Theme Party: A Million Spotlights
In their infancy, Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) were not particularly heavy on the whole story thing. Looking back at Star Wars Galaxies, Everquest, and their ilk, it was common in the MMO genre for the writing and narrative focus to be placed entirely upon worldbuilding, electing instead to let players make their own stories.
But as time progressed, a more traditional storytelling style broke through and a central question arose: how can we tell a story with the player as the hero when there are so many players? There is an inherent tension in an MMO between glorifying the player and the number of players, and a number of different approaches have been taken, some of which succeed, and others of which fall short. In this piece, I’ll be examining what techniques have worked well in MMORPGs when it comes to narratively driven storytelling, and what stories have been lacking due to shortcuts in the writing that ultimately lessen the value of the players’ experience. Three key examples will drive this analysis: World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
SAVING THE WORLD ONE RAID AT A TIME
World of Warcraft is, of course, the keystone of the genre in a number of different aspects, but from a narrative perspective, WoW takes an interesting approach to the idea of the role of the player character in the game’s story. The approach in WoW is largely just to meet the reality of the situation head on in a very simple way: on the global level, every player character is part of a generic set of “adventurers” that are referenced as the ones who kicked in Arthas’s door, shoved their boots up Illidan’s ass, and made Molten Core their training arena. On a wide level, much of the action in WoW’s story is acknowledged as being the result of the actions of this roving band of coordinated badasses.
On a personal level, WoW doesn’t go to huge lengths to approach the player character beyond presenting you with tasks to be complete. What enables WoW to get away with this, though, is the fact that there are so many tasks to complete in that world that it weaves a kind of self-formed narrative solely out of what it is that you’ve chosen to do out of the enormous amount of choices present. The fact that I’m Exalted with one faction and haven’t touched another, that I’ve quested in one zone but ignored another, all of these become part of my personal narrative in a way, though it admittedly does not approach the level of personal connectivity that something like The Old Republic achieves through heavy dialogue choice options.
WoW isn’t without it’s flaws on the storytelling front, however. While the player characters are the ones that really do move the wheels in the story and are the ones on the front lines of the climactic raid content, it’s still almost universally the case that some other kind of hero comes along and does all of the real work, ala Tirion in the end of Wrath of the Lich King or Thrall in Cataclysm. This kind of usurpation of heroism is a key problem in the genre’s storytelling, and it’s what I’m going to focus heavily on in looking at Guild Wars 2.
THE LEGEND OF SIDEKICK
One of the things that excited me a lot when I was hearing about Guild Wars 2 pre-release was the idea of the “personal story” that each character would have, a tailored adventure that spoke directly to your own character’s involvement in the world in some kind of almost singleplayer environment. On release, though, the story was deeply flawed for a number of reasons, chief of which was the way in which the latter portion of the story was presented: the player character is reduced to a sidekick.
The Batman to the player character’s Robin, of course, is the Slyvari Traehearn, some kind of special hero necromancer who-zzzzzzzz. Who Traehearn is doesn’t matter because he isn’t the player character and so I don’t care why he’s more important than I am in my personal story. But the personal story is really the story of how Traehearn saves the world; the player character is made his lieutenant and spends the majority of the second half of the personal story running around the world completing errands on Traehearn’s behalf. I remember at one point in the story I was attacked by assassins of some kind, and afterward, Traehearn assured me that despite the way things looked, it was clearly him the assassins were after. I wasn’t allowed to even be the subject of my own attempted murder, and it severely cheapened the entire experience.
I can understand the dilemma that the writers faced with the personal story; how can we assure that the player character is someone important, without making it so that every single player character the savior of the entire world. I’m a roleplayer at heart, and I can understand the sort of oddity that would result in making every player the ultimate hero. But that oddity, I think, would be much easier to mentally write off than the bitterness that results from having my “personal story” wind up being wholly usurped by some kind of Mary Sue hero character. Even the final mission, the culmination of the entire plot, is a mission to protect Traehearn while he does the actual heroism.
The takeaway here, then, is to keep in mind that some kind of narrative awkwardness that results from the multiplicity of thousands of simultaneous personal stories is still less damaging to the storytelling than marginalizing the player character. People play these games to be Big Damn Heroes, and putting someone above them in every scenario cheapens that feeling. Blizzard, again, is susceptible to this as well, though not quite as egregiously.
A NARRATIVE REBORN
An interesting tactic utilized more successfully by Square Enix, then, is just to make everyone the damn hero to the point where you’re explicitly glorifying the playerbase. A Realm Reborn’s equivalent to the personal story goes to great lengths to illustrate how special your character is, and how special all of the original characters from the game’s 1.0 iteration are in the story.
The “Warriors of Light” are revered by the people and are the stuff of legends, and the idea that you are one of them instantly transcends you beyond even the important plot NPC’s. Yes, there’s a heavy element of anime-ish Chosen One-ness being slathered onto the player character by the story, but in the current situation, I found it pretty refreshing to actually be acknowledged as the special hero in an MMO. I haven’t finished the story yet, but it’s been impressive so far, and part of what makes it compelling is the feeling that I actually am the hero and that my deeds are impressive and well-known enough to be noteworthy.
The individual class quests are a bit more NPC-heavy in their stories, but it’s still noticeable how much effort the game puts into making sure you know just how badass you are. For a genre that’s largely about self-improvement and the acquisition of accomplishments and trophies, it goes a long a way towards making you feel connected to the experience and proud of the progression your character makes in the plot.
So the bottom line here is that the most important thing for an MMO to avoid when it comes to storytelling is the usurpation of the player’s right to feel awesome about themselves. It doesn’t have to be an individual glorification of this specific character; even WoW’s acknowledgment of “adventurers” gets the job done and really makes you feel like a contributor to the world’s legend. There are a lot of things to be done with MMO stories, but the key lesson is this: make the player characters the main characters if you want to avoid the perils of Mary Sue NPCs and lack of connection to the plot.