Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 12, 2009
 
What can we expect from RPG storytelling?

Bigeyez sent me a funny chart he found at Hellforge, which shows how much the stories of Bioware RPGs are similar to each other. Somebody posted that chart on the Mass Effect 2 forums, and got an angry response from a Bioware writer, defending the classic story structure.

Actually that discussion is far from new. In Joseph Campbell's book on comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, from 1949, already discussed the idea of the monomyth, the idea that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages. Bioware games conform to that monomyth structure, as do fiction works from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars.

What I think is that requirements of RPG gameplay limit the freedom of writers. The monomyth structure works well in role-playing games. The structure of the hero's journey perfectly fits the RPG structure of character development. It is easy to transform fiction with the structure of the monomyth into a RPG. Which is why there are lots of games based on Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but no games based on, lets say, Jane Austen novels. A story like Pride and Prejudice simply doesn't have the structure and the setting which would make a good RPG.

MMORPG storytelling suffers from the game having no end. That clashes with the basic narrative structure of stories, which normally have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Seen as a whole, MMORPGs have a short beginning, an infinite middle, and no end. Thus storytelling in MMORPGs usually works by not telling one story, but thousands. Each story is short, has a beginning (quest giver dialogue), middle (you go and kill ten foozles), and end (you return and get a reward). The inherent repetitiveness of that approach isn't very engaging. And often gameplay is more efficient if instead of doing these stories sequentially, you do them in parallel, accepting all quests at a quest hub at once, then doing all the tasks, and then returning to the quest hub getting all the rewards, which further dilutes the impact of the story. You easily do a dozen or more quests in a single play session, so none of the stories is memorable, and would be better described as "errands" than "quests".

The *real* story of a MMORPG, the one the player is interested in, is a personal one. It is the story of how his character developed, how he interacted with other players, how he overcame major challenges. Very few games offer the tools to chronicle this sort of life story: You get tools like the armory showing where your character is now, but not a history of how he got there, except for the dates in small print in the achievement list. Everquest 2 had some web-based tools, but for World of Warcraft you'd need to use a third party application like Path of a Hero to chronicle your virtual life story. And of course even automatic chronicles would only tell the predictable story how you leveled up, and would need room for manual additions to tell the stories of your encounters with other players.

Single-player RPGs have an end, thus they can have an overarching story of the player vanquishing a greater evil at the end of the story. Nevertheless that larger story is often subdivided into chapters, main quests, and sub-quests, so often you end up doing exactly the same as you do in a MMORPG: Talk with an NPC to get a quest, go and kill some mobs for the quest, return and get a reward. The dialogue with the NPC might have several options, but sooner or later you realize that most of the time these options boil down to "accept quest", "don't accept quest", and "get more information". That isn't really much different to WoW's quest dialogue window, where you can accept, cancel, or scroll down to read more. You don't even really have the option to play the unhelpful guy, because if the NPC asks you to save his farm for him, and you say "no", you simply miss out on the quest and the attached reward. Which is why in MMORPGs with a "good" and an "evil" side the evil guys end up being exactly as helpful and nice to NPCs as the good guys.

In summary, I would say that storytelling in RPGs can be improved, but mainly in terms of delivery and pacing. There is little hope that these games ever will be able to tell a wider range of stories, which are significantly different from the monomyth structure of the hero's journey. Pride and Prejudice Online isn't going to happen.
Comments:
Only vaguely related, but how are you enjoying Dragon Age, Tobold?
 
Some RPGs deviate from the classical hero's journey. Planescape Torment had a fairly original story.

That chart made me laugh; Bioware does seem to have a certain design formula. The thing I like about Bioware games is they're just so well executed. They're always guaranteed to have good writing and interesting characters, even if you know what the general plot outline will be.
 
So I have come out of hiding to say that we need Pride and Prejudice online!
 
"Pride and Prejudice Online isn't going to happen."

Oh it will...
It won't be much different from Second Life but there is an enormous untapped market composed by people who don't really want to play a game but want to experience a fantasy or mingle with their favorite book characters.

Imagine a Pride And Prejudice Online where you could have a big country house with servants and you could invite your friends over and have diner parties a such.

It's cheaper and cheaper to build virtual worlds and it's only a matter of time till we get a "do it yourself" software. Then Virtual Worlds will boom and every niche will become profitable.

