The World as Story: Emergent storytelling in World of Warcraft

Matthew Rossi
M. Rossi|04.16.14

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The World as Story: Emergent storytelling in World of Warcraft
How does storytelling function in World of Warcraft? What are its limits? Does it have to unfold solely via quest text, or can it be told via other means? I ask this in part due to a developing discussion on the scale and scope of how the world we interact with as we play reveals the story elements. Back when I first started playing WoW, game story was almost exclusively revealed via quest text. When it wasn't, it was often revealed via in-game books. I remembered being floored with the pre-fight scene between Majordomo Executus and Ragnaros because it was a bit of story happening entirely in front of my eyes via dialogue and scene.

Over the years World of Warcraft has added a host of tools to its story delivery options - cutscenes, scenarios, events like Battle for Undercity, open-ended exploration, and quest integration with each of these kinds of vectors for story. It's not all just text anymore - we have in-game cinematics, cut-scenes rendered and played through using totally in game scenes, dialogue (the end of the Isle of Thunder, when Jaina and Lor'themar confronted one another was entirely realized through in-game dialogue), scenarios like A Little Patience and Dagger in the Dark, and even more complex combinations of all of them. The Dominance Offensive/Operation Shieldwall story in particular was unveiled through all of these techniques, using every arrow in the quiver to drive the story points home.

I'm bringing this up because of the recent revelation that not all secondary objectives in Warlords of Draenor will have quest text. The discussion led to a series of tweets from Dave Kosak that I think definitely are worth discussing. How do we get story in an MMO? Can the world we encounter be the story itself? As we move through it, how can it be best presented to us?

Let's look at the first of three tweets Dave made and discuss how it could play out.
What this says to me is that questing isn't going away, but rather, Warlords is taking elements of how the Timeless Isle presented its story - elements to discover - and using them to do some of the heavy lifting. People skip quest text - it's an unfortunate but true aspect of game play, sometimes people just read enough to know how many of X to kill or Y hooves to acquire, then go off and do that. By making the story less about reading and more about experiencing what is happening, you have a process similar to the old idea of coating a pill with something palatable - players won't even notice they're getting the story until afterwards. In a way, it reminds me of all the little events in Diablo III that reveal details of the setting and backstory without actively telling you that's what they're doing, like the cursed shrines and ancient nephalem prisons.

Moreover, rare spawns and events of this sort populate the world, and give it that feeling of existing outside of your character and her or his arrival. If there are things to do and see that are unrelated to the main questline of a zone, you get more of a sense of how that zone functions as a living place, with things that live there and things that happen regardless of what you, or even your enemies and allies, are doing there. The Isle of Giants, for example, has hooks in the main story - you can see Zandalari barges there, and Zandalari Dinomancers working to capture the native creatures for use against you. It's a background place than answers the question 'Where did the Zandalari get these massive dinosaurs they're using against us' but it lets you draw that conclusion through going there and seeing it. It's literally the game showing you instead of telling you, making use of one of its strengths - that it is a game, not a movie with a static PoV. In a movie, you see only what the camera shows you, but in a game like WoW you can choose where you go, and the camera can show you whatever you choose to go look at.

The goal of dynamism that Dave mentions in his follow up tweet does more than just allow a story to be told with more tools - it is akin to the background details in a work of art that help build up the illusion that allows us to sustain our ability to believe. On some level, in a game like World of Warcraft, we're always going to be aware it is just a game and nothing more. None of this is actually happening but if it has an internal consistency, you can ignore that more readily. By making the story present itself in more ways, with different tools, it enhances this suspension.
What does 'telling the story through the environment' really mean in this case? One good example is the storyline of the Dread Wastes. Are there quests in the Dread Wastes? Absolutely there are. But every aspect of the Dread Wastes is designed around pushing forward the story of the zone - whether it's the quests themselves, the art and general look and feel of the area, the random items and mobs to be discovered, the reputation grind of the Klaxxi faction, even the raid zones are all designed around the story of the mantid and their Empress. The point isn't to remove questing, or the story delivery element of quest text, it's to enhance it, and give the world a more organic feeling that more effectively allows us to go along with it.

In essence it hearkens back to that aforementioned bit with Ragnaros and Executus. It may seem corny to us now, but the reason there's so many 'too soon, Executus' jokes in World of Warcraft is because having the event play out in front of you makes it more real. To give another example, there were a great many events in the Landfall patch (5.2) that were quest oriented, but we didn't read text for them - we saw and heard them. The purge of Dalaran, the final confrontation over the Divine Bell, these were elements we saw and experienced. What we get in Warlords will be experiences crafted with these in mind. The story will be presented through what we see and what we do as much as from what we read. As a result, the story becomes the world itself as much as it is what we do with it.
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