Sunday, June 21, 2009

MMOs and storytelling

I've decided to start my blog with a topic close to my heart: storytelling in MMOs. I've always been a fan of story-driven games. I grew up playing old-school Lucas Arts adventures, and more recently have enjoyed role-playing games by the likes of BioWare and Obsidian. But when BioWare announced that the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic will be an entirely story-driven MMO, I confess I was skeptical.

Fundamentally, I'm not convinced that traditional single-player storytelling methods work well in an MMO. The protagonist of a single player game is usually a special person with a unique destiny--the Bhaalspawn/Revan/Nerevarine who single-handedly saves the world from destruction. Good role-playing games also allow the hero to make choices that affect the plot. For example, in Fallout 3 the player can literally decide whether to blow a town off of the map with a nuclear bomb. An MMO has thousands of players, and they can't all be a lone hero who makes world-changing choices. Trying to give them that experience can end up hurting the social aspect of the game.

Lets take a look at how this might play out in SWTOR. BioWare recently revealed that the game will include story-based instances that culminate with some sort of game-affecting moral choice. In the E3 demo, a Sith-aligned team fought its way through a ship and then made a collective choice about whether to kill or spare the captain. Let's assume I play through the quest and choose to kill the captain. Typical BioWare-style gameplay, right?

But wait... we're in an MMO. So what happens when a guildie logs in five minutes later and asks me if I can help him with the quest I just did? On the one hand, the game might allow me to play through the instance again with my guildmate. This ruins the story. The captain that I just "killed" is now back on the spaceship, ready to be confronted again. The emotionally-wrenching moral choice I made turns out in retrospect to be meaningless. In fact, presumably our group could choose to spare the captain the second time around, resulting in me bizarrely both killing and sparing the same person.

On the other hand, the game could prohibit me from playing through the instance again. This ruins the social aspect of the game, because it means I can play with my friends only if we're at exactly the same part in the storyline. Even worse, BioWare has hinted that some choices may actually cause the story to branch, so I may be prohibited from playing with other people unless we've made exactly the same choices in the earlier part of the story. For example, suppose that sparing the captain causes him to appear in some instance later in the game. If I killed him and my friend spared him, what happens when we group up for the instance in which he has the potential to reappear? He can't be both dead and alive at the same time, right?

Personally, I'm worried that BioWare is going the second route, and that friends and guildmates will have a hard time playing together unless they synch their progress through the story. That's a horrible sacrifice to make in the service of storytelling. And even then, the story still won't be as convincing as it would be in a single player game, because, at the back of their minds, players will know that thousands of other people are doing exactly the same quests they are.

What do you think. Can traditional storytelling methods work in an MMO?

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