Storytelling is usually a way to communicate what happened in one place to someone who was in a different place. The storyteller is the mediator of this narrative. In a game, this changes a little bit. Instead, the listener pretends to be a participator in the story and they craft that story themselves through the choices they make in the game.
This works particularly well in RPGs. A single player is able to see a character (sometimes many) and a world shift before his eyes as he makes changes that are meaningful. Some of the most powerful stories told in games earn much of that power through the agency they give to their players.
Story in an MMO has up to this point been quite different. As an MMO player, one enters a world that is much like our own. There are many stories happening, many characters and players, and many places to explore. Each place may have its own story and sometimes we happen upon stories we didn’t expect. In most cases, these are told through quest text, a somewhat tedious element of the game which many players skip.
I have often heard MMO players complain that their actions in the world don’t make a bigger difference.
“If I kill a big dragon, shouldn’t he stay dead? Shouldn’t the people stop complaining about him in the main town?”
SWTOR attempts to solve the problem of players feeling powerless to affect their world by engaging them in an RPG-style story. They have dialog choices which guide their character’s experience through the story. Even when a player is with a group of other players in some instanced area, there are dialog choices to be made.
I’m not sure that’s what people really want though. Some of the most popular events are world events in MMOs – large-scale events that either the devs or GMs plan. These don’t center on any particular players and usually happen because of things the players had nothing to do with. Perhaps a new enemy surfaces or the earth breaks or a main (non-player) character disappears. Perhaps some artifact is uncovered and factions must fight over it unexpectedly. These immerse players in the world and engage them in the story without centering the world on any individual player. They work with a world that involves many living participants, just like our own. In these kinds of events (when done well), the players who participate feel that they have had an impact on the world. The event was one-of-a-kind, it will never happen again, and they engaged collectively to save the world (or whatever).
In SWTOR, players affecting the world happens on a different scale, often only individually. As they level up, their character engages in an RPG-style experience of dialogue choices and character development. When in a group though, the player also engages with NPC characters, but this same interaction can happen many, many times because an MMO world has repetitive content. You may feel that you are having a meaningful conversation with an NPC the first time, but by the 10th time, you likely do not.
Is the first time the only time that matters? If so, it shouldn’t matter that a dragon isn’t dead forever. If the first kill was meaningful, who cares if it’s there again. But that’s not how players feel.
If a company wants to create a meaningful and individual story experience throughout their entire encounter with their MMO while also having instanced areas of play, I think they need to change their delivery of that story.
There are few examples of story done well (without a heavy reliance on text) in MMOs so far. I’ve chosen two examples from personal experience which I think present a strategy for storytelling which differs from that of traditional RPGs.
World of Warcraft’s expansion Wrath of the Lich King told part of the story of Arthas, the fallen prince. Throughout a character’s journey from 70-80 (the levels of this expansion), they encounter the Lich King in a variety of quests. He appears before them either to speak to them directly or to an NPC with whom they are interacting. Not only this, but much of the world involves lich creatures invading areas of habitation. The main city floats in the air in a protected valley near the front lines of a war against the Lich King’s citadel, the most famous landmark on all of Northrend. Blizzard introduced its phasing technology which adjusts the visible layer of the world dependent on what the player has done, allowing the player to see changes he has effected in the world. Problematic as this technology is sometimes pragmatically, it served to communicate the pressing reality of war. This was the questing and world environment layer.
Raids, however, also told the tale of the Lich King. The first tier went into Naxxrammas, a famous necrocitadel of Arthas’ lieutenants. Although players cleared that instance dozens of times, the repetition didn’t serve to diminish the presence of the Lich King, but rather helped to supplant the notion of a lich invasion as the biggest threat in Azeroth. Although the second tier of raids took a detour to explore the presence of the old gods in Northrend (one can perhaps guess how this may relate to the Lich King), the third tier returned to the theme. Players entered the grounds of the Argent Dawn tournament, conveniently located just outside the war fields of the Lich King’s citadel. The fourth and final tier took the players directly inside the Citadel and at last, allowed them to kill Arthas himself.
None of this required reading. You could certainly understand more of the story if you read the text, but you never needed to. The story was a presence. The story was the world itself. They were inextricably combined and this was why the story of Northrend was so successful.
My second example is a smaller one but one which works from the same strategy. In the first Defiant zone of RIFT, players encounter a villain named Jakub. Although there are many quests which detail his background and history, players don’t need to read anything to understand who he is and what he is doing. From their earliest foray into the zone, Jakub and his minions of death are visible. The zone broadcasts messages of his invasions (these are in text but are a large colored font in the center of the screen that only appear momentarily). Sometimes he wins battles, sometimes the players of Freemarch triumph. Sometimes Alsbeth accompanies him, cheers him on. When he attacks, the zone turns dark. The landscape is rapidly infested with creatures from death rifts. It isn’t very safe unless you are with a band of fellow adventurers.
No one needed to read any quest text to know this part of the story. Again, the world and the story were combined.
Now, this is not to say I’m not a fan of reading. Because I am. But I am also a fan of storytelling and I think that storytelling purely through text is something the game medium does not do particularly well because it has other strengths. In an RPG, dialog and character development is very important to the ability of the player to successfully transport himself into the story. In an MMO, however, the story of the world is what is I think most important for capturing a player’s wonder and imagination. An MMO allows a player to exist in another world, free to engage in whatever they like whenever they like – combat, society, economy, crafting, exploration, etc. The world is what gives them the story they need to thrive. A story that focuses on the individual instead of the world at large is in danger of ignoring the persistent environment in which it exists and losing the inhabitants of that world.