Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Stories In Games – Where Should They Come From?

Storytelling in games has always been a difficult beast to tackle. Oftentimes the story simply feels grafted onto the gameplay or vice versa instead of both being a homogeneous entity. In the wait for Bioware’s new MMO The Old Republic, discussions seem to flare up from time to time on the topic of making story an integral part of MMO gameplay. Tobold, for example, recently said that development time should go into gameplay elements rather than story and Chris at Game by Night claims that story as an integral part of the MMO experience will cut it once at most.

Instead of going directly on topic I find it necessary to understand a couple of things about stories first. What is a story and, maybe more importantly, where does it come from?

You will probably have learned about the basic elements of a story in school at some point.  Interestingly there are various, slightly different definitions to be found depending on where you look, but they all go something like this. A story needs characters that act in it, a plot that describes the sequence of events that happen, a place in which those events happen, a point of view from which it is told, and a meaning.

Lord of the Rings had great plot and setting. Characterization... Not so much. (image: XKCD)

Whichever way you want to create a story, these elements somehow need to be produced.  Us humans are relatively good at making them up as we go along, but there are clearly differences in just how good we are at that. The quality of a story essentially depends on the quality of each of the elements, although it is quite subjective which of the elements is most important to us. In my youth I tended to like books mostly for their plot and setting, not so much for characterization or perspective. I wanted my stories to be filled with exciting action in fantastic new places and didn’t really care if the characters were one-dimensional and rhetorical devices non-existent.

These days I still like good plot and setting, but the other elements have become much more important. I now understand that a good story needs much more than constant dramatic twists and action in a world that can only be imagined but never be.

Handcrafted Stories

But let us move on to stories in games. If we accept that stories get better the better the individual elements mentioned above are, then we need to make sure that our games do well in those categories if we want them to succeed as storytelling devices. The most intuitive way of creating story for a game is clearly to craft that story by hand. Design a plot for players to move through (with some branches if you want) that’s full of interesting action and surprising twists. Fill it with well-designed, deep characters that the player can identify or antagonize with and place it in a very detailed world. With all that in place you can then use a combination of literary and visual techniques to convey your meaning in an appealing way. In essence you don’t treat a game’s story much differently than the story of a movie or a book.

Most games tell their stories this way and it can make for very good gaming indeed. The problem, as Tobold correctly identified, occurs when you need to fill much more hours with story than you can possibly craft by hand. I’ve mentioned this particular issue before and noted that it is often solved by filling the gaps with repetitive gameplay that is not actually related to the story. This is less than satisfactory of course – maybe we can find a better solution?

Make The Computer Do It

Getting a computer to tell stories is notoriously difficult. Just go and ask Chris Crawford who has spent a lot of time researching interactive storytelling. Last time I checked, he hadn’t yet succeeded – though I must admit that my knowledge is a couple of years old. Maybe his new Storytron is the bees knees, but on a first look it still seems to require a lot of handcrafting for mediocre results.

The hero's journey.

This doesn’t mean that the computer is useless as a tool for telling stories, maybe it just isn’t good at all the elements but can perform well at some? Plot, for example, is something that computers should be able to create relatively easily. Looking at Campbell’s hero’s journey it is quite obvious that most plots can be broken down into very simple structural elements. Creating a computer program that mixes and matches these elements while still creating a plausible and interesting plot is not a huge challenge. Even stepping away from traditional narrative and on to computer RPG terrain we can see the possibilities. A quest needs a final goal to achieve, a couple of obstacles on the way, and a reason for the player to go on the quest in the first place. Computers could easily create an unlimited variety of quests from this structure. The problem is, of course, that computers are notoriously bad at setting and perspective.

“Collect ten bear asses, go!” might be a fitting description for most quests in MMORPGs these days, but players want more in order to feel as if they are part of a story. The world, the characters, and the bears must be visually appealing and interesting for one. Computers are really bad at creating those visuals, but are quite good at presenting them once they have been created. Computer game designers will not be able to avoid creating a setting for their game both in concept and visually, but they can use the computer to expand it. Terrain, for example, can be computer-generated if all the art assets are in place and enough general guidelines for the look and feel of the terrain exist. Characters, monsters, and other obstacles can be placed procedurally as well.

Plausible characterization on the other hand is extremely tough to do automatically. Sure, you can set up rules on how NPC characters interact with each other but getting those interactions to the point where they feel real seems almost impossible. Once again I could imagine using handcrafted chunks of characterization to flesh out a computer generated story.

What About The Players?

Modern content generation seems to rely more and more on the user instead of the developer of a piece of software. If computers have a hard time telling stories and humans excel at it, why shouldn’t we use all those humans that are playing our games anyway to tell the stories? What seems like a good idea in theory completely fails in practice for two reasons. For one, most players of computer role-playing games don’t actually like to play roles. Oh sure, they might enjoy playing the renegade space hero in Mass Effect, but only because their choices are already pre-written for them and all they have to do is to decide. Most players, if left to their own, will simply do whatever they like in the game without any regards for creating an interesting story.

A player going out to hunt bears won’t come up with an interesting story describing why she’s doing what she’s doing. Instead she’ll go out and hunt bears because she wants their asses. Plain, simple, and extremely boring. Sure, putting humans in a world of infinite possibilities could in theory generate interesting stories, but the matter of fact is that we already live in such a world and most stories written by the real life are really really boring. Why do you think we invented fiction in the first place? “I got up this morning, had breakfast and a shower, read up on Kotaku and various blogs, and then proceeded to write a post for my blog.” does not make for much of a story, does it? Well, neither does “I needed a new rug, so I went out hunting bears, killed some, came back and made a rug.”

Even pen and paper role-playing groups need a dungeon master of sorts to guide them into interesting adventures. The players might flesh out the story with their role-playing if they are good at it (which most computer RPG players are not) but the story needs to exist already and needs to be guided by the dungeon master. Putting players into a sandbox usually doesn’t make for interesting stories at all.

Even if you went ahead and added the equivalent of dungeon masters to your MMORPG – allowing interested players to assume a position of power in which they create story according to their own designs in which others can then play – you will still get confronted with one of the fundamental rules of user generated content: Most of it is crap! For every good dungeon master you will have tons of terrible ones, your game will become the YouTube of MMOs. Sure there’s good stuff on there if you know where to look, but most of it is really just plain awful.

No, one might be able to use players to guide storytelling into a certain direction but the real storytelling needs to come from elsewhere. Players as a whole are just not equipped to do it right.

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