Story Driven Gaming
This is a collaborative post debating merits of emergent storytelling vs. static storytelling between myself and TheBro from MMOBro. After reading this, make sure to check out his side of the debate!
As I peruse my Steam library, it becomes very apparent that the titles I’ve spent the most time playing are those with complex and involving traditional, linear narratives. This is hardly surprising as I’ve always liked stories and have a strong affection for books with in-depth lore and complex faux histories. It is one of the reasons I enjoy Professor Tolkien’s work and therefore gravitate towards games that expand upon these intellectual properties. Games such as LOTRO and even Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Both endeavour to explore the mythology of Third Age from an alternative perspective. Through the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I discovered a wealth of lore and entered a living, breathing world. Then of course there is the MMORPG Star Trek Online, that until recently has been the only source of new Star Trek content. All these diverse titles from multiple genres have one thing in common. A strong narrative that underpins each game.
Often when gaming, once the player looks beyond the scope and setting of the title, they will find a set of repeatable tasks, endeavours and targets to achieve. RPGs and especially the MMORPG genre are built upon such systems. If I am to shoot, explore or resource farm within a game, all of which can be quite arbitrary at times, then I do like to have some motivation or narrative explanation as to why I am doing these things. These game mechanics actually become less arduous if I am provided with an interesting enough narrative and a world with its own internal logic. Star Trek Online for example can justify the most innocuous of tasks with a healthy dose of its unique technobabble. The grinding nature of the rebuilding of Hytbold, a major quest line in LOTRO back in 2012, was eased considerably by the well-crafted storyline that accompanied the undertaking.
However, a strong story can achieve more than simply justifying repeatable daily quests or progression grinds. Take an RPG such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I cannot remember a game that tackled adult themes and socially complex issues, so well. The central characters were very well defined with flaws and common foibles, making them extremely credible and identifiable. As a result, the player becomes thoroughly invested in the characters and has a clear emotional stake in their fate. For me The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt often felt like taking part in an interactive novel. Now such a concept may not be to all gamers liking, however when you consider the cultural significance of the story it is hardly surprising that they are an intrinsic part of gaming. We as a society reflect upon our history, politics and ethics through fictional narrative. I see games with epic linear narratives to be an extension of this concept. Furthermore, as games are not locked into a single outcome, as with a book, there is scope for interaction and to have multiple outcomes.
However, although I am a big advocate for strong stories and complex plots in gaming, I am not dismissing the alternative out of hand. Emergent storylines and player created content is ideal for certain genres and can add a very human element to gameplay, especially in the MMO genre. But emergent content is a very broad term and therefore one has to be careful to make appropriate comparisons. Early MMOs often took a less structured approach in terms of narrative. Ultima Online being a clear example of this. The narrative experience where shaped by the activities of player guilds and their interactions. High profile betrayals and assassinations would alter power struggles. Economic manipulation would also have an impact upon persistent worlds. We still see all these aspects today in EVE Online with its territorial wars, bank heists and political subterfuge.
However, these events and emergent stories have several disadvantages. They are unique and time specific. For those who were present and participated, they may well be exceptionally gripping and entertaining but if you weren’t their then you missed it all. An embedded narrative has no expiry date. Another consideration is that emergent stories and interaction often stem from the players being active in the community beyond the game itself. Guilds socialise, plot and scheme outside of the game via forums and subreddits. Social groups have hierarchies with people playing specific roles. Yet MMOs are filled with “average players” who are not always involved with the wider aspects of a game. For them, emergent stories and events are something that happen to other people, assuming they get to hear about them at all. These more passive players only experience the outcome, rather than shape it. Perhaps it can therefore be argued that player generated content is really only of benefit to the more involved player. The player with the time and inclination to devote a great many hours to a single game.
Another concern I have regarding players shaping the narrative and direction of events in a game such as EVE Online, is that the driving force may not always be a positive or pleasant one. The socio-political dynamic of games of this ilk too often manifests as betrayal, hostile acquisition or economic chaos. Although these are good themes narratively, I tire of the continual race to the bottom that such behaviour encourages. We have enough of this in real life and I do not always wish to find such thing reflected in games, especially MMOs. It is also worth considering that the open world environment that encourages emergent gameplay is an incentive to some and a source of confusion to others. I have spoken to players in both Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online, who are lost without the structure of clear cut quest hubs and mission objective. Choice is not always a good thing and suits all taste. And let us not forget that player generated content in such games as LOTRO. This is often roleplay driven and centred around telling tales, reading poetry and playing in a band. For those of a creative persuasion this is hog heaven. For others it again proves to be a somewhat passive or even exclusionary experience.
Then there are those players who are never going to be interested in a story based narrative of any kind. They are not motivated by plot or characters and will skip all quest explanations and in-game cutscenes. This is the kind of gamer whose pleasure hinges upon achievement, leader boards and the actual process of playing. Competitive games do not need a narrative, although there is a backstory to titles such as Overwatch. Games of this idiom are driven by league tables and success. The reward is pride and bragging rights. In fact, you could strip back the details regarding some games setting and who the various factions are, choosing to present them as simply the red and blue team in arena number three. Because if the gameplay is fun and challenging, then that will suffice for some gamers.
Like novels and movies, a narrative driven game can provide more than just an enjoyable ride. It can focus and raise awareness of complex moral, social and political issues. MMOs and RPGs can inform and make us think about difficult matters. Of course, that is not to everyone liking and some wish games to be entirely free of such elements. But for me, I find narrative games to be the next step in our ongoing evolving relationship with storytelling. Although I am not averse to MMOs and other genres that focus on player generated narratives, I favour the traditional story based approach. Hardly surprising from someone who enjoys writing. However, there are many views on this matter other than my own perspective and ass ever there is no definitive right or wrong answer. For an alternative take on this subject, The Bro over at MMOBro has written an interesting piece favouring emergent storytelling.