Dumbing down story is not innovation

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If there’s any lesson has emerged from modern MMO development, it’s that story — gasp! — actually still matters.  A lot.  In a role-playing game, can you imagine?  RIFT had to learn that lesson, but rebounded with a pretty nifty Chronicles system, SWTOR showed that the fourth pillar wasn’t just an overused catchphrase, Guild Wars 2 is poised to demonstrate the power of a personal story, and so on.  After years of story being on the brink of irrelevancy due to the tired quest box text, it feels like devs are finally waking up and trying to reclaim the spirit of RPGs with new storytelling techniques.

Except for WildStar.  Maybe.

Now, I’m really excited for WildStar.  It looks to have some great ideas and I’m already entranced by its visuals.  But after a pair of well-meaning but facepalm-slapping articles these past two weeks, I’m kind of concerned as well.  As the theme of the articles is about condensing quest text, I shall sum up the author’s arguments:

  1. Nobody likes reading “walls of text”
  2. Nobody reads quest text
  3. Story doesn’t necessarily equal exposition or gobs of text
  4. Animations and cinematics can be important story tools
  5. Ergo, the ideal quest text should be no longer than a Twitter tweet (140 characters)

OK, the thing is, I more or less agree with #3 and #4 here.  I think a lot of us can get together on the concept that the quest text box has become a crutch for MMO storytellers and abused past the point of recognition.  I am all for a variety of storytelling techniques, particularly during a quest versus at the beginning and end.  It’s one of the things I love about SWTOR, because cutscenes and events can and often do happen in the middle of a quest.

But the Tweet-length quest text thing still grates.  It makes me uncomfortable in a personal region best left for my doctors to diagnose.  So indulge me as I explore why this makes me feel uneasy.

The first problem I have is with the assumptions that nobody likes reading and nobody reads quest text.  Maybe games have trained that out of us by making quest text dull, repetitive, or over-frequent, but at least for me, I still read every quest box in Lord of the Rings Online — and those aren’t 140-character textbites, either.  I love how EQII and Fallen Earth both divvied up the quest text into a dialogue between you and the NPC that put some participation in your hands.  And for some people, reading is a key element of RPGs — always has been, always will be.  I know friends who love scouring virtual worlds for their books to read up on the lore.  SO, while these assumptions might apply to a good amount of current MMO players who don’t know any better or have become disillusioned with how text has been treated up to this point, it doesn’t mean it’s universal.

I also take umbrage with the concept that 140 characters is the maximum amount of reading our society can handle without having a brain meltdown.  Now, maybe that’s not the author’s intent, but it sort of feels like it.  Twitter is fine for what it is, but it’s nearly useless when you want to tell a good story or have an in-depth conversation; it’s there for snappy, brief blurbs that share common ancestry with a fortune cookie.  This approach, well-intentioned as it may be, just reeks of dumbing story down for slack-jawed yokels who left school after the second grade.  I do realize this makes me sound more and more like the grumpy old fart ready for a retirement home, but I can’t help feeling what I feel.

I mean, why stop with 140 characters?  Why not 50?  Why not do away with words altogether in quest assignments and use just pretty pictures and arrows?  It makes me think of Mike Judge’s cult film Idiocracy, where the future has gotten so stupid that all anyone can read is icons.  We’re already over halfway there as a culture, and iconography in MMOs is inseparable from the genre.  SLIPPERY SLOPE, PEOPLES!

Ahem.

Let me back up from the brink a little.  I guess my apprehension toward these articles isn’t so much a crusade of saying we need to hold onto large quest text boxes or else MMOs as we know them will die, but a concern that developers are kowtowing to the lowest common denominator when creating a game for the masses.  Twitter-sized quest text doesn’t feel like progress or any great revelation, it just feels like the developers are telling us that this downsized text is completely superfluous.  I am hopeful that the team at Carbine really will follow through on their promise of multiple storytelling techniques in their questing system, because I would hate for us to have reverted to one step away from, say, Anarchy Online’s random mission generator: objectives and chores without meaningful context.

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19 thoughts on “Dumbing down story is not innovation

  1. I was really planning to pick up Wildstar when it came out, but that “quest text will be twitter-sized thing” has made me re-think. I’m not saying I’ll never play it, but I’ll wait and see what others say before giving it a try.

