Online games, narrative, and letting go of the reins

Not long before we first switched to modem-based Internet from dial up (SKREEEE BEEDOOBEDOOBEDOBEE SSSSKRRRRTSSSHHH) someone told me about Runescape. I played it for a while, mainly wandered about the world looking for things and being fascinated by the novelty of having many people existing in a single digital space. I think I considered the potential for interesting player interactions then, naive of the actual constraints under which players in that world worked under. After I got past my initial fascination and started playing the game the shine wore thin pretty quickly and eventually I gave up on it, not having the patience for the trademark tedium of the MMORPG grind. I managed to avoid World of Warcraft, but discovered Shadowbane and sunk quite a number of hours into it until it finally shut down in 2009. After that I bounced through a couple of other MMOs, but they failed to pull me in. That initial curiosity never really left, however, and despite being wise to the general disappointment involved, every couple of years I get the urge to go try another MMO. So I’ll meander back into the scene and bore myself for a weekend or so.

Spreadsheets in Space, pardon me, EVE has always intrigued me. It’s like the Dwarf Fortress of MMOs – a game that few want to play but everyone likes to read about. I tried it once years ago. It was tedious and I uninstalled it after a couple of hours. However, I’ve always thought of EVE as a beacon of progress amidst the vast waste of unchanging monotony that makes up the MMO space, proving the benefits of player-driven economies and a hands-off approach to community management. With that in mind, I jumped in Albion back in 2017. I think I managed to get a week or so in before putting it down. I enjoyed the feeling of not being completely locked out of the economy, a problem so often the case with MMOs owing to the artificial inflation. The feeling that anything I did could actually have value to someone, rather than existing as just another treadmill of junk accumulation, was genuinely compelling and helped to give the early harvesting a sense of being rooted in the world – something that few other games manage. Naturally, however, the foreseeable grind appeared and I stopped playing. Albion’s focus on a player-driven economy and faction conflict, for me, mark it out as one of the few MMOs of any real worth.

I came to the conclusion a few years ago that Dwarf Fortress has ruined a vast chunk of gaming for me. Titles from Paradox, Soldak Entertainment, the X series, Frozen Synapse II, and others, have contributed to this conclusion. I’m always sucked in the most by these systems-based games that can create unexpected situations, occurring because one of the underlying gears locked together with another and the code simply had to interpret what to do with the input. I enjoy having to react to that on the fly, knowing that sometimes there are simply situations that I can’t deal with. I like knowing that those situations weren’t pre-scripted and arose of their own accord and will conclude without my input, not because I arrived at a pre-specified location and completed the pre-specified actions. I like games I can just watch do things around me. I like games that don’t care whether I’m there or not.

So what does any of that have to do with MMOs? I got that twitch again last year. Knowing how this plays out I downloaded The Elder Scrolls Online and played it for a weekend. Theme park MMOs have never been my thing and I don’t really understand the appeal of them so this was probably a bad choice. I’d expected something to have changed since Runescape, but apparently not a lot has shifted in the MMO market. In fact, they may have actually regressed.

I’ve never paid that much attention to The Elder Scrolls series, a strange omission from someone who loves fantasy. As a game, Skyrim is uninteresting and needs to be modded to hell and back to make the world feel reasonably alive. The combat in every single Elder Scrolls title has been abysmal, and Skyrim still requires significant modification for the combat to amount to anything vaguely skill-based as opposed to sporadic bouts of flailing. The ‘chosen-one who is destined to save the world from doom etc’ arc – spare me. I have little patience for that narrative these days. It’s arguably the most iconic fantasy narrative around, but it is also habitually poorly reasoned, overly dramatic, and completely uninteresting. It always seemed to me that, outside of its distinctive aesthetics – most notably in Morrowind, The Elder Scrolls falls into that cookie-cutter formulaic brand of high fantasy. seems to become more so over the iterations. I’m a lore nerd. I will devour the inconsequential detail in the background of other people’s settings with gluttonous enthusiasm, but as a matter of personal taste, The Elder Scrolls does a lot of things with its lore that I do not like. That, however, is a topic for another day.

