Tuesday, July 13, 2021

And So The Story Goes

Following on from yesterday's post, where I took a thousand words to explain how I wished I could keep to the point once in a while, today I thought I might try a five-finger excercise on that very theme. There's a topic going around, kicked off by Aywren but generally following in the slipstream of Final Fantasy XIV's growing success, concerning the necessity or even advisablity of hanging mmorpg gameplay on the hook of a strong, linear narrative.

Naithan sums up the situation perfectly in the title of his post on the problem (if problem is what it is): "FFXIV May as Well Not Be an MMO". Couldn't have put it better.

Of course, FFXIV isn't just an mmorpg, it's an instalment in a long-running series of JRPGs. It's a hybrid.

And it's not the first. A decade ago (what, has it been that long already?) all the attention was on an upcoming mmorpg set in the Star Wars universe, Star Wars: the Old Republic. Produced by BioWare, a developer famous for story-driven, single-player and co-op RPGs, what we were being promised was a collation of two forms: the massively-multiple theme park mmo experience of World of Warcraft underpinned by the nuanced storytelling associated with games like Baldur's Gate and Mass Effect.

Much was made of the "Fourth Pillar", the term BioWare liked to use for Story. Anyone remember what the other three pillars were? I didn't. I had to go look it up and it wasn't easy to find.

"Traditionally, massively multiplayer online games have been about three basic gameplay pillars - combat, exploration and character progression", said "BioWare boss Ray Muzyka" in an interview with Eurogamer back in 2008. (Yes, it really was that long ago). His contention seemed to be that until then mmorpgs hadn't bothered telling stories, but that was okay because now BioWare were around to make things right. 

I suspect that plenty of writers who'd been making a living putting words in the mouths of NPCs for the previous ten years might have looked at that interview a little askance. I'm pretty sure Blizzard and SOE thought they'd been telling stories set in their imagined worlds and I'm damn sure Turbine did in the one they'd leased from the Tolkein estate. That was kind of the point, wasn't it?

BioWare were widely seen to be riding in to battle against an enemy that didn't exist but time has proved them right about one thing: story has become that fourth pillar, at least in the minds of some players and developers. 

In the early years of the genre, narrative and story were gameplay elements but they weren't the focus of the experience. I played the EverQuest titles for years without ever having more than a vague idea what the overarching story was. But I always knew there was one.

Because those games attempted to replicate the experience of being in and of a world not as the "one, true hero", just someone who saw things happening around them and joined in as best they could, story was everywhere. Not just the personal stories of the players themselves, as touted by the advocates of the sandbox, but crafted stories, written by writers and given to NPC actors to tell.

The quests told stories, the incidental, ambient dialog told stories, the books and the statues and the ruins told stories. The worlds told stories and they were as real as stories ever are, which is as real as real gets. And you never heard them all.  

You heard fragments, sections, pieces. You heard rumors and legends and myths. You puzzled and figured and discussed and out of all of that came stories with frayed edges and loose ends, tales to tell over camps and at guild meets, stories to argue and maybe even duel over.

Then along came the serious writers, the adults in the room, ready to tidy up the toys and put them neatly back in their boxes. A story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to have a hero and a moral. It has to follow the rules.

Why did it happen? I have a theory. The games, the genre itself, began with explorers. Explorers are the ones who go out and make the maps. Explorers, though, don't stay behind to hammer in the signposts or manage the map concession in the town square.

There's always been a tension, a competition, between the four archetypes, the Explorer, the Socialiser, the Killer and the Achiever. The people who tell you where to go are the achievers and the importance of story in mmorpgs grows alongside their ascendency. Almost by definition, the one archetype that has to come out on top is the Achiever.

And so it was. Achievers gained their ascendency, in the games and in the studios, years ago. Almost all the mmorpgs we play now are box-tickers, first and last. Everything must be codified, accounted for and scored, including exploration, socialising and killing. All those boxes have to be ticked.

