Storytelling and the Adventurer

Syl over at MMOgypsy wrote a rather lovely piece dissecting the stories in mmo’s that was really quite wonderful. It is clear that the narrative in stories is just not well fashioned with creating interesting gameplay and enabling player agency. In mmo’s especially the approach to storytelling that has more in common with that of the big screen has created a discrepancy between how we play and the story we experience. And if our MMORPG experiences are any indication, the current style of lore and storytelling do not actually make for much player immersion.

It’s hard not to feel disillusioned with the state of story in mmo’s with what’s around and especially after experiencing what GW2 has to offer.. I’ve been there too but I’m not sure yet that it is time to dismiss mmo’s from being able to tell a worthy tale. I am not sure yet in absolute terms that mmo’s cannot establish a viable and entertaining narrative but I couldn’t think of a way how until I read a post by Rowan Blaze and one key part about enjoying being an adventurer far more than a hero and that is the distinction between the awful narrative Syl describes and the wonderful stories we experience.

While the stories throughout the land still have their end they are a part of a much larger narrative, which is that of the world. These are the times and stories we often remember as they are more relatable to our character and ourselves. Our actions with these side quests and stories also feel more meaningful as most times it is our choice whether to complete it not.

This sort of thing very much relates to one of Syl’s final points that

MMORPGs should avoid that one central and finite story arch. Instead, the world should feature various stories to be discovered by the player and followed in his own time.

The difference between the story of the individual or being an adventurer and that of the world is a remarkable change. With that of the hero a story will always have an end, yet with that of the world it is ongoing and changing. It is adaptive to the players interests and styles of play. It promotes exploration of a world rather than a defined path. I honestly believe this is the path that mmo’s should be taking in how they are structured and encourage the player to be immersed. It is a widely different approach to the development norm but one far more suited.

Multi-player setting

One of the points about being the hero in mmo’s is that from the outset it urges you to suspend disbelief in order to even entertain the ideas and events that are unfolding. Our games of choice are blessed and tainted with thousands of people playing the same exact thing and maybe hundreds that we have seen around us, to say that we are all the chosen is one of the worst tropes of the genre. I just can’t take such a story seriously when many have done this exact thing before me and many will after.

When I see it I always think what’s the point, why bother when my actions are not needed and the outcome predetermined. In the end it always comes back to attaining a shiny thing but isn’t that merely saying that you recognise how lacking it is in terms of enjoyment.

The narrative of an adventure though can be continued on regardless of the activities the player was already engaged in or has completed, in fact it is tremendously easy to continue with such events. Stories end and many others begin and rather than detracting from the experience with conflicting messages they enhance it. You continuously get to learn more about the world and develop an understanding of it and its people.

They also lose very little in a sense of immersion from being in a multiplayer setting. Even when an mmo is constrained to a certain quest hub structure the world itself is dynamic in a way. Animals and monsters propagate and need culling, food supplies and artifacts need gathering; there will always be people who need help consistently. The world consumes with regularity and the players fit into its simplistic model of supply and demand.

A part of the world

Hero’s are set apart from others, they are no longer mere mortals and are held by a different set of standards. They are rigidly defined by the their accomplishments and future quests and such must be held to the same standards or greater in order to be worthy of them. This is why I think quests feel so trite at times, because after experiencing the heights of fame and completion the rest are trivial. Before that though characters and the player fit within the structure of the story you are developing.

Adventurers are the same as everyone in many respects, players and npcs just with a different plan for their life, or particular goals. The quests they engage in can be anything really in terms of contribution and whatever it is it will always remain relevant to the character and their actions. This is a far better representation for the player as well since it enables them to play how they wish whether it be something more epic or just helping out where and how they can.

Adventurers are also travellers by nature, they explore and experience the world and through this they become inexplicably tied to the world and its inhabitants. You help out where you can and through that act you learn more about the people and the lore this way which brings about a greater sense of immersion.

Within the Game

The biggest failure of mmo storytelling and trying to make people the hero is that it fundamentally relies on instancing as the way of telling story and creating gameplay around it. The only way it could possibly allow the completion of such epic events up to the individual is to barricade it away from everyone and while this enables you to experience the event without conflicting information it makes these events feel separate from the world and largely inconsequential to it.

An adventurers however experiences it’s stories just through the regular world; It is the quests they complete, the dialogue,the monsters, the sights..Well pretty much the entirety of the world is their story. Their story occurs freely throughout the world and you are free to help where and how you can and I think that is one of the greater gameplay distinctions here between the two types. To help rather than save denotes a choice in the act wherein save is the chains of fate and destiny. Players ultimately want their freedom in games, to feel like they are the ones in control and being in control of their character, this us especially so for mmo’s. A Hero is never really in control but an adventurers story is guided by the players actions which makes the you feel more in control and the experience more rewarding.

