Thursday, April 14, 2011

MMO's Failures at Storytelling

It's not really their fault, MMO's can tell a story, it's just it falls short in so many ways. It's just this, I think it's hard for a video game to truly, in a deep and emotional way, move you with its story. Why? It's the fault of books.

So to that end I propose, for the sake of the future of MMO's, that we burn all the books in the world.




Dang, I hope you didn't believe me there! Of course I think book burning is tragic, immoral, illogical, illwhatevered baddness and all out evilness. That still doesn't mean that it's not the fault of thousands of years of literature, whether it be carved into stone or typed out and posted to the world wide interwebnetsess or bound and sold at Border's Bookstore.

I'm no expert at these kinds of things, but I've got a pretty good idea why a story from an MMO doesn't measure up in quality with that of good old fashioned literature in book form. It's not internalized the same way word on a page are. Let me attempt to explain (although I'm sure I'll suck at it).

From personal experience, when I'm reading a book that doesn't completely suck, something happens to my brain. I enter a sort of trancelike state where my mind receives the information from the words and then is given freedom to shape images in his head in a very personal way. True, many book authors will describe a scene or a person with great detail, letting you, the reader, know of the color of the carpet or the temperature of the air or the amount of light coming through the windows. But even then our mind creates other details that the author never thinks to include, and it's these little things that makes the scene personal to us, almost to a point where the reader is authoring the story simultaneously with the actual writer.

Have you ever seen a movie or TV show adapted from a book and said to yourself or someone else "that's not how I pictured him/her to look like". It's funny, really, because even when an author describes a person, each reader pictures someone unique and different, sometimes even changing major features to suit his/her whims. This is an example of a book becoming personal, and a reader's relationship with that piece of literature.

In a video game, all the visuals are provided, and often story is communicated with words or text or quests or whatever, but a visual is given to you with no room for interpretation or personalization. That barrier to personalization keeps the user from fully participating in the story in the way that readers participate in creating details while reading a book.

So right away MMO devs are at a disadvantage when trying to tell a story. They can make the story compelling, but they lose the ability for the player to participate in the character's creation.

I have some experience in writing...some. I've written some short stories and am about 75% completed with a fictional novel, along with a lot of poetry between the years of 16-26 (the "wooing years" I call them). I have my wife read what I write, to criticize and to encourage me, but often when I discuss with her the "behind the scenes" details of my characters or scenes, she tells me that she pictured something different in her mind while reading. It's good, really, because it forces me to make sure that I'm consistent, but it also proves the point I made earlier about a reader personalizing a story regardless of what the author wrote.

The story of Arthas, as told via the game of WoW, is interesting. There are points that you see where you want to reach through the screen and strangle him for making some of the decisions that he made, but ultimately I have never felt for Arthas or any other character in that fantasy world the same I have felt about hundreds of other characters I've read in books.

Perhaps a contributing factor is that MMO's generally deal with fantsay, while much of literature, even fantasy novels, often deal with real human issues of love, hate, jealousy, power, etc in ways that are significanly more realistic than a cartoon character on a computer monitor.

Again, I don't blame MMO's for not being as good, I just think that there are inevitable barriers that cannot be crossed no matter the skill of the dev in creating compelling story lines or scenes. Not to mention, often in liturature you share the journey of the main character, from their insecure beginnings to their heroic finale. Music, TV, movies, and MMO's just don't measure up to books in sucking in the reader/player and immersing them in such a personal way as to make that person feel that, at times, that they are actually there.

So, why talk about something like this? Why bash MMO's for their failures?

Well partly because I, like others, have been thinking or discussing a lot lately about the future of MMO's and how they could be "better", that is please old and newer type players. I'm not really intelligent enough about game design to throw my hat into the ring too often, I'd just like to say that I don't think that we should expect MMO's to create immersive stories because I don't believe that they are capable of it.

So let's try to fix them in other ways. RP is immersive, but it's personal and done in the player's mind. Images on a screen have never proven to immerse someone into a story the way words on a page do, and I'll argue that point till the day I die. I'd love to see changes to the World of WoW, I'd really love it. I'd like to see consistency and reason in the stories I play through as well, but I'm not asking for something that I don't think a video game is capable of.

That's all I have for now, I'm sure I'll think of other stuff later, I usually do. Thanks for stopping by and have a wonderful day in whatever world you play in.


Mhorgrim said...

Excellent post and analogies. The problem often with RPers though is that they want to be the center of attention. This means we have about 500k different microcosms trying to vie for the "There can be only One" title. Good RP tends to arise from someone willing to be the arbitrator/referee/storyteller. Someone who can keep the group dynamic going by being the centralized catalyst/protagonist for others to deal with.

I have seen this done pre wrath in a couple of guilds I had belonged to. But for the most part it's been a bit scarce of late. Let's face it, the driving force behind someone playing an MMO is to be a hero of unique qualities. The fact that there are millions playing makes being unique very ....normal.

Is it impossible? No. Not at all. But it does take someone willing to be that catalyst for others.

The other challenge is that I often see RPers include only the High level clique and forget or ignore their lowbie ocunter parts who are struggling to find a place in that set or group.

I laugh at most RP guilds because this happens time and time again. The sheer Epic nature of high level heroes tends to leave the aspirant in the dust and wishing they chose a different guild.

Random RP is useful, but only lasts for so long. If there is no common cause beyond Horde vs Allance, the random RP tends to die real quick.

So, in the end it takes a solid group of performers who can set aside Diva'ness as well as a set goal or storyline plot for them to follow that will in the end create a deeper immersion. All of the other stuff you see in an mmo is simply fluff or candy if you will.

Gronthe said...

