written by Alastrom
“Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.” -Alexis Carell
Are we the audience or the artist? Do we tell the stories in games or do we experience them? In the past I’ve described games as the highest point of escapism our media has been able to deliver. By this I don’t mean to say that games are any better as objects of storytelling, instead, I was trying to capture the idea that gamers are more than a captive audience. Take the average film experience. You can do this at the theater or in the privacy of your own home but the effect is basically the same. You are the audience member experiencing the story of someone else. There are no shortage of people willing to comment on the role of the audience member, but at its core you are there to listen (watch) and take in information through narrative osmosis. This isn’t quite true of video games. You may experience the story but ultimately you have to act upon it in order for it to reveal itself. In a single player game, this is a straightforward process. The overall story unfolds much in the same way for everyone with some games factoring in player choice at a higher weight than others. In an online game, however, your story is compared against the stories being told and experienced by those around you. From a psychological perspective, this is no longer storytelling. It’s the basic building block of civilization played out in alacrious form.
Like all modern games, MMOs commonly have a story element that pulls them together. That story doesn’t have to be in depth but on some level, it needs to exist in order to give the player the proper motivation to move through the events of the game. We don’t examine this too deeply but it does create a pretty significant problem right from the start. In the typical MMORPG, players select their name, class and some identifying traits like race or faction. Most importantly, they select a name for themselves. It doesn’t matter what this name is, it matters that the player chooses it and it’s not chosen for them. That’s the first indicator that you’re telling a story. Consider the age-old joke “A guy walks into a bar” and how many variations of that joke there are. Imagine telling that joke without trying to make it a story. That story has a character in it (albeit a loosely defined character.) It has a setting and it has a story arc. In the same way, online games have set out to tell a story but they’ve said that the player is the main character of that story. This is a huge problem in my eyes. If the developer has told me that I’m about to experience my story in this world and they’ve proven that by giving me the choice of who I am, then why do they turn around and remove the ability to make choices about my story that prove the former notion to be true? How can I simultaneously tell my story which is, roughly speaking, the same story that everyone else it telling?
We’ve recently seen the release of the new World of Warcraft expansion, Battle for Azeroth. While the Horde and Alliance have always had their differences, there was a time when Blizzard was less intent on putting the two against one another and instead had players focusing on coming together to work against a greater threat. Blizzard has told the story thus far using both cinematics and in-game events, the most noteworthy being the burning of Teldrassil and the sacking of Lorderon. These cinematics have some pretty significant consequences and for long time players of the series, it’s hard not to have an emotional reaction to both events. It’s not a mistake that these two places were chosen. Both serve as a starting location for the Horde and Alliance and it’s highly likely that you the player has spent a good amount of time there. The story is used to drive the narrative of a game but in the case of Battle for Azeroth, it effectively invoked the emotions needed to get players to choose a side. Given that World of Warcraft has been out so long, it’s not uncommon that players have characters on both Horde and Alliance characters and unless you’re running multiple computers and the ability to perfectly multitask, you had to make a decision upon logging into the game. You can claim that you’ll play either faction but the fact remains that you have to choose one or the other to start. That is proof positive that the player is both storyteller and audience member. They are experiencing the story while making decisions about how it will be told.
To this end, games like The Elder Scrolls Online and The Old Republic fail horribly, even though both have sought to describe themselves as story driven games. It should be noted that all games effectively fall into this dichotomy of artist and audience. It’s online games that need to make the greater consideration of multiple stories coexisting at the same time. This is not to say that World of Warcraft has accomplished anything more than the above examples and I’d note that all have their flaws. Consider, in a single player game the developer can explain to the player that they are the hero of the story. They tell you the heroes name and in some cases, they explain how the hero might act. This makes sense, no one else is around to be the hero and if there must be a hero you are the defacto choice. From there, you have to experience the story to learn more about the hero and through that, you’re making choices about how they behave. In the case of Mass Effect, the hero’s name is Commander Shephard. They can accomplish their goals a number of ways but at the end of the day, it’s the story of how (s)he defeats the alien force known as the Reapers. That’s fine for a single player game. The developer is giving players the outline and letting them fill in the blanks from a set of predefined conditions. However, if the outline is “this is your story” then the conditions need to be “whatever the hell I decide” within the realm of possibility.
MMO games aren’t currently taking this into account, generally speaking. There are a few places where that’s not the case, like Eve Online and Second Life, to name a few. For the rest of the games out there, the developer is throwing you into a world and then expecting you to behave in a certain manner that fits perfectly with their narrative. In the last World of Warcraft expansion, I collected various legendary one of a kind artifacts that allowed me to defeat the demon invasion known as the Burning Legion. I did this as a Demon Hunter known as Alastrom. Other players followed this exact same formula. Some players didn’t defeat the Burning Legion at all. Some players didn’t pay their subscription or couldn’t find time to play the Legion expansion but when they return for the Azeroth expansion, their character will have behaved in the same way as everyone else from a story perspective. It once again begs the question. How can you tell me this is my story when I’m not given the option to act like it’s my story. Am I really Alastrom the Demon Hunter (read also: Mage, Warlock, Paladin, etc) or am I a generic instrument in an already developed story? Until online games, specifically, those known as MMOs start treating the player like both the story and the storyteller, they won’t evolve from the formulaic mediums that relate them to their singular counterparts.
If the developer tells me I’m a warrior then it’s up to them to determine what that means. But you can’t turn around and expect me to tell someone else that I’m a warrior and say it with any conviction. This is multiplied for games that let you simultaneously experience multiple characters. This is true in the real world and while most of us don’t spend as much time in games as we do the former, we spend enough to formulate an idea of who we are. For example, the person behind the character known as Alastrom is a photographer. That definition comes from years of experience and study. Depending on how much you know about the subject, it may have drawn up all manner of examples to define what exactly I mean. The chance you can perfectly explain that statement is lower than random chance guessing. I’m a photographer but I work with older film equipment to print landscape photos on metal. Contained within that definition is the clientele that I sell my work to. In turn, that developed the story contained within the shorthand explanation of who I am. The better way of thinking about it is that you had no frame of reference to truly understand that’s what I meant when I said: “I’m a photographer.” You had a set of loose ideas that no one could ever formulate to that exact definition without some input from the storyteller (myself.) Developers expect us to have that same experience with their class system yet the tools they give us are in such a small box that the variety in stories are effectively the same. You’re a warrior who wears plate armor, not cloth or leather. You use a specific set of weapons in a specific style of combat. Generally speaking, warrior means the same thing for everyone that chooses that path.
This may seem like an attack on the class system in current MMOs. While it’s true that the dynamic is one of the greater contributors to this problem, the real issue is found in the developers approach to their players. If you tell your players that the goal of the game is to be the hero of the story, you’re locked into ensuring each player reaches that goal. After all, if you have a goal that the player can’t reach then you’ve failed as a game designer. You’ve forced their story from the beginning but the reality is that we can’t all be heroes. What’s more is that some of us don’t want to follow that path. When you give the player the right to tell their own story, you’re empowering them to be whatever they want to be. I truly believe that’s the game most of these MMOs set out to design, at least on a philosophical level. I had earlier asked the question if the player was artist or audience, storyteller or active listener. Perhaps the better question to ask is what role does the developer play? Are they the storyteller, informing the player of the experience they’ll have? Are they the listener, responding to the stories their players tell? Or are they closer to God, building a world and interacting with it in some invisible fashion?