And that's just what the current incarnation of Story in mmorpgs does. It ticks boxes. The new, big, important stories are unified and linear. They may contain many digressions and sub-plots but like those in a novel they all serve the central narrative. You start at page one and you read to the end. Every page turned, evey cut scene watched, is a box ticked. 

Stories, of course, are infinitely more than box-ticking excercises. In a good story, the characters become friends, their actions, memories. Stories become us. We're made of stories.

There's nothing wrong with a good story, of course there's not. There's everything right with one. I love a good story. I'm not saying I want the stories in morpgs to be not good. That would be crazy. I'm not saying I don't want mmorpgs to have stories in them. That would be crazier still.

But there's a place for these particular kinds of finished, complete, linear stories. From everything I've seen so far I'm not convinced that mmorpgs can, let alone should, be that place. 

Mmorpgs are places where stories happen, of course they are. That's the whole point of an mmorpg: it's a place where anything can happen. It's a world, or it can be. Stories belong in mmorpgs as they belong everywhere. But stories can't be mmorpgs. Mmorpgs can't be stories.

To bind the mmorpg form to the yoke of narrative is to set hard restraints on its limitless capacity to change. A linear narrative is a corridor passing countless doors that will never be opened, a train on a track that arrows straight to the horizon. It's a wasted opportunity.

We already have so many ways to tell those kinds of stories. Mmorpgs offer a chance to tell the old stories in new ways, maybe even to tell new stories in ways that have never been seen before. For a while that seemed like it might happen but the signs and portents aren't good. Mmorpgs are being assimilated in the old narrative tradition, when they should be in the vanguard of something new, something non-linear, fragmented, chaotic, alive

It maybe already be too late. The damage may already have been done. Story sells, or so it seems. And, of course, it's the winners who get tell the stories.

Their stories, not ours.


  1. I think it's well established by now that I have a very different view than you on story in MMORPGs, and I don't wish to keep harping on that -- I respect your opinion and am content to agree to disagree. But I would like to point out a few things of interest.

    If you go to the original Bartle definitions, story is actually under the banner of explorer. When I -- someone who values story above all else in games -- take that test, I consistently test as an explorer, with achiever third, only ahead of killer. I always thought those archetypes were a bit silly anyway, though, so I won't blame you if you want to disagree with Bartle's assessment of things.

    Also, I do find it interesting that you seem to feel the push for narrative in MMOs is winning, because as a fan of story I feel very much the opposite. Sure, most games pay lip service to a narrative, but very few make it a true priority, and even fewer do it with any quality. SWTOR doesn't have the resources, TSW is dead, ESO's story is mind-numbingly repetitive...

    1. I don't know, so this could be way off, but I wonder whether Bartle applied the story elements to 'Explorer' based on the older-MMO style of telling them -- with lore fragments and tidbits around the world to be discovered?

    2. I'm familiar with the concept of story as exploration and I have a good deal of sympathy with it. The emotional experience of being drawn into and along by a narrative has very close similarities with the feelings aroused by traveling through unknown territory. And there's a good argument to be made that the land pre-exists your discovery of it in exactly the same way the story does. The processes are analoagous, for sure.

      The thing about story (I think we really mean narrative in this context) in mmorpgs, and indeed in video games in general nowadays, as opposed to in movies or novels or plays is that game stories come with scores attached - literally in some cases. And here we hit the problem with writing shorter posts about big topics, because at this point I would also like to bring in the way eReaders also keep score, by percentage read and so on, and how movies are rated by audience scorecards for Cinemascore and so on and so on.

      I was quite pleased with the post in that I felt I successfully kept to the point I wanted to make but I recognize that in doing so I left out almost every other point that countered my argument, rather than taking them on, discussing them and placing them in context. Oh well, it's a learning process...

