Storytelling in MMORPGs is torn between incompatible demands of the traditional hero’s journey, interactivity, and a static world with multiple players. Can games even tell a story?
The present article shares topics with the article on How to channel content. You may want to read both.
Table of Contents
- The hero´s journey
- Storytelling in traditional genres
- Storytelling in games
- Storytelling pitfalls in MMORPGs
- Storytelling strategies in MMORPGs
The hero´s journey
The archetype of storytelling is the hero´s journey. A storytelling basic that is so fundamental and timeless that you can find it in countless variants from the oldest myth to the latest novel.
The hero´s journey is a general story stereotype that is appealing to the human mind. Everything different is regarded as less satisfying by most people. Possibly, because people are used to this pattern from the earliest childhood stories. Or maybe, because it transports real or imagined survival experience. People can identify with the hero or with traits of the hero. They want to learn from the hero´s journey.
Starting in an MMORPG is surprisingly identical to the start of the hero´s journey. The hero´s journey can play out on a game level (hero = avatar) and/or on a metagame level (hero = player). Players do overcome challenges and playing a game intensively for some time has similarities to the hero´s journey. But don´t be fooled. The hero´s journey and MMORPGs don´t easily come together.
Storytelling in traditional genres
First, let´s look at storytelling in traditional genres to better understand the nature of storytelling. While any genre can be forced to tell stories in any way, each is ideal for a specific type of storytelling.
Books are ideal for giving insights into human thinking. They are about the interaction of individuals with themselves. It feels natural to know what the protagonist knows and to follow his thoughts. This can go to such an extent that there is almost zero action and everything happens in the protagonist’s mind.
Books can contain vast descriptions of ideas and places. Time is extremely flexible and can span millennia, some seconds. Also, the flow of time is plastic: fast forward, backward, slow-moving, or kipping.
Theatre is about the interaction of individuals with each other. Place and time are limited and concentrated. The audience has no direct insight into the thoughts of the actors.
Movies shine in showing something happening: action. They are about the interaction of individuals with the world. Movies can present ideas and worlds with an emphasis on visuals and music.
Movies have a slightly higher degree of freedom than theatre in the number of places and the number of actors. Movies can work flexibly with time (for instance flashbacks), yet not as much as books.
Even single pictures can tell stories. The newspaper is full of examples. To tell a story, pictures often rely on context. The story is not always obvious, and it can be joyful to put the puzzle pieces together.
Composing a picture with the intent to tell a specific story is demanding. You must compress the idea of the story into a single scenery. Besides, you need to know your audience to craft decipherable metaphors.
Some pictures don´t tell a complete story. Instead, they display a simple thought, a principle, or at least a mood.
On one hand, music is so dependent on context and interpretation that it is almost impossible to tell a specific story. On the other hand, music is a perfect medium to deliver a certain mood.
Storytelling in games
Storytelling versus real life
After so much comparison of storytelling in all genres, let’s compare storytelling with real life.
Nothing could be more different from each other than storytelling and real life.
Storytelling is compression and focus. Good stories are written from the end. Everything in a good story has relevance to that conclusion. So never mistake storytelling for real life.
Are games about storytelling?
Let´s try an even more general definition of story than already in the hero´s journey:
A story unfolds when a protagonist carries out a sequence of actions that change himself, possibly other actors, and possibly the world.
The two essential features of this definition are:
- sequence of actions
- change himself (protagonist)
It is absolutely possible for a player to change himself or his avatar in games. What is not possible: To determine in advance the sequence of the player´s actions. That´s the price of interactivity.
Games are not naturally suited to tell a story!
How can games tell a story?
Games, due to their interactivity, cannot tell a story like a book or a movie. Rather, they have developed a number of strategies to present stories:
- Enforce sequence
- Story Exhibition
Chunk a story into parts and gate each part with a set of conditions. When all of them are fulfilled, the story advances to the next part. The player can choose how and in which order to overcome the conditions.
Chunking is the most common strategy of storytelling in games. Think of cutscenes, chapters, missions, and scripted events that “drive the story forward”.
Similar to chunking. Yet so rigid that players can only advance the story when they perform actions exactly as the story demands. This is the case for adventure games.