Making everything about the player character is reasonable in linear single player games. They follow a very specific narrative that places the protagonist as the focus. It’s their story. However, when that filters into the massively multiplayer market as a form of player pandering, it becomes an even bigger problem than it is in single player open world games and I’m far from the first to person to point out how idiotic this is. There’s only the shell, if not the complete absence of, a concrete conflict that drives a story. The Elder Scrolls Online is seems to be The Elder Scrolls in aesthetic only. Outside of that, it’s twenty years old with the depth of a puddle. It’s far from alone on that account.

MMORPGs remain RPG-lite. They take one bit of an RPG – the making numbers larger bit – and attempt to make that the entire game. Worse still, they attempt to fill hundreds of hours like that. This is fundamentally missing the point. The Dark Souls series, despite the inclusion of levelling, is a fantastic illustration in undermining the ‘make numbers great again’ focus that MMOs have have never moved on from. If you rely on numbers alone to get you through the Dark Souls games, you probably won’t even have the chance to make your numbers great again.

If games like Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity have illustrated anything over the last half-decade, it’s that making the numbers get bigger is not the point. Choice and player agency, arguably, is a vastly more integral. If games like Dwarf Fortress and Din’s Curse have illustrated anything, it’s that personal and minor faction conflict are important. If Paradox games, the 4X genre, and the X series have demonstrated anything, it’s that the larger scale conflict is important. If EVE, Shadowbane, Albion, Planetside have illustrated anything, it’s that you get interesting and compelling results when you give players choice and conflict and work them into the setting at a mechanical level.

The point I have been laboriously getting to is that the majority of MMOs do not, in any meaningful regard, give players any of this. The biggest progression that MMOs have seemingly taken is to go from tedious skill grind to tedious quest grind. The tedious quest grind is just a contextualisation of the previous skill grind. More often than not, it’s poorly done at that. One early quest in The Elder Scrolls Online had me chasing an old man’s memories in an attempt to square him with his estranged family. I wandered through decades of his past, highs and lows, to the epicentre of the familial drama. From an awkward young man proposing to a woman, through slices of life to a premature death on a hillside. The girl in question puts on a masterclass in Saturday morning amateur dramatics and then sods off. I assume I was supposed to find the whole escapade moving? Perhaps even tragic? I found myself chuckling, instead, awaiting a little Wilhelm scream. It was to death as clowns are to a theatre.

Then I was off to reconcile the family problems of the present before the old bloke cops it. Patient daughter/angry son dynamics, you get the idea. Bounce between them and spam-click through linear dialogue for EXP and progress toward another plunge into caricature drama. At all previous points in the quest, he’s actually seemed quite healthy, but at the crucial moment of family reunion, shock and gasp, he’s conveniently dead. The daughter provides another demonstration of Disney-grief and the son grumbles in a corner. Cue daddy’s force ghost entering stage right, some trite message about love and more soap opera dramatics. Unable to stomach any more I walked out mid-sentence.

That entire drawn out chain was a fantastic illustration of why this system, and its context, doesn’t achieve any of the engagement it aims for. I appreciate both what the writer was attempting and the fact that they understand the players are mostly going to just click through and leave, but why even have it there in the first place if that’s the case? Are we to conclude that the only alternative is the grind skill numbers? You may as well just ask players to click a button for half an hour straight. Mechanically it’s near identical.

This was an attempt at slice-of-life everyday illustration of the world’s common man, some parallels to life outside the game world, and by extension an attempt to make the world feel alive. Narrative wise there isn’t remotely the space to tell the story they wanted to tell there. None of the necessary build up or nuance could be put into that story and so it lacks all potential weight. It’s not enough to click through a photo montage of the lives of strangers in order to make a connection, let alone the cartoonish way that it was all handled.

It’s telling that the thing that caught my eye was that, outside of not starting the quest, there was never an option to not get involved. Midway through the quest line, the son directly tells you to stop sticking your nose in. Of all the moments in that series of dialogues, that was the only one that made any sense to me. He’s absolutely right. What gives the player any right to pigheadedly march into the personal lives of total strangers and strong-arm them into an abortive reconciliation attempt before swaggering into the sunset? The Elder Scrolls Online will treat this like some kind of moral victory, but it isn’t. You don’t get to choose to be the antagonist, but you’re not the hero.