      As for the quality of the story, that's another matter altogether. TSW was one of the mmorpgs that did seem to be doing something original and appropriate with story and people seemed to appreciate it at the time, but unfortunately not so many people felt the same about the gameplay itself. More people liked SW:tOR's set-up, but with a dozen or more classes all requiring individual stories it would have needed an audience the size of WoW's to sustain. As for ESO, I agree with you but we seem to be in a minority there...

    3. I just wanted to say that I was going to make the same comment about the connection between achievers and story. I love a good story in my MMO and I'm an explorer/socialiser with achiever coming out as my lowest score by far. Anecdotally I would also say that the more people lean towards being achievers, the less they care about story. I think the main consequence of that has been that devs have tried to make the story more obvious/easier to follow by changing the way it's presented, with big cut scenes etc. - so that even the people who can't be bothered with text know what's going on.

  2. Thank you for reminding me how much I loved those tidbits of story. They really did help make the world. In EQ2 and Vanguard I would go around looking for that stuff. Asheron's Call as well. I enjoyed both SWTOR and TSW stories but not in the same way. Maybe that had bearing on how sticky they were for me or maybe it was the limited time I had.

    Great article though, thanks for adding to the discussion.

    1. Thanks. I played a little Vanguard just the other day, on the emulator project, and it reminded just how exceptionally strong the world-making was there. For all the game never really grew or developed after launch, Telon remains one of the best-realised of all virtual worlds, perhaps the last in a grand tradition.

  3. It's almost odd to find something re: MMOs I agree with you on so much, given how different our approach to MMOs typically is.

    But I do.

    Possibly the only difference is in one of extent. While I agree that MMOs are not necessarily the best vehicle for these types of semi- (or in FFIXV's, almost entirely-) linear narratives I don't mind an MMO having one. In fact, as someone who struggles to really stop to sniff the roses as it were, the structure of FFXIV is akin to a set of training wheels for this skill specifically.

    But I would give all that up in an instant for a return to the days where story was something to be collected and constructed, rather than fed through an IV.

    Although to say it in that way perhaps creates impression of a false dichotomy -- I have long believed that both the sandbox and more themepark elements can exist together within the same game. Heck, my ideal vision of an MMO is based on this premise. Typically when I've thought about the Sandbox <-> Themepark scale I've considered from the point of view of game mechanics and systems, but this has made me realise it's true for story-telling too.

    1. You and I are really on the same page here. I completely agree about the false dichotomy between "theme parks" and "sandboxes". I used to bang on about how EQ was a sandbox in its original incarnation (and a sandpark still) as were most of the early mmorpgs but it just confuses people now. As far as I know, those terms weren't in use back then, anyway, and it's certain the developers weren't thinking in that way when they built their worlds.

      I have always seen the mmorpg as a game platform rather than a game in its own right. Mmorpgs are places where games happen and those can be any kind of games. By that logic, FFXIV is clearly just using the platform to frame the kind of game its developers want to make, which is a linear, narrative-driven RPG with a very large amount of pre-recorded animation. Which is fine, just so long as its success doesn't convince other developers to do the same just because that's what an mmorpg is now.

      Going back to the problem with short posts, I wasn't able to counter-argue with myself on the basis that I actually really enjoy lengthy, linear narrative structures in mmorpgs. I follow them in several games and quite often I choose those games specifically for those narrative mechanics. The thing is, that's because it feeds the Achiever part of my personality in an unchallenging, easy way. It's rarely because I care about the story. I tend to flick through it without taking much of it in at all. It just makes for a relaxing session where I don't have to come up with any ideas of my own about where to go and what to do.

  4. I've gone from EVE Online, the old-school MMORPG, to the widely-heralded RPGMMO Final Fantasy XIV. In EVE, the players write the story. So much so we needed a professional to come along and write two books documenting what players did. In FFXIV, Square Enix wrote the story. Then again, FFXIV is a Final Fantasy game, so I expect the developer to provide stories.

    If you had asked me five years ago, I'd have told you telling stories in an MMORPG like FF was a bad idea. But with all the live service games popping up (Assassin's Creed is going to be multi-player?!), in a few more years will their really be much of a difference between the supposedly single-player RPGs and MMORPGs? So as long as the story is good, I'll go along for the ride.

