In an industry that’s coming to demand more and more of our time, the undisputed kings of this are MMORPGs.
MMORPGs can take well over ten-thousand hours of your time and think nothing of it, which leaves them in an odd position. While they are nominally RPGs, there are no writers alive capable of creating a compelling ten-thousand hour long story.
It’s an inevitability that whatever story they have will eventually be consumed by the gameplay. As the narrative threads wear thin, and player interest is held by PVE events and daily quests. The embodiment of this, as well as the quintessential MMORPG, will always be World of Warcraft, the game that birthed the genre in its modern state and remains king of it to this day.
WoW has one of the most elaborate and convoluted stories in gaming, to the extent where even the people writing it have lost track, as Red Shirt Guy marvelously demonstrated. However, the average player will never know or care about any of it. It’s buried in quest text and overarching narratives that most skip straight through while chasing the next level cap.
So, while narrative is already inherent to most of these games, how important is it to their success?
The core gameplay loop of WoW and all games moulded in its image revolves around quests. Whether it’s simply gathering mushrooms in the wilderness or slaying a tyrannical azure dragon, every activity you perform within the world of an MMO will have a quest associated with it.
Quests are how MMOs narratively justify and mechanically reward nonsensical gameplay. There’s little narrative rationale to murdering the same pack of re-spawning yak-people for hours on end. But if that same task is part of a quest on behest of an emperor to gain his approval, it makes more sense.
While those kinds of reputation quests are often little more than a way to encourage grinding, MMOs are capable of generating genuinely compelling narratives through simple quest mechanics. The race starting areas in WoW have their own consistent and generally compelling narrative that justify you charging from NPC to NPC and killing everything in-between.
A game like Neverwinter, a D&D MMO released by Cryptic Games back in 2013, has a running narrative through each area. While it’s never anything remarkable, there are incidental quest-lines like the spell-scarred quest-line that do make decent stories.
Furthermore, while unique among MMOs, Star Wars: The Old Republic has narratives for each class that span the entire length of the first fifty levels, stretching across multiple planets. And each planet has its own, more generic militaristic quest-line tied to your faction.
While these well-written narratives do exist, they are innately undermined and buried by the games themselves. No story can convey urgency if the main character runs off to gather sheep wool for thirty minutes. Their own mechanics betray them.
Undermined by Their Own Design
Ludonarrative dissonance is somewhat of a trite term, but it applies to MMOs better than any other genre. What other game has someone literally tell you the planet will explode if you don’t do something, then give you the freedom to wander off picking flowers?
No quest is allowed a convincing sense of urgency and there’s never any capacity for convincing altruism. A quest can give you plenty of options to demonstrate compassion and even mercy, but that doesn’t change the fact you killed a few hundred people on your way there. Jedi, the supposed paragons of peace and rationality, can be seen slaughtering everything from cattle to the elderly in SWTOR. But when the gameplay is done, it expects us to be repulsed by the idea of killing a few people to save a dozen more.
Dissonance aside, very few stories can ever have an impact on the world at large. There are exceptional cases of course, like WoW’s Cataclysm expansion, or the Ziost quest-line in SWTOR. Unfortunately, the former affected everyone, regardless of their place in the story and the latter was only possible through an elaborate and restrictive instancing system.
The MMO template is very restrictive, and the narrative has to warp itself far beyond the realms of believability to fit into it.
Sharing a Story
The multiplayer element works against narrative too. Quest-lines can tell you how you’re the only one who can help, but when you can see eight other people doing the exact same thing, you can’t help but suspect deception there. There’s no place for any story that dubs you ‘Chosen One’ when you’re surrounded by other, clearly more powerful players.
Games have to either compensate for the multiplayer element and make both you and your actions less significant, or simply stick their heads in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening, expecting you to do the same. If the story is compelling enough then it can work, but that’s a rarity.
This is why player-driven narratives in these games are often more engaging. Since MMOs give you more freedom than any game outside of something like Rust it gives people the power to create their own stories within it. Be that through role-playing that can better incorporate the context, or interpersonal stories between players or guilds.
WoW’s most interesting lore isn’t written by the developers themselves, but created by the players across the years. There are dozens of well-known stories and characters that sprung from the community themselves. That rabbit hole is often more interesting than the actual game’s narrative.
The Compelling Nature of Multiplayer
We’ve brought up how multiplayer elements can often perform the functions of narrative in previous installments of this series. This element in MMOs however is entirely predicated upon the human ego.
Instead of rewarding grindy gameplay with an evolution of mechanics or narrative development, MMOs reward players in an entirely material way. But that gold and experience all translates into something far more important: the opportunity to appear better than everyone else.
Since the world of an MMO is entirely open, you’re free to show off your fancy weapons and expensive cosmetics to anyone and everyone. Instead of your collection being a mark of personal pride, it’s free for everyone to bear witness to. This is far more rewarding than any achievement ever will be.
It keeps people playing through genuinely boring gameplay, like farming for loot for hours on end. It can have people replaying the same content dozens of times in a week for one boss drop. It’s the prime reason these games extend so far beyond their narrative conclusions.
Second to this, but just as essential, are guilds and raiding groups. Interpersonal relationships and commitments can keep people pushing through these games far longer than a story ever could. While role-playing guilds do exist, even they have to take a purely mechanical approach to raid or operations style gameplay, or risk being annihilated.
Building a World Worth Playing In
While all this keeps people playing, it’s the world itself that makes people interested in playing in the first place. The lore is the foundation for all raids and loot that players enjoy. If the lore isn’t compelling, neither will be the material written from it.
People grind credits for weeks to afford enough gear to make themselves look like Darth Nihilus or Darth Revan. But that entire process is motivated by the lore that spawned those characters.
The planets and creatures inhabiting an MMO need to be vibrant and interesting enough to keep people farming them. The raids and their bosses need to be dramatic enough to make them worth taking down. MMOs may be able to keep players enthralled for years of their lives, but they need somewhere enthralling enough to do it.
The Budgeting Issues of MMOs
This can become increasingly problematic in terms of budget, however. There are currently 28 different planets in SWTOR. Each one of them has its own open world environment that needs to be visually distinct from the last.
Not to mention that they all have dozens of quests associated with them with fully-voiced cutscenes. The kind of scope that these games deal in can make them impossibly expensive. For a while, SWTOR even held the record for the most expensive game ever developed.
The story isn’t only impeded by its mechanics, it’s impeded by the scope it needs to encompass. Any game deliberately designed to keep your eye for years has an impossible task creating a story that can fulfill even a fraction of that.
Story in an MMO is a complex matter. When it requires so much to create something that half your player-base will likely never acknowledge, it doesn’t seem remotely worth it. However, these games cannot survive without it. Players may not notice the presence of narrative, but they notice its absence. There’s a laundry list of empty, lifeless and now defunct MMOs that can attest to that.
A narrative in an MMO may only occupy players for twenty hours out of a thousand. But that twenty hours gives context to the thousand. It establishes the world they’re playing in and sometimes even giving their lives to. For those players that do find something to love in the story of your world, they’ll be loyal to it for years.