We Are All Individuals

Is it time to boot stories from MMOs?

I don’t mean that I want my MMO experience to be a completely meaningless affair that’s just about gathering loot from anonymous enemies and watching numbers go up – well, any more than it is already. Rather, I’m talking about the insistence MMOs still have in trying to wedge a strong component of single-player games into their very different frameworks, regardless of how well it fits.

At the heart of this is the “personal story,” found in, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Lord of the Rings Online, and many others. It’s obvious why it’s there: so you’ll still feel like a hero, an individual hero, even in a game that millions of people might be playing.

But are we still buying into it? Do I still really feel that I’m having an effect on the world when I face down some big villain at the end of my personal story? A villain that my friend can come along and beat later, when he reaches that same point in his story?

A cast of thousands
In a single-player game, this works. When I kill someone important, he stays dead. The world reacts to his passing, and I feel like I’ve accomplished something (or, if it’s Skyrim, that I’ve at least murdered some insignificant peasant or merchant and can root through his stuff).

This obviously can’t work, unaltered, in an MMO. If it did, then every NPC would be dead about two hours after servers going live for the first time. But the current state of things just seems like a lie to me, a placebo to try and satisfy people and make them think they’re having an effect on the world, when really, they’re not. At best, they’re having an effect on their character and their status in the world, and even that is dubious at times.

"Our strength lies in secrecy," my cute elven ass

“Our strength lies in secrecy,” my ass

My frustrations on this point came to a head when I was playing The Elder Scrolls Online. Multiple times, an NPC would ask me to do something, like “Clear out the spiders from this cave and get the thing at the end!” If this was a single-player player Elder Scrolls title, I would, you know, go in the cave and clear out the spiders. Instead, in the MMO, I went in the cave, saw about a dozen other people running around, managed to land a hit on one or two spiders as I went through the cave, found the thing at the end and ran back to the NPC. It was almost like I was playing the game. Almost.

Another great example is in LOTRO. After the Fellowship departs Rivendell, Elrond feels worried. He asks me to track them on their way south, just to make sure things are all right. As you recall, the Fellowship was kept small because a large army would attract too much attention. If it was just me keeping track of the Fellowship, that would be fine. Instead, of course, there were about 50 people at the first waypoint “secretly” tracking the Fellowship. Way to go guys, Saruman won’t be suspicious of that.

Seriously, killing 10 rats is a vital part of the lore!

Worse, I’ve started to wonder if the insistence on story in MMOs has also kept the “X+Y Rule” in effect. The X+Y Rule is whenever I play an MMO that’s a boring, soulless grind for the first few levels, and finally quit at level X. I tell that to a friend, and he says, “Oh, you just have to keep going until you get to level Z” where Z = X+Y. In other words, if I just held out for Y more levels, I would have had fun!

Even your boobs can't make me care

Even the power of boobs can’t make me care

My first day, the first 10 levels or so, in the ArcheAge alpha was just like that. There’s a story, and there’s stuff I did, and… well, I really don’t care. I mean, I could literally give zero fucks about the story. I’m not playing ArcheAge because I want to know how the story goes and because I want an endless string of NPCs to give me “Kill X” quests; I’m playing it for the sandbox elements. But, I imagine that XLGames wants to show me how fantastic this world is, to immerse me in the story and make me care about something something elves nuian something zzzzzz… Hint: I really don’t. At all. And I’d wager about 99.99% of your other players don’t either. (Don’t worry, AA fans, I’ve powered through those levels into the “real” game and am finding it entertaining.)

But like I said, there should be some kind of unique flavor to the world, some reason for you to play in it beyond the gameplay itself. Ideally, you’d care about people and places and that might influence your gameplay beyond your capacity for collecting loot. I just think that adhering to the traditional single-player story routine is no longer the way to go about it.

The world is enough

So, what is? Maybe more games could go with a sort of “world story” instead of a “personal story.” Instead of you fighting the big bad guy, maybe it becomes known that the big bad guy (or his minions, at least) are taking over a certain area and it’s up to you – meaning everyone, or at least everyone in your faction – to stop them. Or individual locations could be attacked, sort of like GW2‘s Battle of Lion’s Arch, that seem less like something you have to do alone and more like something that everyone has to handle, collectively. Overall, I think GW2‘s Living Story, as well as some of its larger dynamic event chains, has featured several good instances of this kind of “group storytelling,” to the point that when I went back last week and did some personal story for the first time in a few months, it felt positively archaic.

Only vaguely

Only vaguely

Fighting nameless minions might not be wholly satisfying, though. There’s something to be said for taking down the big bad and being a solo hero, so I suppose some limited form of “personal storytelling” is needed. Everyone can say they stomped Scarlet Briar in Guild Wars 2, and while I was at first miffed that the final, final confrontation was rather meh, gameplay-wise, I’m now thinking it was probably the right choice. Best to just get it over with quickly.

I’m not sure how or if a “non-individual-story” approach would affect traditional endgame activities, like dungeons, raids, PvP, etc. Since nobody raids or PvPs because of story, and, being group-oriented to being with, there are only limited appeals from NPCs about needing individual heroism (“Gather a band of your bravest allies to face down the dark warlock in his castle!”), you could probably leave them mostly untouched. But for the most part, if your story doesn’t take into account that there are a hundred other people in the area doing the same thing, I’d rather see it reworked it so it does or scrapped entirely.


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4 Responses to We Are All Individuals

  1. The problem with an impersonal story is that it’s, well, impersonal. People need an emotional hook to become invested in a story. They need a protagonist to identify with. That doesn’t need to be the player avatar; it could also be an NPC. But if players are going to care about an NPC, then they need to spend a lot of time interacting with that NPC, and then we’re back to personal story territory. Aside from which, some players don’t like it when the game makes the NPCs the heroes instead of them.

    The fact that everyone else has the same “personal story” you do is just something you have to suspend your disbelief for, like floating combat text or the fact that none of us ever actually die.

    • jasonwinter says:

      I agree that you need a hook and some kind of NPC interaction for your story to resonate with people. My point is that I’d rather see something like GW2’s story, which is intermittent and often “impersonal” — affecting the whole world rather than just you — instead of what we get in most MMOs, which is just an extension of what we get in most single-player games, where the linear story is 80% of the game (and most of that meaningless kill 10 rats filler) and “side activities” are the other 20%, if that. The format just isn’t meant for that.

      • Hmm, I might argue with you there, but it’s hard to be objective considering how much I loathe the story-telling in Guild Wars 2. If there were a better example of what you’re describing out there, I might feel differently. Maybe there is, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head.

        But it is true that a lot of people complain when the story isn’t about them specifically, so I don’t know how popular such an idea would be, even if you could pull it off in a way that actually tells a decent story.

  2. Pingback: 50 MMOs in 50 Days #5: ArcheAge | Wintry Mix

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