Storyboard: The other gatekeepers

Was Sascha Baron Cohen a major NPC in Vampire?  I think that sounds right.
If there's one thing that I've proven incapable of doing with tabletop gaming, it's remembering the names of NPCs.

Not the ones related to this week's adventure, mind you; those I remember just fine. But throw out a big signature NPC and I suddenly find myself completely blank. It's bad enough that the only character I can think of off the top of my head is Caine from Vampire: the Masquerade, who mostly occupies a spot in my head for totally unrelated reasons. I can't help but think that if some clever GM tried to insert a major storyline character into an adventure, I'd wind up being the guy in the party who asked someone breathtakingly important if I could borrow some money.

In the case of MMOs, I often have a bit more of an advantage. After all, Statesman and my character have a bit more interaction in City of Heroes than my characters in other games have with the setting-specific NPCs that I'd really like to be able to name off the top of my head. But even though I can remember who Thrall is, he suffers from the exact same problem as all the others -- as long as I'm not playing him, he's just plain not important.

To be fair, some stories you might not want to know.Last week, I opined about how player-created stories cannot and should not be the only source of stories within MMOs. But there's a major problem that creating a story in an MMO runs into, and it's the one I've just spent three paragraphs talking about: Given time, the character you're playing and the characters you interact with are going to seem much more important than any official characters. The heroes of World of Warcraft aren't the major lore characters; they're people I know and interact with.

This, for the record, is one of the main reasons I got fed up with World of Warcraft's attempts at storyline. I didn't fight my way through Icecrown Citadel to watch Arthas work out his daddy issues; I fought through it for reasons that the game didn't even touch upon. It would be like the end of a Batman movie focusing entirely on the emotional arc of Joker Henchman Number Six.

And that's going to come up no matter what when you put story into a game. You have to have a reason why your character is doing things, and I can only think of a couple of games that even take your character's motivations into account. Without those motivations in place, a story doesn't have an emotional arc, just a long string of events that don't tie into anything you care about. It's one of the main issues that Star Trek Online runs into. Even though the episodes follow the right formula, in an actual series the events would be getting fleshed out by character interactions, with the resolution tying everything up.

As it stands, story in MMOs frequently winds up shifting gears with an audible grind as you snap back and forth between the player-driven elements and the hard-coded game elements. The events that could be the stuff of major emotional arcs wind up getting lost amidst a sea of mandatory sidequests and gameplay elements.

There's also the problem of the reset button. In an MMO's core story, you're usually being tasked with going to dangerous places, but your actions there don't actually make the area any safer. You're sent to a location and you tool around in said location, but you're just supposed to ignore the fact that nothing has in fact changed even as you have changed things around you. You can only experience the story in a solipsist's paradise, a strange bubble world where you do everything and no one else takes part except for brief sojourns. By making you a star of singular luminosity, the game makes you distort the world rather than fix it.

It's a good thing this happened when it did, otherwise this would have turned into a parody of Ghost.And let's face it, many game companies are known for games, not stories. Capcom built an empire on several games whose stories formed the barest excuse for what you were doing while making sure the actual gameplay was well-polished. (These days that's a bit more suspect, but that's a different article on another site.) Even getting over any and all of the obvious issues with game stories, there's the simple fact that several of them are just plain mediocre to bad. Guild Wars suffers from awful voice acting and stiffly written characters, City of Heroes has self-contained snippets of story that don't have larger impacts, and World of Warcraft can't get away from extended pop culture parodies these days.

Plus... well, there's a simple fact, one so simple it's easy to overlook until you think about it. MMORPGs are games that give you the opportunity to make your own character, right? So what are characters?

They're not just collections of equipment and stats, after all. You can delete a character and still have people remember him and talk about him. Characters aren't just a voice or a name or a visual cue. They're part of a story. They're individuals in a story, shaped by previous events and with a firm anchoring to the world. You can't have a character without having a story.

So if you're going to be building your own character, then by definition, you need to be making your own story, one way or another. Considering all of the issues involved in trying to make your own story within the framework that the designers have seen fit to provide you, I think it's almost tempting to remove the hand-holding altogether and let players just make the story we want to tell from the start.

As this has now ballooned into a three-part series that I'm going to wrap up next week, feel free to leave your opinions in the comments below or let me know what you think via mail to (Seriously, I had meant for this to just be a single straight shot.) See you back here next week, when I try to synthesize everything into a useful whole.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.
This article was originally published on Massively.