Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO ColumnThe Death of Story, Part III: Character StoriesJonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column - RSS 2.0
Previously we began our look at the death of story in gaming. We delved into world stories and how they have become more and more static with the world-plotline fading into the background. PvP seems to be the only arena that allows for player influences and yet that is frequently contained to specific regions and seldom has an impact on any broader world story. In this article we'll shift gears from a broad approach to a narrow one by focusing on character stories.
A character story is the changes that a person goes through as they progress through time. In books and movies, this is primarily caused by major events of the broader plot, but that is not always necessarily the case. Also, character stories are not the sole property of the protagonist. In any good tale, every primary and secondary character, including the villains, has a character arc. Changes can occur at any level of experience: mental, physical, emotional, and so on.
On the simplest level, character stories area told in MMOs so frequently we often don't even recognize them for what they are. Every time you tell a fellow guild member, "You should have seen that basilisk I just took down. It was five levels higher than me!" or announce to a friend, "Woohoo! I finally looted a blue-value item!" or high-five a fellow gamer who just helped you finish a quest, you are a passing along a character story. Games are experiences and everything you do tells a little of your tale, your character's tale, and the tales of other people you impact. The examples above are brief stores that could be titled vignettes, while the broader scope of your playing experience could be termed a character's life story. In any case, character stories will exist whether there are active world stories or not. They survive even if they are completely ignored by the devs. But as with all things in gaming, with proper attention they can be made stronger.
Some may say that character stories are something only role-players care about. This is far from true. While RPers are more attuned to storytelling, it doesn't take one to brag about a fantastic kill, bicker with a fellowship member of looting rights, or cut a swath through an onrushing group of PvPers. Ultimately, RPers will likely be looking for more from their character life stories, as distinguished from vignettes, but any player who likes to see their deeds and experiences on display or develop a particular class talent progression has a vested interest in character stories.
As there are three phases to a real person's life (birth, life, and death), so are there three phases to a character's life (creation, leveling, and end-game). Each has its own particular focus and potential for storytelling.
Computer game character creation these days has become a rather bland thing, very different from the highly developed machinations of the ancestral pencil-and-paper RPGs. Anyone who has designed a character using GURPS, Cyberpunk, or even D&D, and then compares it with WoW, LOTRO, or WAR will know what I'm talking about. When starting an MMO, you pick your race, class, and gender, decide on an eye color, how crooked your nose is, and select an interesting hairdo. That's it. In games, as with any fiction, people naturally expect a measure of suspension of disbelief. We don't question (too much) why all new characters start in the same spot. We don't gripe (too much) about how all characters follow the same, or very similar, quest progressions on their journey to higher levels. But must we really all be so similar as to start out as clones? Okay, so my character's hair is blond and short while another's is black and long, but must every human warrior have an identical character sheet? Apparently, we all just get squirted out of some cloning vat to land at our starting point, devoid of any past and empty of any individuality deeper than external appearance.
EVE is the rare exception in that you can select, not only your race, but a subracial group and a couple measures of occupational specialty. While a step forward compared with the vast majority of games, EVE suffers from a weak overall world story (as was alluded to last time) meaning that there is no personal tie to the particular subrace and, to my knowledge, membership in a subrace and choice in a particular occupation do nothing in the game beyond influencing your starting states.