In the first post of this series I outlined a basic typology of PvP, differentiating between simple PvP, ladder/tournament PvP and world PvP. In the second I argued that asymmetry is a fundamental aspect of world PvP, and posited some reasons as to why rational, self-interested players are willing to tolerate these imbalances and play these types of games. This third post will attempt to examine modes of storytelling found within MMOs. I will argue that meaningful world PvP - defined as PvP encounters in a persistent world which allow players to shape the landscape of the virtual world itself – can be an excellent driver of complex, organic and emergent storytelling.
In my mind storytelling is divided into three basic archetypes:
Linear storytelling is the classic narrative, utilising a beginning, middle and end, and can be used to describe traditional forms of media such as books, TV shows and movies. Branching storytelling describes narratives which have divergent paths and alternative endings, and is commonly used in single-player games to great effect. Complex storytelling are narratives derived from the interplay of independent factors, and can be used to describe stories which emerge from classical pen and paper role-playing games, dramatic improvisation and player interactions within MMOs. The most important distinction between these three rudimentary types is that while linear and branching storytelling are derived from a single writer (or team of writers), the writers of complex narratives are the agents within the system itself. History itself is a type of complex narrative, as the story of humanity has no single author, but rather emerges as the product of the vast interplay of independent agents. Linear and branching storytelling is top-down, while complex storytelling is bottom-up.
Linear storytelling is a staple of the RPG genre in both single and multi-player formats. It is characteristic of traditional forms of media such as books, TV and film, and like these formats what differentiates between the good and the bad is the quality of the story being told and how well it is presented. Linear stories can be utilised to good effect as a way of encouraging the player to advance the plot with gameplay. A game with a great story might be able to get away with mediocre gameplay if the player's desire to see how the story unfolds offsets their dissatisfaction with the core mechanics. Linear storytelling in MMOs isn't necessarily bad, but can be criticised on the grounds that it fails to take advantage of the interactivity inherent within gaming.
Branching paths and alternate endings are the second step up in the hierarchy of game design, and contemporary RPGs such as The Witcher, Mass Effect and the Dragon Age series reflect this aesthetic. In subsequent iterations MMOs have created the illusion of impact via the use of phasing, which alters the game world around the player based on the quests they have completed but has no effect at all on the world perceived by other players. This has led to what some commentators derisively call the single player MMO – everyone is a hero, carrying around their own personal delusion of grandeur while in the persistent world the same NPC is asking another player to kill 10 more rats. In TESO, for example, the Prophet who frees you from Coldharbour is a mentor and guide to the player, the same way he is to the tens of thousands of other “Vestiges” working their way through the main quest. During my time in the TESO beta I was given a choice as to which group of NPCs I would assist. I chose one over the other, the others died, and those NPCs subsequently disappeared from my version of the world. I know I am being tricked by phasing slight-of-hand, but essentially this is what happens in branching stories in both the single and multi-player variants – your choices affect the game world you personally experience.
|Choose your own adventure books! Ah, the nostalgia.|
|Fighting Fantasy books combined the branching plots of Choose Your Own Adventure books with roleplaying conventions and random elements (via dice, coin flipping or flipping the pages for a random number.|
The biggest criticism of the use of linear and branching types of storytelling within MMOs is that it fails to utilise the key ingredient which differentiates MMOs from single player games – the presence of other players. It can be argued that traditional storytelling is a type of dialogue between the author-designer and the reader-player. The only real agent within the system is the player, and the kinds of stories which emerge from these types of narratives will always be identical, or confined to a small sub-set of possibilities demarcated by the author-designer. If you've played through Deus Ex, Mass Effect or The Witcher I will know the general outline of the story you experienced (albeit changed in minor ways due to the decisions you took in making your way to the end) because the core story remains the same for everyone. Even branching narratives become decoded eventually as players follow the branches to their final destinations and get an overview of the underlying structure beneath. If linear games are supposed to be about completing the game, then branching games become more about achieving the “best” possible ending and/or experiencing the whole spectrum of endings on offer.
