Story Matters

Think about a game session. No, I mean the physical in real life manifestation of our gaming experience. If someone were standing behind you … and they described your actions to someone else via a cell phone, what would that sound like? Umm yeah Bob … well.. He is typing.. Well clicking — left click right click left click right click … he just hit the 5 key about fifty times … Squirming … He is squirming in his seat.. Wait .. Cursing.. Lots of grunting .. More cursing … Deep sigh … he just smashed the keyboard with his fists … He muttered something about a nerf.

This could be someone playing Worlds of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Dark Age of Camelot or someone with a really skewed way of composing and sending an email. MMORPG Games are fiction. MMORPG Games are rules. All games don’t need a narrative backdrop to be fun, but a solid fun filled MMORPG experience requires a rich narrative context for player activities and infusing the experience with purpose outside of basic progression and conflict resolution.

This is what my colleague, good friend, and Chairman of our English Department and I teach in our English class. As a Faculty Fellow teaching a first year writing seminar entitled English 115F: The Worlds of Wordcraft at Vanderbilt University, we explore how narrative forms express themselves in movies, book, epic poems, and MMORPGs. In particular, we explore Lord of the Rings.

Over the next few columns, I intend to discuss the lore and comparative narrative of

  • Champions Online
  • Lord of the Rings Online
  • Warhammer Online
  • Age of Conan

I chose these as I possess direct experience in each game and the associated narrative backdrop.

Let’s start with the game that isn’t — just to ease into the topic! Star Wars the Old Republic: Threat of Peace. As Lucas Arts and Bioware spin up the hype machine for an apparent 2010 release, the website presents a masterful rendition of how a game studio places the narrative experience at the center of a magnificent marketing and design pitch.

The most visible expression of the context narrative is a two act series of web comics. Bioware , Lucas Arts, and Dark Horse Comics present the lustful reader with tasty morsels of the future gamespace. These comic tidbits exist extraterritorially to the actual game landscape, but they open a deeper, richer level of immersion when you actually enter the universe.

http://www.swtor.com/media/webcomic

Lucas and Bio go after a deep narrative back story

Presently, it looks like the Star Wars team boasts a collection of 16 comics in two acts. There appear to be two more issues in Act 2 yet to be released. The series tees up the reader for an ominous foreshadow of future events in the story and the player’s journey in the game:

Star Wars The Old Republic: Threat of Peace – Act 1: Treaty of Coruscant

“Decades of war between the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire have ripped the Galaxy apart.”

That first line in the first issue of the first act straight away sets up a major narrative element. There is a conflict. There exist combatants. You, the player will pick a side. The side you pick suddenly creates a whole new meaning .  This would be meaningless key tapping and button pressing without this fiction. You are a Republican fighting the Sith. It matters that you defeat them. This evil scourge must be purged from the galaxy, because we want the little children to have a safe and happy future.

If you are not emotionally invested in the stories, then it seems a bit odd to play MMORPGs. This type of game melds story + rules to create an experience in which the player becomes emotionally invested. The game mechanics, art, and crafting systems exist to carry forward the narrative structures created by the players and enabled by the narrative framework set down by the game producers. The really good MMORPGs provide a rich mosaic of novels, short stories, comics, movies, and a fan culture that breathes life into the virtual worlds in which we learn, play, and fight for our side the conflict.

In the next episode, I will go explore Champions Online and discuss its narrative and creative framework including deep character customization, the nemesis system, and the background associated with each of the game’s major areas.

Comments

  1. hmm. I like the post. I’m not sure that i can agree with it towards the end. But im excited for the chain of posts this will set up!

    I think that being emotionally invested in a story adds a tremendous amount to the enjoyment of an MMO. The amount of lore and the depth that it goes aren’t always the main determinant for enjoying a game, and i dont think its particularly odd to skip story completely.
    I know a fair amount of WoW players that treat the game as a mexican birthday party. The bosses are loot pinatas and they have a fun social time hanging with friends. They end up discussing or understanding very little about the game besides the mechanics that are required to get the epics.

    When thinking about story as being 2ndary or tertiary for game enjoyment, there are 2 parts to why something that began as story based no longer relies on it as heavily. (i mean whats an MMORPG without the RPG part, right?) part 1 is that not everybody is interested in the written word anymore, and part 2 of it is the method for content delivery. I think that having to read everything in a quest dialog is very 90′s and naughts. More enjoyment is derived from the “clink” of quest reward coins going into the purse and the experience bar filling up, than reading and being motivated by the story. The way to “force” people to enjoy the content and lore that some dev is slaving over, is going to be with cutscenes like Aion does on a semi-regular basis or like Wrathgate in WoW. You get a little Lore and a little entertainment, together this heightens overall enjoyment.

    I feel myself rambling on. I will stop.

    Good posts today :)

    I dont know that this is odd, i think its certainly l

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