Impersonal Story

The core story is part of the modern theme park model. Most MMOs are including a central quest chain, such as LotRO’s epic, SW:TOR’s fourth pillar, and GW2’s personal story. I find myself liking the idea but not the execution.

You are familiar with my rants about watching the heroes play out their story in LotRO. I’ll take fighting at the side of the Fellowship and being second banana there, and I’ll take being the hero of the B-plot while the Fellowship saves the world. I’ll not take being second banana in the B-plot.

I have not played SW:TOR. I hear only good things about playing through the character’s central story, except that it lacks replayability. You must support alts like CoX, PvP like EVE, or an endgame like WoW, or else there is not much reason to stick around after you complete the story.

Making a single-player MMO seems like a bad idea. As much as I solo, I want to be part of a world. Otherwise, I can go play a single-player game that does not come with the baggage. In a single-player game, my actions can actually affect the world, which does not need to be static for the other players. (Feel free to comment on how phasing is working for WoW.)

Being part of a world was the original appeal of MMOs. “Virtual worlds” were the goal a decade or two ago, whereas now we have virtual theme parks. A well-executed theme park is a much better game than a virtual world, and it certainly demands less of the player, but Diablo 3 seems to be about where we are headed: a single-player game with half the headaches of an MMO just so that it can include trading and some multiplayer. (I am looking forward to Torchlight 2 and its plans to do the same thing with a single-player foundation, where modded games are a feature rather than a hack.)

Part of being in a virtual world is that it is your character. When you are playing a single-player game, you accept that you are playing out that story, whether Alex Mercer’s bloody rampage or Luigi’s ghost-hunt. Some of these stories give you room to wiggle, but a character usually comes with an expected path. (Something like Skyrim is weird for being a single-player virtual world; The Elder Scrolls Online sounds like it wants to be an online single-player theme park, closer to Diablo 3 than Skyrim.) I’m not saying that everything needs to be a sandbox, but if it is my character, rather than a character, I need to be able to define it.

This becomes a problem with the Guild Wars 2 personal story. It is the character’s story, not my story. I’m just going through the motions, a bit of running and combat between cut-scenes. “I have been developing a Ghostbore Musket.” I have? “I’d like to recruit you to my warband.” I would? I understand that this is based on the choices I made at the start, but there is a lot of distance between the vague descriptions at character creation and the highly specific choices my character is making at the time. You got your visual novel in my MMO!

I’m told that Fate/stay night is great, but I have yet to meet a visual novel that I like.

Look, you cannot tell me it is my personal story and that it is all about me and then take the character out of my control for all the critical story elements. No, that’s factually untrue because apparently you can, but it’s a bad idea. (Exception, but it’s a brilliant subversion.)

Look, games call for goal-directed behavior. If I say, “I wonder what I’m going to do next,” it should mean that I wonder what the game is going throw at me next for me to react to; it should not mean that I have little control over my character and I really don’t know what he is going to do next. In Candyland, you can honestly wonder what you’re going to do next because you make no decisions. In Fluxx, someone can put the game in a similar state where the entire gameplay is “draw one card and play it immediately” until that one card changes the rules again. There is some point at which you have failed to clear the minimum bar for “game.”

I would prefer the model where the quest givers are ordering you about and you silently obey. It is not pretending to be something it is not. If my character is making plans and decisions, I should be making plans and decisions. Otherwise, it is not my character, just the point of view character I happen to be following.

: Zubon

18 thoughts on “Impersonal Story

  1. distilled

    Thankyou! This I’d how I feel about the personal story, in a game which emphasises dynamic and emergent content, it seems very rigid and linear (regardless of the choices).

  2. darkeye

    Neither phasing or largely instanced storytelling are going anywhere fast. I think one of the problems is that developers are convinced that MMO players want a highly personalized story (Elder Scrolls MMO is the latest), rather than a story of the journey through the world, not as a saviour but a wanderer.

    Rift did something good with Ember Isles, there is one long quest chain, and the remainder of the quests are found by exploring and killing mobs, and they seem to be willing to explore that with the expansion, plus they are gradually rolling out instant adventures across the whole game too.

    About GW2 I kinda wish they skipped the personal story, and used that time and money to add more to the dyanamic events, that’s the most evolutionary system in MMO storytelling at the moment.

    1. moondog548

      Holy cow, thank you darkeye for letting me know I’m not all alone! As much of a gibbering fanboy as I’m getting to be for GW2, I really look at the “personal” story funny and think it’s a shame they feel they need to bolt something like that on to the game.

      I’m also a gibbering LOTRO fanboy, so it’s not like I’m against the instanced/phased personal story thing on principle, I just think you gotta do one or the other and focus on doing it *right*.

  3. Ald

    I look at personal story as nice content to have on the side when I’m bored and should never be the main focus of an MMO.

  4. Ravious

    Except for something along the lines of Dwarf Fortress with random stimuli creating the story out of nothing, I am not sure how a game could exist with a true “personal” story.

    Here’s the two options that make up 99% of any worthwhile story arc in a true “personal” story: (a) advance personal story, or (b) refuse personal story.

    Even in table-top RPG, the GM has to come up with some skeleton framework of a story (in most games). Even there where content is pulled out of gray matter instead of code, it is not a true, personal story.

    The way personal is defined above, and the way story is defined… I just don’t see the two combining in a meaningful way… unless like I said you create your story out of random stimuli.

  5. Clarysta Sunshine

    Yes, this is how I felt about the GW 2 personal story as well. I was much less connected to the character than I have been in Other MMOs, where I get to say what my goal and focus is.

