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.

The Witcher 3 does this very well. Not only can your decisions have significant impacts on subplot outcomes, but the overall game too will end differently according to the decisions you’ve made and the actions you’ve taken.

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.

An older shot of my character now, but still how he looks — minus the fact I worked out how to raise the visor. :)

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.

Categories: Gaming

Naithin

Gamer, reader, writer, husband and father of two boys. Former WoW and Gaming blogger, making a return to the fold to share my love of all things looty.

9 Comments

Tessa - Narratess · July 17, 2021 at 8:19 pm

There’s a big discussion about story in the Gw2 community at the moment because of the upcoming expansion and how new players might experience the game. Part of the overall story is told through Living World updates. They were time sensitive updates and you had to log in while that part of the story was active, to claim it for free. If you missed it, you had to buy it. This year is the first year they’re allowing players to unlock these episodes for free again. But you have to log in during these specific weeks to get them. Season 2 is already done and 3 is halfway over, with 4 and 5 to come. But season 1 has never been replayable. So when you start season 2, you have no idea who your friends are, what happened, and how the elder dragon woke up. All you get is a cutscene with a short summary.

All the content is inaccessible, basically gone. They’d have to rebuild everything from the top. But have of the story was told through small in game changes, changes that can still be seen in game.

Tbh, the whole thing is messy. But their intention was clear. Tyria was supposed to be an evolving world and some stories happened and can’t be relived. Their mistake was making these living world stories part of their grander story instead of standalone or side stories.

I think all games and MMOs in particular still have a lot to learn about what the right way to tell a story is. The genre of MMORPGs is still pretty young and not many games have survived long enough to see what such a long live can do with a story. It’s an interesting concept for sure. Especially since every player has different expectations and play styles. And you can never cater to all of them.

    Naithin · July 17, 2021 at 10:28 pm

    I play GW2 with each expansion, and had to buy the Living World updates for Season 2 and 3, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. Jumping into those with only very minimal context as to what happened in LW S1 was… Well, I wouldn’t say difficult. But it was difficult to form any sort of connection with the characters who were now apparently friends and I knew quite well.

    And I don’t think that feeling every really got shaken off, either.

    I learnt my lesson and logged in for each episode’s release in Season 4, but I haven’t played them yet. I’ll probably do so shortly before the next xpac’s release as something of a refresher.

    Agree that MMO stories have some ways to go yet. I don’t know what the right answer is, short of going to the effort of actually allowing divergent story paths, but that is a looot of effort.

      Tessa - Narratess · July 17, 2021 at 10:32 pm

      Keep your eye on the Gw2 news and updates. Season four should be soon with new achievements. More people will play the maps so it might be easier to do all the content.

Nimgimli · July 18, 2021 at 1:32 am

This might just be me, or my play style, but I can’t remember a single major storyline from any of the MMOs I’ve played over the years. At best I remember side-stories that I more or less observed, like Stibbons and Lady Clarisse in Elder Scrolls Online. But I DO remember, vividly, the stories of some of my favorite single player games, and of course I remember stories from books and movies from years and years ago.

One possibly significant factoid: I tend to play MMOs solo and a lot of MMOs put parts of their stories in dungeons that I can never access, so that may be a big factor.

But then there are the non theme-park MMOs and I do remember “stories” from them. But these are stories that arose via player interaction. I still remember things that happened in Ultima Online in the late 90s but they weren’t scripted stories, they were stories that players created by their actions and interactions.

But sticking to scripted stories and games, I think single player games are where it is at for telling stories since a) the player isn’t distracted by conversations and getting pulled in many directions at once, and b) the writers can, at least to some extent, control the pacing. In an MMO Player A might have 10 minutes between main story beats because they are focused on mainlining the quests, and Player B might have 10 weeks between main story beats because they want to level up their crafting or something. I’m generally speaking a slow player and I think I hit the main story beats so infrequently that in my brain they aren’t retained as a single narrative but as individual events.

    Naithin · July 18, 2021 at 3:53 am

    I think the non-themepark or ’emergent gameplay’ stories (do we still use that term these days?) are the ones I most strongly recall too, some of them a good 20 years on from them happening.

    Asheron’s Call was that game for me. I still have clear visual as well as narrative memories of a good number of events from that game. Some of them not even that big in the grand scale of things, but other that were nigh on historical, such as the PK alliance forming to take Ayan Baqur from the Anti-PK forces and the war that went on for some time over it.

    In terms of narrative memories from games that tell their own — I oft forget them too. So I don’t think you’re alone. But then speaking honestly, perhaps I’m not the best benchmark.

    Even for stories I know I really, really liked at the time — all but the highest level of details tends to flee my mind the moment I put, whatever it is, down.

    This is quite a problem when reading a series of books that are releasing years apart, for instance. ;) Makes for re-reads / re-plays more interesting though, I suppose!

    I think you might be onto something with the pacing though. I’m enjoying FFXIV so much more without the need to take breaks in the MSQ every so often to catch up character level to quest required level. I remember that this wasn’t always the case though, and I think the game was worse for it.

