Storytelling and a Narcissistic Narrative

Over at game Industry biz there was a recent interview with the Head of Narrative design at Arenanet, Leah Hoyer and while I was ready to read and create another rant aimed at the inadequacy of GW2 and its “living” story it made me think of the genre’s approach overall.

Now I do believe story is important for games, pretty obvious really. Even mmo’s benefit from having a base of lore as well as context to player actions, it creates better engagement in activities and immersion within the game world.

“But the bigger they get, and the more expensive the budget gets, you start to realize how important it is to have characters and a story world that people are excited to be a part of.”

I do get more excitement in knowing about the world and the actions I’ve been tasked with and at times. In recent times it seems narrative in games has gotten more important throughout the industry with most big budget now having extensive stories and backgrounds behind them. It’s a great thing to see and we have seen some far better, and more cohesive games in recent times because of it. Games where we feel more connected to the world and characters.

Even with MMO’s and their focus on being the one true savior of whatever current quest hub you’re in at the moment, killing wolves and collecting trinkets is kind of comforting at times. It’s just sad that that has been the main style of providing context for way too long. There was talk through the article of how ambient storytelling is being used throughout to more effect nowadays. To tell the narrative through the environments and mechanics rather than through text and cutscenes

“But the thing that games have going for them is they have even more ways to tell a story. They have all the ability to tell stories like books and TV and film, but now they have this way to really immerse people in the telling of the story. And I know there are a lot of game companies out there, ours included, that are really excited to find ways of building and shaping a story along with the player.”

And that’s it really, the ways of building a narrative are incredibly broad with being able to use methods from other mediums as well as many of their own when building engagement with the player. I know that’s how she feels but is that really the reality of the situation with Guild Wars an mmo’s. I see far too much of a reliance on the same mechanics; the same ways of telling, directing and progressive a narrative. Often with the same overarching narrative but have we really learned anything at all.

Single player games seem to have learnt a lot over the years. The breadth of narratives and the diversity of how they are presented really is amazing. It might not be what everyone enjoys but it’s moving the industry forwards. MMO’s though seem to be stagnating, in many ways really but how they approach narrative is just one.

I don’t know really but it’s pretty obvious that Leah Hoyer is making the same mistakes many others have made in mmo’s and is not thinking about how they genre is different from other games. MMO’s have been trying to copy SRPG’s in many ways. The telling of stories and the themes but they just aren’t suited in that regards to a large online and multiplayer space. There is room for different ways of telling: TSW did well with trying a more focused and of course people do enjoy the regular theme park approach but there is more there to explore.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what it is that actually creates that sense of engagement for me and it’s not necessarily the quality, or even how it’s told although those certainly help. It’s making the story your own. I felt this during my Mass Effect plays with making decisions that would shape my own story. A story i could recount and was, for the most part unique… at least to me. I understand the anger now too in that it was the removal of everyone’s personal story into one the developers had crafted for them. It was relinquishing individuality and this is what mmo’s tend to always do.

You get to play your way to a certain extent and build your stories but when it comes to most of the content it’s forced onto you. It’s not your adventure, not your individual experience. I think this is why I was so conflicted about GW2, it was a game where leveling and even afterwards that I felt I was making my own story within in the, more open style of world and then had that taken away. I think this is what I enjoyed so much about Archeage. After getting through that level grind I was kind of making up my own story once again. I also get now why people are so hooked on the experience in Eve, the premier game for making your own story within the game in many number of ways. A game where each player will pretty much have their own unique collection of experiences to tell, to get invested by.

All these storytelling techniques are still useful whether they be directed cutscenes, exposition text dumps or ambient it’s whether they give the players the ability to make their own experiences and narrative based on the worlds foundation rather than take it away by forcing their own.


13 thoughts on “Storytelling and a Narcissistic Narrative

  1. This is the perpetual push-and-pull between developer-created narrative and player-created narrative, and how much player agency a player feels they have.

    The problem with player-created narrative is that it doesn’t work for everybody, especially those unwilling to work at it and want something immediately presented to them. Those players need stuff set out on the table before them, or you’ll lose them quickly.

    The problem with dev-created narrative, of course, is that it costs man-hours and can be consumed a lot more quickly than it can be produced.