  2. I guess it depends on the length of the journey and the purpose. TOR does a great job from 1-49 in terms of story then all that work just dies at 50. Ironically, I find that WoW’s max level game has a much better story than TOR, especially since the Lich King expansion. As for the particular points, I agree with 1, 3 and 4. Given the choice between having to scroll to read quest text and having a “dialogue” with an NPC, I will take the latter, if only to break the text up to reasonable chunks.

    I guess it depends on the quality too. I would rather Dan Brown or Ms. Meyers (heck, Rowling too!) shrink their novels down to 150-200 pages so that the content is actually worthwhile. If Asimov and Niven can compose near symphonies is so little space, why can’t they? Quality always trumps quantity and hopefully Wildstar delivers.

  3. “If there’s any lesson has emerged from modern MMO development, it’s that story — gasp! — actually still matters. A lot.”

    Agreed! I did not read the rest of the post because it was over 140. You should work on cutting out all that extra. ;)

    The Wildstar thing did bother me a bit, mostly for the Twitter thing. I have a hard enough time determining what people are trying to say on Twitter, I don’t want to think what it would be like if I had to get story, goals, and motivation for a quest out of a tweet.

    {I ned u 2 go kll 10 rats dwn in the fld. They r eatng my crop. Pls hlp. Will pay. Kthx bye. #verminator}

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  5. Twitter and its length are horrible for meaningful conversation and indepth storytelling. the tl;dr folks are the same ones who turn around and complain about the lack of meaning in the killing of the rats. I’ll agree lame walls of text are pointless; but at the same time, unless you have a different, better way to tell the story (cutscenes, dialogue, etc.), all you’re doing is playing Street Fighter. Where’s the RP in the RPG?

  6. Meh. I have degrees in lit. I read and write on a daily basis. But I still don’t bother to thoroughly read quest text, generally scanning it for the main ideas before getting back to playing the game. It’s the same reason I turn on subtitles and skip through cut scenes — I’m not as bad as some of my friends, but I’d still rather be playing than watching or reading. Otherwise, I’d be turning on the TV or picking up a book.

    In writing, we’re told from an early age to “show not tell” — I remember someone saying somewhere (Extra Credits, perhaps?) that video games should go a step further and have players do things before they are shown, shown only when they cannot do, and tell only when they cannot be shown. I think they can do a lot to tell story via overheard dialogue in the environment, stumbled upon preset events within quests, etc. For that matter, I find voiced cut scenes to be no better, and since I skip through them no different, than walls of text. I don’t think they are pandering to the LCD, I think they are acknowledging the medium they are working with and using it appropriately.

    I think it’s unfortunate that paring down quest text has become a media focus — really, it’s not a big deal, and something that most video games actually accomplished quietly and without comparisons to twitter well over a decade ago.

  7. I really wasn’t interested in WildStar yet – I’ve largely given up getting excited for MMOs that are still multiple years away from launch. But after those… bleagh.

    Quest description isn’t just about telling you what to do – it’s about flavor, and tone, and describing the world to you. Good quest descriptions aren’t just a task list, they leave you deeper into the world you’re interacting with.

    Given that the quest description is one of the only ways you interact with the world of an MMO that doesn’t involve violently separating an entity from its vital organs, trimming it out seems like it can’t do much but make the world even less immersive.

    Plus, I hate Twitter with the passion of a thousand burning suns, so using it as the gold standard for your method of communicating pretty much turns me off instantly.

  8. Syp even 50 characters are too much. This days I only need a sign (arrow) above the quest giver npc and a laser guidance system (map, mini map) to find my target plus a text line e.g. kill 50 foozles plus find 10 yellow flowers. Voilà MMO quest design modern days & please add “esc” to skip cut-scenes. :P

  9. I’m skeptical about the intent behind Carbine’s decision to limit to quest text to 140 characters. It seems to me to have a lot more to do with the P.R. value of associating Wildstar with the Twitter brand name than it does with actual MMO innovation. That said, having read the example used in their second article I did find the final, 140 character version to be significantly superior to the original and interim versions.

    Of course if they’d used an example that didn’t prove their point they’d be marketing illiterates and they are obviously far from that. I will keep an open mind on the idea until I see it in action (and the sooner the better!).