More or less like music nowadays where you have thousands of musicians making a living out of a small following due to the lower production costs that we have today.
 
Simply having a yes or no does not create a good rpg. Take your example. A farmer asks you to save his farm. You can do the quest or not.

Now just change it a bit. A farmer is going to be evicted by his land lord if he does not pay his monthly debt in the form of meat. You can accept his quest, go kill a few foozles and give him the meat so he can repay his landlord. The farmer is happy and he gives you a small reward. In a good RPG you could also go and talk to the landlord. He wants to evict the farmer and will give you a few gold pieces to evict him.

A good RPG is all about having options. And ideally not an extreme black & white. In the above example I do not find that evicting the farmer is evil. If you do not pay your bills you get evicted. It's always been like that. And is helping a possibly lazy farmer good?
 
I'm always wary of changes made just to be different: they're usually stale and lifeless. I honestly don't see anything wrong with the current storytelling archetypes, just like I'll continue to go see movies that are predictable from beginning to end because the ride is still enjoyable.

In terms of games, hero stories still work for me. What will definitely get me to set the controller down and go find alternate entertainment is if the gameplay itself is lacking (an obtuse control scheme or unbalanced difficulty, for example). I think it's still very feasible to tell a great story about people on a journey, even if you can draw parallels to 200 other stories like it.
 
I think we could use a RPG for the new book Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. A great peiod rpg with great combat and strong character roles. I would give it a try anyways
 
In WoW, the most interesting moral ambiguous choices with rewards is how you answer Sayge the fortune teller at the Darkmoon Faire:

http://www.wowwiki.com/Sayge

Note the similarity to the later Ultima games.

As for Pride and Prejudice Online, I can see it happening if someone figures out compelling game mechanics. The story itself has conflict (almost all of it PvP), just no combat, bosses, and epic loot. For all we know, maybe that *is* Blizzard's next-gen MMO, catering to a more casual (and female) audience and practically guaranteed not to cannibalize from WoW.
 
MMORPGs invert the underlying symbiosis that sustains tabletop RPGs and classic CRPGs. This leads to the story becoming trivialized, which in turn trivializes character progression.

The solution is to try less to keep a gap between the player and character's stories. Let players keep track of their in-game histories by using event capturing tools and perhaps encourage historians to document what's happened in the game world.

Allowing the player's story to be told instead of forcing the character's weak story to have precedence can lead to accountability systems that allow dynamic worlds to be more than sociopath breeding grounds.

(Also, it wouldn't hurt if stories in MMOs were a little more diverse and didn't rely on the same old tropes of good and evil that we've all seen done to death.)
 
Very nice post.
Good synthesis of storytelling overall.
One of the reasons Blizzard has been so successful in my opinion is their skill at tapping the monomyth.

If Blizzard listened to the critics and worked on depth, I do think it would be a better game.

Immersion of story is definitely helped by phasing - something Blizzard has said it intends to do more - and the beginning, middle, and end - and new beginning, are served well by phasing.
 
Also piping up to say I would love to play a Pride and Prejudice Online game! But LOTRO will do nicely for now. :-)
 
I see what you are saying. Wow, I recently wrote about the same thing after being inspired by one of your posts on story. Could it be that Tobold and I are actually on the same page?

Proof that smart minds thing alike.
 
You could try take a look at Chris Crawfords storytron or maybe its called erazmatron project. I believe it has the ambition to do something about this. Not that I know if it will work.
 
I would actually love to play "Persuasion" online, but only if I get to play the affable old admiral...
 
Or you can have multiple repeatable ends, which is what we have with raid dungeons really..
 
Vladimir Propp (1895 - 1970), a groundbreaking linguist and distinguished member of the Russian formalism, contributed his share relating to simplest irreducible narrative elements of fairy tales within the scope of text linguistics.
He preceeded Joseph Campbell by over 20 years.
 
Personally I would like to see some general storyline to MMORPG's however, I too prefer to have it centered around developement, such as lets say the player can buy a house, and within that house is where you can store items, (Where as if you were to go to a bank you would have to pay a monthly fee of gold to keep your items stored) however you also have to pay bills to keep the house, otherwise you will be evicted, and as a resuly lose all items that were stored in it. Perhaps also having your own personal journal where you can document all that you have accomplished, along with badges to go along with it. Just some ideas :)
 
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