The games

The Gw2 dynamic events and hearts are a great way of experiencing the joy of an adventurer as the tell the story of the land which you can be apart of. You help the people in sometimes mundane ways or in the defense of lives but regardless of the method it still serves to tell well placed narratives of the people and areas as well as an overarching narrative of a world in flux.

Even with as much as I really don’t like leveling alts I can still remember quite fondly the times I spent roaming the country side with of Tyria with friends, strangers, and alone and how much fun I had experiencing the many rich stories throughout. Exploring Caledonia forest for the first time, visiting the technomagical Asura, the snowy mountains filled with dredge, enacting a Quaggan pirate captain, a nervous first trip into Orr, and especially containing the Megadestroyer within the bowls of the earth. Questing around the world and being just another adventurer was a talking point regularly for many in the game and still is yet that is very rare for the story part here, or any mmo really.

Skyrim does this brilliantly and poorly as well. The world is designed for you to explore and experience and just getting wrapped up in events you find along the way; the brilliant life and gameplay of an adventurer. Then as the hero it is some of the worst gameplay I’ve had the displeasure of putting up with.

There are countless websites and articles discussing and documenting their travels through various game world’s yet I’d be hard pressed find one that is focused on the story of the hero, is this not indicative of where the enjoyment lies? Even when mundane or epic it gives people an experience and their own story to tell rather than just recounting the same dialogue.

Freedom

I just don’t understand why developers think we need these restrictive tales of hero’s when being just another adventurer suits the genre and mmo mechanics far better. There can still be epic events but this leads room for characters to grow in other ways and be more apart of the world. Even when I’m defeating one of the world events In Gw2 with many others it is still a vastly different experience then being a hero, and afterwards I feel happy enough to collect various vegetable for farmers or defend against bandits and not have previous events detract from the experience.

Dungeons and such don’t need to go away either as some adventurers indeed enjoy plumbing the depths of the world for treasure. These would be better placed without the story based restrictions on them though and no more saving the world antics, imagine if the were more like diablos’ dungeons which randomised locations, monsters, their  attack patterns and the shiny shiny loot.

I don’t think most people even want to be hero. As an adventurer you can still show and experience power, be brave, help others, save lives but where a hero is bound to those specifics an adventurer can be so much more. They can even be a part of world saving heroics in their own way but aren’t bound to the tropes or expectations. They are allowed to fail, or do something else, their contribution is part of a whole rather than an integral piece which is just better suited towards mmo gaming.

Forget about what a hero would do, it’s trite, it’s boring and it plays badly, instead think what an adventurer would do and I think it would be a lot more enjoyable.

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11 thoughts on “Storytelling and the Adventurer

  1. I understand the point where being an adventurer in a wide world instead of the central hero of a story could fit better the setting of an MMO, but for that to work at least for me a game needs to play very differently from actual MMOs.

    I absolutely loathe GW2 hearts and events. Instead of telling a local tale, they feel more like ‘fill this bar for rewards’. If you don’t go out of your way to actually talk to the NPCs involved you can fill a heart without knowing why you are doing the things asked, and afterwards the NPCs just say a generic thanks and look at what I sell. Events can tell a bit more of a tale, but when you’ve seen the same event pop up multiple times they too become mindless grinds. They feel like the much hated daily quests of other games but resetting in hours or even faster instead of once a day.

    With a classic story quest, you can get the feeling that your character is shaping the world or at least the region in some fashion, even if gameplay wise it doesn’t change. If you want to remove the story, the world needs to change to give the same feeling of accomplishment. Killing a nameless necromancer mob every day or whenever the ‘necromancer in the graveyard’ event triggers loses its fun quite fast. Killing Bors the priest after revealing that he was in fact the necromancer behind the undead attacks then moving is one option that feels more rewarding, even if he will respawn a minute later for the next player to kill. The other option is actually having an impact on gameplay for everyone and the graveyard staying clean of undead after a player kills the necromancer, but then you need a HUGE world of content and sandbox elements so that players can build their own stories once the PVE world has been cut down and cleansed of any mob.

