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Around the digital campfire: the MMO as storyteller

April 17, 2011
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I debated whether or not to make this my inaugural  (and, as it turns out, THE inaugural) post on Flavor Text, but I’ve found that, for whatever reason, I rarely tend to start small. (My approaches must often subsequently be modified upon initial failure.) I intended to be writing, and posting, about a specific aspect of gameplay versus lore in the World of Warcraft, and that post will likely be forthcoming. However, in the course of browsing the Warcraft blog-o-sphere to see whether other people had already covered the particular topic I had in mind, I stumbled across Deuwowlity’s recent post “MMO’s Failures at Storytelling” (thanks, WoWInsider!) and the proverbial bee crawled into my proverbial bonnet.

And so, in the interest of sating this lodged Hymenopt, I’ve decided to write about this thing instead of the other. Deuwowlity of course did not write his post with me in mind but I’m styling this post as a sort of response anyway, because he touches upon some topics that are near and dear to my heart, and there are aspects of his post with which I disagree vehemently.

I’ll start with what I agree with: that World of Warcraft (and presumably MMORPGs as a whole) doesn’t do a great job of storytelling. Yeah, I think that’s true. I’ve been playing WoW for about four years now, and while the in-game vehicles of story—quests, for the most part—have seen great improvements to cohesiveness and flow since the days before Wrathgate, the tales told in WoW remain more disjointed and less immersive than a book of comparable significance.

Necessary sidetrack: what do I mean by a book of comparable significance? Well, ultimately, this is probably a case of comparing apples and oranges. But, as I’ve had pointed out to me before, though apples are not oranges and vice versa, they are both fruit, and there are ways in which they can effectively be compared, as long as we keep in mind the fact that they are inherently different things. Anyway, drawn-out metaphor is drawn-out. What I mean by “a book of comparable significance” is a book that functions, in the world of books, in a similar manner to the way World of Warcraft functions in the world of…Warcraft.

/RIMSHOT

No, ok, but really. WoW is an MMORPG, a specific type of video game. In the world of MMORPGs, WoW is an industry leader, a trendsetter, a trailblazer. Right now, I think it is fair to say that WoW defines MMORPGs as a medium. Therefore, considering it’s such a landmark in its field, I also think it’s fair to compare it to books of similar impact in their field. Think of some amazing, landmark books, books that define literature. As far as storytelling goes, does WoW match up? Not…really. No. I’d say it definitely does not.

Where I differ with Deuwowlity is in my interpretation as to why. Why is storytelling in WoW often inferior to that of a book?

Duewowlity offers up a few thoughts on this topic, but the overarching thesis of his post seems to be summed up in this line at the end:

Images on a screen have never proven to immerse someone into a story the way words on a page do[.]

I think this statement is incorrect. Or rather, I think its assumed universality is incorrect. Deuwowlity explains in some detail throughout his post why literature is the most immersive storytelling experience for him. Unfortunately his post gives the impression that he extrapolates this preference to everyone else, too, and thus concludes that WoW, and indeed any MMORPG, is an inherently inferior storytelling medium.

Well, I disagree. And the reason I disagree is because, basically, there is no accounting for taste. To go back to the apples and oranges metaphor, I generally prefer apples to oranges (mostly because they’re less messy to eat); it doesn’t mean an apple as food is an inherently superior means of delivering nutrients to my body. I know plenty of people who love film, but books put them to sleep. I know people who read comics voraciously above everything else. I know theater geeks who don’t own a television. I also know people who will gleefully consume story in any medium they can get their hands on. A storytelling medium is simply that: a storytelling medium, and no one medium is inherently better than another. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses, all of them excel at conveying certain aspects of a story, and all of them fall short in some of those aspects as well.

But I did say I thought that WoW doesn’t tell a story as well as a comparable book. So what gives?

It’s not that I think it’s impossible for an MMO to tell a story as well as a book. The reason I think WoW doesn’t do its storytelling as well as it could is because its developers haven’t yet figured out what is the best way to tell a story in an MMORPG. Video games are, as a storytelling medium, in their infancy compared to print, or compared to film, or theater, or comics, or even television, all of which have had decades—in some cases centuries—of a head start. We know how to write a book because people before us figured out what made a book work.

For example, in the opening passage of James Wood’s How Fiction Works he describes narrative in the English language. He says:

The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular, or in the first person plural, though successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed. And that is it. Anything else will not much resemble narration; it may be closer to poetry, or prose-poetry.

