Let's get the obvious out of the way: Most players, even under optimal circumstances, are not actually very good at telling stories. Being a good roleplayer does not in any way make you a good storyteller, just as how being a good actor doesn't make you a good screenwriter. The talents are related but not the same. But let's even put that to one side and note that when you get right down to it, roleplaying games are a terrible medium for stories.
Honestly, think about it. You think it's bad when a show tries to clumsily write out a character because the actor or actress isn't on the show any longer? It's even worse when the character just leaves in the middle of a storyline, with no explanation. It's a story thrown together from half-events and momentary encounters, and it's a story that is constantly straining against the rules of the environment. Heck, fully half of the columns I've written here have been about how to make roleplaying work out well in spite of the millions of different things that can derail it, ranging from players quitting to not liking your character's mechanics to the lore crushing your hopes and dreams.
Even if we ignore all of that, the idea of an open environment where you can tell your own stories also by definition creates a world you aren't invested in. There's nothing going on here, no conflicts save those you make up for yourself. There's no narrative force in the background. When you leave the room, the world stops moving. Compare this to an active world with an ongoing story, where stuff is happening all the time whether or not you and your fellow roleplayers log in on any given day.
And we still have problems even if we're still sticking our fingers in our ears and claiming we can't hear. Fundamentally, a good story needs a main character, an emotional center for the plot. You can have large ensemble-style shows that work well, and I've referenced a lot of them over the years, but you'll note that every single one of them had a given character who stood out as being just a bit more important. Without going into a whole lot of talk about the theory behind stories, I propose that you need one person at the center of the narrative universe, and roleplaying by definition has several dozen individual emotional centers.
That's a lot of obstacles for roleplaying to overcome in short order just to adhere to an ideal that players should be the only driving force in an MMO. And it's kind of a silly idea in the first place -- we're choosing one game over the other because of the setting and presumably the story therein. The story is important, the story needs to be there, and the fact of the matter is that the story does a lot for roleplaying in the first place.
What roleplaying does very well is provide an outlet for characters, provide angles for interpersonal drama and motivation that aren't so easily built into game mechanics. It fills in and enriches, takes a one-note story and adds subtlety and nuance. The story might be the vocals of the song, but most songs don't sound very good without a whole lot of backing instrumentals to carry the core tune.
You can complain that if you're being forced into a story, then you have no control, you don't get a say in your character's development. But that's missing the point entirely. If you want a sense of verisimilitude in your roleplaying, your characters should be surrounded by things outside of their control. Roleplaying is the art of working all of that into a coherent whole, of taking all of these story elements that aren't entirely within your ability to change and massaging them into something coherent.
Yes, frequently the story treats player characters as if they're the solitary individuals in the game and everyone else doesn't count. That's problematic. But even if you can't really talk about the specifics of your quests against Drakuru in World of Warcraft, you can still talk about having an enemy among the Scourge that tried to recruit you. You can build in around the spaces in that story, file off enough details to make it individual, and base your roleplaying on that.
Players should not be primarily responsible for creating stories in games. The results are poor, the cost is high, and the benefits are negligible compared to a well-crafted storyline already in place.
This is one of those issues that I imagine people have their own strong views about, so I encourage people to comment below or via mail to email@example.com. Next week, for the final column of this year, I'm going to turn around and do what I love to do with these sorts of columns: undermine everything I said here.
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.