Some thoughts on story in MMOs

This came up in the comments of a thread that Brent Breaux started earlier. We started discussing the manner in which story is going to be told in SWTOR.

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. More

Characters in History (and also Starcraft)

There was a fascinating article put up on Gamasutra today which deals with the process of storytelling in a real-time strategy game (RTS). Brian Kindregan, the lead write of Starcraft II, gave some fascinating insight into the narrative process at Blizzard. Two great points were made.

1. Storytelling is about the characters, even, or maybe, especially in an RTS.

2. The medium of games is evolving rapidly and with it, our understanding of how to tell stories.

First, the characters. I’ve especially been thinking lately about the way characters are created. There is theory that tries to understand how we create imaginary people out of text (especially Possible-Worlds theory), but what I really want to know is the ins and outs of creating those characters. What are the pieces of them that we need in order to be engaged? As Brian says, engaging the reader is always the goal no matter what medium you’re working in.

…engaging the reader is always the goal.

I think I tend to think of the classroom in the same way. I’m telling a story, either one written by Homer or Vergil, or one lived by people in the past. My goal is to engage my readers, my players, my participants – my students.

Is there something that lets us create these alternate worlds in our mind and populate them with people and physics? I know that when I play a Warcraft game, even World of Warcraft, I feel like I’m in Azeroth. It has a geography, a culture, a history, etc. It’s a real place in my mind. Jaina and Thrall and Arthas are characters I recognize and feel for. In my case, I have a soft spot for Arthas and killing him was one of the most problematic things I’ve done in a game. But back to the topic at hand – why do I care?

Kindregan says that we need characters to differentiate between the parts of the world that don’t matter, the disposables, and the parts that do. Sometimes I think history is the same way. There’s a judgment made about what matters. Caesar. Nero. Constantine. These matter. Joe Roman… ? In our modern culture of equality, such statements probably elicit a bit of horror. “Gasp, how can you say one person matters more than another?” Somehow, these characters in the story of history make it meaningful and relevant. And they are characters. One of the big paper topics of a class I TA’d for last year was – “How do we find out who Caesar really was?”. What we have left from history are character sketches of a person larger than life. What does it even mean to know what someone really was? Everyone is a character, maybe nothing more.

I was talking to my students the last day of class this term about the Nike revolt. The emperor made a decision to slaughter 35,000 people in order to end chaos and affirm his role in power. My students didn’t engage with that story until Justinian became a character. Why did he decide this? What were his motivations? What were the consequences? It was when they were able to enter into a world of Justinian that they started to actually think about that event and what it means. It took a character to teach them history.

Look for another post about Arthas and his role as a character in the story of Warcraft. Now I can’t stop thinking about him.

Thoughts on Lore and Myth

For my work this term, I’m reading quite a bit about ancient myth as it relates to heroes and heroines. I was thinking today about how odd it is myth exists in a changeable kind of limbo. There is no Bible of Greek Myth (Amazon may differ on that point) that people can go to in order to check authenticity. I can tell a story of Odysseus; you can tell a story of Odysseus; Jimbob C. can tell a story of Odysseus. They do not need to be the same. Some things will not change – he will have a wife named Penelope. He will either be in the process of a journey, homeward or not, or he will be at some point expecting or reflecting on the journey. He will be wily and skilled in rhetoric. Aside from these core traits, your Odysseus and my Odysseus could have radically different lives.

For example, Homer’s Odysseus encounters a whole troop of troubles on his way home, but eventually he gets there. Dante’s Odysseus had no desire to go home and never does. His journey ends in Hell. They are unmistakably the same character though. Odysseus and the Cyclops

Perhaps we can look back now and see the big names of H and D and think they just had special powers for using mythical characters in whatever way they please. This isn’t the case though. Achilles had conflicting stories. Dionysus had conflicting stories. Antigone had conflicting stories. Medea was told in different ways.

Is it like Nancy Drew who has 3,000 adventures all while she is 18 years old? No, because her adventures don’t contradict each other. Is it like the many different Batmans depicted on screen? The many James Bonds? If a character in the Warcraft Universe suddenly did not complete his version of the return home, fans would be in an uproar. “WHAT?!?! Arthas NEVER had brown hair. HE IS A BLONDE!!!!” I can see it now.

What is it about mythical characters that makes them different from those in fictional universes? It feels like a kind of translation. We have freedom to interpret much of it though there is a certain underlying “true-ness” to each character. I may interpret Odysseus in a way that suits my treatise of Hell but his underlying Odysseus-ness is still present. He is more than just a character. He is a multi-faceted variety of ways his character could react with his world (our world?) and still remain him.


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