    1. Another very good point that I might have included in the longer post I had in my head. Games as a service is the current buzzmode but whether it will become the unquestioned norm of gaming or end up being one of those odd aberrations we look back and smile at a few years later remains to be seen. While it's here, though, there seems to be a considerable overlap between single-player, co-op and multiplayer. Hard to tell the difference, sometimes.

  5. I think I agree with you, but to be honest, I'm not 100% sure! Maybe it's that short-post style that you're already seeming to regret? (Ok, probably not, but I couldn't resist mentioning it.)

    I feel like there are three distinct points here:
    1. Story used to be scattered, to be found and assembled by the player; today it is presented in a mostly-linear fashion, easy to follow.
    2. Story used to be there for those who wanted to find it; today it is an integral part of the story that you need enjoy and/or endure.
    3. Story used to be about your place as a small, almost insignificant actor in a big world; today you are often the big hero that makes the world almost feel small.

    I personally prefer the olden ways on point 1, but I do acknowledge and often enjoy the ease of consuming the story in modern games.
    On point 2, I think games with a strong story mid and center are great... for adventure and similar games, but not for MMOs. Who doesn't dread having to "run through the story again" on alt no. 23?
    On point 3, I absolutely very strongly feel about how the old days were good. I don't WANT to be a world-shattering hero at level 3, seeing another 17 world-shattering heroes around me. It doesn't make sense. I ridiculed Rift to no end for how NPCs would greet everyone with "Great sun, an ascended!". I twas like one of those comedic characters that can't help but be astonished at everything, every 20 seconds. I also wonder whether the old style of you being a small cog naturally lent itself to more scattered and opt-in stories: if not everything is about you, then there's no need for everyone to live through the one world-shattering story that needs to be carefully curated for the maximum overwrought "wow" factor.

    Also, come to think of it, maybe there's a fourth point deriving from the ones above, especially point 2:
    4. Stories used to be many; now Story tends to be one unified one.

    Another double-edged sword. I'm not sure which one I prefer. I think I prefer my stories not to be completely disjointed, so you end up with "the story of the week of quest hub 23", but I also dislike if story writers hamfist everything into a big story arc that creaks from all the bending.

    And let's face it, most MMO stories are actually not all that good. Why is that? Is it a quality problem, where if MMO writers were any good, they'd not write for MMOs? Or, maybe more likely, is it because there's typically not a single person curating the story over the lifetime of an MMO, and the newly-hired writer won't know what to do with the cues of their predecessor? But now we're on a totally different topic, so I'll stop here.

    Man, this is one of the comments where I regret I stopped writing my own blog! But then, I would have about 2 posts a year, so...

    1. Blaugust is coming if you feel like getting back into blogging...

      If only I'd just posted those three (maybe four) points and left it at that! You've summarised it exactly. The point about alts is very well made. Some games allow some degree of skipping if a character on the account has completed the story but by no maens all of them. Some just expect you to do the whole thing verbatim every time you make a new character. I suspect very, very few game devs are altaholics.

      As Shintar points out in her comment, I think there was always some degree of underlying assumption that the player character was at least *a* hero, if not *the* hero but there was a time when that was very easy to ignore. These days it's a central feature of the narrative, more often than not. I'm with you. I prefer to be the anonymous figure at the back of the crowd, not the one standing on the podium getting the medal.

      As for the quality of the stories, no they are not any good. Not when judged by the standards of just about any other narrative medium you care to name. I can't speak to the later FFXIV expansions, which people generally cite as being very well-written, but back when there was general agreement that The Secert World was as good as mmorpg storytelling got, a view with which I agreed, I described it as being the equivalent of good comic book writing but not quite up to the standard of run-of-the-mill independent movies. That's a low bar to have as the peak of your genre's achievement so far.

