No Tears for Azeroth

Title.storytellerHey, since it’s just you and me here, can I ask you a personal question?  When is the last time a MMO story moved you in some way?  I mean, really moved you to where you felt genuine emotion over the story (not just the gameplay) — anger, laughter, sorrow, regret, shame, joy?

Yeah, me neither.

I love me some MMORPGs, that’s for sure, but if I want moving, involving examples of storytelling in video games, that is not the genre for me.  Especially in light of some of the excellent tales told in adventure games (The Longest Journey, Grim Fandango) and single-player RPGs (Planescape Torment, KOTOR).  I’m an absolute sucker for a good story — forget loot and skill points, I’d rather be rewarded with a terrific yarn nine times out of ten in a game, as long as that story was compelling and moving.

And yet, we all know that not to be the case in MMOs.  Part of the problem is that story writers in MMOs are limited by the game mechanics — instead of writing a grand epic, they’re providing countless cover stories for same-old fetch/kill/escort quests.  And by the time we get to any epic tales, we’ve become desensitized to reading any actual quest text so that it doesn’t matter.

And why the fetch/kill/escorts?   Apparently, devs have deduced over time that players don’t want stories, they want quick achievement.  Thus began a chain of simplifying quest design to a preschool level, just to feed the appetites of instant gratification/power gamer lovers.  While this may be feeding the base needs of a majority of players, these are the same players who grow to hate the game they’re stuck playing, because it became nothing more than hitting six buttons and watching bad guys fall over and over without any larger context.  Well, other than “I shore hope he gives me the loots!”

For all of the supposed stories and quests in MMOs, only an infinitesimal amount of them stick in the minds of players, from testimonials and personal experience.  We remember Gwen from Guild Wars, Mankirk from Azeroth, um… that one guy from that thing that time, but really, it’s the exception rather than the rule.  We don’t play the game for the story; we suffer the story to get to the game.  And that is just so terribly wrong.

This is one reason why I’m holding onto hope that BioWare makes good on its promise of upholding story as the “fourth pillar” of The Old Republic, because I’m tired of not caring about the game world I’m involved with.  LOTRO does a good job, sometimes excellent (especially with their Book quest lines), but still has too much “filler” stories that I have a hard time keeping up with it all.

I have a proposal for a MMO that has yet to be made, and that proposal is this: separate tedious quests from story.  Sure, still include the staples of kill/fetch/escort quests, but cut out the story from them entirely — just have players go to a bounty hunter NPC or mission vendor to pick up one of these odd jobs to fill some time.  Then pledge to make all quests have a real story, a unique path, and a satisfying — perhaps persistent — conclusion.  Forget MMOs that boast of 14,000 quests on the back of their box; I’d rather play a game with 50 meaningful, moving, exciting quests than 14,000 dull, trite and tired ones.  Put a long timer on these quests once you complete them, and when the timer is up, offer players the chance to revisit them if they so wish.

Going a different direction from the previous paragraph would be to have all the quests you like, but have each one contribute to a certain overarching story.  During or at the conclusion of the quest, a part of that story is revealed, and an in-game journal plugs it into that story’s page.  So you start with a blank page for that story, and like a jigsaw puzzle, you completing quests fills in the page, a sentence at a time, until the full dealio is revealed.  Then, if you have completed the story, you would unlock a special cutscene that perhaps includes video or pictures from your journey along with narration.  A recap, in other words, to remind us of where we’ve been and why.  You can never have too much hand-holding when it comes to lore, in my opinion.  What’s obvious to game devs is often buried in a mountain of details to players.

Part of a great story, too, is that it infiltrates all aspects of life.  MMOs are infamous for cutting a storyline dead the second you complete the final quest, but I assure devs that players would grab on to reminders of that quest, characters that sought them out in a tavern months later to buy them a drink over their deeds, some visual mark on the world (phasing, perhaps) that would serve to say to the player that their efforts weren’t wasted, but had a real and lasting impact (even if that is a simulated impact).