@ Mhorgrim: Very excellent thoughts, thanks for sharing. Whether the story comes from RPers or from the devs in the form of quests, text, etc both require incredibly strong authorship in order to bring the story to the players involved. Even then, as you point out, there are so many obstacles involved like in serious RP that it's difficult for all involved to feel truly immersed.

"The fact that there are millions playing makes being unique very...normal." I couldn't agree more. I know I don't feel special playing any MMO, that disappeared when I realized how many more out there were just like me and that I had some unwritten duty to do things "the right way".

I believe that the written word will continue to be the strongest means of immersion into a story for many centuries to come. Until someone can floor me with a truly immersive experience, my expectations of MMO's will remain as they are now.

ScottColbert said...

As a published writer, editor, and small press publisher (of other people's work-not my own), I read this with great interest and surprised myself by disagreeing somewhat.

I've gotten quite involved in certain storylines in WoW-just as much as I've gotten involved in a good book, a good movie or a good play. I don't think having the visuals hurts the experience at all (otherwise if it did no one would be moved by movies and other visual medium). When Cata was released I rolled an Undead Hunter and got as caught up in that as anything else. I don't view other players as intruders in my quest to be a "hero"-I view it as all of us working towards the same goal-defeating the Alliance/Horde/Lich King/DeathWing etc.

do other mediums lend themselves to telling a better story, in a lot of cases, yes. But I think the storytelling in an MMO is just as valid and at times poignant as anything I've seen or read-it's just not the best format for storytelling.

Hana said...

I debated whether to reply to this with my WoW hat or my published writer hat, and ultimately decided for the WoW hat.

The problem I see with an MMO is that the setting is largely static and does not care about what the player actually does. You can kill Baron Silverlaine in SFK three times a week and he'll still be there.

You cannot consider your character as the main character in anything global or epic like you would in fantasy literature because they can't affect the work. The main characters in WoW are people Tirion and Arthas, Thrall and Varian Wrynn, and we don't interact with them enough to care.

Though I don't plan to play it, I'm very curious how Bioware's Star Wars MMO will turn out, because they have such a history with storytelling. I do like WoW and its lore, don't get me wrong, but a good plot and excellent characters has been Bioware's specialty.

Oomu said...

I don't want to be the hero of Warcraft.

I want to explore the fantasy world, work with others in adventures and follow the stories of the people in the settings of wow.

I don't buy the "me epic hero" crap. It's not that glorious to be the so most powerful important ominous character with crazy magical stuff..

Common people working together to defeat what seems undefeatable evil is epic.

Anonymous said...

I think that the MMOs are improving.
Much like a great book can become a great movie (Cuckoo's Nest, Kill a Mockingbird, etc) I think MMOs are really coming along.

Some of the phased events that let you feel like you are making a difference in the world is fantastic. I love returning to an area and the bad guys are no longer there. I think as this continues, we'll have a grand time in these games. Maybe not in End Game tho I'd love a bunch of rainbows and balloooons when I hit 85.

Gronthe said...

@ ScottColbert: I'm not saying that visuals make it impossible to enjoy a story or feel emotionally connected at all, there are many, many movies and other visually based stories I've connected with. What I am saying is that it doesn't allow as much creation or simultaneous authorship of a story as imagining it in the human mind.

The human brain is a phenomenal thing which nobody, especially not I, completely understand. I believe, from my own experiences and the many people I talked with before writing this, that I believe without asking others like yourslef to believe, that something original occurs when becoming immersed in the written word. I call it co-authorship for lack of skill in the English language, but when it does happen it transforms half the scene into mine and mine alone, apart from anything the author intended. To a smaller degree that happens with other mediums, be it MMO's, TV, movies, etc, but just not the SAME degree.

I appreciate your opinion and can probably appreciate your experiences as something that possibly I'm just not capable of due to lack of understanding, personality, intelligence or mere chance. Anyway, I thank you for your comment and hope that perhaps I clarified a position that I may not have done so previously.

@ Hana: Certainly the idea that I can kill even Arthas only to have his butt show up the next Tuesday is one of the things that, by no fault of the storytellers of WoW, impedes the level of immersion that I believe occurs in other mediums, especially the written word. It's a barrier that never can be overcome.

@ Oomu: Lol. I don't want to be a hero either.

@ Anonymous: Phasing is a leap forward in storytelling, that is true. It was one of the barriers, as I put it, that needs to be overcome in order to improve MMO storytelling.


I certainly am not saying to anyone that I think that MMO's, movies, tv, plays, etc are incapable of moving one emotionally or driving one to deep personal reflection or completely lack to ability to draw one into their story and in some way allow story immersion to occur. If I gave that impression in this post then I either have to re-word it or you need to re-read.

I believe there are levels that a person is mentally capable of becomming immersed in a story, and visual mediums are a barrier to that, not an absolute impediment. A visual does not abolish the immersion experience. I've never been one to draft a blog post then research, edit, research, edit, etc until it's logically sound and perfect. I say what I think based on experience or previously gained knowledge.

Thanks to all who commented about their thoughts and/or experiences. I hope to see you around here again.

Tesh said...

I've argued more than once that MMOs should be about the stories that we as players tell, not dev-penned stories. If they can make player stories interesting and epic, they will work much better. Save the heroics for single player games.

Joseph Gambit said...

I believe the answer is to remove the computer as much as possible. If you want a truly immersive story then you can't be talking to a bunch of 1's and 0's. The more that the world allows the people and the characters to tell their own stories, to grow their own adventures, the more engrossing the entire experience will become.

Often this requires you to remove flashy features such as unnecessary graphics in order to allow the storytelling to become more pure.