|A Choose Your Own Adventure text decoded into its underlying structure.|
Complex storytelling, on the other hand, could be said to be the narrative of events which occurs when varying actors and agents interact with each other. I use the word complex in the scientific sense of the word, meaning arising from the interaction of comparatively simpler elements. While complex stories can be something as simple as three player characters walking into a bar, it is considered “complex” because it arose from the independent actions of different agents, as opposed to something which is scripted by a singular author-developer. It is a spontaneous and emergent property. Complex stories are player anecdotes, tall stories, reminiscences and pseudo-histories of events which occur within a system. Classic pen and paper role playing games are an example of complex storytelling. The game master (GM) sets the stage, the world and the overarching plot, while the players are characters adventuring in the world presented before them. While the player characters are completely free to follow the narrative trail laid out by the GM, they are also free to wander off it. Good GMs are considered to be those who allow their players the freedom to deviate from the path laid out before them, and in these situations both the player and the GM improvise together to create a new story. Improvisation in drama and theatre can also be considered a type of complex storytelling. In improvisation the actors are given their motivations, goals and settings, and then asked to play out a scene with fellow actors without the script. This type of exercise is useful in drama because deviating from the script often brings out new interpretations which had not been previously considered. As a young undergraduate I dabbled in some really bad student theatre and I always enjoyed standing on an empty stage when no one was around. For me the stage was an empty space rife with infinite possibilities – comedy, tragedy and everything in between could and were made manifest within its boundaries. Similarly I view MMO worlds as a stage for which all sorts of player driven narratives can emerge.
As far as I'm concerned the only MMO games which have achieved the status of organic, emergent sandboxes are world PvP games like Darkfall and EVE. EVE has spawned alliances, mega-coalitions, heroes, villains, outcasts, mercenaries, trade cartels, industrialists, universities, and massive, record-breaking wars both in terms of player participation and real life monetary cost – all of which are unscripted, emergent and organic. The biggest MMO battle of all time took place in Fountain in July 2013 in EVE, when over 5000 players from CFC and TEST squared off the space opera version of the charge of the light brigade. EVE also has the record for the most expensive battle in MMO history when the CFC and the Russians teamed up to take on N3 and Pandemic Legion in B-R5RB in January 2014. This battle was estimated to have cost between $300,000 to $500,000 in real terms. CCP did not create any of these features – they evolved organically from the interactions of the players themselves. EVE arguably has the best meta-game out of all MMOs to date. William Arcturus wrote an excellent and tongue-in-cheek account of the state of null-sec politics here, but his account has been dated by recent developments. This short history written by James315 describes the current state of null sec in EVE, and it is a very interesting account which rivals real-life historical narratives. It is made even more remarkable by the fact that it was generated by thousands of player characters interacting with each other through conflict and/or cooperation, and not by any single author or teams of authors.
One of my favourite anecdotes regarding EVE is an incident which occurred 2-3 weeks ago. In a nutshell, RvB (according to Gevlon, a catspaw of the Goons, who are the leaders of the CFC), on their way to capture a structure owned by Gevlon (who has been hiring mercenaries to destroy and capture Goon assets in high sec), were interdicted by a group called No Holes Barred, who offered their allegiance to either side for the price of a song. Gevlon declined on principle (or offered to pay ISK instead and was rebuffed, depending on who you believe), RvB agreed to terms, and after hastily assembling a make-shift choir on voice communications and warbling out “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” across the ether, RvB were allowed to pass. To have this type of encounter occur as part of a script is clever writing. To have it happen organically and spontaneously is a thing of beauty. The anecdote is told by at least three different sources - Gevlon, No Holes Barred and RvB - and the real story of what happened in that event depends on who you believe. That is the part of the charm of complex narratives - there is no canon, there is no lore, there is only human nature and interpretation. Just like real history, the battle for the truth is sometimes bigger than the actual battle itself.