That doesn’t matter: The Elder Scrolls Online keeps insisting that you are. A thousand other heroes are wandering the same town you’re wandering around in, slaughtering the local fauna, deforesting the hillsides, and invading everyone’s privacy, but for some reason you’re the special snowflake. Just like they are. Literally one of the first things I did in Elder Scrolls was called ‘poison the well’. Some drug dealer is growing something in a cave, so off you trot to sort it out. The town guard aren’t paid enough to do their jobs? The solution, apparently, is to dump poison into the local water supply thereby killing the grower’s crops. I’m not kidding. Who came up with that? If I dump poison into the local water source I kill far more than a couple of mushrooms. The nearby village becomes a desolate husk, because everybody dies. The local crops die, the local farm animals die, as does all the wild flora and fauna.

By rights everybody in that village should hate your guts. You’ve just destroyed their lives and depopulated a small region of the map to get rid of a small-time drug dealer. This is the first step on your hero’s quest. Well done. All the while, the game is pointing its finger at you and barraging you with praise: You’re the man! All the people running around poisoning villages and ruining families are all the man. To take a line from Tool, “If I’m the man, then you’re the man, and he’s the man as well, so you can point that fucking finger up your arse.”

You cannot shove a single player narrative into a multiplayer game and expect it to work. It seems like this should be engraved into the tables and walls of publisher-shareholder boardrooms across the industry. While the tedious grind of older online games is something to be fled from with all speed, they did get one thing right: They didn’t treat the player like a main character. The player was just another person in the world. The mantra should always be Fight Club-esque: “You are not special.”

The thing is that someone, somewhere, will always find a way to distinguish themselves from the majority of the playerbase, whether the developers intended that or not. This should be encouraged. You’re the big dick? Prove it. It’s the developer’s job to provide ways of organically facilitating this. Mechanical opportunities for distinction, rather than treating it as an inherent fact of simply existing. Not being the main character isn’t the same as being worthless. Calling someone a hero does not make it so. Worse, it become patronising. The obvious conclusion is that if everyone’s the hero, regardless of what they’ve done or haven’t done, then the word loses all meaning.

What makes a single player RPG work? The thing MMORPGs are allergic to: Choice. I found myself being dragged into the middle of a dispute between two houses in a town. I forget what their beef was, but in the end it didn’t matter anyway. I was never given the option to interact with them, I just stole something from one, someone else suggested they were bad for unknown reasons so this was justified, click click click.

Was this supposed to pass for conflict? It’s not. It’s barely even the illusion of conflict. It seemed to me that a hell of a lot of resources and time were sunk into this so the player could click their way through this linear contrivance, the point of which I remain incapable of discerning. It threw up a series of connected minor factions, sketched a conflict and network of relationships, and effectively resolved it before I was ever involved. Sure, I went through the process of stealing the item, finding some people, murdering some people, etc, but I never even saw the other side, so as far as I can tell there was just one outcome. Why is it even there?

Why was it assumed I wanted to help one house and not the other? What if I thought the other group had a point and wanted to help them instead? There’s so much room for choice, depth, and meaningful conflict there. What happens if the player supports the faction, but prefers one sub-faction to another? The plot thickens, that’s what. This creates a sense of player identity, distinction at a practical level, and thus investment in the world. One player supports A while another supports B and suddenly you’ve got another key ingredient: tension and conflict. That’s made even more interesting if A and B are working for C, and thus nominally on the same side, but opposed to one another on a more personal level. Suddenly the big enemy they’re supposed to be at war with aren’t necessarily the only thing they need to worry about. Worse, the way they deal with this conflict might require more finesse than simply murdering each other. There’s space here to explore non-violent conflict that is chronically overlooked by games in general, let alone the MMO genre.

Give that tension and conflict real weight and consequence, suddenly players, knowing they’re at odds to one another, have to make a judgement call on how to approach the situation. Diplomacy? Open hostility? Truce? Stealth? “Ok, so it’ll just become a free-for-all,” you answer “Nobody will get anything done.” True. When you let everyone openly attack each other without risk then they are likely to do so. So build a mechanic around it. Allow the potential for it to occur, but discourage it. If a settlement is supposed to be peaceful, then consider the circumstances by which you would obtain peace and discourage violence. Your players have their troughs in the populated hubs where there are rules and consequences, and they have their peaks in the wilderness where there are no rules and the consequences can be non-existent or very high. In the population hubs the status quo is peaceful but the opportunity for disruption is not entirely absent. Merely being able to disrupt the status quo allows for the heightening and lowering of expectations based on circumstance. Similar to the way narrative tension can be constructed.

