies in where the game’s focus is.

These games’ glory and interest now lies in epic raids and gear collection, in order to show off your accomplishments to the world as well as access more interesting content. Now instead of telling stories or making the character’s actions have impact, games such as World of Warcraft put every player on a quest treadmill. Not only does this lead to players only reading the objectives section of the quest log, it leads to intense grinding and soloing until players reach top levels. The goal of these games now is to push you to the top, instead of immersing you in a world rich of lore and character. There are bold changes that could be tried, but instead most MMORPGs stick to the proven formula, if only veering from the path in terms of combat.

Several ideas need to be re-implemented into the MMORPG in order to force players to listen to the story, and ultimately take part in the evolution of the world’s story. One large thing that has long disappeared since Everquest is the idea of mystery. Instead of showing the player the entire world via quests and nearly forcing them to explore the world on the game’s terms, the game should leave large areas of land for exploration in which the player has no idea about, and should hold hidden incentives for exploration. In this way the player can build his own character and his own way of playing the game. Want to go avenge the farmer’s family by raiding the home of a nearby goblin overlord before going to the next town to learn your next set of class abilities? Go ahead, and discover that the goblin has an artifact unknown to the gaming community because no one has ever killed him before. By being subtle and not discrediting the player’s ability to explore the world created, the writer empowers the player and lets the player decide where his character can go next.

Another interesting question needing to be asked is to what extent the world can be influenced by a player. In small local games of D&D a player has a significant impact on what monsters attack, what traps spring, and what future dungeons and scenarios will be like. Of course in a massive multiplayer game players cannot permanently kill off important mobs, otherwise future players would have no experience. However, one thing that current companies are afraid to do is make unique, one-time-only events. Why can’t certain events happen out of nowhere, once, giving the lucky current players surrounding the event something special to their character and their experience? Sure, it would require a full time writing team, and the game would have to be updated regularly, but it would bring players closer to the idea that they are important, that their character is important, and that they can impact future events.

One thing I have always wanted to see implemented is the use of player customization seen in many other types of games. Team Fortress 2 has an interesting model that could be learned from. Although it is an FPS, its fundamental philosophy that if a player wants to make something as good (or in many cases better) than Valve, they should be given those tools. What if players in MMOs could design their own equipment, craft their own outfits, or even make their own limited quests to send other players on? Players could be given a dungeon creator, essentially turning the MMO into a platform for storytelling (Media Molecule has put this effect into great use in Little Big Planet 2). The company creating the MMORPG wants to tell a certain story with their game, but allowing players to create their own scenarios and have their own limited impact on the world makes the game much more personal.

The story could also mimic D&D storytelling by evolving and growing on itself. After sessions of the same characters going on adventures, often times the dungeon master customizes certain dungeons around specific characters experiences, and in a way meets the player halfway to create a truly collaborative storytelling experience. MMORPGs can do similar things, and though not as easily, it could have a profound impact. A staff member of the company could watch players quest, talk, and create their backstories and then add certain players’ actions into the entire game’s lore, for future dungeon or quest creation. This would give the excitement of a player’s action actually meaning something profound, and in a way the player could feel partially responsible for delivering the story to other players.

Overall changes made to turn the MMO into more storytelling and less grinding bring players back to a sense of interdependency. In the earlier days of multiplayer RPGs, players were forced to work with (or even sometimes against) each other in order to progress in the game. This made every player important. It gave a sense of unique experience and creation to game playing. In the end, the multiplayer role playing game was about coming together to not only listen to well-crafted, interactive stories, but perhaps take a hold in their creation and forever change the world of the game.

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Dec 13 2012 @ 7:13am UTC
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Dec 13 2012 @ 7:13am UTC