Exposition abortion: An unfortunate disconnect

We’re reading Writing for Multimedia and the Web in class, and suddenly it’s all about computer games. Holy crap, I can hardly believe this, this well-rounded liberal education I’m paying for has actually gotten around to discussing the field I’m interested in!

The current topic is out of chapter 17-18 of that book: Games are bigger than Hollywood but seem to be lacking compelling story/narrative development. Shoot, isn’t that what I’ve just been saying? Maybe I know what I’m talking about, after all, and if so that would explain why we hate the grind…

As human beings, we’ve spent thousands of years telling stories, it’s become a fundamental mechanic of our being. It’s no wonder we’ve learned to “hate the grind” when your average MMORPG is not concerned with progressing a story. It’s no wonder games get boring: this story goes nowhere; nothing ever happens.

Personally, I think the reason why this happens isn’t because the designers don’t want to tell a story but rather because programming and designing games is hard. You tend to be so impressed that Asteroids works that you don’t care there’s no reason to be out there shooting rocks in space in the first place. In other words, the challenge involved in making games effectively distracts a developer from caring about whether or not it can tell a story.

It seems that this is not good enough anymore. Finicky players (like myself) are beginning to demand that games need to be more than fun, they need to carry meaning as well. What I meant by “meaning” would often confuse people, perhaps even myself, but the answer may be that what I really wanted was for the game to tell a meaningful story.

Even now, the inner evolved ape is still sitting about the campfire waiting for a story to be told. Naturally, it’s getting just a bit frustrated when the storytellers keeping talking about shooting asteroids in space or camping respawning kobolds and never get around to a meaningful point in the story.

8 Responses

  1. When it comes to MMORPG’s, the stories shouldn’t always written for us, but rather could/should/are created and taken from the adventures with and from other players, friends and Guildmates.

    For myself, I shared in experiences that are still told and enjoyed to this day. Years after they occured, my guildmates and I still reminisce and enjoy hearing about our exploits about killing people in Covetous (UO), camping newbs in EQ, collecting ears in Diablo, etc. We realized that the game developers are giving us a playground and through our own actions we create and tell our own story.

    Blame this on game mechanics and the inability for developers to write an interesting story if you must, but I don’t think I’m speaking alone here when I say that stories that you create yourself are much more interesting than the ones forced upon you. MMO’s are different in this way, and I think thats why they appeal to people in different ways than single player games that are flooded with rich story.

    Apologies for the bad grammar, I wrote this quickly.

  2. I can see what you’re saying there. However, I’m thinking that if the developers are relying on players for the stories they bring with them while contributing none of their own, then the game is fundamentally flawed in its ability to tell a story.

    At the same time, however, there’s something to be said for an environment that is naturally contagious to develop stories. Perhaps the issue is that, in my perception, I’m no longer impressed with the kinds of stories that MMORPGs generate.

    It could be because, when you expect the players to generate their own stories, the result is too close to reality to generate an epiphany. Those kinds of stories are usually about how some jerk felt it was okay to gank you because he’s bored and not a story fundamental of the type that we would want to read a story for.

    We deal with jerks all the time, lets hear a story that matters, not generate gossip. Gossip is essentially what this kind of “emergent storytelling” a vanilla MMORPG brings without exerting any effort on behalf of the developers to really tell a story.

  3. I’m thinking that the developers realize that people like playing with other people in MMO’s, and that shared experiences outweigh any old quest storyline that you could do by yourself. MMO’s, like you mentioned in your post, are hard enough to code and get things done on time to generate some form of income (I still see them as being somewhat of a gamble each time one is made, but I don’t know the industry so I can’t say for certain). If the game doesn’t tell a story, yes it is flawed in the ability to tell a story, I think thats obvious. But I don’t think thats what MMO’s are about.

    You are incorrect in assuming that the kind of stories generated by MMO’s are simple hack and slash tales of gore and glory. I’ve had friends meet (and get married) in online games. Attended (and occassionaly crashed) online weddings. I’ve also helped people learn the game online only to form strong friendships in real life. We can all look back at the different games we have played and discuss all sorts of experiences: from people we used to know, to items that were hard to get, to new guild members we disliked at first and then eventually liked, and even guildmembers children growing up and joining the guild. It all depends on the company you keep.

    In a sense, MMO’s can be part of the story of your life, not just a fantasy tale that is either deemed “good or bad” by its quality.

  4. I thought that would be easy to misunderstand: My example with “the jerk that ganked you” had nothing to with the specific example so I wasn’t talking about gory stories. Fucking analogies.

    What I was trying to say is this:

    If the kind of stories you encounter in a MMORPG are the same kind of real life crap you encounter everywhere else – e.g. the jerk who bugged you or your friend getting married – then how are you going to have any meaningful interaction with the story?

    I don’t think we read books, watch movies, or play games for the same kind of experience we get in real life. The writer needs to be actively involved in developing a story because, if you leave the whole to the players, those RL kind of experiences are all you’re going to get.

  5. I suppose its how you see “real life”. You seem to be telling me that you prefer a good story over your own life experiences, is that correct? If you see experiences in life as “crap”, then no, I don’t see an appeal when you have them in a game.

    I don’t anyone who compalins about story when they have good friends/ a guild/a girlfriend/parents/anyone to play with.

    I can’t call my life “crappy” as I am enjoying it fully. The time I spend with friends in a MMO or other online game are rich in their own unique way, and I am thankful for that. The meaning you speak of is found through the relationships I create, the growth it undergoes through time, and the acceptance of going through good times as well as the bad. In other words, the meaning equals the experience. But that’s just me. You are still trying to find yours, obviously.

    Reading books, watching movies, and playing games are not real life, no. But they are as a part of it as anything else, aren’t they? Who needs a great story to have fun when you have thousands of people to interact with?

  6. I could rephrase still hearts content but it might be better asked as:

    Does the enjoyment of a good story really outweigh the interaction with other people?

    What I am trying to say, and what I don’t think you realize is: When you have good friends to play with, a good story isn’t as important anymore. And that’s where I think MMO’s get away with not having to write an epic novel each time they add a new dungeon or quest.

  7. One more thing!

    I honestly believe that gaming in the future will be less “force fed” — like movies and books — and more participant driven (like you have mentioned and asked for so many times in the past on this blog). The more a game allows you to be yourself, without it telling you what to do or how to feel or what to think, the more immersible it becomes. If a game allows one to assume a role as they please, to represent one’s self in a new reality outside of daily life, it evolves (so to speak) beyond typical old-fashioned storytelling and becomes something altogether new and unique. If one desires a good story, those books and movies aren’t going anywhere, but gaming has a chance to be so much more, and I believe MMO’s are that first step into a new kind of gaming.

  8. Well, I’m not a real big people person myself, never have been, so I’ll probably always prefer good concepts in MMORPG design as opposed to expecting to get a lot out of the people I play with.

    That said, I’m actually a very big fan about the concept of emergent stories and welcome the concept of games that allow players to weave their own stories with open arms.

    However, there’s a catch to that: The designer has some control over the way in which the stories will be weaved, and those who will totally disregard this responsibility will produce largely soulless games that don’t create much in the way of meaningful stories.

    I hope that makes sense, it’s tough thingy to convey.

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