Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Are Story and Exploration Really Mutually Exclusive?

I have a hard time coming up with proper ways to include exploration in modern games, especially MMOs. It just seems incredibly difficult to allow so many players to explore a (necessarily) limited world – you simply can’t boldly go where no man has gone before because there usually is no such place. That said, I don’t think that the kind of exploration that you can have in an MMO (which usually includes simply ignoring the fact that you are not alone) is not suited to go along with well crafted stories as Nils does in his post on Bioware’s fourth pillar.

Cloud City is a nice place to discover for sure, but hardly necessary for the plot of the movie. (image: http://starwars.wikia.com)

The reason we often speak of “lore” instead of “story” in MMOs is that those rarely contain just a single storyline but rather multiple smaller stories that in combination make up the setting of the game. I’d agree with Nils that having one big single-player-esque story does not go very well with exploration, but MMO stories are not like that and I doubt that the story of The Old Republic will be. Instead there might be an overarching storyline which is fleshed out by a myriad of smaller stories which you may or may not discover.

Your exploration of a remote star system might lead to the discovery of a Sith ploy to undermine a native civilization of mentally gifted people in order to use them as a weapon in the fight against the Jedi. You might gather a group of friends to fight that ploy and allow the natives to leave in peace. You might also never travel to that remote system or not realize the Sith presence at all while being there. Even looking at the Star Wars movies we see a variety of sub-plots that really don’t play a role in the overall storyline. Take the whole cloud city episode in “The Empire Strikes Back” for example, or even the whole (infamous) Ewok storyline.

The only thing that really clashes in those two “pillars” is the intent of game companies (extrapolating from Blizzard here) to have all players see all the content. In order to allow for stories and exploration to coexist (or, really, for exploration to be possible at all), you will need to accept the fact that you will be making content that a lot of players will not see. Expensive, for sure, but not at all impossible in my opinion.

  • Maybe there’s a different lesson to get from that (also known as a tangent), Cloud City and Ewoks were essentially sidequests, but they didn’t wreck the overall story by being random pauses the way they are in a MMO, “Guys, could you hold off on murdering the galaxy for a sec? I gotta go talk to some teddy bears.” How do side-quests become part of the story rather than… side-quests?

  • A very good point indeed. The problem is of course that Lucas had every possibility to mold his story to incorporate those side quests while game developers don’t have that luxury. They can’t simply integrate them into their main stories (for then they would stop being side quests) nor can they simply make them separate. Tough question, but a good one.
    scrusi´s last blog post ..Are Story and Exploration Really Mutually Exclusive

  • I think what’s going on here is a failure, or inability, to think of our characters as being character in a story. Did Cloud City change much of anything overall? Not really. They got split up, they got back together. It had no effect on the overall plot of blowing up Death Stars.

    When we do side quests we mentally separate them out, as if they were parallel timelines, rather than all part of the same narrative. Of course it’s a side-track, but it’s not totally separate. And yet, that’s how we think of side quests.

    The problem may be that there are just too many side quests to easily integrate them. It would be one with to go to Cloud City and Jabba’s Palace, quite another to do a few loops back to Tatooine, swing by Dagoba (oh wait, we did that part), spend a week hanging out in Nar Shadda talking to no one important, before finally going on to actually get anything done.

  • I’d be happy getting rid of the Giant Overall Story and just running with a bunch of sidequests. For me, the Big Picture story of an MMO is what *I* do in it, not what the devs tell me about what happens. If they can give up on railroading me through a barely-interactive movie, I will have a lot more fun.

    I do play Final Fantasy games and love ‘em, but that’s not what I want out of an MMO. I want to just go and tell my own story.
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