  6. I have to admit that after reading this I'm kind of wondering in how many modern MMOs that value their storytelling you've actually engaged with the story to a worthwhile degree? I mean, I know you've played an incredible breadth of games, but am I wrong about you rarely making it close to max level? Because like gameplay, story changes over time, and I feel that some of the claims you make here are simply not true.

    Like "A story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end." - I bet a lot of modern WoW players wish that Blizzard dared to put an end to anything story-wise instead of endlessly stringing things along over and over again. But by its very definition, an MMO's story can never end. It's like a soap opera in that it has to go on and on and on... and sure, there are minor arcs that have conclusions, but there's always something else around the next corner.

    Honestly, playing Classic WoW for the past few years, I've come to the conclusion that our MMO narratives haven't actually changed all that much, except for ramping up your character's personal importance. But at the end of Classic you were a hero too, having beaten all those big bads, you just didn't get a scene with all the NPCs yelling "hurrah". It's really the presentation that has changed more than anything, with the move away from reading simple text boxes and lore books, and instead having lots of voice acting and cut scenes.

    1. It's a very fair question, particularly give that most of the post appears to revolve around FFXIV, whose story I very definitely have not followed to the end (although God knows it felt like it). I have, however, played every last scrap of GW2's interminable farago of a storyline, only excepting the fragments that happen in raids, and I've played all of every one of EQII's signature quest lines, the story-spines of each expansion, from Desert of Flames to Reign of Shadows, which makes sixteen of them. Also I played almost to the end of The Secret World's story and would have finished it if I hadn't come up against a mandatory solo instance I quite literally could not beat. What else? Oh, the original Guild Wars storyline, now often called "Origins", I finished that, and I also finished one of the expansions, the one with Eye of the North in. At least I think I finished it. Currently I'm slowly plugging away at Dragon Nest Oracle and I just picked up Blade and Soul again. They both have linear storylines although I very much doubt I'll ever see the end of them.

      My reference to "beginning, middle and end" is sarcasm. Or possibly irony. I still can't reliably tell those two apart. I was suggesting that at a certain point there was a change of guard, an influx of new writers who'd had some formal training in creative writing or at least might have read some book s about it, as opposed to the seast-of-the-pants, whoever happened to be in the cubicle at the time a quest needed writing approach of the wild west years at the start of the mmorpg boom. Again, would need a much longer post to make that clear, I guess...

      The soap opera point is very well made. Again, I used to bang on a lot about how mmorpgs are a kind of soap opera, as, of course, are superhero comics. I've kind of forgotten to mention it these last few years but it's probably truer than ever these days. Voice acting, though, is a whole different post. There's a very strong argument that the introduction of voice acting fundementally altered the way mmorpgs are made, played and perceived. Similarly, although not to quite the same extent, cut scenes.

      Really, this whole topic needs a book.

    2. I was thinking about GW2 as the modern MMO you've probably played the most (I wouldn't consider EQ2 modern), but I don't know how to parse that one in regards to story... :D Obviously it matters to the devs based on how they release and market new content, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone recommend GW2 for the story, even if they love lots of other things about it.

    3. Within the GW/GW2 community story has historically been central to the franchise. The original GW is almost entirely story-driven (outside of PvP) and one of the perennial complaints from GW vets about GW2 is how it fails to live up to that heritage.

      Arguably (very arguably, in fact) the entire 10 year run of GW2 has been story-led. ANet originally used the term "Living World" for their endless content dripfeed but they fairly quickly chjanged that to "Living Story".

      If you look back to the beginning of this blog, when I was posting about GW2's beta weekends, you'll see one of my main concerns was an over-emphasis on linear narrative (the Personal Story, which was a key selling point in the pre-launch promotions). I was dead-set against it, as you can see from this post.

      It is very telling that you haven't heard anyone recommend GW2 for the story, though. It's probably the main aspect of the game ANet has used in promotional material since launch (before launch it was all about the Dynamic Event System). Shows how well that's been working for them!


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