Recently Joseph Skyrim of JVT Workshop made an interesting post about the Halloween event in Age of Conan and the way they presented its story. Basically, he says that since the story is told mostly in instances and the events are a lot smaller in scale it feels like his actions mattered more than in the traditional tropes of MMO where you only feel as much of a hero as the next Joe who slayed the big villain of the week.
That made me think about my recent experiences in Everquest 2 and how what may be a shift for their way of storytelling made it feel like my actions mattered more in that game. So this post will be about that and my thoughts about the other ways that I've seem stories told in MMOs through my years playing them. Keep in mind I am not claiming any of these are factually superior or inferior to each other. It is more some thinking aloud and sharing my feelings on these methods. If anything it might be a starter for a good discussion.
Another thing to note is that usually MMOs nowadays employ a mix of all these methods with varying results. So there isn't any reason any of them should be mutually exclusive nor would I want that. To me they are all different tools with their effectiveness depending a lot more on how the developers uses it than their particular nature.
The fiction piece
This is pretty much like traditional fiction. Someone in the development team writes up a short story that is used to explain an in-game event or the addition of a certain content. Then said story will be published in the game's site. Sometimes the will even hire a writer and write a novel, made out paper and everything. Although those novels tend to be more of an optional thing to really flesh out certain events and characters in the game world.
The problem with this method is that most players won't be going back to check the game's site once they downloaded it and made their account. If they even know about it then it will most likely be because a friend of them told about it, giving the short version of everything sprinkled with their own comments and opinions. Another problem is that the story will eventually get buried in the middle of the site's archives together with all the news about patch notes, release dates for upcoming content, promotions, etc. If not outright gone whenever the site goes through a revamp. So the only way people can access that story end up because a fan site took the time to make a copy of it to make sure people keep having access to it or through the tales of grizzled veterans who remembers about everything of the "good old days".
The quest lines
This is probably one of the most popular ways to tell stories in MMOs nowadays too. You know the drill of this one. You got an area, start talking to other NPCs, they tell you their problems and ask your help to solve them. Soon enough you talked with enough people to get a good idea of what has been happening in that region, how things used to be, maybe even start to get a bit picture of the problems of the world at large.
The problem happens if you skip a few of those quests. It may be because your character somehow outleveled that content or there was another area that seemed more interesting to leve in at the time or some other reason. Then some quests later the NPCs mention something or someone that sounds like a big deal. But you have absolutely no idea what they are talking about or why you should care about it. It really becomes confusing, so you just accept the quest, do whatever they wanted to do and go on with your life. Story be damned!
To explain this one I will have to explain my experiences with Everquest 2 although I assume stuff like this happens in other games too. Back when I was a starry eyed newbie in Everquest 2, I thought that the new content was added because they were places that existed in the first Everquest game. I had the impression that one of the themes of Everquest 2 was rediscovering those places whose location had been lost in the cataclysm that happened between the series. I didn't really care about the reasons that were given for people to form raids and kill certain boss mobs. Maybe those boss mobs ended up in somebody's black list and now that person was sending random adventurers to kill it. Maybe they were a new big villain who didn't learn anything from the previous one, who thought their plan was infalible. Maybe the players just wanted some shiny new gear and that boss mob just happened to have the goodies. Whatever the case it was, raiding wasn't and it still isn't my thing. So I was happily ignorant of them.
Imagine my reaction then to find that there was actually some story given to why those raid bosses had to be killed. That story was part of a meta-plot that serverd to explain a lot of the things that were going in the game world like why we were seeing an increase in mobs posessed by beings of another plane with each expansion. That explained why in the lore the gods had left a long time ago, causing the whole cataclysm thing that reshaped the world and that also explained their recent return. A story that was hinting that there were even worse things than those raid bosses to come that could destroy the entire world easily.
So, yeah, you can imagine I wasn't too happy about it. And if my feelings before as one of "live and let live" it was now one of bregrudging towards raiding.
Anyway, as my example shows the problem with putting all the important story pieces only for raiders to see is one that only that part of the player population will know there is an actual story. For the rest it will seem there is absolutely no rhyme or reason for the events in the world.
This method seems to be more and more popular in MMOs as the years go by. This is where you or maybe your entire group are transported to a special zone that exists only for you. In that zone your character is the only hero, the chosen one, the one that will right every change the world's fate. All those people outside it? They pretty much don't exist for the purposes of the story being told.