    Optionally taking breaks for an alt job, or crafting or whathaveyou, would probably feel better — but at this stage I haven’t felt any compulsion too, so beeline forward it is!

bhagpuss · July 18, 2021 at 1:35 am

I’m one of the minority that was fully on board with the original GW2 concept of an evolving, changing world in which you literally had to be there. In my experience, that wasn’t any kind of new idea – it was a return to what mmorpgs had been like before World of Warcraft arrived. Almost all of my strongest, most durable memories from more than two decades of mmorpgs come from one-off events: the attempted takeover of Qeynos by followers of Bertoxoulous in EverQuest, restoring the Wizard Spires in EQII, opening the portal to the first raid zone in Rift, the Karka invasion in GW2… and many more.

Some of those events lasted weeks, some just a couple of hours, but none of them were ever repeated. For a while they were history, then they became legend, now they’re mostly forgotten. It’s the closest these experiences come to fulfilling the promise of “virtual worlds” and the farthest they travel from being “games”. The problem is, paying customers hate them. People have this weird idea that because they bought a game they should be able to play all of it whenever they want. It ruins the experience for the minority, who believe what they’re paying their money for is a unique, never-to-be-repeated experience, but commercially that’s not a viable demographic.

I think Tessa is spot on with the observation that ANet’s mistake was combining the spine narrative (originally the Personal Story) with the Living World. Had they kept the two separate things would have been far more coherent. Unfortunately, they went exactly the other way, making just about all the content infinitely replayable. That makes for a better game but it completely removes the power of those events to create the kind of memories that last decades. They turn into the equivalent of a trip to the seven-eleven for soda.

That said, as a gamer, I love being able to re-do events I enjoyed. I would absolutely love to be able to replay Scarlet’s War from start to finish, with all the huge, open world zerg battles and the destruction of Lion’s Arch. The reason I yearn for it, though, is precisely because I can’t.

Square that circle.

    Naithin · July 18, 2021 at 4:06 am

    I’m with you on one-and-done events not being a bad thing. I’m going to talk about Asheron’s Call again, but going back to our comments on your blog a little ago about being perfectly able to mix lore and more narrative story into the same game — AC was a great example of this. And one-off events, too.

    The world was incredibly lore-rich, but it ALSO had a narrative that was progressed with its monthly updates. Sometimes, even, the path could be set by the players. e.g., there was a Virindi (ex-human, warped by magic, slave to the void type creature) named Martine who retained some shred of independence — players were able to choose to present him with either a reminder of his wife and children and the life he had before, or to instead push him further down the path of the Virindi, into experimentation on the creatures of Dereth. It was essentially an ingame vote mechanism, which the results of became apparent in a future update.

    This wasn’t ever going to be repeatable. Nor would the Shard of the Herald events, leading to the freeing of Bael’Zharon the hopeslayer ever be done again.

    These events though went down in history. Particularly on the Thistledown server where the player defence of the shard was legendary. https://asheron.fandom.com/wiki/The_Shard_of_the_Herald#Thistledown_Defense

    All of this to say, I don’t think having such key story beats be one-and-done is necessarily a problem. Particularly if they’re a constant feed.

    But I do still agree in the case of GW2 it was a mistake, because the Personal Story set certain expectations about how the story content would be handled. That it would always be available and that you’d always be there to witness it.

    The shift from static, instanced world to the so called ‘living world’ was too abrupt and broke the implicit contract with the players.

    Mixing the two is always going to be difficult though and I’m not sure I have any good answers here. Although one thing is for sure, if the living world seasons are going to continue to be so critical to the understanding of the following expansions and whatnot, something needs to change with their login and get it or ‘haha, you now need to buy it’ approach.

Nogamara · July 23, 2021 at 4:57 am

Not exactly sure if we would agree or disagree, but I find the whole concept of comparing MMO stories to TV series flawed. I love the FFXIV story, I never really liked the WoW story, it has always been kinda there, more or less, depending on expansion.

But… I’m not interested in seeing these on a small or big screen in any form. Yes, I did watch the Warcraft movie, but only because I was pressured into it and a little bit of “how bad will it be”, zero genuine interest. On the other hand I might be interested in the IP (LotRO, SWTOR, DnD, Marvel Heroes) in game form, but not necessarily because I want to relive /the story/ – I think it’s fair to say that for me it’s mostly about the world that I like and I want to experience different stories there.

    Naithin · July 23, 2021 at 4:20 pm

    To be clear, I don’t think I would enjoy a 1:1 copy:paste of the FFXIV (or probably any other) game story to TV or book form.

    There are certainly differences in the expected… presentation? Or Style, perhaps? of things between the different medias.

    But if we assume those things are adapted correctly, and the key story beats, character traits etc, are brought across, then yeah — I’d be there for that.

    But aye, I think you’re far from alone in liking the game stories mostly or even entirely only in context of the game they belong to.

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