    In general, though, I think that walls of text are part of the form when it comes to MMORPGs. I like the system used in some MMOs of having both longform and a shortform quest text, selectable at will by the player. Write the full thing, then produce an edited highlights version, stick one or the other behind a button and let us make our own minds up.

  10. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that MMOs are no longer really part of the RPG genre.

    I’ve been playing them since Asheron’s Call in 1999. I stopped reading the quest text at some point in 2005 or 2006; I simply accepted that MMO writers are terribly limited by their medium and, as such, can’t really produce interesting stories. And yes, I’m including LOTRO in that category: everyone always talks about how “great” the “story” is, but I just don’t see it. In fact, I especially don’t see it in LOTRO, the designers of which absolutely revel in giving supposed heroes “quests” that consist of menial tasks such as collecting boar droppings. No matter how many words are used to describe the task, it still boils down to “I’m too lazy/stupid/cowardly/arrogant to go fetch pig feces, but I’ll happily pay you a pittance to do it for me.”

    As for SWTOR, I appreciate Bioware’s attempt to bring MMOs back into the RPG fold. I just don’t think their model is sustainable. I believe it will simply cost too much money and take too much time, to record all the voiceovers and create all the cutscenes. If they manage to actually produce content updates and expansions in a reasonably timely manner, I will be extremely impressed.

    If I want a story, I actually read a book (or occasionally watch a movie). Those are media that allow competent storytellers to tell good stories.

    What I want out of games is gameplay. Story is secondary. Even the best RPG stories (Jade Empire, Baldur’s Gate II, KOTOR) still existed primarily as context for good gameplay. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Jade Empire had the best storyline of the bunch, but is generally overlooked because the gameplay was inferior to Bioware’s other games.

  11. “That said, having read the example used in their second article I did find the final, 140 character version to be significantly superior to the original and interim versions.

    Of course if they’d used an example that didn’t prove their point they’d be marketing illiterates and they are obviously far from that.”

    They were able to remove a bunch of extraneous characters to get it down to 140 characters because there wasn’t much in there other than extraneous information. There were a few tidbits about the world – the strange weather and the odd tower, not settling because of the yeti – but they seem almost intentionally shoehorned in just so they could be removed. The quality of writing on the original was so bad, OF COURSE you’re happier when it’s trimmed down. The original is like listening to the neighborhood rumormonger give directions, knowing the old bat can’t give you a single turn or street name without mentioning something juicy about someone who lives on that street.

    By contrast, I remember one of the LOTRO main book quests that I loved had you pursuing one of the Nazgul who survived Arwen hitting them with a river. I’d be far more interested in seeing them take Elron’s introduction to that quest and condense it to 140 characters without losing anything.

    Maybe they’ll come through, and all their other promised ways of telling story will make up for the loss. But I have to admit that I’m very skeptical at this point.

  12. It is a constantly espoused fallacy that RPGs are primarily about the story the developers deliver. They aren’t. The provided story is there merely to provide context and setting for the player’s actions.

    Ultima 4 is a good example of this. As are the Elder Scrolls games; particularly Daggerfall and Morrowind, though even Oblivion and Skyrim work to an extent. The story, while it advances somewhat, is almost entirely present only to help guide the player in having fun. Instead of stranding them in an unfamiliar world with no clue about whats going on or what they can even do. Like say, Minecraft does.

    This works exactly the same way in MMORPGs, though people will often yell at you for saying as such. The real stories that are born out in MMOs are all about the players and how they interact with each other and the game world. Not the bullshit in the quest boxes. Not some NPC coming to save your ass at the last bloody second when the boss you just killed pulled some “AH HAHAHAHAH MY POWER IS INFINITE FOOLS!” garbage on you.

    But in the past few years developers have been feeding us a line of bullshit about how they story they deliver to us is the most important part of the game. On par with or even exceeding gameplay. Bioware is a particularly heinous offender. (See: SWTOR, all 3 of the ME games, DA2) The story developers tell us is almost worthless even in single player games, in MMOs they are worth even less.

    Few people truly give a damn about what dialogue choice you, Player #n, chose to respond to an npc with, or that you completed a quest line exactly as instructed by the game. However, they certainly do care about hearing about some dude on another server ninja looting Mega-Sword of Infinite Space and Time and Awesomeness and the resulting drama fallout that turned an entire server into a reenactment of WW1. And the reason for this is because the former is just plain masturbatory at worst and a circle jerk at best while the latter is not.

