Tell me a story?

March 29, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Posted in General | Leave a comment
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Wotcha everyone,

I finished Mass Effect the other day.  It was a moment of joy, as this means another game finished (there aren’t that many that I’ve managed to complete, really) and it means I can now concentrate on one of the other single player games I’ve had for ages, but just don’t have the time to finish.

But, as with all things Bioware related at the moment, it made me think about Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Bioware have stated that they want to make the story experience a focus of their game, and they do have a very good track record when it comes to putting a good, involving story into their games.  And that, of course, leads me into thoughts of MMO gaming in general.

Yes, this is another ramble about using story and plot in online gaming.  Sorry.

Of course, not all stories are equal.

Single player games are easily able to have grand, sweeping stories, because there’s only one person who is the hero; you, the player.  They don’t have to worry about pleasing more than that one person, and they can tell a story from a more understandable, traditional standpoint.  Not only that, but the game world can revolve around the heroic character, and therefore the player.

MMOs are different.  Suddenly the world doesn’t revolve around one person.  It revolves around that Massively Multiplayer number of players.  And that means it’s much harder for the world to progress.  In single player games, it’s easy.  But all too often, MMOs exist as a snapshot in time.  Things exist, but never change.  If anything, all they do is reset when someone changes something.

But things in the real world change, and now Bioware are telling us that story is the new black.

Of course, this has prompted fears that all Bioware will do is create a single player experience in a massively multiplayer space, but I think that’s a little unfair seeing as MMO gamers are notorious for demanding innovation at every turn.  Maybe if we were a little more welcoming of someone willing to stick their neck out, we’d actually get more of that oft-demanded innovation.

I’m hoping for good story.  I’m hoping for innovation.  I’m hoping for immersion.

How immersive can games be?  Ultimately, they’re about as immersive as anything could be when viewed through a monitor or television, whilst holding a controller of some kind and mashing buttons when the appropriate colour lights up on screen.  So they’re… not very immersive.

Immersion occurs when we decide to give up and go with the flow of the game.  When we decide to get involved enough in our chosen game that we decide to allow it to add in the missing bits; to turn it into the “Movie In My Head”.  Tipa at West Karana has been talking about wanting to play a game she can immerse herself in, and I can understand that.  Immersion makes the game more resonant.

And of course, it helps if there are one or more hooks to grab us, and engage us.  From engagement comes immersion.

Character is one of those hooks.  In creating a character, the hope is that we can all have a character that we can identify with, or at the least are willing to follow the adventures of.  Storyline should enhance that engagement.  It’s all well and good to create Thorg the Mighty, but if all Thorg gets to do is make toast and go to the laundry then it’s hardly surprising if Thorg gets abandoned to his toasty fate…

So, story.  Are there any stories that can work for an MMO, where everyone likes to think they’re the hero, and where our actions might have more meaning than just causing a respawn subroutine to run?

Well, World of Warcraft tried it, with their phased zoning.  Lord of the Rings Online has similar.  It’s popular, and I’ve not seen anyone complain about the concept.  It brings a feel of time passing, and because it’s tied to the player/character, it’s a direct reaction to the deeds of that player or character.  No mere toast-manufacture for Thorg!

Add in the great Silithus scavenger hunt, to enable the opening of the doors of An’Qiraj, and there have been moments of grand story, which can and did involve anyone who wanted to be.

Okay, so some of the execution could have been done better, but the story was there.  It made randomly collecting 37 meeeeeeellion pieces of assorted leather much more interesting than just doing it for the shits and giggles.

I’d love to see more of an effort put into creating a storylines that mean something within the game world.  And if that means more of a single-player experience?  Well, a large chunk of my MMO gaming nowadays is solo play; the best part of Age of Conan for me was the single player fun.  Factor in a busy family and social life, and suddenly a game which has a strong single player element as well as a strong multiplayer element sounds just about perfect.

Of course, that’s the kicker; having a combination of both single- and multi-player content.  Start off a game with too much solo content, and players tend to forget how to group.  Communities don’t gel, and suddenly you’re looking at a Massively Multi-player Single-player game.  That was my experience of Age of Conan; I can’t help thinking that without the need to group up, players won’t.

And that’s another thing.  If there are two truths I’ve discovered in all my involvement in gaming in its various forms, they are:

  • If you give a player the opportunity to have a shit time, they will take it with both hands.
  • If you allow a player to choose, they will always choose the path of least resistance.

And yes, I have fallen foul of those two truths.  I’m pretty sure that all the times I’ve burned out on MMOs, I’ve been grasping one of those shit times and refused to let go.  Gosh, when I get all grindy, boy can I grind.  Until the snap point, that is.

And yes, give me a golden opportunity for loads of fun, and an easier route that has much less fun, and I seriously have to think about whether or not to go for the high fun, but more difficult route.  Because it’s difficult.  Why not go the easy route; that’s what they’re for?

That’s why, when given the option to read all that quest text, or just follow the bullet points, we go for the bullet points.  Reading is haaaaaard.  And takes up valuable time that could be spent earning xp and trez.

It also means that we can complain about there being no story.  No plot.  Nothing that ties us to the world.  It’s there, we’re just choosing to ignore it, to stop it adding colour to our gaming, so we can choose the sh1t time of grinding quests one bullet point at a time.

It also means that we’re less likely to seek out fellow players to group with, when we can just solo our way through a game.

With luck, the right story will help stop that.  Give us a good enough incentive; storylines that can help create war-stories, fun anecdotes, the sort of memories that will confuse our grand-children when we’re old and senile.

Those stories don’t even have to be all that new, or original.  The classic tales are exactly that because they have a timeless quality.  They speak to us, regardless of time or place.

Take Glee.  Amongst its many layers is a classic sports tale, set out over the 13 or so episodes that have already aired.  And it does follow the virtually set-in-stone requirements for it to be a fully paid up member of the sports film genre: a team of misfits, a coach who sees in them something more, a nemesis, and going from underdog to champion status.

It’s hardly original, but it doesn’t need to be; it’s often not the story itself but the way it’s told that’s important.  Glee might well be a thinly disguised sports film, but it’s also up-lifting, satirical, and wonderfully subversive.  It’s the way it’s told that makes the story good.

And so we come, finally, full circle.  Back to Mass Effect.

Sometimes I wondered whether I was pretending to be a member of the Spectres or a Jedi Knight.  And that Council just needed a Samuel L Jackson and Yoda to finish it off.  Even some of the abilities were suspiciously similar.  Were they Biotics, or was it actually a case of “Use the Force, Luke”?

And seeing as Bioware had created Knights of the Old Republic, it was hardly surprising.  Bioware’s strengths aren’t necessarily the originality of their stories, but in the rather splendid way they tell them.  I hope this is also true of Tha Seekrit Wurld; in many ways, I hope that story really is the new black.  Because if dark days are coming, I really, really hope that they bring with them a rather good set of stories, well told.



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