    Just can’t win ’em all. 😉

    • Agreed. I like MMOs with less directed narrative, but still some big picture things to tap into. I don’t want to be the necessary hero of a story, but I like when games manage to make me feel heroic via my own choices. To me, a MMORPG works best when it blends a world that allows for emergent and player directed story, while still guiding the pace and direction in broader terms. A player should never felt too lost, but I don’t think they should feel dragged along either.

    • It’s definitely a tough balance to get right, I just feel as though for mmo’s there should be more player agency otherwise why even make it an mmo

  2. Coming into GW2 back in 2012 I thought I was just about done with traditional MMO questing. I was all ready for a completely new approach. After two years of GW2 as my main MMO, going back to really strong, coherent, well-written linear quest-chains in EQ2 is like coming back from a long holiday in a foreign country. There’s just an intense sense of relief to find everything is just as you remembered, that you don’t have to struggle to understand the language or to make yourself understood.

    Yes, of course I want to create and tell my own stories in MMOs but for me the NPCs are and always have been the real inhabitants of the worlds in which players are, at best, immigrants and usually just tourists. If the the world doesn’t have rich, deep, interesting lore that the NPCs understand and live by then, frankly, why should I waste my time in their world? It’s their stories I’m interested in, not those of other players.

    The idea that anyone from ANet’s narrative department should be giving pointers to the industry is almost painfully ironic. There are so many problems with the storytelling in GW2 it would take a formal dissertation to do them justice. At the very least it’s that the entire approach is so incoherent that it sometimes verges on self-parody. There have been improvements of late and there have always been certain things they have done well but on average GW2 probably has close to the worst storytelling of any major MMO I’ve ever played. When I enjoy it (and I often do enjoy it) it’s largely because of the huge goodwill I owe my wonderful characters (for whose personalities neither I nor ANet can or should take credit) and because I *want* to enjoy myself when I play so I put in a LOT of effort to make that happen.

    Most of the time ANet’s writers appear to be actively conspiring against me enjoying the stories they tell. This is paramountly not the case in many other MMOs.

    • I definitely agree there needs to be a strong foundation of lore there. The basis of the world and the lives of the NPC’s. It creates the backdrop with which you engage.
      But yeh, I think I’m different than you in that I just want that as a foundation to build my own stories rather than digging deep into the stories of the NPC’s.
      I also love heating more about the stories of others and their personal experiences when reading blogs rather than a mere account of what’s being told.

  3. Read a 100 page PDF of 100 things a game student should know, one of them is no game starts with a story. I will say that it is true, I will ALSO say that it has ruined many games by making it “optional” as was stated in the list.

  4. Very well put! Bioware has been the leader in making the game’s story your own for some time now, IMO. I think it’s very telling how limited the success was of bringing that same feel to their MMO, SWTOR. Any time you think you have a new angle, you have a balancing act of new vs. familiar to try figuring out.

    • That is a funny one, I think they approached swtor in the same way they would any other browse but with an mmo you have to approach it differently.

  5. The issue with storytelling in MMOs is that there are multiple people involved in the game’s world, and not all of them riding the same waves. For every player who picks up lore items, books and quest info, there are just as many who plow through questing and avoid books like it’s a cardinal directive. Roleplaying helps this a bit, but even then it’s still relegated to small groups of people, most of whom don’t really take great pains to combine their group narratives despite how rich and rewarding that might end up.

    The point of an MMO, then, should be to make a rich play experience with captivating lore and universe trappings. That way it’s fun for everyone involved, if not an incredible experience from a purely narrative perspective. Those who want to dive deeper in to the game’s universe can do so with experiencing the thrills of back and forth factional battle or aiding a home city’s cause. Those who just wanna charge about killing stuff can do so if pointed in the most general of directions.

    It’s unfortunate that MMOs can’t really be places where great stories can be told…but I find it more empowering that players are the ones to tell those stories, either directly through actions in a persistent and changing game space, or indirectly at recounting those events in roleplay. There’s ownership and investment there.

    • I do like where it is a non essential art of the game but deeper when you look. Makes me think story in mmo’s should be like an iceberg, superficial amount on top yet the ability to go really down into it and share those stories.

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