Dear developers: Give me a backstory already!

fa1One of the more brilliant aspects of Fallout 3 was the decision to merge the tutorial and character creation process into a sequence in which you got to see your character grow from a toddler to a young adult living in the Vault.

In System Shock 2, a similar decision is made to eschew boring character creation slideshow screens for a more interactive process involving your character going through multiple years of military service, making choices along the way that would shape him.

In Fable, one of the touted aspects was being able to watch your character grow from childhood to adulthood. While, like many of that game’s hyped-but-disappointing features, it was boiled down to a short bit as a kid, at least there was that.

In many other CRPGs, such as Arcanum and the newer Pillars of Eternity, developers allowed players to select a backstory from a menu that not only included a description of one’s upbringing and region, but various advantages and disadvantages that would affect gameplay.

In all of these examples, by the time I entered the game world proper, I felt as though I knew who my character was and became more connected to him or her. The story of their life already began, and I was continuing it.

So why don’t we see that in MMOs? Am I the only one who gets disappointed with the status quo of having a level 1 character pop out of the void with no back history whatsoever, save for what I imagine? With no explanation as to how I got there, what my motivation is, or who I am past my chosen class and face?

To my recollection, only Guild Wars 2 has made any effort to integrate a backstory into the character creation process. And even here, it’s more presented as a series of choose-your-own-adventure decisions that will marginally affect your storyline. Still, I appreciated how by the time the game starts and there’s the introductory cutscene that sums up all of these choices into “my story,” I have become grounded in who my character is.

Even Star Wars: The Old Republic, with it’s much vaunted story pillar, has no story for your character past where he or she first appears. I have no idea how my Smuggler got her ship or got into that racket. I don’t know what my Imperial Agent went through in her spy training. I don’t know why my character gravitated to the Empire or the Republic. I just came into being, ex nihilo, along side all of the other freshly minted clones.

Am I being lazy, asking the developers to do the work that my imagination could supply? No, I don’t think so. These are roleplaying games that involve a long-term journey with a character. I want to be in on the ground floor of who that character is. I’d love to “live” — even in an abbreviated form — his or her childhood and early adulthood. I want to know what sets them onto the path that leads them to become a world-traveling adventurer.

The backstory of the CRPG is being lost — has been lost for a while now — in MMORPGs. It’s time to bring it back.


8 thoughts on “Dear developers: Give me a backstory already!

  1. Rowan June 9, 2015 / 9:58 am

    For every person like you that wants some backstory for their character, there will one like me, who wants to create more of my own and will resist the attempt to do that. SWTOR, in particular, assumes things about the character that they then spring on the player with no warning (or consent). I can give examples, but I think that may be more appropriate in a post of my own. CRPGs seem to be a little better sat that because I don’t feel like that is *my* character in the same way that I feel about my MMO characters. But, I do agree with you that it would be cool to “raise” a character from childhood in an MMO. It would be a good explanation for the typical leveling/skill development process.

  2. skro9899 June 9, 2015 / 10:57 am

    As far as I’m concerned, I’m quite happy of not having a backstory for my character. Guild Wars 2 was actually for me the archetypal example of what not to do: I tried to get concerned while creating my rogue, and my answers for her creation were aimed to have an ambiguous position. And then the quests gave me the option to be either nice or very nice.
    Come on! I’m a thief and maybe an assassin! I won’t turn the other cheek or smile when insulted, even if i’m from the nobilty!

    On the other hand, not having a backstory at all in TSW (save the strange bee-thing) allowed me to create a whole background for my character, complete with family, (ex-)boyfriend, a job and a “real” life.
    But I’m more of a P&P RPG player, and I enjoy much more the blank sheet on which I can write anything I want than the limited options a character creator can give us…

  3. The Iron Dagger June 9, 2015 / 11:34 am

    I think I need to be sold this. In an MMO, the unique snowflake syndrome makes it mighty strange for lots of folks to share cookie-cutter origins.

    I was more than happy with LoTRO’s vague ‘nationality’ approach, and, ironically, even with Neverwinter’s ‘nationality + background’. Going beyond that, though, would have been far too restrictive. The only beef I had was that both were pure flavor and weren’t referenced in-game at all.

  4. Rowan June 9, 2015 / 11:47 am

    @skro9899 That’s an almost unique feature of TSW, the idea that your character is suddenly dropped into the World with no prior knowledge. In every other MMO I’ve played, except maybe WildStar, the PC has been brought up in that world. But then most don’t actually try to shoehorn your character into the story in the same way SWTOR and GW2 do.

  5. skro9899 June 9, 2015 / 3:14 pm

    @Rowan: LOTRO pretty much drops you into the world without much information about yourself (except your origin). The slight difference with TSW is its “alignment”: you can only by “good” in LOTRO while TSW allows neutral and evil character positionning (strictly from a “game” point of view. In roleplay, you can be as evil as you want, even in LOTRO :D)

  6. Rowan June 9, 2015 / 3:45 pm

    @skro9899 Right, but in LOTRO, the default assumption is that your character has lived in Middle Earth for all of his or her life. TSW drops both the player *and* the character into a bizarre world only vaguely resembling any real place. I also haven’t noticed that TSW allows for moral choices, other than choosing whether or not to actually complete the missions. In fact, as you go about helping the citizens of Kingsmouth, you are frequently chastised by both Geary and Sonnac for worrying too much about the locals. And none of the factions is purely good or bad, imho. Trust me, I do love it for that. The only game where I have even close to that much self-composed backstory for my characters is Star Trek Online.

  7. Sylow June 10, 2015 / 5:21 am

    ” I also haven’t noticed that TSW allows for moral choices, other than choosing whether or not to actually complete the missions.”

    Then i guess your wings are dark? (Saying any more would be spoilering on issue 11, but the “reward” you get at the end of this issue depends on the choices you made in the game. )

  8. Rowan June 10, 2015 / 8:04 am

    Ohhh, You’re right. I was thinking more fo the “everyday” quests. I completely forgot about those “interstitial” quests.

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