    So I can’t really say I care about the length of Wildstar’s quest’s text boxes. I’ve played enough of these games now that I don’t need the training wheels and my goals are almost always laid out well in advance. The only thing the games can do for me now is throw me into interesting gameplay situations and try to direct the chaotic Brownian motion of the playerbase towards a fun, interactive end. Hopefully with few resources going towards the training wheels the developers will spend those saved resources on shit for players who already know what they want.

  13. Maybe it’s a fallacy for you, but it’s the main reason I play these games. Without the story, you’re just clicking buttons on a computer, watching maybe-pretty art someone else made on their computer. No matter how much you try to say otherwise, there is no skill involved in that. You’re not a great swordsman, you’re not a space pilot. You’re a dude with a keyboard. The supreme dickery you describe as the reason people play play or follow stories is straight out of the kind of game I refuse to play. I deal with complete assholes in real life all the time. Why would I want to deal with them in my escapist entertainment?

  14. Perhaps you would like to read the words I actually posted instead of the ones you think I posted. I said that story is there to provide context and to guide the player. Having a story is important, but it is not the be-all end-all thing that people have been spewing in recent history. Gameplay trumps story every time.

    This is because games, both video and tabletop, are primarily about, surprise, gameplay. They are not story-telling mediums first and everything else second. That’s why they’re video games and not just movies. Movies are primarily a story-telling medium, as are books. Nobody in their right mind would ever confuse a book or a movie with a video game and nobody should confuse a video game with a book or a movie. Now, there are certainly games that blend their story and gameplay very well, L.A. Noire comes to mind for instance, but it’s certainly not a requirement; as every Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy game that segregates it’s story and gameplay very heavily will attest to.

    As well, the drama thing was just an example. It could easily be about any social interaction. It’s just that drama is one of the few interactions modern MMOs really let you have anymore. In times past you could have more co-operative tales of building player settlements and such, but they aren’t readily available anymore or at least are the extreme minority.

    The point is that no matter if you’re online or offline the story that really matters is the one you have yourself as a player. The best writing in the bloody world can’t replicate all the stuff you do as a player in a good RPG. It can do it in a game that isn’t good RPG though, like Mass Effect, but it’s cold and shallow comparatively speaking.

  15. @Attic Lion: I completely agree with your take on Morrowind. There was a story there to get you started, you could follow it all the way to an ending if you liked. However, the real strength of the game was that it enabled whatever narrative you decided to pursue.

    However, I disagree that a RPG where the primary design goal is to convey a story is inherently flawed. The Final Fantasy games provide a good example. Each presents a static narrative that cannot be altered in any way by your actions. You do have to spend a lot of time leveling via typical CRPG mechanics to see the entire story, and there are often side games that have nothing to do with the main plot on offer. However, the central focus of the game is the story being conveyed.

    The mere fact that I have to meet RPG goals to see the next bits of the narrative sucks me into the story in a way that is different from a book or movie. In a book or movie, I am always an outside observer. Often someone that is moved by what I am observing, but I don’t feel that I am part of the narrative in any way. Though it is largely an illusion, I do feel that I am part of the narrative in a Final Fantasy game. The simple fact that I have to fight my way through hordes of monsters to see the next bit of the story makes me feel like I’m participating in it. Heck, even in the old PC adventure games (King’s Quest on up) I felt like I was a participant in the narrative in a way that books and movies can’t possibly replicate. Dialogue choices in more modern RPGs like Mass Effect reinforce this illusion even further.

    I’m not saying that narrative via video games is better than narrative via book, movie, play, ect. However, it is a different way of experiencing a narrative that I often find compelling.

  16. The problem is you are supposed to complete a thousand quests, literally. Maybe more. And on the outside there might be 10 basic quests, so you will end up doing the same basic thing a hundred times apiece. At some point the ability to role play through that goes out the window.

    And there’s only so many ways to tell the story about how you need 10 gore tusk livers before it becomes pointless. So for the vast majority of quests, a tweet length quest text makes a whole lot of sense. The story behind the vast majority of quests deserves no more than that.

    In King’s Quest and most single player RPG’s you have a major story arc that you are bound to, to a lesser or greater degree. The problem with MMO’s is that the world has to revert to its default status the instant you are done so the next player can do the exact same quest. If you put it on rails so they can’t escape, there goes being able to replay the game; if you don’t put it on rails you can’t really have a story so much as a series of semi-random encounters.

