Sunday, May 18, 2014

Storytelling in MMOs

I want to talk a little about storytelling in MMOs. I have been playing the Wildstar Beta on and off over the past week, and it has really made me realize just how much I am craving something new in the storytelling department when it comes to online games.

It amazes me that these games focus so much on creating an individual "identity", in character appearance, class, abilities, equipment, etc., and yet focus so little on changing the story to match that identity. Everyone wakes up in stasis, performs the same series of quests, and follows the same main plot line. If that's the way you're going to do things, why even give players distinct characters? Why not give everyone characters with firm identities in the story, dialogue of their own, some reason to be notable in the world other than "I am a player, not a nonplayer"?

One of the few MMOs I have played them attempts this path is Dragon Nest. In it, you do name your character, and customize them, but the role that you plan story is treated as the role an actor might play in a film – when the performance is going on, everyone who chose the "warrior" class is actually playing the role of a specific character in the story of the game. Of course, the problem is, you then have a bunch of players running around as clones of each other. The illusion of individuality wouldn't be possible. And, in my eyes, the real point of these games is not to tell a story, but to provide that sense of individuality in a fantastic yet mundanely social setting.

So why am I complaining about the story when I've just admitted that the story really isn't the point? Because I feel that it could be the point. You can create a feeling of individuality purely through aesthetics, but you can create something much stronger by tying the player into a store unique to them, supported by the game's mechanics and not just sprinkled on top like confetti. Imagine the extreme – a game tied into your Facebook account which pulls elements of your life into the plot as obstacles or discoveries for other players. Or a game where every element of the story is spun up by players, with little worlds being born, dying, and reborn to support the cycle.

What kind of mechanics would make these games tick? Any kind of mechanic where the player makes a meaningful choice that impacts their relationship to other players more than it impacts their standing with the world's fictional characters.  Mechanics that take player behaviors into account, turning grief causing players into outcasts and nemeses, turning benevolent players into allies. One might argue that these kinds of events are already built into our psychology and don't need to be supported by game mechanics, but I would reply that for the story to be the focus of the game and something that distinguishes one player from another, it must be able to etch itself into the game's reality in meaningful ways. That is why such a game would exist – to be a blank canvas upon which the players detail, elaborate, and record their stories.

I guess I'd just like to see a lot of the fun storytelling mechanics that come out of many pen and paper role-playing games make their way into online games.  So many interesting stories are being told and can be told, that aren't really recognized by online games and leveraged into giving their worlds more life. And without that extra injection of vitality, I fear that more and more the bones of the grind at the heart of games like World of Wacraft and Wildstar will be visible underneath the story that comes in the box.