Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Different approaches to story

Having played this year Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2, and Mists of Pandaria, I couldn't help but notice how different the approach to story is in these games. SWTOR is the most story-obsessed, you are basically always following your story or some NPC story, and everything is animated with cut scenes and voice-overs. Mists of Pandaria has every player play through the same story at the start, and then you basically get to choose what NPC stories to follow by choosing where to quest; compared to previous editions of WoW, MoP has more cut scenes or parts where you play the story through the eyes of an NPC. Guild Wars 2 is comparatively light on story: You can actually finish quests without even having clicked on the quest giver or having read the quest text. And the personal story line is more of a slide show.

That leads us to the question how much scripted story a MMORPG should have. Some people say they are only interested in the kind of story that comes from emergent gameplay, from the more-or-less roleplayed interaction between players. The disadvantage of such emergent gameplay is that it requires a lot of time and effort to happen. Kill Ten Rats recently called EVE Online the most expensive MMORPG, because the time required to actually get into the political gameplay of that game is enormous. And then the emergent stories in EVE tend to be not very nice, being more often about betrayal than about heroism. If you just play MMORPGs one or two hours in the evening, your emerging "story" is bound to be rather weak: Did some quests, crafted a bit, tried a dungeon but failed due to some idiot in the pickup group, maybe some guild drama, stuff like that. That isn't actually the fault of the game: If you play EVE Online just an hour here and there, mostly solo, your personal story isn't better than if you play World of Warcraft. Personally I think that interactive storytelling between players and real roleplaying are done better in a pen & paper game than in a MMORPG.

That leaves computer games to mostly tell scripted stories in which the player has more or less interaction. In MMORPGs it tends to be less. There are a little more choices in SWTOR than in other MMORPGs, but even then you only get to choose between scripted path A and scripted path B. Sometimes that doesn't matter, if the story is good and entertaining. I did like to follow Chen Stormstout in his story towards reuniting with his family and their brewery, and if I had done it in the correct order and played the dungeon *after* the quests it would probably have been even better. Unfortunately not all stories in MMORPGs are good. There are a lot of quests which are only a thin excuse to kill ten foozles, and a lot stories that feel like mass-produced low cost garbage.

What do you think about stories in MMORPGs? What kind of stories, and what kind of interactivity with the story are you looking for?

I once participated in early FOnline beta - a fallout2-based mmo made by Russian fans. Although there was zero content, lots of stories between players emerged just because permadeath killing was so easy, and, unlike EVE, there was no status quo to topple, everything just kind of drowned in permanent chaos.

Playing the game wasn't fun, but at least I've experienced more wickedness and craziness in a hour than happens in a typical mmo in a month. Don't get me started about national enclaves and suicide bombers...
The only story I'm interested in is the story of my characters and that, like the "story" of a person in real life, is not a narrative. It's an accretion of unplanned happenings out of which, one hopes, character grows.

If I put my mind to it I can recall a really vast number of trivial, meaningless "stories" about dozens, scores of characters I've played over the years in various MMOs. Few of those stories would be of interest to anyone else so I don't recount them but they're of endless fascination to me. They are my memories and my memories are who I am.

As for stories written by game developers, I can't say I'm all that interested. It does depend on how well-written they are, of course. The stories in The Secret World were written about as well as some crime novels that I read and the cut scenes were acted as well as some movies I watch so yes, there the story was quite a significant element. That's very unusual indeed.

In GW2 I have followed just one of the Personal Stories as far as Level 40 (on a character that's been Level 80 for weeks) and one other up to about level six. I have eight characters now. Chances are I won't bother with any more Personal Stories and certainly not past the point where the storyline joins up. Doing them seems like a waste of my time when GW2 offers so many other much more interesting things I could be doing instead.

I'd not bother having any story in MMOs, not even "theme park" ones. Spend the time and money on deepening and enriching the background texture of the world instead. I'll make up my own plays if you provide the stage and the sets.
I don't think you can have interactivity with a scripted event that, by definition, has no way of dealing with aberrant behaviour. Interactivity is all about reacting to what someone does and if a player in an MMO does something unexpected the game ignores it until you do the expected thing instead. A case in point, there are loads of quests to kill named NPCs in WoW, but the opportunity to kill them exists before you get the quests. If you do, you don't get a disheveled quest-giver admitting you've already done it when you reach that point in the quest chain, you've just got to repeat the action. I'm sure it could be programmed so that the game tracks named NPC kills and takes that into account when questing (Later Fallout and Elder Scrolls games do it, don't they?)
Lots of single-player games do it. But in such games it is usually harder for various reasons to 'nuke everything in an area, then click on the question marks', which is what would become commonplace if it was done that way on NPCs.

Anyway, really what should happen is that if you kill the target before getting the quest, then you pass the questgiver and he waves cheerfully at you. Didn't he used to have a quest marker, you think to yourself?

You know, one thing that I've noticed that TOR does differently than some other MMOs is that the official "kill ten rats" portion of quests is limited to a bonus feature of the quest itself. Sometimes you get done more quickly, sometimes not. Of course, for the sake of completeness, people (such as me) will tend to finish the bonus as well.

In a way, I like the separation of this sort of thing out. If there's a crowded zone, the kill ten rats can take forever, but getting a couple of tags off of some dead enemies a lot easier.

I thought SWTOR would be the apex of MMO storytelling. after all, Bioware is a company with a long history of story-telling RPG's.

Until I played The Secret World.

For me, this is the penultimate in erudite, soulful storytelling. Memorable characters given flesh and form with superb voice acting and dialogue that stirs the emotions. All in riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas.

I love it.
Memorable characters given flesh and form with superb voice acting and dialogue that stirs the emotions.

At which point it becomes clear that for different people the visual aspects of a story are of very different importance. I can't get over how grey and ugly the visual support of the TSW stories is, you don't appear to mind.
My own naiive vision of an MMO is that the players make their own stories in an open world. EVE comes closest to this. Developer-based stories should be left to single player games or at least as a side-activity in an MMO.

When I want pure-player-to-player RP, I go to Second Life, which is unmatched in its ability to realize worlds. That said, it by and large lacks an actual game mechanic*.

* Now, before anyone jumps on me here, many of the RP regions give you something that tracks level, experience, progression just like any game– but they are, IMO, extremely shallow and are don't provide play in the same way MMORPGs do. None of this is helped by the fact that SL UI works either like the Sims or like an FPS, but never like any other mainline MMO.
As far as stories with in a MMO I am enjoying the story in GW2. I just finished up Retaking Claw Island and thought it was one of the best story/quests I've ever done in a MMO even if my presence was more as a spectator than anything.

I use to prefer smaller stories along the lines of EQ where each race had more of a culture than an over all story tying the world together. It felt more realistic because everyone wasn't out to save the world, just kill things and live with in the world. They had some stories and events but not many, the Giant vs Dwarf war quest in Velious comes to mind.

I don't care for SWTOR story telling in a MMO because it's not a MMO. Either I want to play a MMO or I want to play a story based game. When the story got interesting I was forced to grind out levels until I was high enough to reach the next part of the story. When the story was boring I was still forced to follow it.
TSW has by far the best storylines of any MMO I have played to date. They are deep, expressive, and adult-oriented. They far outstrip the quality of the simple cartoon stories that exist in MMO's like SWTOR, WoW, and GW2.
Am I the only one that took Zap's comment as a passive aggressive stab at those other 3 games?
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