One 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.