The Story Mechanic Part Nine: Lore Unto Themselves

by on October 26, 2012

I have a fearful Twix addiction. I don’t want to make light of other confectionary addictions, but my addiction to Twix, those two beautiful, chocolately, caramelly fingers, rivals Alan Partridge’s addiction to Toblerone as the single most debilitating chocolate addiction a journalist has ever suffered.

So hooked am I, that when I’m snaffling down the last morsels of that wonderful, evil chocolate, I glow for a brief second, then thank my lucky stars that I never tried smoking, heroin, or Bourneville.

I also remind myself never to try MMOs. I’ve seen the Raptr accounts of the GodisaGeek writers. Many of them are well up into the thousands of hours spent playing World of Warcraft. On top of that, many of them play more than one MMO. I’m sure that, if I started in an online world, a time would come when the council boarded up my flat around me, condemned it, then demolished it just as I took my seventeenth character to the level cap. I would die happy, but also sad, and probably full of chocolate.

However, as The Story Mechanic – sure, I refer to myself in the third person by a nickname, what of it? – I need to be exploring all aspects of story across any genre; no matter how much I fear it. As such, I’ve drafted one of GodisaGeek.com’s inveterate MMO players to explain lore, his favourite storylines, and the future of story in MMOs.

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Mark Bridle: Martin, hello, I need your help. For me, MMOs are the great unexplored wilderness of games. I’ve never got into them, so I’m turning to you, Deputy Editor of GodisaGeek and Ding! legend, to talk to me about MMO stories.

What have been your experiences with MMO stories? Are they good? Bad? Non-exisitent? Does a story draw you into a game?

Martin Baker: When it comes to MMOs I don’t think I can say that stories have ever drawn me into the game in the first place. It’s always the social aspects, the gameplay and the promise of a massive world that gets me excited to play them. That being said, the story in an MMO is almost certainly what keeps me subscribing. Once I’m past the first couple of levels and my character has reached a point where they’re making their own way in the world, I would often go from town to town absorbing the story that’s being laid out before me. In regards to World of Warcraft, the MMO that I’ve put an embarrassingly large amount of time into, this love of story expanded from the game to the numerous novels that I own, through the multiple story arcs of comics and hours on websites such as WoWWiki.com reading up on the lore of each and every character that I’d come across in the game. 

Mark: Ah, you’ve brought up lore. I am fascinated by lore. It always gets me thinking about where the story of a game ends. Obviously you have the main quest, the golden path of plot that leads you from inciting incident to conclusion, but in games I think that plot is only a fraction of the story.

Game worlds are the places you discover. I think that great worlds allow you to learn them, filling you in with details, context and emotions. I’ve never been there, but it seems like Azeroth probably is that sort of world. For me, lore represents an extension of that game world, allowing you to discover more of it outside the game. Then you can use the information from a game novel (for example) to thicken out the world in the game. So great lore invites the creation of more lore, which strengthens the core of the game, which invites more lore. It is the cycle that keeps Star Wars alive. An interesting world breeds more interesting worlds that, in turn, feed the core of the franchise.

Do you agree that the larger lore is part of game’s story? Is it important to have that lore in an MMO?

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Martin: I think that lore is a massive part of an MMO’s life, its existence. If it doesn’t have that lore, something to get the player invested in the world, something to make them feel like they’re making a difference to the world and the people around them, why should they bother continuing to play and, in some cases, pay for the subscription.

You also mentioned the extensions of the game world that we often see coming out of games such as World of Warcraft and other MMOs and these, along with the lore, are a hugely important aspect of an MMO’s life, in my opinion. There are so many times when I didn’t really want to log off of a game but I had no choice due to life’s other commitments. Having a book to read, a comic or even just browsing through the game’s own wikia website allowed me to stay enveloped in that world that I’d grown to love.

Mark: On a slightly different note, I am starting to think that the word ‘story’ (as we think of it in films, books, comics, etc) actually restrains narrative in games. I really think game stories should be thought of as voyages of discovery rather than directed narrative, encouraging exploration, experimentation and emergence. How close are the vast worlds in MMOs to this? Does it vary? Do games like Star Wars: The Old Republic differ vastly from Guild Wars and World of Warcraft on this front?

Martin: Guild Wars 2 has a huge emphasis on exploration, you get a significant amount of experience in that game just for discovering new areas of the game, finding the vistas, the skill points and all of the other aspects of the game that a player can easily take time out of their “normal” questing time to do; and be rewarded for it. World of Warcraft is almost the opposite, the quests lead you through each of the zones, and each of the areas within them but there’s no real reward for doing so, just a little but of experience and a little notification. Sometimes you might find a quest hidden in the extremes of an area, somewhere where you wouldn’t usually go but, apart from getting the achievements for exploring, there’s nothing given to the player for doing anything other than just what they’re told. Star Wars: The Old Republic falls pretty much between the two of these.