    • i don’t think I really elaborated enough on parts to explain any apparent fixes, it was more defining the difference.. maybe I’ll try to ramble on mechanical fixes later on.
      Gw2 is no where near perfect in it’s approach, far from. They made far to many allowances to their initial idea in order to suit what gamers expect. Originally their were no hearts and such that was an addition after some sort of focus testing.They do indeed have a chance of becoming a meaningless repetitive grind and I guess that is always going to be a problem in an mmo with limited content but the point was there variability allows a lot more options to players about how to play. It is also that instead of one large but fleeting storyline there is a multitude of them that can be just as compelling.
      the way the events are designed in gw2 is lacking as well, too quick a respawn and the chains of events are far too simplistic. I was just trying to use it as a modern day example since I can’t think of any others.. Lots of future mmo’s seemingly going down the path of dynamic world content so we shall see.

      I don’t think we have yet to see how well this sort of approach can be developed and delivered since the current approach is so vastly different in it’s structured narrow style. In time new ideas will be developed that may present these wordly events. i think it will be more along the lines of randomly generated events, player intiated events as well as player generated content and stories.

    • I thought that was exactly why we played mmo’s, to experience and be part of a world rather then completing checkpoints in a game

      would have been nice to see how the genre would have developed if it took its iterative cues from ultima instead of eq..and single player games (as is the current approach)

  2. I think many devs haven’t realized yet that indeed, MMO players don’t dream of the traditional ‘heroism’. if I want that kind of gameplay, I fall back on traditional RPGs. it seems a no-brainer that you cannot implement this concept effectively in a massively, multiplayer social game…But then, more open world adventure is having a second coming right now, so I have my hopes up. 🙂 I quite agree with you too that Skyrim does this brilliantly but the single story arch is detrimental to it (maybe that’s why I still haven’t finished it). Skyrim is a great general direction though.

    Oh and minor detail: it’s Syl, not Syp! 😀 (it’s happened to us before, so don’t worry haha)
    I will add your follow-up to my more recent article by the way, I hadn’t seen it earlier.

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  4. It’s so good to hear people coming right out and saying loud and clear that it’s not about being the Hero. We are all the center of our own story already, we don’t need to have special stories written for us with a big hole in the middle meant for us to slip into, and even if we did it would get mighty crowded squashed in there with the other million players.

    I want to be something like the Littlest Hobo or the Lone Ranger or even the A-Team, roaming from town from town, getting drawn into local troubles, meeting people that need help and figuring out a way to help them, then moving on to start over somewhere down the road to do it all over again.

    Most MMOs allow me to play that way but then they layer on a whole lot of reputation nonsense and, worse still, titles and NPC auto-recognition. That reception in Rift really took the biscuit and had a good deal to do with me deciding Rift was no longer a game I could take in any way seriously.

    Less heroics, more adventuring please.

    • i think the reputation systems do have there place within the open world system. No one is going to trust a random stranger with something of vital importance so you may need to gain a sense of trust first. Still no one needs to be doing the same thing for months though.

      I think it’s still all limitation of the tech though, not neccesarily computing power but I don’t think there is the programs and code out there that can do it effectively. It is good to see development moving more towards this though. Embers of Caerus sound excellent with it’s planned system that is more like an eosystem.
      One thing I think they need still are tools that allow a developer to actively control certain events, kindd of like an rts system so they can better react to players with better startegies.. imagine if there was a person piloting the dragons in GW2, that would be so much more interesting.

  5. Little late to this post, sorry. It looked to be a really good one, so I saved it to come back to it later and it got buried in links!

    I think you are spot on. For me, the best storytelling in MMOs I’ve ever experienced has come from the way players interact with a living, breathing, semi-reactive world. I don’t need epic, million-dollar invested scripts with voice acting, cutscenes, etc. I don’t even want instances and huge quests to read. I simply want a game that facilitates great stories.

    When I began playing MMOs, I started with Ultima Online. One of the best aspects of the game was how it could sometimes by a little unforgiving, at least enough that it could challenge you.

    For example, liches were a really, really tough monster to kill, even when soloing and maxxed out on levels. As a melee character, taking on more than a couple at a time could result in your swift death. Even worse, liches liked to loot your dead body. Now, there are a lot of weird issues with how that might play in a modern game, but nothing is as cool as getting looted by enemy AI then trying to round up a posse of friends or local adventurer’s to fight your way back and find the monster that grabbed your things.

    I am not suggesting MMOs go back to being so unforgiving as they once were, but I am suggesting they keep in mind that heritage. Being openly lootable, corpse runs in Everquest, Dark Age’s real versus realm central premise – these are all elements that promote MMOs as their own unique worlds. They build story out of gameplay and the way mechanics interact with the innate social nature of the genre. They didn’t need tons of exposition piled on top to make people care about the world they were playing in.

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