    From a story telling perspective, the basic nature of MMOs tends to make if essentially impossible to tell a truly interesting story.

  17. I read this post and these comments, and please correct me if I’m wrong, as claiming that story will be sacrificed by paring down quest text. To me, that’s the equivalent of saying that in an interactive video game, the only way to convey story is by physically writing it out. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s missing the point of the articles by Wildstar so much that I picture people with fingers in their ears chanting “La la la” to drown out sanity.

    Removing story is not what it’s about. Not using walls of text as a crutch and an easy way out to convey story is far from saying “let’s remove story.”

    Consider the opening to LOTRO. No matter what race you play as, your introduction to the game involves some story. At no point does that introduction simply stop and expect you to read a wall of text: “Then Aragorn fights off the Black Rider, but his friend is injured!” and so on for a few paragraphs. No, instead they show you Aragorn fight the Rider, and they show the other ranger get injured. There are a few walls of text in the intro, but even those could be pared down further and turned into simple word bubbles as the player performs the actions the text works to explain.

    The fact that anyone anywhere connects paring down quest text to removing story disturbs me. What other game genre considers flinging a few paragraphs every once in awhile as being sufficient story? What other game genre has players unable to imagine getting story using conventions from video games rather than those of books or movies?

  18. Ah once again I am struck by the curse of forgetting to come back to reply during the weekend.

    @Yeebo I touched a little bit on Final Fantasy and other games like it in my 2nd post, but let me be more explicit: they are not Role Playing Games, because there is no Role to Play. There are gameplay segments and there are story segments and they are/all but totally separate from one another. These games use a static (or mostly so) story and additional gameplay as a reward for playing the game. That doesn’t make the story the central focus of the game, it’s just something that is available alongside the gameplay itself.

    The fiction is that CRPGs are the descendants, or translations, or whatever justification you prefer of tabletop RPGs like D&D, WFRP, WoD, etc. where the story [i]can be[/i] the central focus of the game. When truthfully they are a wholly separate animal with their own needs and goals. The gameplay in tabletop games revolves around choice (and inherent within that, consequences). The whole direction of the game can change because of the choices the players and the GM make. There is too much freeform in a tabletop game for a video game to truly emulate. Too much choice. Video games need to be on rails. Even the very best CRPG pales in comparison to what a couple of guys with some rulebooks can do. In essence, the very idea of a CRPG is a lie. A beast that has no hope of truly existing until AI becomes far more advanced. Once we have holodecks, we can have real CRPGs, but not before.

    But we can fudge it. We can hide the railroad tracks. We can make use of the tracks that already exist in the players mind. There are plenty of little tricks you can use to make a CRPG a fun game, even if it doesn’t offer the tiniest fraction of choice a good GM can give you.

    The quality of a CRPG is very dependent upon these tricks. Games like Planscape: Torment and VtM: Bloodlines are good examples. They both offer a wide array of choices for the player to make with many unique consequences. Consequences give meaning and value to choice, and if you make them interesting enough they can cover up the limited number of them available. Quality over quantity in essence.

    For example, choosing to play as a Nosferatu instead of a different clan in VtM:B has meaningful consequences in the gameplay and story, even if you can still achieve every different ending in the game as any one of them. The same cannot be said of choosing your background in Mass Effect or picking between Light/Dark choices in KotOR. Mass Effect and KotOR are both bad examples of CRPGs, especially Mass Effect. They are pale imitations of pale imitations. Choices without consequences. Neither quantity nor quality.

    In spite of that, Mass Effect is a good game though, a bit clunky, but fun. And the story isn’t bad. On the contrary, it’s quite engaging when compared to say, FF13 or MGS4. But that doesn’t make it a good CRPG, which is exactly what people tout it as. That’s a bald faced lie. And it’s a lie that has gotten progressively worse in the past decade almost unilaterally across AAA titles.

    To close, I’m not saying that having a good story in a game is bad. I’m saying that elevating the importance of the story to the detriment of gameplay is bad [i]because that makes it a bad game.[/i] The converse is not necessarily true.

    Which brings us back to Wildstar and their TweetQuests, in a somewhat roundabout fashion.

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