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Some Assembly Required: In defense of player-driven story

Jef Reahard

To say that I feel strongly about player-created stories and the MMOs that support them is an understatement of epic proportions, and as such I was disheartened after reading one of Eliot's recent Storyboard columns that pooh-poohed player creativity in favor of dev-driven narrative.

I feel that a dissenting viewpoint needs equal time in the Massively spotlight, so join me after the cut for a few reasons why there's no substitute for player-driven stories.

Star Wars Galaxies - story event
In the interests of chopping a few thousand words off this rant, I'm just going to quote Eliot directly and follow with my thoughts.
"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 [emphasis mine]. 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."
This is the biggest bone I have to pick, really, and maybe it's because I spend the majority of my game time in open-world sandboxes (most of which disprove this notion on a daily basis). The portion I emphasized above is the most important aspect of the whole debate, and yes, it is incumbent upon the roleplayers to generate their own meaningful conflict, either amongst themselves or in concert with other roleplay-friendly groups.

The second part of the quoted passage also left me scratching my head a bit because there is no "active world with an ongoing story where stuff is happening all the time" in the DIKU-driven MMOs we play today. There's a static world with little bubbles of instancing specific to small groups or individuals, and all of the stuff in the game resets for the next savior of the world once an individual or group is finished pressing the levers.

These looping game mechanics have no permanence or consequence attached to them, and as I pointed out in a story-focused Soapbox earlier this year, conflict and its associated consequences aren't just the essence of a good story -- they are the story.

Finally, in terms of an open environment leading to a world you aren't invested in, I could just write "no" here and be finished. It might be more instructive to ask all those Star Wars Galaxies players how uninvested they felt in their open world, though.

Star Wars Galaxies - storytellers
"Most players, even under optimal circumstances, are not actually very good at telling stories."
This one really surprised me, particularly coming from one of Massively's most creative writers and our resident roleplaying expert. Again, maybe it goes back to my sandbox affinity, or maybe I've just had the good fortune of hanging around with lots of talented folk, but you can't really make a statement like that unless you've actually played with "most" players. How many is "most," anyway?

I won't even get into my opinion on every dev-authored story I've ever experienced, and how they've all been on par with your average D&D novel.

Star Wars Galaxies - player ships in formation
"We're choosing one game over the other because of the setting and presumably the story therein."
This is necessarily subjective (as is the majority of both our articles, to be honest), but I simply can't relate to it at all. All the roleplayers I know choose one game over another based almost entirely on the RP-(un)friendliness of the MMO mechanics. Does a game have a real economy? Does it have bind-on-equip or related nonsense? Does it have meaningful non-combat options and a world that can be affected by players outside of PvP?

Those are the big ones, and the pre-existing narrative of the gameworld is a complete non-factor aside from when it comes to creating plausible character backstories. The game's setting is a factor as Eliot mentions. Some of us like sci-fi, others fantasy, and still others want to tell their own tales inside of their favorite IPs. But to suggest that roleplayers choose games because of the dev-driven narrative (if there even is one) is wide of the mark in my experience.

Star Wars Galaxies - smugglers getting busy
"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."
It's interesting that Eliot said games here instead of MMOs. If he actually meant games in general, I'd agree. If he meant MMOs, though, then I have to disagree because MMOs are much more than mere games. It's common knowledge that the scope and complexity of MMOs have been substantially reduced in recent years, but they're still virtual worlds first and foremost (even the new breed). There's more opportunity for human interaction and choice in even the simplest MMO than there is in your average video game, and reducing or eliminating narrative freedom in favor of a developer-driven story is a waste of the very thing that sets MMOs apart.

Ultimately, player-generated story content has been done and done extremely well, and while I feel for the folks who've been unfortunate enough to miss it, that doesn't mean that it's not there, and it certainly doesn't mean that support for it should be dropped.

The only thing I can really agree with in relation to Eliot's piece is that MMOs (particularly most of the themeparks dominating the space) make it very difficult for roleplayers to do their thing. In fact, that's the primary reason I don't roleplay as much as I used to: It's like pissing into the wind because the devs and much of the playerbase are actively working to spoil immersion and storytelling in favor of progression mechanics.

Some people may point to BioWare and say look, here's a developer that cares about story. As I've said before, though, a BioWare character is a BioWare character. It's not my character, and I have so little control over what he does and the world he inhabits that I may as well go to the movies.

For me, player-driven story is paramount to what MMOs were, are, and could be. They were virtual worlds rife with possibility and player-created content. They are currently single-player RPGs with chat rooms and combat lobbies tacked on to the margins. They could be virtual worlds again, but only if devs (and players) realize that that's what they ought to be, because otherwise they're no different from the simpler titles we've been playing offline for 30-odd years.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of sandboxes and player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!

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