Why does the convention of first person and third person narration exist? Well, as Wood points out, successful fiction in second person or first person plural is rare, implying that first and third person narration is generally a better means of writing fiction in English than the alternatives. How does Wood know this? Well, Wood is a very accomplished and renowned literary critic. He’s read a lot of books and spent a lot of time studying what makes them good. He thus has a huge body of knowledge to draw from, and a huge pool of references to cite. That’s the key—that these references, in the form of thousands upon thousands of books—exist. The big risks have already been taken, the important experiments performed. That’s not to say experimental literature no longer exists; it does, but the basic formula for telling a story in prose is well-established and is probably not going to change any time soon. The aspiring novelist has an almost infinite amount of material available to study.

What does the aspiring MMO developer have? Not much. According to Michael Anissimov, the first true MMORPG was Meridian 59 released in 1996. MMORPGs can trace their roots back to the 1970s and the first networked, multiplayer games, however most of those games contained little to no narrative, so I’m not honestly sure if they even count for the purpose of this essay. And the 40-ish (if we’re generous) year history of MMORPGs is still nothing compared to the novel, which can arguably trace its roots back to the Dashakumaracharita, a Sanskrit text written in the 6th or 7th century. That’s 1500 years of the novel. That’s no contest.

The story developers of MMORPGs, for WoW (as WoW is the focus of this post) are…well they’re making it up as they go along. Narration in MMORPGs (and probably most video games, to be honest) is still very actively in its experimental phase. New techniques and technology are still being developed and implemented in order to enhance WoW’s storytelling capacity, such as in-game cut-scene cinematics and phasing. In WoW I see narrative elements of literature (quest text, written dialogue, in-game books), of film (cut scenes, animation, spoken dialogue, background music), of comics (sequential art—that one is probably a stretch, but it’s what the phasing techniques bring to my mind), and there are likely others that I’m missing. This reflects the experience of the development teams responsible for storytelling at Blizzard—their members have backgrounds as writers, artists, filmmakers, and in other fields as well, I’m sure. And yet, in WoW, I feel that each component is still relatively easily teased apart from the others. The whole has yet to transcend the parts to form something greater than each.

So, what will it look like when it does? Christ, I don’t know. Do the developers themselves even know? Could the author of The Dashakumaracharita have envisioned Beloved? Could William Hogarth have envisioned The Sandman? Could Georges Méliès have envisioned The Godfather? Yes, these comparisons probably sound pretentious and I think I puked a little in my mouth just writing that. But my point is this: a storytelling medium is an artistic medium. And it’s impossible to know what an artistic medium is capable of except in hindsight and with lots and lots of examples. MMORPGs are brand new. They are still being shaped. WoW has set a milestone and, if Blizzard’s track record is any indication, it will continue to explore its own capacities. Others will start at that milestone and will expand the boundaries of what can be achieved beyond that. Still others will continue, and on and on, as long as the resources and desires exist to tell stories within MMORPGs. I think it foolish to write off MMOs as an inferior medium for storytelling. We yet have no real idea what they’re capable of. But hell if I’m not excited to find out.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2011 7:42 am

    It’s interesting to compare the early works of a genre with later ones; you can see that the progenitors had no idea what would come after, that they started with raw idea but tried to express it using the tools they had, which were not the tools which would come later. William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” is a great example of this – the story is clunky, the characters not all that great, but the ideas are compelling, the setting is fantastic, and it launched a cyberpunk movement.

    But I remember reading it, going… this is not my taste. I compared it to later storytelling, where the conventions had been smoothed out, the focus became on the story and character, not the setting.

    MMORPG storytelling seems to still be very much in its infancy. A lot of effort is going into the structure of the game, with the story coming in different ways.

    It’s interesting to see how it’s developing. I’m sure that in 20 years we’ll look back and laugh, but for now, it’s an enjoyable tale.

  2. Lani permalink*
    April 22, 2011 9:29 am

    A lot of effort is going into the structure of the game, with the story coming in different ways.

    Absolutely–this is a really good point, about the creative energy going primarily into the game structure rather than the story structure. I tend to think of it as the medium being sorted out before the story can take center stage. What’s really encouraging to me is how important storytelling is indeed becoming in video games. I’ve been on the job hunt recently and decided to throw in a wildcard at some local game development companies (applying can’t hurt!) and I’ve noticed several positions open for dedicated game writers and story developers. I hope that niche continues to expand!

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