Games as a Story Media
Despite choosing an image from Final Fantasy XIV as the featured image here… And despite this conversation largely centring around Final Fantasy XIV, I’m going to endeavour to move the conversation to MMORPGs — possibly even games more generally.
We’ll see how successful at that I am, as FFXIV is a very convenient point of reference for the conversation. ;)
I won’t link back through the entire post chain, but suffice to say, like Telwyn mentioned, this chain kicked off initially by Aywren’s post on the importance of good writing in MMO stories has led to a lot of interesting discussions. The main reason I won’t go back through linking everyone is that this post is most directly a response to Rakuno’s defence of story as told by FFXIV — largely born of the comment I left there, even — and? Rakuno has done a good job of linking the other participants already. :)
Hmm… Although I might pull together other thoughts too. I guess let’s just jump in and see where we go!
What exactly is my argument?
So after all the discussion that has occurred, where my point of view has landed, is that different types of stories fit better into some forms of media than others. That hasn’t really changed. I’m never going to be one to get particularly excited by efforts to adapt long-form content (e.g., a book) into a short-form format (e.g., a movie).
This almost never goes well. Sure, there are notable exceptions but in my view, the fact that they are exceptions is precisely what makes them notable. TV series though? Well; now we’re talking. I’m at least given room to be more cautiously optimistic.
Game stories, in my opinion, are at their absolute best when there is at least a believable illusion in play that you are able to impact the outcome of the story. That the interactivity extends beyond simply clicking buttons all to the same outcome.
Where MMO’s with a heavy focus on story tend to fall down here is that the player agency is essentially nil. You have no power to effect any change whatsoever. You either succeed at the set task or you don’t, and are required to try again until you do.
To be clear — I’m not saying that finding enjoyment is impossible in such games. I’ve been enjoying the heck out of FFXIV recently, even though much of the previous commentary and thinking on this topic was based on FFXIV. But I am saying I don’t believe the enjoyment of such linear narratives would be significantly reduced by lifting them into another long-form media, be it a book or TV series.
Although one assumption this argument makes, that should be addressed, is that the strength of the underlying story is any good in the first place. That is… not always the case for game writing. Sometimes the story of a game is little more than a vehicle for justifying the action going on. In these cases, the ‘story’ wouldn’t ever stand up on its own.
Drawing on FFXIV again (I knew it was going to be difficult not to), I think the key beats here, the character interactions, the weaving of the world story… I think it is good enough. There would certainly need to be some tightening and further refinement even beyond what 5.3 offered to remove player ‘busy-work’ from the story, but put these things into the hands of a good author or screenwriter and we’d really have something special on our hands.
One size doesn’t fit all though…
It seems fairly obvious in retrospect, but one thing Rakuno’s post made me realise is that the form a story takes will land differently for different people. Rakuno outlined an example of this by recounting his experience of reading The Lord of the Rings. He was invested in the journey and needed to know how it all turned out. Yet there was still a certain… distance… between the plight of Frodo, Sam and the others and himself.
A distance that is removed when Rakuno plays FFXIV, as he — or at least, his avatar in that world — is directly involved with the trials and tribulations experienced.
Whereas for me, it’s almost the opposite. I remember having my heart in my throat at numerous points of Lord of the Rings and many other books since. The connection to the characters, for me, isn’t diminished at all by the fact they’re something other to me.
Whereas in FFXIV, my character is my eyes and ears in this world for witnessing the events of the world. Sometimes I get to hit buttons and fight things until the desired outcome is reached. Any connection at an emotive level for the game still comes via the game needing to successfully make me care about the other characters.
When I stop to consider how many times I’ve been in the proximity of onion-cutting ninja’s while reading vs. while playing a game — it’s certainly heavily weighted toward the former, for me.
I suppose ultimately though, it’s a good thing we have this diversity in media available to us. I may never agree that an MMO (or any other game genre) is the best vehicle possible for an absolutely linear story. But I can still be glad they exist for those who do think otherwise. And then since they exist anyway, I may as well see what enjoyment I can get from them any question of ‘optimal’ pushed to the side.
I’m told to expect more onion-cutting ninjas during Heavensward, so I suspect will get a +1 somewhere along the way to count of times it has happened while gaming.
I’m still pretty early into HW at this point, just about to finish wrapping up assisting the two sons of my patron. Still so, so, sooo much more to go.