EVE’s original ‘Burn Jita’ event is a clear example of this. It’s a high security system that is safe to do business in without risk. Until someone decided to pull a Raymond Chandler and come through the door with a gun, with the aim of disrupting the entire EVE economy. From that we have one of the most significant stories in gaming: a representation of organised the . This was back in 2012 and has since been repeated several times, disrupting the expectations for anybody in the vicinity. Given EVE’s player driven economy it’s also the type of event with the potential for broader lasting consequences, the same way chucking grenades around Wall Street might also create far reaching ripples in the real world. The results are just part of the story.

There’s an awful tendency for RPGs, particularly prevalent in online games, to focus only on the end game, so that the only thing that matters between part A-D is part D. The result seems to be that Parts A-C are treated as filler. Why even have part A-C there if everyone only actually cares about part D? Surely you should either make Part D the game or invest the time to make parts A-C worth investing in. Why is all of this important? Well, because arguably you don’t really have a game. You’ve just got a series of boxes to tick with a protracted and abstract manner of ticking them. Lot’s of MMOs are based around war and conflict now, and have been since World of Warcraft and Guild Wars. Surely I can’t just ignore this? Well, sadly enough, I can. Literally. If I don’t want to deliberately put myself in those situations, I will never have to worry about them. Most games only offer the illusion of conflict. In these settings where The War is a big part of the background, you should never be entirely separate from it. It should be there making itself felt; with the ability to affect the player narrative, not just leaning on the bar waiting for someone to buy it a drink.

After all, what’s the point in designing and creating these vast maps, maps that everyone’s always saying they want to get bigger, if everything of consequence is going to happen in a completely separate bubble? You’ve got to integrate those variables into the meat of a game to create meaningful conflict on any scale, and thus engagement. How is anybody supposed to get involved in a setting, or with a character, if there’s no chance of conflict unless the player goes out of their way to force it to happen? If character development results from conflict, how are they supposed to develop anything if every conflict is always in a gated off sterilised environment that has absolutely zero impact, consequence, or risk?

If you know that you want to get from one area to another, but you also know that the road there is potentially full of danger then you immediately have choices to make. You can try and group together with other people, trusting in the safety of numbers. You can stay off the road and travel alone, hoping to get to your destination undetected and unmolested. Is there anything valuable you don’t want to lose? You’re likely to keep those things behind so they won’t be lost. What if you need to take one or more of those valuables through potentially hostile territory? Suddenly the stakes get raised and you’re engaged. Let’s say you get ambushed, chased, and with some luck get to where you’re going with your valuable thing. Congratulations: You’ve just enacted your own version of a common scene in fiction and you have an anecdote. Like characters in a narrative, players should be forced to make choices, never inoculated from danger, and by those choices and circumstances they will form stronger ties to your game world.

I promised trivial nerd shit and I have delivered. The idea behind all this geek-philosophy rambling is not that I think I can make the perfect game from the comfort of my armchair (why doesn’t anybody pay me stupid amounts of money for having ideas? It’s a cruel world for an overlooked genius etcetera). However, in my sporadic abortive stints of attempting to merely engage with the average MMO, I’m compelled to examine why certain things utterly failed to grab my attention. As usual, it has to do with the stories we can tell from our experiences with them – found that after several hours of clicking, these games had provided me with none. Canned, watered down drama certainly isn’t going to cut it. At which point, why are they there?

As for MMORPGs specifically, I’m clearly not the target audience. To be fair, these days I barely have the time to deal with straightforward single player games, let alone the lethargic behemoths waddling the online landscape. I nevertheless find the concepts extremely intriguing – just for the fact of their potential to give people systems and spaces to interact in, and to watch what they do. I can’t tell if it’s weird, or just sad, that gaming, for me, has partially become a conceptual exercise in observation; a lens through which to people watch, as much as it remains a minor passtime. It’s frustrating that so little seems to happen with those spaces, so many baby-gated play pens, and as a result there are no stories coming out of them and minimal advance in that part of the industry. They exist as abstracted check lists. Games have always had the potential to exist as pseudo-social experiments that create interesting stories, but in order to truly make something of that, it requires ambition from developers and courage from publishers to provide a set of tools and then, most importantly, to let go of the reins.

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