Most MMOs, or at least the ones that I’ve played, don’t reward players for seeking out more of the lore in their own time, not with experience points and gear anyway. Things are changing though, and hopefully Guild Wars’ emphasis on exploration will rub off on other developers. It really is something special.

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Mark: Would you be happy to sacrifice a traditional plot for a world you could just explore? Would that still even be a story for you?

Martin: That is difficult, and personally I wouldn’t sacrifice a traditional plot for a world I could just explore. In my opinion Guild Wars 2 goes a little bit too far in emphasising the exploration in a lot of areas instead of the story. Don’t get me wrong, I love exploring, but I just want something to find while I’m exploring. For example, a sword stuck in the ground that, when clicked, would show me the battle that took place there or a desolate town with small pieces of information dotted around that would help me piece together what happened there.

Mark: You’ve touched on something really interesting here; is story alone enough of a motivation to keep players interested? Dear Esther is a game built entirely on the idea that story is enough and Dan Pinchbeck often goes so far as to call story “a gameplay mechanic” unto itself. However, in MMOs players need to be engaged with game worlds for hundreds (if not thousands) of hours. I love your idea for including items and areas in the world which, when sought out, tell the player story through cutscene, dialogue or literature. The developer would be offering the player a simple contract; stick with this quest and, rather than offer a new weapon or skill, we will endow you with knowledge of the world that will make future quests more exciting and emotionally engaging.

How many MMO players do you know that would enjoy that kind of quest? Is that the sort of thing you could see creeping into MMOs? What if quest items were “Singing Swords” like Borderlands 2’s talking guns which could tell you story as you used them. Sort of like Navi from Zelda, only you quest to discover it and it’s a sword! How would that change how MMOs play?

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Martin: For me, story is absolutely enough motivation. For the vast majority of MMO fans however, or at least the vocal majority, the story is an after-thought, I’ve heard so many people talk about skipping through quest text just to get back to the game and every time I hear about somebody doing that it tears me up inside. I remember when Star Wars: The Old Republic came out, I saw a web comic that made a joke about a lot of players hitting the Space Bar in order to skip to the very end of dialogue tree/quest text. Until I read that comic it hadn’t even crossed my mind to find out if skipping the dialogue was even an option.

On the subject of your singing swords, there have been quest lines in World of Warcraft that almost do exactly what you’re talking about. There’s a place, about level 35 – level 45, called the Scarlet Monastery, it’s a giant church of fundamentalists who have strong ties to something called the Ashbringer. When the player takes this sword into the instance it would literally start whispering to them, in the pink text that they’d see if a real person was whispering to them in private chat. This sword kept coming back in side quests during The Burning Crusade until it culminated in Wrath of the Lich King, the third expansion. What’s most interesting about this story is that the eventual wielder of the Ashbringer was in the game right from the beginning, in a corner of the world with few quests that the player would only discover if they went exploring. One of the grandest stories in World of Warcraft started from an NPC that wasn’t on any maps, wasn’t involved in many quests and was just there, for the player to discover. The Ashbringer storyline has been through the original game, and two expansions, a series of comic books and is one of the most loved storylines/questlines in the whole game. From small acorns and all that…

Mark: Wow… the Ashbringer quest… how brilliantly talented are Blizzard? How confident!? That anecdote is so amazing that, on its own, it has changed my take on the masses who play that game. The idea that a story was stretched out across multiple expansions (and, I guess, years), only to be truly appreciated by the people who searched out the corners of the world, shows how truly rewarding MMOs can be. Not just through looting and social aspects, but by epic story as well. Was ‘The Ashbringer’ your favourite story quest ever?

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Martin: It’s certainly right up there with some of my favourite stories in the game. However, there are so many other stories that have been playing out since even before World of Warcraft was released that still haven’t been played out through to their execution. The biggest of which is Sargeras, the destroyer of worlds and a Titan who became corrupted by the evil that he saw in the Titan’s creations. He’s the leader of the Burning Legion and has been part of the Warcraft lore since the very first game in the series. He was defeated,  but I have no doubt that he will make an appearance again at some point in the future, maybe the next expansion, maybe a couple more down the line. Only Blizzard know that.

That was the long version, the short answer to your question is that I don’t think my favourite story has been played out yet. I’m a part of it, as it every other player in World of Warcraft, we’re invested in the world, pushing it forward, defeating the evil that stands in our way, Illidan, Archimonde, Kil’jaeden, the Lich King and even Deathwing. All have fallen to the collective swords of the players; and there’s many more to go.