    The choices during character creation were too limited and in several cases, the option I would have chosen did not exist.

    1. Zeldain

      I was far more connected to my character in GW2 even after only 2 days of playing that I have been in any other MMO, including TOR up to level 26 when I couldn’t stand it anymore.

      GW2 provides the right mix of character creation, allowing you to define a bit of who your character is and their background (not just a bio paragraph) and the personal storyline which is woven nicely and sporadically through the game – although it is never the entire purpose of my being. I like that.

  6. Zeldain

    The only way you can ever have anything close to what you desire is with a true sandbox… and even then, the ‘setting’ has to be provided for you. There could be a great dragon blight on the world… but you’d rather fight ogres and become their chief. Well, you might be able to do that but that’s not the primary setting of the game – and there really has to be one.

    I’m as big of a sandbox proponent as they come, but there has to be structure.

    I also think the importance of the player being the hero character is over-played by developers. In a virtual world, I am content being part of a huge epic story (as Blizzard portrays in WoW) and I don’t feel the need to be THE REASON for the story (as in single player games like KotOR, Skyrim, etc)

    But adding the personal story (as in TOR, and GW2) gives your character a bit more depth. That story as provided doesn’t mean it has to be your character’s only tale….

    I prefer GW2’s presentation of storytelling far over TOR’s spoon-fed digital actors – for every mindless quest.

  7. Brainstrain

    I completely agree. It wouldn’t be as disappointing to me if they hadn’t hyped the personal story as much as the combat, art style, and dynamic events. Because 3/4 of those things are actually unique and interesting. The 1/4 is a linear, poorly written single player game thrown into the middle of everything.

  8. Naqaj

    Brilliant post Zubon, ripping the words right out of my heart. That hurt, btw …

    One thing I’ve given up hope on is that we’re ever going to see an MMO that provides the freedom to create your own character’s story in term of a sandbox without the ridiculous time commitments that are usually required for these games. Maybe that’s just intrinsic to the problem though. You can’t expect to create another life without spending the time it takes to live it …

  9. Anton

    I agree with Zubon on the key point; single-player stories don’t belong in MMOs. But I have such little love for quest giver model that SWTOR and GW2 are actually a bit of a welcome change.

    Doing a series of tasks in a series of places loosely connected by a few paragraphs? That can sort of pass for a story, but only as long as those paragraphs are telling me something about the region and local characters. Some MMOs make the mistake of using that platform to detail my personal ascension to grandmaster champion savior of the world, and I really don’t like that.

    An MMO should give you just enough to establish your personal identity, but the bulk of the story should really be about what that identity means in the context of the group of people you’re playing with. Something beyond plot-point choices and conversation voting. And I don’t see why that automatically has mean leaping to sandboxes or instances.

  10. Gina

    This is what happens when the roleplaying playstyle is completely phased out of MMORPG’s, and left for the the developer to pick up.

    It’s about as interesting as a glass of water.

  11. Arc

    I’ve always thought of personal story as my interaction with the other players. To be honest I could live quite happily with minimal npc interaction.

    My favorite game stories come from UO and Shadowbane in which the “story” is player driven. Artificial politics and plotlines are stale and predictable.

    The end objective of a massive multiplayer game should be getting the players to interact in new and interesting ways. Choosing arbitrary villains and objectives is never going to be as much fun as letting the players choose and fight over what’s important to them.

  12. bhagpuss

    I agree completely, Zubon. I am fed up to the back teeth with this ridiculous trend for imposing “story” on player-characters in MMORPGs. I have precious little interest in the backstory of MMOs to begin with but I have NO interest whatsoever in sitting back and watching MY character act out someone else’s script in which my participation is, at best, the occasional invitation to press Button A or B and to do the fighting.

    I’m happy to enjoy dialogue, cut scenes and animations featuring my character provided they are only illustrative. The ones I have seen so far in The Secret World are very enjoyable, not least because my character never speaks in them, merely stands and watches. I am very much not happy to to be told in detail how my character thinks and feels or what he or she believes.

    As far as GW2 is concerned, I plan on ignoring the Personal Story. I did a bit of it in the first BWE and saw as much as I care to. I’ll stick with the open world of which, thankfully, there is plenty to keep me occupied.

  13. Feycat

    Really couldn’t agree more. Nothing makes the RPer in me cringe more than someone else actively putting words in my character’s mouth, writing a backstory I didn’t agree with, and generally godmoding me around. It’s the only thing I really hate about GW2.

  14. sleepycat

    I think further into the story you can start making choices about your personal story, although I understand where you are coming from about the back history being sort of dropped into place without any type of explanation.

  15. Meagen

    From the point of view of someone who’s always treated a character in an MMO as a “blank canvas” to draw on, suddenly being given a coloring book instead can feel patronzing. On the other hand, for someone who’s never really thought to give their characters any color, that can be a “wait, you can *do* that?!” moment. I know I’ve heard stories from people playing TOR who had never given any thought to their characters beyond being their means of interacting with the game, but who actually came to understand and like their characters as people by seeing them moving and talking in cutscenes.

    To me, RPing is inherently a co-operative excercise, and when I play my character in GW2 I’m working together with the game’s writers themselves. I’m given a backstory, a place in the world, and some broad strokes of speech and action, and can then fill in the blanks to create an interesting character who is not just a human street rat with a missing sister, but *my* human street rat with a missing sister.

    I think this sort of framework is better to have than not. And it fits with ANet’s philosophy of “don’t just count on players to make your game interesting for each other, put something interesting in there for players to interact with in the first place”.

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