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The Soapbox: The battle for story


Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

When I was in grad school, one of my favorite classes spent a couple of sessions talking about the use and importance of story in teaching. It opened my eyes to the fact that stories are one of the most universal elements of the human experience, from antiquity to modern times, ranging from a little kid playing with toys to an adult penning a novel. We simply love to tell and listen to stories -- they grab our attention, spark our imagination, teach us valuable lessons, and create lasting memories.

But somewhere along the years, something went horribly wrong when it came to MMOs and stories. MMOs were always supposed to be the ultimate platform for storytelling, as both developers and players could pitch in to weave epic sagas, and for a while that seemed to be the case. Lately, however, I've seen a movement that is thrashing hard against stories in MMOs, typically using one of the following two statements: "Get your stupid story out of my game!" or "Stories are better left to other forms of entertainment."

It's made me a sad panda to realize that MMO storytelling is under attack by the very players who should embrace it, and often they're acting as if they're being dragged, kicking and screaming, into future MMOs where story is placed as a priority. Make no mistake: The battle for story is on, and the stakes have never been higher.

DnD play session
Geek heritage

Role-playing games and stories go hand-in-hand, starting back with the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons (which is, basically, improv interactive storytelling). The stats and details served to structure the story world, but the lion's share of the tale remained in the minds of those experiencing it. RPG video games brought stories to people in a whole new medium, but the desire to tell and experience a tale remained the same.

When you look at D&D, it's interesting to note that the pen-and-paper game was a mix of what we now consider to be "themepark" and "sandbox" styles. Players were led through a specific storyline and reacted to it, but they were given tools and freedom to create their own tales as well.

As MMOs developed, instead of integrating those two styles, the industry began to divide titles between them. Themeparks were already much more accepted in video game and entertainment circles and thus enjoyed a higher degree of popularity in MMOs, while sandboxes lingered in the realm of "niche" with a handful of standout exceptions. This is grossly oversimplifying everything, but the general division holds up.

Backlash brewing

So if both types of storytelling are represented, why has backlash been brewing against this "fourth pillar" of gaming? Again, this might be oversimplifying and just my perspective, but both types of MMOs have been marginalizing and harming stories more than helping them. Themeparks embraced the rightfully maligned quest text boxes as the primary instrument of storytelling, which might have made sense in 1987 but became archaic as soon as graphic video games began using cutscenes, scripting, and interactive elements to convey a tale. Quest text has proven to be so unpopular that many freely admit they never read it -- they just bypass it to rev up the combat simulator once more.

Sandboxes don't get off so easy, either. Developers have struggled with the balance between giving players tools to create content and tell stories without having players abuse that power (which invariably happens, usually with flying genitals). We've seen sandboxes with so little direction that players become easily frustrated, even if they want to be a part of the storytelling process. And I'm not quite sure why sandboxes tend to be paired up with hardcore PvP and obtuse interfaces, but those are significant barriers as well.

Most MMOs have story and lore; it just isn't being handled right and has created resentment in the community because of it. "Story" has become a dirty word for a failed experiment that should just be shoved out of the way for more combat skills, particle effects, and PvP maps. For a while, I was genuinely worried that developers would give up on stories altogether and water MMOs down into slightly more complex versions of Team Fortress 2.

Bringing out the big guns

Fortunately, that's not what's happening. I believe there are devs and players who truly believe that story is every bit as important as anything else in MMOs, and there are major games on the horizon that are placing a large bet on the hopes that stories told well and in the right way can rejuvenate RPG fans' love of these online games.

Three of my most anticipated future games are Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2, and The Secret World. Running down their features list, I realize they couldn't be more different in structure and style. Yet all of them have raised the flag of "STORY" as high as possible, not just as a last-minute addition to the game but as the centerpiece. Sick of SWTOR's "fourth pillar" talk? BioWare doesn't care, as the studio knows that its single-player RPGs became famous for their gripping tales, and the team is not going to compromise just because the MMO community doesn't like quest boxes. Guild Wars 2's manifesto emphatically states that here is an experience where the player's story is important, continuing, and meaningful. The Secret World is pulling every high-tech storytelling trick out of the hat, coupling in-game and out-of-game elements to involve players on every level.

Even small start-ups, such as Namaste Entertainment's Storybricks, are swinging the spotlight away from combo attacks and min/maxing and back to the roots of this genre.

Stories, these studios are saying, are important. They are vital. They need to be fought for and modernized.

That's not to say that current MMOs aren't trying. Lord of the Rings Online may be a quest text-centric storyteller, but the game was founded upon an epic storyline and continues to impress and expand the tales beyond what we first saw in 2007. RIFT's quests may have been forgettable, but Trion's new Chronicles system is proving successful as it plops players right in the middle of a story and has them experience it instead of read about it. Asheron's Call continues to release a new interactive story every month for players.

Lasting memories

I may be only speaking for myself here, but I have no interest in MMOs that don't care about stories. I've always loved video games because they've invited me to be a character in their tale, whether I was guided through it or given free rein to do as I pleased. A good piece of a story can be every bit as effective as a reward than a new piece of gear or a higher power level. So why aren't good stories welcome in MMOs?

Is it because we're tired of them being covers for "kill ten rats" quests we've done a billion times before? Perhaps. Is it because the world never changes no matter what the completion text says? That could be part of it. Are we just too lazy to engage with stories and too impatient to sit through them? I could see it. And maybe there are no surprises left in an internet age full of pre-launch spoilers.

But no matter how jaded we've become, how burned by past promises, or how conditioned we are to bypass the story to get to the objectives, we should never give up on this. We shouldn't be mocking BioWare, ArenaNet, Funcom and the others for pushing hard for good stories; we should be cheering them on. We should be encouraging our fellow players to get into the interactive parts of storytelling by teaching them how to create tales of their own and how to step up and become an actor on this stage.

Whether you prefer themepark or sandbox storytelling, I just hope you're on the side of story instead of against it. A great story, either one that is told to me or one I am a part of, can forge a memory that can last far longer than my Tier 5 armor set.

And it is worthy of our support.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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