What will the future hold for the attempt of MMOs to tell stories without losing player interest?  Perhaps its as simple as cutscenes and in game scripting (which, not as simple as blocks of text, is at least pretty possible today).  Perhaps there’s another solution we’re just not seeing yet.

15 thoughts on “No Tears for Azeroth

  1. I think a lot of it has to do with the end. There can be no End in a MMO. A good story needs finality.

  2. I really wonder how much of this is down to players refusing to let themselves be drawn in. I mean, sure, some of it is MMO writing being pants (LOTRO fillin quests are as good an example of that as any because it’s in such stark contrast to the epic questlines), but how much is just … us.

    I was writing today about how I really felt drawn into one of the Wrath quests but I can see so easily how a player might not bother to read the text, might be too busy chatting to their guild to spot the NPC nuances, might just not care enough to get invested in the storyline because they’re just focussed on the xp.

    I mean, if you buy a single player storytelling game like KOTOR it’s because you want the story so we can at least assume you’ll read it. And even so, a lot of people would mock someone for getting ‘too into it’. But I think all the MMOs I’ve played were set up so that you could care about the storylines if you wanted to. The best writing in the world — which MMO quests generally aren’t — can only take you so far (and you have to read it…)

    I think this is why the pros say players don’t want stories. The ones who do enjoy them privately, and possibly hurriedly because of being pressured to xp etc.

  3. MMOs are the poor man’s game. Lot of social activities and teamwork, a minimum of feeling. No, if I want a real game experience (which I want) I start some single-player game that has been made with thought, love and perfection in it. Like Half-Life 2, Mass Effect, Neverwinter Nights or any other game which sole purpose is to entertain us instead of just putting us in a world with other people and tell us to entertain ourselves.

  4. i do so royally agree with you.

    MMO’s these days have a setting which dictates the look of your “dude or dudette” and the myriad of little creeps that inhabit the lands (all of which, for some unexplicable reason, really want to chew on your shins).

    i’ve played a few MMO’s and i always end up growing bored and unsubscribing. for a while i thought it was because i just plain grew bored of the mechanics/design/whathaveyou but then it really hit me: every MMO world is just empty.

    sure there are spiders, wolves, bears, crows, warthogs and squirrels crammed into every available space: but why are you there?

    “reach level cap and kill bigger things” is what we all strive to do in MMO’s these days, and it’s depressing.
    a place that looks cool where you can flail sharp objects till you get those uber sandles and neckerchief…

    we get very grand introductory video sequences though they rarely bring the story any sort of intemacy: they just tell you that epic things are a-happening and some people are gonna get got, and that’s it. we’re left to wander around a broken record for months…

    we need a story progression with consequence for our actions. we need a conclusion! you reach the level cap, get all you’re epic armour and are left spinning this unique hero of the lands (special, like everyone else…) in the character creation menu.

    a story recap with short videos/pictures of your exploits which can be saved and exported to a sharing server would be awesome. think of the comunity of virtual story tellers that it would generate.
    what’s more, is that if something along these lines was successfull it would encourage developers to follow in suit.

    bioware, please deliver.

  5. Eh. For an MMO to have moving storylines it would probably have to be rather linear in nature. I’d like to see a stab at a sandbox-style MMO with additional linear storylines for people who don’t want to do their own thing.

    Games as a whole tend to not move me that much – with the exception of a few. The most outstanding of those is Lost Odyssey for the Xbox 360, which I first caught wind of when I went to a performance of ‘Play! A video game symphony’ and some visuals from the game were played in the background. I thought it looked pretty spiffy. So, when I got my 360 this year, it was on my list of things to check out.

    What I got was more than I bargained for – gameplay wise, stereotypical JRPG, but the magnificent writing always manages to make me cry. Every single bloody time. Practically nothing makes me cry! A testament to the writers’ ability.