PvE as a Driver of Organic Storytelling
It would seem then that if creating complex narratives are the goal then the job of an author-designer lies not in creating overarching narratives and handing them from above to be experienced in virtually the same manner by everyone who plays the game, but rather in creating the actors in the system as best they can and letting the system itself generate the stories. I alluded to good GMs earlier, and part of what makes a good GM is their willingness to relinquish some of their control over to the player characters. The focus should perhaps be on designing the features of the system which will interact with other elements of the system, with the chief of these being the world itself. Complex stories do not arise ex nihilio – GMs have their campaign notes and setting, while actors have character outlines, motivations and interpretations. Similarly sandbox MMOs require a world to serve not as a passive scenic backdrop to the actions of the players, but as an active agent in it of itself. This requires dynamic NPCs with their own agendas, factions which can grow or be eliminated, meaningful weather, seasonal and day/night cycles, and detail, detail, detail. Syncaine and Wolfshead have penned some models for an MMO PvE sandbox, and they are linked here and here respectively. Both writers advocate the creation of AI elements which actively pursue an individual and factional agenda, rather than sitting around idly day and night in the same spot giving out the same quest to everyone they meet.
The best example I can cite of PvE elements creating organic content is, oddly enough, in a single player game. My attempts to run away from a randomly spawning dragon in Skyrim led me to aggroing a troll, a sabre cat, and ultimately bumping into a patrol of Imperial legionnaires fighting a group of bandits. At this point of the game each of the antagonists found someone or something to fight other than me, and I found myself standing in the middle of a large melee, sword in hand with no enemy to fight. Each of these AI elements have their own pre-determined responses and behavioural patterns, but the addition of the player is variable which can lead to some unforeseen results. Skyrim is not a sandbox – the quests themselves still belong to the linear/branched school of game design – but the ability to choose what order to complete these quests, as well as the independent elements moving within the game bumping and interacting with each other gives it an organic and sandbox feel. The fact that the NPCs had their own day/night schedules, had limited scripts to interact with each other, and moved around dynamically added greatly to the illusion of a living, breathing virtual world. What gave the world weight in Skyrim was the amount of details which first appear extraneous, but actually comprise interactive elements which add further layers to the world. Watching a table adorned by various drinks, foodstuffs and cutlery get scattered during a melee is its own reward, as is the search for that one item that got lost during the scuffle. What other game made you pull away dead bodies and sort through fallen bottles and plates in order to find the quest item you needed? Add to that the player's ability to steal from, murder, and even marry non-essential NPCs, and it is no wonder why this game has been hailed as a triumph of player agency and has gone on to sell over 20 million copies world wide. And while the AI utilised in Skyrim is still quite primitive and predictable, there is no reason why these independent AI elements won't become much more sophisticated in the future, leading to some amazing and unforeseen emergent content.
PvP as a Driver of Organic Storytelling
For someone of my background (I am an unapologetic PvPer), it seems like such an MMO is doing things the hard way. Why go to all the trouble of creating what amounts to being a pale simulacrum of human agency (i.e. NPCs mimicking human behaviour in an MMO) when you can just use the real thing? Limit the amount of resources in a game, and watch the players emulate their own version of world history when they fight and squabble for them. This is exactly what happens in EVE and Darkfall. Meaningful PvP is defined as player combat which has a significant effect upon the persistent world which it inhabits. The degree in which PvP can be considered meaningful is proportional to the effect the player's actions have on the persistent world it is rooted in. In other words, how much the player's actions can shape the world determines how “meaningful” it is. I like “meaningful” world PvP because the simple factor of allowing the players to re-shape the world by their actions creates organic, complex and interesting content. It gives rise to player associations, meta-game politics, strategic considerations and game playing possibilities which are not possible in “balanced” PvP settings. The entire history of humankind is empirical evidence of how conflict drives scientific innovation as well as the development of social, political and economic institutions. Conflict also drives the production of literary content, as is evidenced by the vast tracts of prose, poetry, books, TV and films made about war. Similarly, I believe that meaningful world PvP can create lots of interesting player-driven narratives with the added bonus that no one is actually hurt (except for a few bruised egos here and there) and there are no casualties.