The “game” is in reality an interactive movie in disguise with little to no degree of freedom.
The game doesn´t claim to tell a story. Rather the game is interest in creating a certain mood and background. Small stories or fragments may be presented to support that mood.
The game presents a collection of stories. Sometimes these stories are interconnected. RPGs and MMORPGs use this approach to present a complex world.
Storytelling pitfalls in MMORPGs
In the sandbox, the players make their own stories. Sandbox-based MMORPGs give players a high degree of freedom to do shape the world.
This often means killing other players and establish structures of power projection. Sandbox games are less suited to present a story due to their high interactivity.
Theme Park MMORPGs don´t spare expenses on creating a vast variety of high-quality, handcrafted experiences. So the theme park uses the strategy of story exhibition.
However, similar to a real-life theme park, the player is regulated in what he can do. Coming back after some time offers the same well-known experience. The theme park can be static and lifeless.
Procedural generation of content follows well-considered rules. This way items, creatures, and even complete levels can emerge anew. Procedural content is more easily refactored and stays longer fresh. Also, procedural content can be a source of surprise as no guide can predict it.
However, it is hard to generate genuinely new stories in a procedural way.
Storytelling in MMORPGs must go without cutscenes or anything similar that takes the control away from the player. They are more likely to create a gap between the player´s experience in the game and the story of the game.
Phasing and Quest Chains
Phasing is used to show the transformation of the world that is shaped by the player’s actions. Quest chains are a less intrusive way to show the advancement of the player in the world.
However, both mechanisms work against world persistence and separate players. Both encumber cooperative play by placing each player in its own progression instance of the world.
How to avoid the pitfalls
The sandbox, theme park, and procedural generation each have their strenghts. They can be used to delivery a story, when clever combined.
For instance, a Player-versus-Player area benefits from sandbox principles. The theme park benefits from a well-developed system of user-generated content. Procedural generation can be highly beneficial in certain aspects of the game.
Instead of cutscenes, phasing, and quest chains, apply the storytelling strategies presented below.
Storytelling strategies in MMORPGs
Pictures at an exhibition
Consider an MMORPG an exhibition of pictures. Each tells a story. Contrary to real pictures, your MMORPG pictures don´t rely on external context. Rather, they are complex sceneries that can deliver a ton of detail and context. The player can discover the context and put the story of the picture together. They can be a playing ground with a carefully crafted mood and scenery.
The time is frozen in each picture and the player cannot change anything. You wouldn´t want other visitors to spoil the pictures in an exhibition.
Despite this static setting, players can have the impression of freedom, progression, and time flow. In the exhibition, the visitors are not in the pictures. Similarly, in an MMORPG the players are not in the pictures. Rather, their avatars are.
The impression of freedom comes from the ability of the player to move from picture to picture arbitrarily.
The feeling of progression is fueled by the advancement of the avatar. Also, NPCs can show different reactions to the avatar. The impression of time flow is created by both of the aforementioned and by the player experiencing the pictures in a sequence.
The pictures in your exhibition are static. However, you can decide to add and remove pictures. Likewise, you can apply methods that channel content. Open and close access to certain zones dependent on the activities of the player community.
This way players actually can change the world.
Shared state objects
There are world objects that neither belongs to the static world, nor to the state that is individual for each player. Such shared state objects might be the position of a common transportation device or the number of community votes to open a particular dimension portal.
Shared state objects can be a way to tell a story to the entire community. Make sure that each state of a shared state object is compatible with a satisfying player experience, regardless of the current player state.
Individual state objects
Except for shared state objects, an MMORPG world is static. This static nature delivers persistence to players that can enter and exit arbitrarily.
Yet, there are still things that change on an individual basis. Such things are individual and different to each player without the other players noticing:
- player´s mind
- NPCs´ mind
Each of these states will change in the course of a well-crafted MMORPG experience. Therefore, it is absolutely possible to deliver a story in spite of a static world.
The King and The Siege are two examples that show how location itself tells a story instead of cutscenes, phasing, and quest chains.
Where does the player find the king:
- holding an audience
- on the hunt
- torturing a prisoner
The king doesn´t need to move from place to place. He doesn´t even need to open his mouth. From the situation alone you already know what kind of king that is.