    But MMOs, I don’t see it happening. The worlds are too… unrealistic, I suppose. What with the roving bands of maniacs slaughtering everything they saw. An MMO would have to have a major shift in design to pull it off decently, and it would probably involve a lot of cutscenes.

  6. I think a lot of the problem is that design in MMO’s comes from advancement in levels(xp), and advancement through zones. Its a design approach. I think this shows up in the WoW article you posted last week.

    1. How do you provide an approach for migrating people through a zone so they can reach the next zone?
    2. How do you provide an approach for migrating people through xp levels as they move through content?

    The easiest way is through advancement.

    1. Collect/kill 10 things. get xp reward and move a bit in the zone.
    2. give quest to move to NPC Bill, that is further/deeper in the zone.
    3. repeat step 1 with altered quest text.
    4. give quest to move to NPC Jerry, that is further in the zone or in the next zone.
    5. repeat step 1.

    As you can see MMO’s are about advancement in the purest form. Some depth can be added by the ‘altered quest text’, but all in all its about advancement in either levels or location.

    Now how can this paradigm be changed? I’m not really sure. Because, people like rewards (advancement). But the best advancement in my eyes is more non numbered or location advancement.

    I want to move through a story, I want to see a plot develop, and as it does I want my character to advance in capabilities so he can handle the plot advancements.

    Lets take the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead for starters. The female lead starts off meek and mild and afraid of everything. As the story progresses she settles down, hardens up and at the end she is a strong character that can handle the nasty situation she is in.

    Another example is Stephen Kings’ The Talisman, Jack starts off as a normal 12 year old kid. As his journey’s through his quest roll out, he becomes stronger, more self assured, but still vulnerable and human. In the end he takes his new found strength and uses it as best he can.

    Now the problem is how to map this transition of strength into a playable format. Many MMO’s do this by granting you new abilities. Yay! level 6. I get a new attack that lowers enemy resistence by 5 for 10 seconds. So now when attacking I have to use this new attack before my main attack.

    But has my character really developed or do I just have a new chore to perform? How can we map an increase in character to a game with out making it a chore.

    1. Enhance new abilities. – make the 5 point debuff inherent in my standard dps attack. I personally don’t need an extra attack that turns out to just be a chore. Do I really need 37 different attack buttons to map and press and keep track of.
    2. Add new animations to my standard dps attack when i level up. – this provides visual enhancement and removes the monotony of spamming the same attack over and over.
    3. Make me an integral part of the world. If I fail in a quest, does the NPC die as a result. Does his house get over ran by Zombies and his family get eaten. (even if the family or npc gets respawned a minute later. My failures had a emotional impact. Next time I’ll try harder.
    4. If I succed or fail in a quest, lets insert an short video that shows me dying in grandiose fashion or maybe a video that shows the peasants throwing a grand moonlit party roasting pigs and feasting as the zombie horde is pushed back and they are safe.

    Just a few ideas and my thoughts.

  7. Two quests in WoW.

    Pamela’s Doll – That one got me every single time I ran an Alt through Eastern Plaguelands. I’d tell myself I wouldn’t do it, but every time I ran past Darrowshire I’d convince myself that it was easy XP and foolish to pass up, and my heart would break for the little ghost. Geez. I just looked up the quest now to make sure I was referencing it correctly, and just reading Pamela’s dialog got to me, again. Yeah, I’m a big softy. So what? Isn’t that what we’re discussing here?

    The other one that gets me is the new quest in Bloodhoof Village, where you find Ahab Wheathoof’s lost dog, Kyle. The first time I encountered this quest the voice casting for Ahab seemed a strange choice. Why such a feminine voice for an old Tauren? Later when I found out about Ezra Chatterton via BRK I leveled up a Tauren Alt for the Running of the Bulls. When I got to Ahab and heard what was now obviously a young boy’s voice saying “I miss my dog so much” I was so choked up I couldn’t even click to Accept the quest. It didn’t help that not too long ago I’d had to put my own dog down, so that one hit real close to home.

