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The Soapbox: My lore problem


"In the distant forests of El'quen, a dark evil stirs. Marrowgore the Unhunter, imprisoned for a thousand years in Cauldron Lake by the Eye of Son'drak, has broken free. Now, he and his evil BoneSlurpers stage an all-out war on the United Provinces. You, a freshly christened hero known for valorous acts both on and off the battlefield, must take charge of the Sacred Axeblade of Loqtai, harness the power it contains, and send the Unhunter back to his watery prison.

"But first, can you get me nine wolf pelts?"

Lore is, at least theoretically, an important part of most MMORPGs. It's the story, after all, that tells me who I am, what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it. Without the lore that marks me as a chosen warrior delivering salvation to a plagued land or an embattled sorcerer fighting both physical and internal demons, I'm just another generic "RPG abilities" checklist with some pretty colors tossed on top.

The Secret World
An MMO's narrative is what differentiates it from the pack. It explains why one guy who throws fireballs at goblins is different from that other guy who throws fireballs at goblins. So why is it that given the inherent importance of narrative in an MMO, I just can't be bothered with lore? Why have I never connected with an MMO's story or given two shakes about what NPCs had to say to me? Lore, for me, is the stuff I skip through when I'm trying to get to the quest reward; it's the cutscene that plays out while I go to make a sandwich.

There are two primary reasons that I've never met an MMO with lore I couldn't ignore.

I am impatient and shallow

From a story perspective, I game in what is likely the most unrewarding manner possible. My goal is always to reach the next level, the next skill upgrade or the next mission, the end. I play to finish, quickly. And while I've argued that we should stop to enjoy the little things in games, I'm often the guy who charges from opening to conclusion without so much as a breath to read dialogue.

This means story-driven MMOs don't do much for me. I'm too busy clicking "accept" or bashing the escape key to actually ingest anything a developer might be trying to tell me about his or her world. Simply put, anything that comes between me and my ability to earn experience or start a new quest is an inconvenience and will be treated as such.

See those ogres over there? I killed about 50 of them for their beads. Why? Some dude asked me to. At least, I think he did. I only saw the part of the quest that said, "Greetings, Mage!" I'm pretty sure there was something about killing Ogres, though, and something about the "greater good." Probably. Does it really matter?

That's the part of this problem that's my fault. Here's the part that's not.

MMO stories are dumb, unoriginal, and told in clunky ways

Stop me if you've heard this one: Two or three warring factions are thrust into a new era of conflict after a global trauma reveals previously unknown sources of power or danger. If you haven't, welcome to and I hope that whatever MMO you've chosen as your first video game ever turns out wonderfully.

World of Warcraft
Most MMORPGs, especially those in the fantasy niche, are running on the same set of decades-old plot tropes that built the industry. I don't need to read the quest text, examine the artifacts, or hunt for hidden clues about the plot because I already know what's going on. The details change with each release, but the overarching theme is always the same. Here are some bad guys, here's a big threat, here are some powers -- now go kill things until your gear is shiny.

"Nothing makes lore seem less interesting than immediately steering away from it for the sake of filling a few hours of gameplay."

The MMOs that manage to dodge the "been there, done that" story problem often fall into another huge storytelling abyss: There has to be enough content to guide the player from level to level, but not all of this content can possibly serve the main narrative. This is why, despite the fact that the cutscene I just watched clearly indicated that a dragon made of fire is about to kill everyone on the planet, my first task is picking berries for some farmer's pie. Nothing makes lore seem less interesting or important than immediately steering away from it for the sake of filling a few hours of gameplay.

So what's a developer to do? How do you please the impatient gamer who's "seen it all" and keep your story in the forefront of his mind?

Show, don't tell

For some reason, video game developers have this insane idea that games should be similar to movies. That's where the quicktime event trend came from and why many of our favorite MMOs are laden with boring, uninteractive cutscenes dropped in to make the experience seem more "epic." But video games aren't movies. I don't want to watch a video game; I want to play it. I want to see my actions in the world in real-time, and I want to know how those actions move the story forward without taking a five-minute break every time I complete a quest chain.

If cutscenes are the modern problem of the MMO industry, quests are the problem of its history. Developers have been unable to evolve beyond quest/mission-based storytelling, and it makes even the newest and most attractive of games feel stagnant and derivative. I don't want to read eight pages of quest text to understand the world war around me (or worse, sit around while someone reads it aloud); I want to see that conflict made manifest in my travels. Writing a huge block of text and sticking it into the mouth of an NPC has to be the laziest form of video game storytelling available to game creators -- it's time to move on.

I know it's not easy to write an MMO. And it's not easy to build a world that's packed to the brim with elements that push a story forward. Sometimes, developers just have to corner me and drop an exposition bomb on my face. That's fine when no other options are available. But if a developer can create an intriguing, compelling universe that reveals its story to me as I explore and grow -- in lieu of smashing me over the head with text or cutscenes -- that's a story I'd be happy to experience.

Imagine how fun an MMO's story would be if you didn't have to stop playing the MMO to move it forward.

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 and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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