In MMORPGs, the environment must tell the story.
The player has to defend the castle against a siege. He needs to ride out, destroy the catapults, repair the castle doors, drive off the enemy army, and finally celebrate the victory.
What a mess of phasing and quest chains this is. Once in, players will have a hard time finding the right phase and step in the quest chain to team with another player.
Instead of phasing over one castle, have three castles in three different stages. In the first castle, you destroy catapults and gather door repair materials. In the second castle there are intact doors and no catapults, yet you bring havor over the enemy army. The third castle has just survived a siege and your deeds in the other two castles are celebrated.
In MMORPGs, location replaces progress and time.
As stated before, the avatar can be the hero of the hero´s journey. The equipment of the avatar and the avatar skill advances on an individual basis.
Each player advances in the game on an individual basis.
Staying with the exhibition metaphor, you must make sure that each picture (= scenery) is consistent with every other.
- Can the same NPC appear in different pictures? Yes, when they are far apart from each other.
- Can an NPC die? No, dying is a state change from living to death. State changes break the static nature of the world.
- Can an NPC know of your actions in other pictures? Yes, definitely. It adds to persistence and immersion when NPCs react to the avatar state.
- Can an NPC know of his own actions in a future picture? Wrong question! There are no future pictures. The order of the pictures is chosen by the player. So each picture is virtually happening at the same time and the NPCs know of everything they do in each picture.
Also, the relation of NPCs to the players is an individual state object. Read here how to implement deep individual NPC reactions.
Quests work like small loops. At the end of the quest, the world enters the same state it had at the start of the quest. Quest design should follow these rules:
- Persistence: a quest must respect the static nature of the world
- Progression: a quest must change an NPC´s reaction to the player
- Accessibility: a quest must be without prerequisites and shareable
- Availability: a quest start may not always be available
- Comfort: there must always be a way to turn in a finished quest
Availability versus Accessibility
Limited quest availability doesn´t violate the rule of static worlds. In the end, the player has to go to different zones to take different quests. So limited availability is already in the game. Even more, when access to such zones is gated. However, a player bringing a quest from now-closed zones can always share it with other players.
On top of that, you might consider a world with a day-night cycle. At night there are different NPCs with different quests available than at day. Consider the zone at night to be a different zone than at day. Besides, you might change the creatures of the zone at night.
Such systems with limited quest availability work well, as long as quests are always sharable, and quests can always be finished. But what to do, when the NPC that you want to turn the quest in is in a zone that is not available at the moment?
Players must be able to turn in quests at mailboxes or similar static structures.
Build a stage
A quest text contains the following elements:
- background information: what has happened here and why should the player do the task
- task description: what exactly is the player expected to do
- reward: what the player will get when finishing the quest
To give an example, the player arrives at a badly damaged keep with wounded guards laying around. There is a ragged old man (quest giver) that treats a wounded soldier.
Games are about playing, not reading. This quest text is already much too long. You need to break it into more digestible pieces.
The only thing a quest text should contain is the immediate call to action: what is the player requested to do?
The reward should be directly shown as an item in a separate field. The location should tell the background information. More complex background information can be stored for attentive players:
- as a conversation between NPCs
- as a talk option between the player and the NPCs: “What happened here”
Be careful with talk options. They must be always optional and only contain irrelevant, yet decorating story details. Never hide quests behind a talk option. Otherwise, you enforce players to always check all NPCs´ talk options
Tell by action
Consider actions that are performed by players in quests the most important and most natural means of telling your MMORPG´s story. Given the restrictions that come with the quest rules, quest actions are “work in progress”.
That means, the player´s actions are a small contribution to a bigger task, where the success is not immediately visible.
Traditional elements of storytelling that are described in the hero´s journey archetype don’t work in games and even less in MMORPGs due to their interactivity and their static nature.
MMORPG storytelling can involve cutscenes, phasing, and quest chains. However, such strategies damage immersion, persistence, and cooperative play.
Instead, use the Pictures-at-an-exhibition approach to present stories. Implement progress in a static world via individual state objects like location and NPC reactions.
Each genre shines in a specific way of storytelling.
(Last Updated on May 1, 2021)