    I think that’s what makes some quests a lot more memorable than others, when we connect with them on an all-too personal level.

  8. Keep in mind that exactly what great storytelling consists of will vary with the person. To me, WoW still has the best storytelling out of any MMORPG. Shady Rest Inn/Smiling Jim, the Wrathgate, Sylvanas’ song, Little Pamela in Darrowshire, finding Muradin Bronzebeard, the old Onyxia questline, Dun Niffelem, Matthias Lehner, etc… they actually have some REALLY neat and emotional stories, and they’re told well, as long as you stop to actually read the quests.

    I still hold that mods like QuestHelper and Carbonite have really put a huge damper on storytelling, encouraging people to just run from quest objective to quest objective, without regard to what is actually happening.

    WoW has also made good use of phasing to add flavor in the new X-Pack… in Dragonblight, you rescue villagers, and they later turn out to be repair/merchant NPCs that weren’t there for you before, or the reappearance of Gryan Stoutmantle in Grizzly Hills and hey! He “remembers” your adventures in Westfall as a level 15.

    I like it when some of the best stories aren’t always within the “main” storyline, but are tucked away in little nooks and crannies of the game. That’s what really gives the game flavor and makes it more immersive, at least to me. Granted, it’s easy to tell when a quest is a simple “kill x/collect x” filler quest, but if all the quests were epic stories, I’d think it would be overwhelming.

  9. I think the last time I paused for the story while running around grinding was when Lady Sylvanus sang the song in the bottom of Undercity…Very pretty piece of music and totally unexpected on my part.

    I think that since I knew her story after playing the other Warcraft games kind of gave me a little more insight into what she was so sad about.

    Haven’t really paid attention to any big window of text for quests in years.

    It doesn’t help that most of them are trying to explain how and why I should go kill 20 of these huge spiders cause they GASP! ate this poor man’s prize pig and he’s so angry about it, just not angry enough to go kill them himself. -5 for story telling.

  10. Tarisai has a point, MMO worlds are not really worlds, but wallpapers for combat sims. They usually offer little not no environment or item interaction either.

  11. I agree with the others who mentioned WoW, i always read quest texts and found, especially in WotLK, storytelling was actually very good.

  12. Of all the MMOs I’ve played, WoW is the only game I can think of where I really got drawn into the quest lines.

    I avoided spoilers when Wrath came out, so the first time I completed the Wrathgate quest line, and came back from the cut scene to see that part of the world had totally changed, I was floored. I felt like Blizzard finally delivered on something they’d been promising for years. I’ve taken four horde characters through it, and it’s still awesome. I’ve also taken an alliance character through there now, and it wasn’t anywhere near as good. I’m disappointed that so many of the great lore quest lines in Northrend just aren’t there for alliance.

    Some of the best WoW questlines are in old world zones nobody really does anymore, like WPL and EPL.

    WAR actually had some good quests too, if you could get over the typos. I got into Warhammer lore initially by reading the quests.

  13. Exactly. Exactly!

    I would love to see Quests seperated from Tasks. Keep tasks in the game, but leave them as single stage affairs to allow PUGs to camp them like the old EQ days. But one or two long quests per zone would keep the stories from becoming diluted.

  14. I love the jigsaw story idea!

    In many cases, people don’t read quest text, and that’s part of the problem. They also don’t want to have to watch an FMV or otherwise have to stop playing to have the story fed to them.

    For a long time, I’ve advocated adding audio tutorials to MMOs that explain the game to you while you play. Apply it to this too. Have the story told to you in audio while you are traveling to the quest destination or collecting your 5 foozles. Alternatively, have NPCs around telling the story in whispers or word bubbles while you do it. Some of Northrend stuff was made a lot more interesting with these additions, and it could stand to be expanded.

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