2 August, 2018
Most of the recent MMOs have had a strong story component, a central narrative told by the developers. FFXVI has it’s Main Scenario Quests (MSQ) that gate progress through the game as a quite obvious example. WoW has story told through quests, environment, and dungeons. GW2 has story that is the main focus of your progression through the world as well.
But these games tend to get the stories wrong. Let’s take a look at how these go wrong.
I’ll focus on FFXIV since I know that story the best.
The main problem with a strong central story is that it gets repetitive. If for some reason you decide to roll an alt, you have to go through it all again. And since the story is the same for everyone who plays it, you have to endure the same story every time. Talk to the same NPCs about the same story elements and do the same fetch quests and travel back and forth across the continent just like before. There are some quality bits of story, but then there are the infamous marathon of “patch quests” added after the 2.0 A Realm Reborn reboot of the game before the 3.0 introduction of the Heavensward expansion pack.
The developers have, of course, helpfully offered to let you skip these quests and jump to the latest expansion pack with “story skip” items. This feels like a bandaid for a problem. While clearing the MSQ once is kind of neat on a character, each time you have to do it after feels like a chore. This seems like a trivial issue in a game where one character can do it all, but this ignores issues like role-players who want access to more zones. The MSQ controls where you can go, and if you can even access expansion content.
Lack of agency
The other problem is that writing a universal story means that you can’t allow the player much agency. You rarely get to decide what your character does, it’s often a few choices with little consequence. Again, we look at FFXIV here where the character gets thrust into the role of the Warrior of Light (WoL). You can’t choose to play as another type of character in the game story-wise, and as you do your WoL things you are limited in the options presented to you. Any choices in the dialog present a very small branch in the text presented. You’re going to be moving forward with the story no matter what.
So, even your character has a lack of agency. This is best seen in the Stormblood MSQ, the most recent expansion for FFXVI.
Spoilers for the Stormblood MSQ begin here.
You fight this antagonist Zenos, a powerful member of the Garlean empire, a continual thorn in the side of Eorzea. You meet him early in the MSQ, and you’re required to fight him. You barely damage him, despite being a hero who might have even helped to conquer Bahamut in a previous cycle of the story. But you must perservere and “lose” the fight (but actually being defeated makes you repeat the instance). Later you fight him again, able to move his health bar, but still can’t defeat him and have to spend a lot of time moving around avoiding attacks. When you finally face him at the end of the original expansion storyline, Zenos kills himself rather than letting the Warrior of Light get the final blow, depriving the character of a solid victory over the foe hounding them for the stoyrline.
The problem here is that the storyline doesn’t allow the player to make any choices. They are essentially along for the ride, and the pre-determined narrative dictates what happens, not the player nor the character. This is frustrating and yet another reason why playing through the story more than once can be really boring.
Other MMOs do the same thing. The Secret World had no speaking lines for your character, something that was commented on in a quest. And GW2 has the player be an assistant in the main questline from the base game, doing the dirty work but not getting to make any of the hard decisions nor getting much of the recognition.
The story doesn’t make sense in the game
This is a common problem in many games that try to paint the player as “the chosen one” in a game that is full of chosen ones. The WoL in FFXIV is a unique position, but yet everyone in the game must do the MSQ. But then you have mechanics where a party is needed to fight a primal, a demigod who can turn mortals into thralls with a gaze. But the WoL is immune… and so must be everyone else who joins them on a quest!
What’s interesting is that the FFXIV role-playing community essentially forbids people from playing as the “Warrior of Light” since it’s supposed to be a singularly unique role. Even playing with an ability the WoL has “the Echo” seems fraught with peril in RP circles.
So the story goes against some basic mechanics of the game. A conflict between narrative and gameplay, a ludonarrative dissonance as one friend puts it, that rests on much of the story and the game.
The focus should be on player stories
The world and the stories are important to the game, don’t get me wrong. But the ultimate goal should be to let the player tell the stories they want. For example, the Heavensward expansion gave the lizard-like Au Ra race with two clains: the Xaela and the Raen. The Stormblood expansion gave more context to them: the Raen were peaceful dwellers in a city under the sea, while the Xaela were nomadic tribes that lived on the Steppes similar to the Mongols. This bit of information proved to be fertile ground for people to pick up on it.
So, RPers dug into the Xaela clans and started role-playing them. Haughty Oronirs, diplomatic Kha, meek Mols, even horse-tending Goros. (Note: in the lore Goros marry their horses… leading to the expected jokes.) But this information created a flourish of activity, giving structure to let people tell their own stories. The Oronir traveling far from home doesn’t have to save the world to have an interesting tale. They might met a tribe of Miqo’te to befriend, or find a rivalry with a Dotharl, or lots of other things that are kind of mundane day-to-day things that are important to the character.
And this is the beauty of RP, letting players tell their own stories, something I wanted to do with Storybricks.
So, I’ll talk about why story is done wrong tomorrow!