Of course, instancing isn't there jusst to give the illusion that your character is special. It is also used so that you are given interesting choices that will affect later parts of the story (also happening in instances) thus forming some unique tale shaped by your decisions.
Most of the time I don't have any problem with it. It really depends on how it is done. Too much instancing, for example, make it feel pretty much like a single-player game. At which point I might as well play a single-player game which will have a tighter story, most likely a more interesting game play and won't require a subscription or bug me with their cash shop nor have me to suffer with people with stupid names like "xXxDarkShad0wKillah666xXx" in my game world. :p
Another possible problem of implementation would be one of dissonance. Let me give an example, as I think it will be easier to explain this way. Back when the Secret World was in open Beta I gave it a very brief try because a couple of friends were checking it out. I wasn't really planning to play it since Guild Wars 2 was about to release soon but decided I might as well give it a try since it was an open beta, it's been a while since I played with my friends and I had enough curiosity about the game.
I made a character who was going to be part of the Dragon faction. In the introduction it was shown my character one day discovering he had some weird powers. Then one night a speckle of light appeared in front of him, moving like it was trying to tell him to follow it. My character being the obvious suicidal idiot curious fellow he was, he just followed that light throughout the empty night streets of Seoul. He got to talk with some NPCs, found about a few things and before he knew it he was part of some secret society and had a mission. So far, so good. The mood was creepy, enigmatic, just about right for everything the setting was supposed to be. The problem happened when my character left the instance. The narrow street that was just empty five minutes ago now had hundreds of people just hanging around it like it was no big deal. Those were the other players. At that moment my immersion in the game received a might kick to the face and I logged out of Secret World to never log in it again.
Don't take me wrong. That wasn't the only reason I gave up on the Secret World. There were a lot of other little things that I didn't like and I was never planning to play it anyway. But it certainly contributed to that decision.
The signature quest line
This might be one of those unique things to Everquest 2 although other games may implement something similar just under another name. I just can't recall seeing it anywhere else though. Anyway, a signature quests line in EQ2 is a chain of quests that are linked from one to another with some ovearching story tying it all together.
In the old days it was used to tell some small stories of no consequence to the rest of the meta-plot. But in more recent years they have been using it to tell more stories that affect the world of Norrath (where Everquest 2 happens). With the last expansion, Chains of Eternity they went all in and made the whole new areas part of a giant signature questline. I will try to not spoil things too much but Chains of Eternity deals with the Ethernere, which is the place where people go when they die in Norrath just before they are allowed to go to the plane of their chosen deity. Due to certain reasons our characters have to go there. Once they arrive in the Ethernere they are greeted by a NPC who promises to explain what is going on and even help you out. At first he is pretty cryptic about everything and just tell you to do some quests for other people so you get an idea of the place, what is wrong with it, etc.
Once you complete those then he explains what is actually going on and what you can do to help since due to circunstances he cannot act on it. But also due to the same circunstances you might actually not only solve the problem plaguing Ethernere but save the entire world (again). So the reasons start becoming to either stop things from getting worse or helping people so they will give you the information you need to solve the current big problem and save the world.
It was certainly not the perfect way of storytelling in a game but I felt a lot more involved with what was going on, the NPCs and for once I felt like my character had a reason to fight. I don't know if the whole thing actually truely ends with a raid or not but if it does, I am completely fine with it. I saw almost the entire story (if not the full thing if a raid isn't required to see the end) and have a pretty good idea of what will be the threat of the next one and why it need to be stopped.
The drawback of this method is that it is very linear. So for instance if you don't like a series of quests you can't skip them and go do the next ones as they require doing the quests in a certain order to be unlocked. The developers acknowledged that problem and promised that with the next expansion they are trying to be careful to not make things so linear. I didn't check the beta to see how that will turn out since I don't want to spoil things for myself. Part of me is afraid that they will once again put all the important story parts in raids so I will be left out and confused like in the old days. Hopefully it won't turn out like that and we'll find out soon enough as the expansion is to be released next week.
Storytelling in a MMO is really dang hard. I don't envy the people who have to decide on how to deliver or come up with ways to better tell a story. Also I don't think we've seem all the possible methods of telling stories in a MMO yet and I keep hoping that one day we might see stories in a MMO just as good as in single player games and where our actions will feel just as meaningful.