EVE is the gold standard by which all world PvP games must measure themselves against. In EVE players are free to create their own factions and coalitions – they can build their own structures – they continually reshape the map of New Eden with their battles over sovereignty. The world PvP in Darkfall also falls in this category. Open world PvP in WoW, by contrast, is meaningless because regardless of whatever the players do, the world of Azeroth remains largely changeless and immutable. The world PvP in TESO straddles a middle ground between these extremes, as does its antecedent, Dark Age of Camelot (DAOC), by artificially dividing the player base into three factions but nonetheless allowing the factions to shape the persistent world to a greater or lesser degree. As someone who got his PvP legs in the meaningless open world PvP of WoW, the PvP system on offer in TESO is a real breath of fresh air. Cyrodiil is instanced, yes. But if the word instanced brings up images of dungeons, raids and battle grounds then the word does not do Cyrodiil justice. Cyrodiil is instanced in the same way whole servers in Dark Age of Camelot are instanced. Cyrodiil is instanced in the same way that the realm versus realm in Guild Wars 2 is instanced. Cyrodiil is an instance, but it is a massive, and more importantly, a persistent instance, rife with possibilities. It is a canvas upon which player action on a large scale shapes the landscape of the world. Keeps can be captured by siege actions, Elder Scrolls stolen, bridges held, ambushes sprung and skirmishes aplenty fought on the peripheries of the major battles. It is a place where meaningful open world PvP can happen, and stories can be made, experienced and told.
Bottom-Up Storytelling Encourages Community
If complex stories are derived from the interaction of players and the world, then it follows that the players bear some responsibility for the narrative content of the world. The complex approach requires the player to engage the world (and other players) to some degree in order to create the interaction which produces the events that become the stories. If you are a passive type of person then perhaps such narratives will not be to your tastes, and you are better served by staying with more traditional modes of storytelling. People who like linear/branching narratives belong to the school of “tell me a story”, while people who like complex narratives subscribe to the maxim of “I want to be part of a story”. Complex narratives can be as varied in quality as linear/branching ones, and as a matter of fact they are usually banal, repetitive and depressingly predictable. The appeal of the sandbox lies in the potential, and the modicum of agency retained by the player in shaping these narratives. The most hypocritical approach I have found is embodied in players who laud the concepts of “sandbox” and “emergent content” but are unwilling to make the effort to network, socialise or otherwise interact with the people found within MMOs. If you want to be the centre of the story then these types of stories are not for you. None of these formats are inherently better than each other, and the format you like all comes down to personal preference. However, massive multi-player games are well-suited to take advantage of the complex mode of storytelling, and it seems like a waste to continue using formats which are better utilised in more traditional forms of media. This is not to say that linear/branching stories can't be done well in MMOs, or that complex storytelling is guaranteed to produce memorable content. It's all about selecting the right tool for the job, and the MMO format is an amazing tool for creating player-generated stories.
In the upcoming TESO game I will chronicle the fortunes of the Cyrodiil campaign I find myself in, regardless of whether my faction dominates or is dominated. I'm a big fan of historical narratives and emergent game play – TESO will allow me to indulge in both by giving me the chance to write pseudo-history while simultaneously taking part in it. One of my goals is to create a fictional documentary of the civil war in TESO along the same lines as Ken Burn's classic series on the American Civil War, complete with maps of the battles, the names of the major players and guilds, mock testimonials and the history of the player-Emperors during the Interregnum. I was a role-player back in the day, and I'm looking forward to immersing myself in the coming civil war with my friends and family. I have made the resolution that I will not consult any out of game guides for the duration of the first campaign of the game (the first three months). TESO will only be new once, and I'd hate to ruin it in a frenzied orgy of min-maxing. The first three months will give me enough time to get a feel for the lay of the land, the geography of Cyrodiil as well as the major players and guilds on my faction and my enemies. It's not WoW PvP, where all you need are your team mates, and the rest of the community is just competition. It's good old-fashioned factional PvP where numbers can tip the tide of battle, the people in your faction count, and social cohesion is an advantage. I haven't decided what faction I will be playing yet, since we're going to put it to a vote in a week or two (I'm going to be an Imperial) but I look forward to having a reason to get to know the people on my side, becoming part of a community again, and swapping some war stories.