MMOs & Story: Accepting Mediocrity

In my previous post about GW2’s “Point of No Return” episode, I explored the issues I had with the plot and character development. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get, though I did expect some people to speak in defense of the game (which is fine). What puzzled me, though, were responses that told me that players really don’t expect a good story from the game, so they aren’t disappointed by what little the game provides.

Bhagpuss states:

Well, I guess because I have really, really low expectations of the storytelling in any video game. In thirty-five years of playing them I can’t recall a single example that goes beyond the standard you might expect in an example of a middling genre narrative in another form and even that would be the exception.

Mostly, video game writing, particularly when it comes to character development, is about on a par with the old Saturday Morning Cartoons. If a character gets two personality traits instead of one that counts for depth.

While The Mystical Mesmer similarly said:

I’ve long since come to terms with ArenaNet’s “variable writing quality.” I guess as a hobbyist writer it’s easier for me to ignore the majority of those fingernails-on-blackboard moments. I’ve been dealing with my issues by iterating on my own fictionalized account of my main character’s involvement in the story until I reach a point where it makes sense. Sometimes that takes a while.

I just want to note that I’m not here to try to tell anyone how to enjoy their game. I was really interested in the fact that these two bloggers, whom I respect as fellow writers, choose to selectively ignore mediocre writing in order to get enjoyment from a game.

Not an MMO, but this game made me really feel!

I wonder to myself, though, why? Shouldn’t we, in a time when gaming is becoming a more mainstream form of entertainment, hope to get enjoyment and at least a pretty solid story along with it? If we choose not to expect anything from the story in a game, if we remain content with what we’re given, then why should the writers/developers ever need to strive for better quality writing in MMOs?

I know it can be done with the gaming media. I’ve played plenty of games that have brought me to tears, made me laugh, frightened me, made me truly love the characters, and took me on a wild ride of imagination. I don’t expect award-winning writing in MMOs, but I do think that when a game touts something like a “Living Story” with… you know, the word “Story” being part of the title… that something like a logical story (maybe) would be an important focus.

Being a Professional Writer

I’m not writing this pretending that I’m the best writer in the world (I’m not). I’m also not writing this believing that I know anything about what it means to be a professional story writer on a game development team. But I do know what it is to work daily as a technical writer for a software development team, and I believe that the basic structures and expectations are fairly similar.

When I write something, there are a lot of expectations for my work to not only be factually accurate, but to present information in a way that is customer-friendly and easily understandable, even for a low-end user. I have expectations from the devs, testers, training, support, sales, public relations, my editor, my boss, my boss’s boss… and lastly, most importantly, from the customers themselves.

If I fail to pass the expectation check with any of those people, I don’t just shrug it off and put the writing out there. No. I revise until I get it right. Especially if it’s a customer who has a beef with the content.

That being said, I have to wonder what kind of process MMO writing goes through before it hits the screen. In the case of GW2, they’re pushing to release content so fast that I’m curious the kind of deadlines the writing team faces. Afterall, the writing has to come before art can be fully implemented and voice acting can be recorded.

How does the creative process work? Do the writers have the freedom to write whatever they think works best? Or does someone dictate the overall plot and tell the writers that they have to figure out how to get from point A to point B? Are there reasons the story is the way it is that are out of the writer’s hands?

Where’s the editor in all this? Certainly a full team of professional writers and editors can see illogical plot choices and forced character development… if us gamers can identify these things!

I wish I knew the answers to these questions and where things are getting snagged up. Because I know MMOs can do better.

Story Matters

Again, I’m not looking for award-winning writing in my games. But I know solid writing is out there.

Guild Wars 1. Okay, so it doesn’t have the flashy, up-to-date graphics and amazing explosive cut scenes that GW2 has. But the story (with the exception of the Kormir issues in Nightfall) was overall solid, logical, and made the player character the central heroic focus (especially in Prophecies). I’m not going to say it was perfect, but I rarely had the kind of issues with GW1 plot that I do with GW2. Given the game’s age and the time in which GW1 was released, it really worked to build the gameplay around a strong, central story, which was something I appreciated.

For example, GW2 writers could have looked at Shiro Tagachi to see how to build up a bad guy you feel some sympathy for, yet hate at the same time. Sure, some of the Factions story execution was rough around the edges, but it wasn’t the huge Mary Sue mess you got with Scarlet that left many people just sick of seeing her in every new episode. She became more interesting to me after she was dead, and that’s a problem.

FFXIV. You do have to get used to the flamboyant language, but it’s one of the better written MMOs, in my opinion. Of course, you have to deal with the quirks that come with Japanese storytelling, but having been a FF fan for years, this doesn’t bother me. What you do get is a logical plot, decent NPC representation, and a story that knows how to highlight the player character as a very important hero in a world of adventurers.

Once I realized this game doesn’t take itself too seriously, I was okay with what was going on. The addition of side stories, such as the Hildibrand quest lines, are some of the most fun and well-presented cutscenes I’ve experienced in a while. It’s almost like playing through a quirky TV show. Even the holiday quests have a small plot line, which is usually quirky, but quite often has a progression where your character helps an NPC work through an issue or come to an understanding of some sort. That’s something I really appreciate about this game.

The Secret World. When discussing story in MMOs, I can’t leave out one of the obvious champs. The writing is an acquired taste: dark, edgy, experimental… has been known to leave internal shivers in my mind and send me to wikis to learn more. Developing story and a world with amazing NPCs is a central focus in TSW, and it’s the thing that keeps me returning to the game eagerly. It may not be for everyone, but the environments and characters are memorable to me, and I’m more than willing to overlook a rather rough combat system to indulge in the secrets the writers weave through their world.

In Conclusion

We’re seeing a shift in entertainment media, such as television, where a strong story and good character development are becoming recognized and appreciated. I feel this is a good thing. Many indy games see promise in what a strong story foundation brings to their games. And slowly, I think we’re seeing story becoming more important to MMOs, too.

Players aren’t entertained by fetch, kill and fedex quests anymore. Building a living world where player characters matter in the overall big picture is becoming important. I don’t think gamers, or MMO writers, should settle for mediocrity simply because that’s what’s always sorta been. I feel MMOs need to step it up and continue to strive for excellence in all aspects of writing: a balance of solid plot and character development.

Maybe GW2’s living world is a start of something ambitious that just hasn’t quite come together for them yet. It’s the first time I’ve seen an attempt to release fairly regular story elements on such a tight deadline. Maybe quality is suffering because they’re pushing to release content so quickly, which is another argument for why an expansion type release may prove better.

I’m sympathetic to this, but I’ll also call it as I see it. I know if I were the writer on this team, I’d WANT to know what I needed to fix. I wouldn’t be content just to throw forced plot and character development to my customers and call it a story update.